Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 8 December 2019

My Life: Curses! Why women must still avoid them

Arabic may be a language particularly suited to cursing, but women still need to watch their step.

Rana Dirani opened the Saifi Institute for Arabic Language three years ago in Beirut. What began as a school with just one teacher and a single classroom now has a staff of five and a catalogue of close to 15 classes per term. Saifi's speciality is something Dirani describes as "Urban Arabic", teaching foreigners, along with Arabs who grew up abroad, the language of day-to-day life, with a heavy emphasis on Lebanese slang and the common-speak particular to Beirutis.

I took classes for six consecutive terms at Saifi, until I got too busy with work and had to stop. That's the excuse I tell myself, at least. The truth is, I have studied Arabic off and on for nearly a decade, and my skills with it are still lousy. Even though I haven't been back to Saifi for more than a year, Dirani keeps me on her list when she sends out registration notices and class listings.

Dirani recently announced a new class. "Have you ever wondered what everyone is shouting on the street?" she e-mailed. "Saifi has created a new class on Lebanese cursing." This plays to a personal strength, and also may help to answer a question that has bugged me since moving to Beirut eight years ago: why is it more socially unacceptable for women to curse in Arabic than men?

Again, my Arabic is lousy in general, but there are a few things I can do well with it. I can give excellent directions. I can make small talk with shopkeepers. I can communicate with the lovely elderly woman at the dry cleaners, and with the disaffected and morose young clerks at the post office. I can inform a taxi driver that indeed I am married and indeed my husband is Lebanese and strong, with many equally strong male family relatives, who would be most upset and willing to act if a taxi driver laid a finger on me. And last but not least, I can curse with great force and vigour. The trouble is, this is a skill I must never, ever use in public, or so I am told.

My husband is to blame for this. As my mother would say, he has a mouth like a truck driver. For example, he drives, as so many Beirutis do, with a jaw-clenching recklessness and aggression, and a total disregard for the rules. This is accompanied by a torrent of crude and elaborate cursing that begins the moment the key hits the ignition and ends only when the engine stops. Each strand of swearing can be extended and developed upon: your mother, your sister, the sister of the doctor who was on duty in the hospital the night your mother gave birth to you. Because I don't drive and find myself too often fearing for my life in the passenger seat of my husband's car, I have committed all this invective to memory.

This puts me in an awkward position. Beirut is a wonderful but chaotic city, riddled with occasions worthy of being met with curses. I often have to clamp my hand to my mouth to resist the urge.

The truth is, while I appreciate the courtesy, good manners and politeness that are afforded to women in Lebanon, I feel we are missing out. Cursing is not only a visceral pleasure but also a subject of endless fascination. I've spent hours debating why the most common curse in Lebanon concerns the sister, while the most common curse in Egypt concerns the mother. Or why a frequent expression in Lebanon means "May God give you strength", but in Morocco is taken to mean "May God burn your soul".

Whatever the case, I look forward to indulging all this and more in the surrogate privacy of the Saifi classroom. Dirani, I'm in, with no disrespect to your mother.


Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports for The National from Beirut.

Updated: April 5, 2011 04:00 AM