Arabic Proverbs

J.L. Burckhardt was a Swiss traveller and Arabic scholar with a passion for proverbs. He travelled extensively in the Middle East in the early part of the 19th century, a time when doing so meant disguising himself as a Muslim merchant so that he wouldn’t be spotted as European. He visited the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the guise of a pilgrim. When travelling, he was known as “Shaikh Ibrahim”. He began collecting proverbs during his journeys; he was particularly fond of common expressions used in everyday language and used to jot these down whenever he heard them. He added his own acquisitions to a collection made nearly a century earlier by Sharaf ad-Din ibn Asad to produce Arabic Proverbs, or The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Omitted from this wise, insightful compendium were those sayings that, Burckhardt confessed, were “so grossly indelicate that he could not venture to lay them before the public, although it must be acknowledged that they excelled in wit.” Below are a few of the sayings Burckhardt felt could safely be laid before the public…

My thanks to Nadeem El Issa of Joppa Books for alerting me to Burckhardt, sending me a copy of Arabic Proverbs, and translating many of the same.

The hasty and the tardy must meet at the ferry.

Cat’s dreams are full of mice.

There are no fans in hell.

Whatever is in the cauldron must come out with the ladle.

These sayings are from A Thousand and One Arabic Proverbs, by Dalal Khalil Safadi:

Stretch your feet to the edge of your rug.

He who is ahead of you one step will be ahead of you all the way.

Today’s news costs money; tomorrow it will be free.

A knife’s wound will heal; a tongue’s wound won’t.

And these sayings are among Nadeem El Issa’s favorites:

The eye will never rise above the eyebrow.

If you beat someone, make them hurt; if you feed someone, make them full.

Farts don’t fry eggs.