Language is a flexible and witty tool of expression. Playing on it is an age-old tradition in Arabic and many other languages. The skill of doublespeaking, reading between the lines, and playing on exclusively-shared understandings of certain references are shared skills among most cultures that have had a long history of colonization and oppression.
In modern day Syria, there is a very long list of terms that appear to have one meaning but are actually used to refer to something completely different, most of them political. From the times of oppressive Ottoman rule, through French occupation and into the dark ages of Baʿth despotism, some terms have survived, others gradually faded, and many new ones have emerged since 2011.
A simple synonym dictionary is not enough to explain such terms to a foreign reader, but Syria Untold will give it a try nevertheless!
It is not clear exactly how old some of these are, but they certainly go back to pre-Baʿth times.
Beit Khaltu: This translates directly into “His aunt’s house”, however, it is commonly known as a coded reference to imprisonment. It was used for all sorts of arrests during the early days of the republic, but is now almost exclusively used for political detention.
Eshabab ettaybeh: “The nice guys”, however it means quite the opposite, as it refers to security forces and gangsters. It is used to avoid placing the speaker in an accusing position towards the “nice” guys that might be listening to him, but since it also uses the definite article, it is not just any normal nice guys this person is referring to, but rather THE nice guys we all know too well...
Wleah ʿala Ghourou: Henri Gouraud was a French Army general famous in Syria for his bloody policies during the French mandate occupation (1920-1946). Wleah is a Syrian dialect term most probably derived from Wail, which means “suffering” in classical Arabic. Saying Wleah ʿala X means you are cursing them without using any foul language. Cursing Gouraud whenever anything goes wrong remained in use amongst Syrians for generations after the French left Syria. He became the common “cursed” of choice when a person wants to avoid naming names.
Kil l ha’ al Tilian: “It’s all the Italians’/lambs' fault” is another similar term used to wrap up complicated arguments without pointing fingers. The origins of this term are unconfirmed. Since the word Tilian in the Levant dialect of Arabic means “Italians”, some claim it dates back to the First or Second World War, building on a theory that blames the results of the war on the Italian role in it. The other meaning of Tilian in classical Arabic is the plural form of lamb (Tali), tracing it back to an ancient proverb.
Either way, rumor has it that the term was released into widespread political debate in Lebanon in the 50s, when its first president Becharah al-Khoury resigned after widespread public strikes in 1952. When the British embassy in Lebanon attempted to reassure him they were not behind the events, al-Khoury just answered with a laugh: “Don’t bother swearing, I know it’s all the Italians’ fault!”
The beginning of the police state in Syria is most commonly blamed on the Union with Egypt (1958-1961) and its then president Jamal Abdul-Naser, who was “inspired” by his Soviet allies in that regard. The true development and institutionalization of this police state, however, came with the Baʿth party (1963) and most brutally, the Hafiz al-Asad regime (1971-2000). For most Syrians today, this was the language of the bloody 1980s.
Finjan Ahweh: ”A cup of coffee” might seem like a perfectly innocent and enjoyable activity, however, in Syria under the Asads, it refers to being called in for interrogation by the secret police. The term they would “politely” use would commonly be “to honor our invitation for a cup of coffee at our place,” which is the security branch with its underground dungeons.
Khattuh hilu: “He’s got beautiful handwriting” has nothing to do with any calligraphy skills a person might have. It refers to a person that works as an informer for the secret police, writing out “reports” that snitch out any act of dissidence against the regime.
Barnamij Idnak Manah: “We’ve got your ear program” is not a famous radio show. It is meant as a warning that someone is overhearing the conversation and thus the speaker should be careful of any political connotations in their words.
ʿAdas: “Lentils” are actually an abbreviation word made from the first letters of the words ʿAlawi, Durzi and Ismaʿili (Samouli in slang). It referred to a core formula in the formation of the military officers who supported the Baʿthist coup d’état according to a (predominantly Sunni) wide-spread belief that the real underlying agenda of the Baʿth party was that of a minority union against the rule of the Sunni majority.
It is perhaps worth noting here the absence of Christians from this formula, despite the fact that Michel ʿAflaq, the founding father of the Baʿth party, was a Christian.
Akhta’ Fardieh: “Individual mistakes” was the cover-up explanation given by all public officials when another scandal got too big to hush down in their work. Systematic corruption would be then singled out as rare instances related to individual mistakes and thus dismissed from public debate.
With time this term became an ironic reference to ignored culpabilities that are left to worsen or not admitted or addressed urgently. For instance, regularly having sugary midnight snacks while on a diet would be joked about as an “individual mistake”.
This is one term whose use is sadly pan-Arab and no longer limited in Syria to regime officials, as it has been recently revived by some opposition bodies as well in the face of criticism of their mistakes and corruption.
Nahtafez bihaqq Arrad: “We maintain our right to respond” was the sole and permanent official response of the Asad regime to all Israeli violations against Syrian territories for decades on end. With time it became the satirical term to express withdrawal and submission to any forceful adversary. For instance, a child would joke about his father silently leaving the house after his mother scolds him as an act of “maintaining his right to respond”.
Ijet!/Ijou!: “She came!/They came!” When used without a subject noun, but as a single word sentence, these expressions refer, respectively, to the resumption of public services (water or power) and the secret police.
Water and power are feminine in Arabic, their long absence would make their return a news to be shared out loud amongst neighbors, not as a warning, but as a celebration that needs not be explained further with a subject noun, as no other shared feminine is awaited by all neighbors. While “their” arrival is the type of event that would be warned out less loudly, but with enough urgency and secrecy to omit the subject noun.
Shabih: “Ghost/Ghostifier” is a verb/adjective for ghost according to some explanations. Others trace the word back to the verb Shabh which is a form of torture used by the regime against its detainees.
The emergence of the Shabiha gangs occurred somewhere between the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, less than a decade after Asad senior came to power with his coup-d’état. The coastal mountains of Latakia and Jableh were their first hubs, under the supervision of their founding father, Bashar’s cousin Mohammad al-Asad (“the Mountain Sheikh”). They started as simple smuggling gangs of consumer items, then drugs, ancient artifacts, weapons and anything or anyone they could steal or kidnap with those weapons.
They were later deployed by Rifʿat al-Asad, Hafiz’s brother, during the Syrian involvement in the Lebanese civil war. As Basel al-Asad, Bashar’s elder brother, was being groomed to inherit the republic’s presidency from his father, he heavily narrowed down their influence, only for them to reemerge when they were needed again by the regime after the outbreak of the revolution in 2011.
Tarmim: Normally means “renovation”. However, the political connotation of it plays on the words Taʿmim (nationalization) and the name Rami (Rami Makhlouf, business tycoon and cousin of Bashar Al-Asad).
It satirically refers to the opposite process of nationalization, a tool Baʿthists used in the first decade of their rule to prove their socialist agenda and gain support from the less privileged classes. Tarmim, the reverse process 30 years later, is the privatization of all works and businesses into the sole monopoly of the Asad family business. It was one of the main characteristics of Bashar’s “economic policies” in the 2000s, as he attempted to turn Syria from a socialist republic into a neoliberal family monopoly.
[Photo: Hammered Copper Cezve with Turkish Coffee pouring out. (Source: Eaeeae/CC BY-SA 3.0)].