Courage In The Impossible: Gaza’s Poets Speak

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Poets from every culture and continent were honored earlier this spring on World Poetry Day. Now as April unfolds, Americans enjoy National Poetry Month. It is a time to celebrate poets, but it is also a time to raise your voice. For the poets of Gaza, the need to be heard has never been greater. Over the past six months, tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed. For many, poetry has provided an escape. 18-year-old poet Nadine Murtaja took up the pen to mourn her homeland: “But here where I live, and breathe, life wears its black dress constantly.” Other young poets of Gaza also cling to the balm of the written word. 22-year-old Maha Jaraba shared: “The only thing that relieves us from the troubles of war is poetry.” 

Poetry as Solace in Gaza

Murtaja and Jaraba are both members of the Gaza Poets Society, a spoken word poetry group formed in 2018 by Mohammed Moussa. Moussa saw a need for poets in his homeland to gather because “life here is poetry blown into pieces and scattered all over the place.” Because poetry is not only a form of escape, it is a form of resistance. In fact, renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote that “every beautiful poem is an act of resistance.” Unfortunately, many poets have been targeted by occupation forces for speaking up and speaking out. 

On November 20th, Mosab Abu Toha was arrested when fleeing Northern Gaza and heading south toward the Rafah crossing. Mosab Abu Toha is the founder of Gaza’s Edward Said library and the award-winning author of Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear: Poems from Gaza. While Toha was eventually released, the harrowing experience stirred feelings that could only be expressed through poetry. As Toha wrote: “A poem is not just words placed on a line. It’s a cloth. Mahmoud Darwish wanted to build his home, his exile, from all the words in the world. I weave my poems with my veins. I want to build a poem like a solid home, but hopefully not with my bones.” When Toha finally reached Egypt, he arrived with only one book in hand: a weathered copy of his poetry collection.

Palestinians Speak, The World Listens

To the poets of Gaza: The world is listening. As of December 2023, #palestinianpoetry had more than 206,500 views on TikTok and #mahmouddarwishpoetry had 17.8 million views. At the Boston Coalition for Palestine on December 17th, demonstrators calling for a permanent ceasefire decorated white kites adorned with lines by Refaat Alareer, a Palestinian poet killed by an Israeli airstrike. His lasting plea? “If I must die/ you must live/ to tell my story”. And indeed, the story lives on. From online poetry forums to in-person events and readings, thousands of dollars have been raised by the power of the written word. In London, Out-Spoken Press organized a virtual event called “Poets for Palestine,” which ended up raising nearly £25,000 for Medical Aid for Palestinians. 

In Arabic, the word for poetry is شعر (shi3r), which also means “to feel.” As the violence in Gaza continues and hearts are rubbed raw, it is no surprise that the Gaza Poets Society continues to pour forth. With nearly 27,000 followers on Instagram, the message is clear: This broken world needs poetry.

Want to experience the beauty of Arabic poetry or discover new Palestinian voices? Book a session with one of NaTakallam’s native language tutors! Choose from Modern Standard Arabic and local dialects: Levantine (spoken in and taught by language partners from Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria), Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian, Iraqi and Yemeni. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emily Reid Green is a content writing intern with NaTakallam. She has spent nearly two decades in education as an English teacher. In her spare time, Emily enjoys reading, singing and studying languages. 

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woman looking out window at snow

Coping with Compassion Fatigue: Strategies and Insights

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Balancing Opposite Worlds: Life During Global Crises

On a recent day in January, I woke up to a world made white with new-fallen snow. I checked messages on my phone while snuggling with my toddler under the warm covers, then sent him off to daycare with his dad, made myself a mug of gingerbread spice tea, and sat down at my laptop for another marketing meeting that had been taken over by the genocide in Gaza.

On my break, I posted about the snow on Facebook. I posted about Gaza. I posted about how excited I was for the new vacuum cleaner I’d gotten for Christmas and how bizarre it felt to reach that stage of life where a new vacuum cleaner was worth getting excited about. And I wondered if anyone would take my posts about Gaza seriously when I was also posting about vacuum cleaners. And what kind of person was I anyway, to be excited about a new vacuum cleaner when body bags the size of my toddler were piling up? And yet I knew that if I thought too long about those body bags, I’d crawl back into my warm bed and refuse to come out. Posting about the vacuum cleaner made me happy. And besides, if I didn’t post about anything but Gaza, how many of my Facebook friends would unfollow me and never see any of it?

After all, I myself had started avoiding social media posts about Gaza.

When the war started, I sought out the feeds that showed what was happening in Gaza, convinced that if enough people saw them the madness would stop. Then I stopped sharing them. Then I started scrolling past them as fast as possible. It was hormones, I told myself; as a mother, my brain just wasn’t structured to handle photos of dead children. Then the number of dead would tick up another digit and I’d share another headline, leave another message for the White House, draft another newsletter, and run the vacuum cleaner.

The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “compassion fatigue” as “apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance.” Coming up on Day 100 of the war on Gaza, I was suffering from a serious case of it. I didn’t want to think about millions of people starving while bombs rained down on their heads — I wanted to hug my toddler, drink tea, and watch the snow fall. How would making myself miserable help anyone? I’d already donated what I could afford and left messages with both my senators, but the bombs were still falling.

A Google search for “how to avoid compassion fatigue” turns up a host of articles, most of them directed at medical professionals, caretakers, and educators. The tips mostly seem to involve leaving work’s problems at work, practicing self-care, and relying on colleagues for support. But no matter how much suffering they encounter, a nurse can go to sleep each day knowing they have delivered pain relief or made a sick child smile. It was a lot harder to tell myself I had made a difference for Gaza. There’s not much on dealing with compassion fatigue when your job is simply marketing language services — even services delivered by refugees.

How do you avoid compassion fatigue when you’re just trying to be a decent human being while remaining sane?

Mari Andrew’s Wisdom: Poetry for Difficult Times

Comfort and counsel can come from surprising places, and a few weeks ago, a Facebook memory brought back a certain poem: “I am washing my face before bed while a country is on fire. It feels dumb to. It feels dumb not to. It has never been this way, and it has always been this way. Someone has always clinked a cocktail glass in one hemisphere as someone loses a home in another while someone falls in love in the same apartment building where someone grieves. The fact that suffering, mundanity, and beauty coincide is unbearable and remarkable.”

I first encountered these powerful words in the opening days of the war on Ukraine, and at the time I think I assumed they had been written for that occasion. After Google failed me on compassion fatigue, I tried the opening lines of this poem and found the whole text, as well as the author Mari Andrew’s own reflections on its writing. To my surprise, it wasn’t about Ukraine at all; it was written in reference to the literal wildfires that had consumed the country of Australia in January 2020. (“How is a person supposed to do ordinary things like fall in love when a quick phone scroll is both advertising discount designer socks and informing me that 12 million acres have burned?” she asks.) But the words, the author said, had carried her through the ensuing Covid pandemic and beyond for the same reasons they continue to circulate on social media today: I am not the only one feeling trapped between the horrific headlines, the vacuum cleaner, and the new-fallen snow. We are all struggling.

At the same time, I realized that I had never actually seen the entire poem. It’s usually the opening lines that get shared online because those are the lines that convey the emotion without making reference to specific circumstances. And yet Andrew isn’t just pouring out her heart with this poem; she’s also working toward solutions. “I despair with an exhale, then I refuse to despair, with an inhale. … ‘I must choose between despair and energy—I choose the latter.’ — Keats. What does it look like to state in the midst of smoke: I choose energy? For starters, I choose to finish washing my face. Then…” Andrew goes on to elaborate a list of concrete actions she is taking: eating less meat, buying new music, keeping money in her pocket to give away to someone who needs it, buying from an Aboriginal-owned business and attending a birthday party.

What’s interesting about this list is that not all of these activities had direct bearing on the wildfires. Eating less meat is, of course, an established way to combat climate change, and one can see how buying from Aboriginal-owned businesses becomes doubly important when Aboriginal communities are burning. But why does she decide to give $5 to a needy stranger? How does celebrating a friend’s birthday help? “I choose to do the things that I may think are too insignificant to matter, because sometimes protesting is an act of grieving and small choices toward energy keep me from despair,” she writes, “because grief and celebration often happen in the same night.”

I believe that all of us, whether this year’s fight be climate change, Covid, Ukraine, Congo, Gaza or whatever 2024 and 2025 have in store, can benefit from Mari Andrew’s wisdom. In that vein, I’m going to finish by sharing a few practical ideas for combating compassion fatigue that I have developed over the past few months, as we all struggle to be decent human beings while staying sane.

Combatting Compassion Fatigue: Practical Tips

  1. Continue to do the things that bring you joy. Go to the birthday parties. Drink the tea. Hug your children, and watch the new-fallen snow. You are not helping the people of Gaza or anywhere else by adding to the world’s sorrow. You are not betraying them by feeling happy. Your emotions make no difference to Gaza one way or another, so you might as well laugh with those who laugh.
  2. Make space to mourn with those who mourn. Reach out to those who are hurting. Take time to send a message to one of NaTakallam’s Palestinian Language Partners or the countless other Gazans who continue to cling to the Internet as their only window out of a living hell. Let them know you are thinking of them, or praying for them, or fighting for them. Make sure they remember that they are not alone.
  3. Set up a recurring donation. Instead of thinking in terms of a single grand gesture, then feeling frustrated because the $500 you emptied from your vacation account (or didn’t) isn’t even a drop in the bucket of Gaza’s need, decide what you can afford to give on a monthly basis — even if it’s just $10 — but keep doing so. Most of us get income on a regular basis, and most charities make it easy for you to have regular donations deducted from your bank account. After you’ve made your decisions and set up the automation, don’t spend more mental energy on it. Not sure where to donate? We recommend Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Tech for Palestine, and Jewish Voices for Peace, or you could donate to this fundraiser to support NaTakallam Language Partner Shahd, who lives in Rafah and whose family is currently sheltering several others who have lost their homes.
  4. Make decisions in advance about your spending habits. Agonizing over whether you’re a terrible person every time you buy a latte or a new music album is just going to make you avoid giving altogether. Instead, after you’ve set up your recurring charitable donation, decide on two implementable changes to your everyday shopping habits. This can involve choosing to buy less or shop elsewhere — such as by participating in the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement — or patronizing Palestinian businesses such as those listed in our 2023 Impactful Gift Ideas. Making the decision now will save you from worrying later on. In my case, seeing our local supermarket chain on the BDS list was the push my family needed to finally commit to shopping at at the organic supermarket instead. I like that by doing so we can contribute to two causes at once.
  5. Set a reminder on your phone for one weekly action. This can be attending a protest, calling your senators, writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, asking a major company to divest from the military, or any other action you choose — what matters is doing something. If you don’t have time to attend a protest every Saturday, you can still take two minutes to email a corporation. Once you’ve decided which actions to take, get everything set up. Put your elected representatives’ numbers into the contacts list on your phone (they should probably be there anyway). Write out a short script for yourself — your message should take no longer than 30 seconds to deliver. Bookmark a few “letter to the editor” forms on both major and local newspapers. Or save an email template asking for divestments.

More Preparation = Less Energy Needed Later

For all of these tips, you’ll probably notice a trend: the more you prepare now, the less effort you’ll need to expend later when you’re feeling less motivated. Emotions can be powerful as agents that drive us to act, but it’s our actions that matter.

And now I’d like to close with another bit of poetry: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” American Rabbi Rami Shapiro is the author of this famous passage, paraphrasing the Mishnah. For me, that last line has become key when fighting off compassion fatigue. I am not going to save those children in Gaza. The fate of Gaza rests in hands far larger than mine. I am only called to do as much as I can do. But I will do that much.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Kelsey Holmes, NaTakallam’s Marketing & Communications Manager, has a background in international development, politics, social impact, and entrepreneurship, Based in Paris, you’ll also find her exploring the outdoors, enjoying creative hobbies like pottery and painting, and discovering new talent at Paris’s music venues.

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large Palestinian flag being shaken

The Origins and Meaning of Intifada

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Intifada” (إنتفاضة) is a term we often hear in slogans related to Palestinian resistance movements, the most famous and controversial being “globalize the intifada,” but what exactly is the meaning of intifada?

The word comes from the Arabic word “nafaDa” (نفض) which is a verb meaning “to shake the dust off something.” It could be used literally as “shaking [the dust] off the carpets” (نفض السجّاد) or figuratively, as “shaking off one’s laziness,” (نفض غُبار الكسل), or “being finished or rid of something” (سَئِم من المسألة، فقرّر نفض يدَيه منها; “He was fed up with the whole affair, so he decided to dust it from his hands.”) A similar sentiment is conveyed by the English expression, itself of ancient Hebrew origin, of “shaking the dust of something or someone from one’s feet.” As a related noun, “intifada” means “tremor, a shudder or a shiver.”

The First Palestinian Intifada: A Turning Point

It was in 1952 that the meaning of “intifada” took on its modern, political overtone of a “Middle East uprising,” when a series of protests shook the then-kingdom of Iraq in an attempt to force the king’s abdication in favor of a republic. It was then applied to Israeli-Palestinian conflict history when the first major Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation started, in 1987. Up until that point, there had been no conscious, organized resistance movement against the occupation. The First Palestinian Intifada was the result of Palestinian recognition — led largely by women and students — that they would have to take their future into their own hands and could no longer wait for the international community to intervene on their behalf. Activists at that time chose the word “intifada” because it implied resistance that was aggressive but nonviolent. Palestinians were shaking off the dust of the occupation.

Media Influence on Intifada Perception

In her book A Quiet Revolution: The First Palestinian Intifada and Nonviolent Resistance, historian and activist Mary Elizabeth King largely blames the media for shifting the meaning of “intifada” in the Western mind and possibly even contributing to the escalating violence, detailing how international TV crews would avoid coverage of peaceful protests but focused in on rock-throwers and then the increasingly militant actions taken in response to heavy-handed Israeli reprisals. By the time the First Intifada ended in 1993, “intifada” was no longer associated with non-violence; the ground was thus laid for the Second Intifada, which arose from the failure of the Oslo Accords and lasted from 2000 to 2005, involving indisputable terrorist activities like suicide bombings and rocket attacks. Both uprisings were characterized by a heavy loss of life on the Israeli side and roughly three times as many losses on the Palestinian side.

The Second Palestinian Intifada had a profound impact on Palestinian-Israeli relations, contributing to a shift in Israeli attitudes and more relevance for Hamas, with increased skepticism toward the peace process and the two-state agreement.

Modern Misapplications of “Intifada”

On December 5, 2023, the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania were called into a hearing of the U.S. Congress to discuss allegations of growing antisemitism on their campuses as a result of the War on Gaza. During that hearing, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York equated chants of “intifada” with a call for genocide against Jews. While the rise of Hamas and its terrorism cannot be denied, the term “intifada” significantly predates it. By no means is intifada a call to genocide or indiscriminate violence against Jews or, for that matter, Israelis.

The discussion and subsequent uproar over the presidents’ responses underline the importance of an accurate understanding of this controversial term. Given the gravity of the current situation in Palestine, it’s time to shake off our biases and ensure that our discourse is guided by integrity in our communications, informed by a sound knowledge of history.

woman waving Palestinian flag and making peace sign

Photo by Idriss Belhamadia

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.

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Christmas in Beirut, Lebanon

Christmas in the Arab World

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Despite being the holiday of a minority religion in the Middle East, Christmas (ˁeid almiilaad, عيد الميلاد) is officially recognized in five Arab countries — Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq — and is celebrated to some extent throughout the region. Join us for a deeper dive into special Christmas traditions in three Arab countries.

Iraq (عراق)

In 2018, Christmas was declared a public holiday in Iraq, and that holiday was made permanent this year. That said, the country has had Christian presence for centuries — in fact, it is estimated that the Christian community in Iraq is among the oldest in the Christian world. Christians believe that Abraham was born in the ancient city of Ur, which was located in what it is now southern Iraq. Today, most Iraqi Christians are Catholic, including the Chaldean Rite, the Syrian Rite, the Latin Rite and the Armenian Rite. The other Christians belong to the Nestorian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church. These churches are scattered all over the cities of Iraq.

Over the course of its history, the Christian presence has been more or less tolerated by the country’s (mostly Muslim) rulers, but most sources agree that since 2003, after the US’s invasion of Iraq and the consequent rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, Christians, alongside other religious minorities, have faced threats and persecutions. Sources estimate that the current Christian population in Iraq consists of between 300,000 to 200,000 thousand people: an estimated 5% of the Iraqi population. This is a huge decline compared to the 1.5 million Christians who were living in Iraq according to a government survey done in 1987. Many of them have emigrated to other countries. So how is it possible that Christmas celebrations are so popular in Iraqi cities?

The most common representation of Christmas in Iraq is the decorated Christmas tree, which can be seen in shopping malls, hotels and restaurants or in the main streets of big cities. The Christmas tree is more commonly known as the “New Year’s tree” there, and so it is not strictly associated with Christianity. Santa Claus (known in Arabic as بابا نوئل, Baba No’el) is also associated with the New Year (al-sina al-jadiid, السنة الجديدة) because he brings gifts like new clothes. Actual religious symbols such as the cross or Nativity representations are not seen as often in the streets, except in areas where a lot of Christians live.

Of course, Christmas remains very much a religious holiday for Iraq’s Christian communities. On Christmas Eve, Chaldean Christian families gather and hold candles while one of the children reads aloud the story of the birth of Jesus in Syriac, the language of liturgy for Assyrians and Chaldean Christians. After the reading, everyone sings over a bonfire of thorn bushes. Tradition says that if the thorns burn completely and turn to ash, the upcoming year will be a lucky and prosperous one. Afterwards, believers jump over the ashes three times and make a wish.

Iraqi Christians gather for a bonfire of thorn bushes.

Lebanon (لبنان)

With around 30% percent of the population being Christian, Christmas is big in Lebanon. The 18 different Christian communities present in the country also bring a lot of diversity to their Christmas celebrations. A lot of these communities celebrate Christmas on December 25, but the Armenian community celebrates on January 6 instead.

The festive atmosphere actually starts at the beginning of December. NaTakallam Language Partner Franceline Planche explains how, on December 4, Lebanese Christians celebrate Saint Barbara’s Day (ˁeid al-barbaara, عيد البربارة). Barbara fled from her father, a pagan king, but was eventually martyred. Because she disguised herself in order to flee, children will dress up in costumes and masks and go from house to house. This leads some to compare Saint Barbara’s Day to Halloween, but Franceline stresses that the holiday actually kicks off the Christmas season.

People also mark this day by planting wheat seeds in small containers. The seeds will sprout just in time for Christmas ready to be placed under the Christmas tree or beside nativity scenes. The wheat has a double meaning: it connects to the story of Saint Barbara, who escaped from her father, a pagan king, by running through a field of wheat which grew taller to cover her, and it also represents rebirth, directly referring to the birth of Christ.

Palestine (فلسطين)

Because of the war on Gaza, Palestinians have agreed to cancel any non-liturgical celebrations of Christmas this year, but one Lutheran church in Bethlehem did set up a nativity scene — with a twist. The Christ child, wrapped in a keffiyeh, lies amidst the rubble of a destroyed building, representing the countless children who have been buried under the rubble of Gaza. At the same time, it reminds us that the original Christmas story took place in an occupied country — and thus maybe this scene can also be a reminder to hope.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

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man wearing keffiyeh with meanings of symbols

The Meaning of the Keffiyeh

Reading Time: 6 minutes

With the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, many people are eager to show their support for Palestine. One popular way to do so is by wearing the keffiyeh or kufiyyah (كوفية), a cotton or wool fishnet-patterned scarf. It can have different color variations but is usually a white background with black or red embroidered details. But what is the meaning of the keffiyeh? Its exact origins are unknown, but many Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia, have their own preferred way to wear it. In the Palestinian context, however, it’s not just a fashion item — it’s an iconic symbol of Palestinian culture and identity.

woman wearing keffiyeh and carrying Palestinian flag

In the 1930s the keffiyeh was worn mostly by farmers and lower-class people from the villages, who used it as a headdress to protect themselves from the harsh weather conditions. This was seen as a symbol of social inferiority and backwardness by the upper class and townspeople, who wore a Tarbuush (طربوش; often called a “fez” in English from the Turkish fes): a rigid, red, conical hat. But during the Arab revolts against British forces, rebels started wearing the keffiyeh to conceal their identity and urged upper-class and townspeople to start wearing it too, so that the rebels could blend in when entering other cities. The British tried banning them, but this only encouraged Palestinians from all social backgrounds to start wearing the keffiyeh collectively as a form of resistance.

In the 1960s the Palestinian فِدائيّين (feda’iyiin; guerrilla fighters) resumed using the keffiyeh as an emblem of national struggle and unity, while the Palestinian politician Yasser Arafat popularized it to a broader, global audience. Its symbolism became even more fundamental when Israeli authorities banned the Palestinian flag in 1967, and throughout the ’60s and ’70s left wing students and activists from all over the world started wearing it as a symbol of sympathy towards anti-imperialist and anti-war causes.

It was at this point that it became a fashionable garment. Mass manufacturers started producing and selling it to broader audiences, who were often unaware of its meaning and wore it for aesthetic purposes (which has led to accusations of cultural appropriation). For Palestinians, however, the cultural significance of the keffiyeh remains strong despite its commercialization.

The patterns on the keffiyeh have many different meanings and interpretations: the fishnet pattern can represent the Palestinians’ connection to the sea, while the bold lines may represent the trade routes which made Palestine an exchange hub in ancient history. (Others believe the lines represent the walls that surround the land.) The oval stitches along the borders represent olive tree leaves: olive trees are of great cultural significance to Palestinians. They play a vital role in the Palestinian economy through oil and wood production, but the olive tree is also a representation of Palestinians’ resilience and attachment to their land. It’s important to note that the keffiyeh doesn’t have a religious meaning and that people wear it regardless of their religious beliefs, social backgrounds, age or gender.

girl wearing keffiyeh with olive tree

The keffiyeh’s patterns are a classic example of Palestinian embroidery. The Arabic word for embroidery of any kind is تطريز (taTriiz), but in English the word “tatreez” has become synonymous with the unique style of embroidery indigenous to Palestine, traditionally done by women.

Palestinian tatreez

Just like the keffiyeh, tatreez has humble origins. Village women used to gather to decorate clothes, scarves and other textiles and pass down this art form to the younger generation. In general, geometric forms and subjects from nature are the most common motifs, but most of them reflect ordinary items from rural women’s daily lives, such as food (apples and chick-peas), animals (cow’s eyes and scorpions) and implements (mill wheels and ladders). Other motifs symbolized basic elements in nature like the sun, moon, stars, trees, mountains and water.

The colors used in the embroidery were just as important as the design, and color schemes were chosen in reflection of a woman’s feelings and stage in life. For example, in the Hebron region, purple threads were preferred by older women, while girls opted for red and green. In some Bedouin tribes, blue embroidery was meant for unmarried women, while married women used red to represent their status as wives. Older women or widows who were interested in remarrying combined the color blue with red flowers and sometimes intertwined figures of children with blue embroidery on the back panel of their dresses. However, red also symbolized happiness and life more generally and so could be used in almost all Palestinian embroidery, alongside other bright colors for accentuation. The dyes came either from Greater Syria or, later on, from Europe.

Some patterns and colors were originally only used in certain areas of Palestine (palm trees from Ramallah, or orange blossoms from Beit Dajan), whereas other designs were stitched everywhere in the country. After the 1920s, however, transportation improved and differences between regions started to decline. 

symbols of Palestinian towns
The symbols of prominent Palestinian towns embroidered in tatreez.

Following the forced mass displacement of Palestinians into refugee camps post-1948, regional differences disappeared altogether. From the 1950s onward, practicality became essential in clothing, which featured plain decorations, but Palestinian women realized that they could make an income through their embroidery work. In the aftermath of the 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, display of the Palestinian flag was forbidden, but that didn’t stop women from stitching red, green, white and black designs into their embroidery. The words انتفاضة (intifada, “uprising”) and فلسطين (“Palestine”) were skillfully integrated into cushion patterns, serving as symbols of passive resistance and expressing Palestinian nationalist pride.

As a final note, tatreez today remains a powerful vehicle of self-expression in the face of generational trauma, and some artists are taking its imagery into the digital domain. Click on the image to the right to see an animated explanation of one Palestinian artist’s digital embroidery at the end of the first month of the Israel-Hamas war.

woman wearing keffiyeh waving Palestinian flag and making peace sign

To learn more about Palestinian culture, consider learning Arabic with one of our Palestinian language partners! Here at NaTakallam, every language session contributes to the livelihoods of our skilled tutors from refugee/displaced backgrounds and their host communities. Book a session today, or start with a few key phrases: learn the meaning of inshallah, some common terms of endearment, or how to wish someone happy holidays.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

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14 Terms of Endearment in Arabic

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Have you ever struggled to express your love in Arabic beyond the word Habibi? If the answer is yes, this blog post is for you!

While Habibi is usually a safe bet, Arabic is a linguistically rich language. Thanks to the rich body of Arabic poetry and romantic literature, a variety of terms of endearment can be found in both spoken and written forms. Ready to express your love in different ways? Read on!

You will notice most of these terms can have a superfluous ya (يا) prefix before them, as it only functions as a vocative case. It is equivalent to the less-used ‘O’ preceding a noun in English. It does not matter if you opt for Habibi (حبيبي) or ya Habibi (يا حبيبي); they are roughly the same!

Unless otherwise noted, all of these expressions can be heard across the Arab world.

  1. Habibi / Habibti (حبيبي/حبيبتي)

Starting with a classic, Habibi means “my darling,” or “my beloved.” Habibi (حبيبي) is used to address a man, whereas Habibti (حبيبتي) is used with women. This term is appropriate throughout the Arabic speaking world in a variety of contexts from platonic friends and family to the most intimate of lovers. 

  1. Hobbi (حبي)

Hobbi comes from the Arabic word for “love,” Hob (حب). This term of endearment, translated to “my love,” is very common in music and poetry, which has helped to increase its popularity across the Arab world. You might hear younger speakers also simply saying Hob, (حب), proof that language is always changing, and so is the way we speak about love!

  1. Habib / Habibat [q]albi (حبيب /  حبيبة قلبي)

Literally translating to “love of my heart” or “my beloved heart,” this phrase is pronounced differently in different parts of the Arabic-speaking world, as many Arabic-speaking countries replace the letter qaf (ق) with other sounds. For example, in the Levant (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan), qaf (ق) is often exchanged for a glottal stop, giving the masculine Habib ‘albi (حبيب قلبي) and feminine Habibat ‘albi (حبيبة قلبي). Meanwhile in Gulf Arabic, primarily spoken in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman, the letter qaf (ق) is pronounced like the English “g,” changing the pronunciation of “qalbi” to “galbi.”. 

  1. ya [q]albi (يا قلبي)

This term of endearment means “my heart.” Its origins lie in the Arabic word for heart, qalb (قلب). Although قلب is pronounced qalb in MSA, the letter qaf (ق) is subject to the same dialectal differences as described above. For instance, in Levantine Arabic, one would say ya ‘albi, and in Gulf Arabic, one would say this as ya galbi.

  1. Hayati (حياتي)

This endearment term means “my life” (حياتي), stemming from the Arabic word for “life,” haya (حياة). This is another pet name commonly used throughout the Arab world, expressing that your love is so strong, your life would be nothing without it.

  1. ya ruHi (يا روحي)

RuHi (روحي) directly translates to “my soul,” but the term expresses something closer to “my soulmate.” The soul is a very popular metaphysical symbol in Classical Arabic prose, and this term is still commonly used in Egypt as well as parts of the Levant. 

  1. ya ˁomri (يا عمري)

The meaning of this phrase is a true combination of the previous terms mentioned. Ya ˁomri (يا عمري) translates to “my lifetime.” Literally, omr (عمر) can mean both “lifetime” and “age,” though it refers to the former in this term of endearment. The ardor of this term is undeniable; there is even a popular song called “enta ˁomri,” (“You are my life,” انت عمري), by the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

  1. ˁayuni / ˁeyuni (عيوني) 

Given the symbolic importance of the eyes in the Arab world, it is not surprising that calling someone “my eyes” is an act of love. This phrase is created from a plural form of the word for eye, ˁeyn (عين). To call someone your eyes is to say they are the “apple of your eye,” just like the English saying! This term is common in poetry and literature, especially written in Classical Arabic.

  1. ya sanadi (يا سندي)

This very particular term of endearment means “my backbone.” Used mostly in the regional dialect and communities of Lebanon, it is a unique choice to express your affection.

  1. ya [q]amar (يا قمر)

Meaning “moon,” this term is possibly the most romantic of this list. The same Levant/Gulf pronunciation rules for ق apply to this phrase. Therefore, in the Levant, people would say ya ‘amar and in the Gulf, you would hear ya gamar. Popular Lebanese singer Fairuz illustrates this term in her song, “‘amara ya ‘amara” (قمرة يا قمرة). And because the night-blooming moonflower is called zaharat al [q]amar (زهرة القمر) in Arabic, you’ll also hear people using ya [q]amar to mean “moonflower.”

  1. ˁazizi / ˁazizati (عزيزي / عزيزتي)

This word means “my treasure.” While ˁAziz (عزيز) is a common male name throughout the Arabic-speaking world, meaning “strong” or “powerful,” the masculine ˁazizi (عزيزي) and feminine ˁazizati (عزيزتي) adjective forms are a sweet term of endearment that are especially useful in formal affairs of the heart.

  1. ya Helo/Helwa (يا حلو/ حلوى

Most popularly used as a term of endearment in the Levant, this phrase roughly translates to “sweet one.” You may know of the dessert Halva, or Helwa (حلوى), a thick fudge-like concoction made from a sweetened seed or nut butter, like tahini. This comes from the same root!

  1. ya ˁasal (يا عسل)

Just like the English equivalent, this term means “honey.” The love for all things sugary and sweet seems to transcend all language and cultural borders.

  1. ya fo‘aadi (يا فؤادي)

Trying your hand at poetry? While more proper in context, ya fo‘aadi (يا فؤادي) is the formal synonym of [q]albi (قلبي), meaning “my heart” in Arabic. Though less common in colloquial and everyday language, this is a handy term for the next time you are thinking of expressing your love in an Arabic poem or sonnet!

Whether you are expressing your affection to a significant other, a friend, or a family member, this list in Arabic will be guaranteed to impress! Do you have any other Arabic terms of endearment that you use? Let us know in the comments!


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ways to say goodbye in Arabic

7 Ways to Say Goodbye in Arabic

Reading Time: 3 minutesThis list will include seven of the most common ways you can say goodbye in Arabic. Parting ways in the Arabic-speaking world can be a lengthy process of sharing well-wishes and future intentions, but have no fear — we’re here to help! The first five are drawn from the Levantine dialect, which is primarily spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, but is widely understood throughout the Arab world. The last two, more formal goodbyes come from Modern Standard Arabic, which is used everywhere. You’re sure to find something for any situation, regardless of whom you’re parting with!

1. Bkhatirkon (بخاطركُن)

This word is the closest term for “goodbye” in the Levantine dialect, though it literally means something like “by your permission/mind.” (Think of the old-fashioned “by your leave” in English!) Note that the ending -kon here implies that you’re speaking to more than one person; you’ll use bkhatrak and bkhatrik for speaking to an individual man or woman, respectively. This word can be used in most contexts, as it is friendly but still polite!

2. Ma’ssalaame (مع السلامة) 

This is the most popular way to say goodbye, meaning “with safety.” What not everyone knows, however, is that this is typically used as a reply to another farewell said by the person who is leaving. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to say it if you’re the one leaving, because why would you tell those who are staying behind to go “with safety”? Nonetheless, it’s common enough that it’s good to have it in your back pocket.

3. Bil izn (بالإذن)

Similar to bkhatirkon, this literally means “by permission” and is a nice way of exiting a meeting or social situation, even if you’re just popping out for a second. Asking permission of the other person or people before leaving is a gesture of respect and courtesy.

4. Mnshoufkon bi kheir (منشوفكن بخير)

If you want to play it cool and be casual, you can use this phrase, which means “see you [plural] in good [shape].” Or perhaps just “see you” with just the first word (mnshoufkon). This is useful with friends and in other informal settings. Again, note that the form shown here with -kon is for speaking to a group, and the prefix mn- means that you’re also speaking for a group! So think of this phrase as conveying the same information as “We’ll be seeing you all!” If you want to speak as “I” instead of “we,” substitute b-  for mn-, and change -kon to -ak or -ik to speak to an individual man or woman. So bshoufik بشوفك (“I’ll be seeing you [feminine]”) and bshoufak بشوفك (“I’ll be seeing you [masculine].”)

5. Diiro belkon a’a halkon (ديرو بالكن ع حالكن)

This phrase is a nice way to tell your friends “take care of yourself.” You can also use it as a warning, if you want to sound dramatic! Diir belak a’a halak دير بالك ع حالك is the masculine singular form of this one, while diiri belik a’a halik ديري بالك ع حالك is the feminine singular.

6. Illa liqaa (إلى اللقاء)

Finally, the formal goodbyes. Though not common in daily conversation, these last two are helpful to know if you wish to become more actively engaged in the Arabic-speaking world. This expression literally means “until the meeting” (so, similar to the English “until we meet again”), and thus it implies that you expect to be seeing the other person again soon!

7. Wada’an (وداعًا)

In contrast to illa liqaa, this formal farewell implies that you don’t really expect to see the person again, a bit like the French adieu, so be careful whom you use it with!

That’s it! Hopefully now you feel a bit more confident and ready to close out a variety of social interactions in Arabic without sounding too repetitive. But of course, there’s much more to learning a language than memorizing phrases. If you’re looking for more in-depth instruction, or you’d just like a chance to practice these expressions with someone sure to be sympathetic before you take them on the road, sign up for NaTakallam sessions with one of our native Arabic language partners, today!

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French words from Arabic

French Words That Made Their Way from Arabic

Reading Time: 4 minutes

From the Arabs of Andalusia in the 8th century, who brought immense commercial, scientific, and literary knowledge to Europe, all the way to the more recent Middle Eastern and North African migrations in the last decades, Arabic-speaking populations have had a considerable impact on the French language and culture.

French, an official language in 29 countries and one of the most-widely spoken Romance languages, has over 500 everyday words with Arabic origins (and that’s not even counting slang terms!).

If you take a close look at this list, you will also see that while these terms all entered French from Arabic, some of those Arabic words were borrowed in turn from other languages such as Greek or Sanskrit – and many of the French variants then made their way into English. Even in centuries past, the world was far more connected than we realize!

Here is our list of 35 French words that made their way from Arabic:

  1. ​​Abricot (apricot)from the Arabic word al barqūq (اَلْبَرْقُوق‎), meaning “plums,” which is itself derived from Latin praecoquum, meaning “early-ripening fruit”

  2. Alchimie (alchemy)from the Arabic word al-kīmiyā (كيمياء), derived from the Greek khemeioa which was in turn either a name for Egypt or the Greek word khymatos, meaning “that which is poured out”

  3. Alcool (alcohol)from the Arabic word al-kuhul (الكحول), meaning “darkened with kohl”, a metallic powder used as make-up to darken the eyelids, which itself comes from the Arabic “kahala” (كحل) meaning “to stain, paint” 

  4. Algorithme (algorithm)derived from the surname of 9th-century Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi (الْخُوَارِزْمِيّ), whose works introduced advanced mathematics to the West

  5. Algèbre (algebra) – from the Arabic word al-jabr (الجبر), meaning “reparation” or “the reunion of broken parts”

  6. Artichaut (artichoke)from the Arabic word al-khurshuf (الْخُرْشُوف‎), meaning “artichoke”

  7. Assassin (assassin)with a fascinating etymology and story, evolved from the Arabic word hashashin (حشَّاشين), meaning ‘hashish users’, derived from the word hashish (حشيش), meaning ‘grass’ or ‘[powdered] hemp’

  8. Azur (azure, shade of blue) Arabicfrom the Arabic word al-lazaward (اللازُورِدِ), meaning “lapis-lazuli”, a semi-precious stone known for its deep-blue color.

  9. Bougie (candle)taken from Béjaïa (بجاية), an Algerian city/port town where tapered hand-dipped candles were made

  10. Café (coffee) – from qahwa (قهوة), the Arabic word for “coffee”

  11. Chiffre (digit)from the Arabic word sifr (صِفر‎), meaning “empty” and, by extension, “zero”

  12. Coton (cotton) – from quṭn (قطن), the Arabic word for cotton

  13. Douane (customs) – from the Arabic word diwan (دِيوَان‎), meaning “office”

  14. Echecs (chess) – from shatranj (شطرنج), the Arabic word for chess, which is derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga, meaning “four members of an army” – elephants, horses, chariots, foot soldiers

  15. Elixir (elixir) – from the Arabic word al-ʾiksir (اَلْإِكْسِير‎), meaning elixir, which is ultimately derived from Ancient Greek xēríon (ξηρίον), meaning medicinal powder, which in turn comes from the Greek xērós (ξηρός) meaning “dry”

  16. Gazelle (gazelle) – from ḡhazaal (غَزَال‎), the Arabic word for gazelle

  17. Girafe (giraffe) from the Arabic word for giraffe, zarāfah (زرافة), meaning “fast walker”

  18. Hasard (chance) – from the Arabic word az-zahr (اَلزَّهْر‎), meaning “dice”

  19. Henné (henna) – from the Arabic word hinna’ (حِنَّاء‎), the name for the tree used to make henna

  20. Jupe (skirt) – from the Arabic word jubba (جُبَّة‎), meaning “long garment”

  21. Magasin (shop, warehouse) – from the Arabic word makhazin (مَخَازِن‎), plural of the Arabic word for “storeroom”

  22. Mesquin (petty/stingy) – from the Arabic word miskeen (مِسْكِين‎), meaning “poor”

  23. Nénuphar (waterlily) – from the Arabic word niloofar (نِلُوفَر), meaning “lotus, water-lily,” ultimately derived from Sanskrit nīlotpala (नीलोत्पल)

  24. Orange (orange) – from the Arabic word naranj (نارَنْج), which was borrowed from the Persian narang. The fruit naranj refers specifically to the bitter orange and can be traced back to the Sanskrit word naranga.

  25. Pastèque (watermelon)from the Arabic word bṭikh (بَطِّيخَة‎), meaning “melon, watermelon”

  26. Quintal (100 kg) from the Arabic word qinṭaar (قِنْطَار‎), which is ultimately derived from Latin centenarius, meaning “containing a hundred” 

  27. Razzia (raid) – from the Arabic word ghazwa (غَزْوَة‎), meaning “raid, military campaign”

  28. Safari (safari) – from the Arabic word safar (سفر), meaning “journey, travel” 

  29. Satin (satin) – from the Arabic word zaytūn (زَيْتُون‎), the transliteration of Citong, the city  in China where the fabric originated (thought to be around modern day Quanzhou)

  30. Sirop (syrup) – from the Arabic word sharab (شَرَاب‎), meaning “beverage”

  31. Sofa (couch) – from the Arabic word souffah (صُفَّة‎), referring to “a long seat made of stone or brick”

  32. Sucre (sugar) – from the  Arabic word sukkar (سُكَّر), meaning “sugar,” which is ultimately derived from the Sanskrit word śárkarā (शर्करा), meaning “ground or candied sugar”

  33. Tarif (rate) – from the Arabic word t‘aarifa (تَعْرِفَة‎), meaning “tariff”, which in turn comes from “تَعْريف”, meaning “information, notification”

  34. Toubib (doctor, informal) – from the Arabic word ṭabīb (طَبِيب‎), meaning “doctor”

  35. Zénith (point of the sky directly overhead at any place; the highest point or achievement of something) –  from the Arabic phrase samt ar-ra’s (‎سَمْت اَلرَّأْس‎), meaning “path over the head”

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Inshallah: What Does It Really Mean?!

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Have you ever heard the word inshallah or inshalla (انشاالله)? Maybe you’ve even wondered what it meant? In this article, we’ll cover all the definitions – both literal and contextual – so you can use the word inshalla like a native Arabic speaker! 

First and foremost, the literal definition of Inshalla (انشاالله) is “If God wills [It].” This is a commonplace shortened, casual, and slightly less religious variation of the word inshaAllah (إِن شَاء اَللّٰه), which is pronounced with one more syllable (“In-sha-Al-lah”) and used in more religious contexts. 

The word is often assumed to only be spoken by Muslims, but this is a common misconception! Inshalla is actually used by Arab-speaking and Arab-influenced people of all faiths and beliefs from every corner of the world. For example, you can find this word spoken by Coptic Christian Egyptians, multicultural Kurds, secular Turks, Muslim Indonesians, Zoroastrian Persians, and many other communities!

Each community has added its specific touch to the pronunciation; it is common to hear Kurds and Iranians use the term less religiously by pronouncing it as ishalla (ایشالا) without the n and, again, dropping the stress of the last syllable. As you can see, this word is actually used by non-Muslim and secular people across the world!

Because so many people from different backgrounds, beliefs and origins use this word, there are a lot of different transliterations for it! Whether it be enshalla, enchalla, inchallah, nchallah, you will most likely encounter انشاالله in a myriad of different forms!

The word has even found its way into Spanish – “Ojalá.” This borrowing also means “God willing” or “hopefully” and entered the Indo-European language during the period of Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula, known as Al-Andalus.

Now that we have established the structure of the word and who uses it, what does it actually mean? Alas, there is no single answer! Inshalla is employed in a variety of circumstances to convey affirmation, hope, prayer, exceptions, and even polite disagreement. Confused? Have no fear! We’ll cover all the basics and –  inshalla – you will feel more confident by the end of the article.

1. “Yes, I hope so, too”

In the most basic sense, inshalla is a form of genuine agreement with something that was expressed, especially about a future event.

Eg. A: I hope we pass our exam day! B: Inshalla!

2. “Yes, and I’m praying for it too..”

The second basic use emphasizes that although you agree, it’s contingent upon divine will. In some devout communities, people are advised that since only God knows what will happen in the future, they should stay away from making definite statements about the future. Therefore, inshalla replaces “Yes!” You’re saying you wish the event happens, but as it’s not (entirely) in your hands, you can only speculate and pray.

Eg. A: I hope the weather is good tomorrow, I would love to have a picnic on the beach. B: Inshalla!

3. “Yes, okay (respectfully)!”

Inshalla can also simply be a respectful way to say “yes” and acknowledge you hear and understand what the other person said and you’ll do what they asked. This is especially common between older and younger family members!

Eg. A: You really need to clean your room today. B: I’ll get to it as soon as I can, inshalla.

4. “No… (but we’ll see if God wills it)”

Modern uses of inshalla can also be sarcastic. You can use the word to mean that you have no interest in making something happen, but “Yeah, sure, we’ll see if God or fate makes it happen.” This use is a well-known pet-peeve for many who grew up in Arabic-speaking homes!

Eg. A: Mom, can I please go to the beach tomorrow with my friends? B: Inshalla.

5. “We’ll see… but it’s probably not gonna happen…”

Inshalla can also be a form of disagreement or procrastination, an outright “Nope, never gonna happen.” How do you know this is the case? It’s all about understanding the dynamic between you and the person you’re speaking with and feeling the context. You’ll get better with practice! 

Alternatively, you’re signaling you hear what the person is saying, but you’re also probably not going to do what they asked out of laziness, limited capacity, or other internal conditions that limit your motivation.

Eg. A: Mom! Can we go get ice cream today? B: Yeah, inshalla, we’ll see…

6. “It’s going to take a while and I don’t have much information.”

This last use is related to the former, but expanded slightly in scope. Basically, the limiting condition is not only an internal state but also external circumstances. This vague answer can be frustrating to hear, but hopefully a better understanding of the cultural nuances and language will help you figure out a positive path forward.  

Eg. A: When will the documents be ready? B: In a week inshalla.

A: Okay, it’s been a week, are they ready? B: No, in a few days inshalla.

A: Fine, It’s been several days. What about now? B: Inshalla tomorrow!

So there you have it — the affirmative, the sarcastic, the hopeful, and the negative. Like many words in Arabic, inshalla, is vivid and dynamic. An understanding of cultural nuances and context will make a world of difference when you’re trying to navigate what the speaker really means.

With NaTakallam, native-speaking language partners from displaced backgrounds will guide you through the ins and outs of the Arabic language and culture and their experiences in the Arab world. Don’t stop here, keep learning with us in one of our 6 Arabic dialects here! We offer Levantine Syrian, Levantine Lebanese, Levantine Palestinian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Iraqi, and also Modern Standard Arabic! 

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5 Ways to Say “I Love You” in Arabic

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The month of love is upon us! This Valentine’s Day, or for that matter, any day of the year, show your love to that special someone in your life with one of these Arabic love expressions.

From our قلب ❤️  (heart) to yours:

1. Ahebbak/Ahebbik (أحبك)
This is the most common and widely recognized way to say “I love you” in Arabic.

2. ‘Ala raasii (على راسي)
This phrase literally translates to ‘‘on my head’’ and expresses your commitment to accomplish the hardest of tasks for the one you love. When a loved one asks you a favor, this Arabic reply allows you to assure them that you would walk across hot coals, move mountains, in short, do anything humanly possible for their happiness.

3. Ya rouhi (يا روحي)

If you know Arabic, chances are you’ve heard of the commonly used term ‘‘habibi/habibti’’, literally meaning “my dear”. Similarly, this sweet little phrase which literally means ‘‘my soul’’ also implies “my dear/beloved”.

4. Kalamak/ik ‘asal ‘ala qalbi (كلامك عسل على قلبي)

Make sure to add a wink after this phrase ;). Literally meaning, “Your words are honey on my heart,” this expression is the perfect response for when a special someone says something especially sweet.

5. Tuqburnii (تقبرني)

Although this phrase literally means “you bury me”, it’s used commonly to say “I love you so much.” Someone saying this is expressing that they would rather die and be buried than lose you. It’s actually quite sweet!

Hubb (حب), Shaghaf (شغف), ’Ishq (عشق)… Arabic is known for its poetic expressions & beautiful ways of expressing love. Learn them with NaTakallam! Or give the unique Gift of Language to a loved one, available in 7 offerings: Egyptian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Syrian, Yemeni, or Modern Standard Arabic.

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