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Arabic Lessons

Bagdad in 1975

My Introduction to Shaabi, Part 1

by Amina Goodyear
posted June 11, 2009

Literal origin of the word Shaabi (Sha’bi) in Egyptian Arabic: Of the common people.

It was the late 1970’s and I was working as a dancer at the Bagdad, a nightclub in San Francisco’s North Beach. Aside from a very few visitors who would eventually become “regulars”, or “family”, the clientele consisted of Arabs looking for a home away from home. 

One of our regular customers was an Egyptian man named Samir Rizkallah. He often spent every night at his “office” which was the bar at the Bagdad even though he lived more than 2 hours away in Monterey, California where he taught Arabic at the Army Language School.

His main job at the “office” at the Bagdad was to be the cultural and language song (lyrics) advisor to Amina and The Aswan Dancers.

Yusef Kouyoumjian, the owner, and later George Elias (Yusef’s brother-in-law and next owner) would often invite members of the audience to participate in the show. Samir would take these opportunities to demonstrate cane and mop-handle Egyptian dance on the Bagdad stage.

Shamira and Linda
Shamira and Linda

We loved it and wanted more and also asked him for his help in the Arabic language so we could translate the songs ourselves instead of always bothering him. He immediately agreed to teach us Arabic. What we got was Sunday morning classes at Linda Grondahls house with coffee cake, coffee and an Army textbook. He taught us Modern Standard Arabic and lectured us on how Arabic was a macho and a vague language and that there were at least 1001 different meanings for the word Ållah depending on intonation or context. (Allah could mean: how awful, what a mess, she’s a gorgeous, what?, wow!, really? I swear, oh my gawd and so on.) We learned useful words such as army base, soldier, weapon, tanks and military.

There were about 10 of us in the class. It included Shamira, the late Mimi Spencer, Mary Ellen Donald, Linda, Kathy (who now dances with Alexandria’s Ghawazee dancers ) and me.

After more than a year of struggling to teach lazy and bad students who liked the donuts more than the lessons, he finally quit on us the morning that Mary Ellen Donald (who is blind) did not show up for class because she wanted to WATCH a football game instead.

Other customers at the Bagdad would drum, dance (either debke or belly dance) or sing. I remember one woman in particular. She was a pretty, young, light skinned, almost blonde tiny Egyptian woman with smiling sparkling eyes named Nicole who was dating a very good looking Jordanian young man named Mwafak. They were part of the Bagdad family and were part of our entertainment. Nicole loved to dance and to sing and we loved to watch her. I wonder if she knew that we secretly studied her every move. But, more than dancing, Nicole loved singing and of course we loved hearing her. And we were also studying her dancing mannerisms when she sang. 

Mimi dancing!
Mimi Spencer

The Bagdad Cabaret really was like hanging out and socializing in your own living room with various people getting up to sing, play or dance. One day Nicole came in and told us that she had married Mwafak and that it was no longer proper for her to get up on stage to perform. Our darling couple would still come in and hang out, but no more great shows from Nicole.

What a loss. But not for long. Or, rather I should say, her loss became our gain. Nicole’s heart and soul couldn’t give up singing so her husband agreed that she could give her friends singing lessons.

coffee and cakeThis was something that all of us craved and hungered for because we all really wanted to know the background and the meaning of the songs. I remember our first lesson. Nicole gave us the words to the song and wanted us to each sing alone. Well, I remember Linda Grondahl and I told her that we didn’t want to, as she would laugh at our voices. She said no, she would never do anything so insensitive. So we sang and she barely controlled her laughter behind her hand. This became a weekly visit to Nicole’s home to study Egyptian songs and music. And it was also a study of Egyptian culture and hospitality since food and tea were an integral part of our lesson. 

Her core group of students/singers was Shamira, Linda Grondahl, Leyla Lanty,
Mimi and me. 

She taught us that besides learning the words and their meanings, Egyptians do not stand still when singing. They dance around a bit and use their hands, body and eyes to gesture according to the songs.

I must say we were a big hit and even performed at the Egyptian Consulate. Leyla Lanty also used her newly found talent to sing while in Egypt and Linda amazed the audience at the Herbst Theater when she was a solo singer at the Ethnic
Dance Festival

We learned mostly Egyptian folk songs and, of course, songs by the popular Egyptian star, Ahmed Adaweya. Part of our lesson was learning the accompanying mannerisms and gestures for performing these songs. Soon we were like parrots repeating phrases to various Arab friends, but we could only repeat what we memorized and we couldn’t converse. This led us to begging Nicole to teach us Egyptian Arabic so we could actually have conversations with our Arabic friends.  And she agreed. Our Sunday afternoon lessons expanded to singing and also learning conversational Egyptian.

Nicole was a natural teacher and looked forward to teaching us. Each week we had a new lesson plan that included two or three pages of custom-made dialog and grammar. Each class ended with her repeating the dialog and high points of the lesson for us to tape record. After close to two years, one day in class Nicole told her husband and us that she had a surprise. He asked, “a raise (at work)?” she replied no, she was pregnant. He said good. It will be a boy!  Shortly before giving birth she stopped our classes and we were again without a teacher.

About ten years later we met another Egyptian, Essam el Mahgoub, who was an Arabic translator for the courts. He would meet at my house with Linda and Mimi and of course the breakfast rolls and coffee.

This was short-lived and soon it was only Essam and me meeting downtown during his lunch hour once a week talking about —- food of course. It was hard to keep up with his busy schedule and after trying an after work happy hour with free snacks we both realized that I couldn’t concentrate on Arabic with food around.

Now, we come to the present.  I am teaching dance classes and still struggling to figure out the words of the songs. Each time I had gone to Egypt in the last 25 years, it seemed that my Egyptian friends would tell me that I had forgotten more and more of my Arabic (which I really didn’t know anyway).

I felt pathetic! Here I was relying totally on Arabic friends and the internet for song translations and my Arabic had dwindled to a handful of words – habibi, ya albi, yanni eh, keda ho, ya salaam, shokraan and song titles – Fakkarooni, Lessa Faker, Ya mSaharni, Lailet Hob

What happened to all the sentences, the conjugations and words, the grammar and the reading and writing I knew! Gone gone gone and gone! It’s true – If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Amina and DebbieAbout 4 years ago Wendy, one of my dance students, said she wanted to review the Arabic she learned in an Arabic course. I asked my friend Debbie Smith if she also wanted to practice Arabic with us as I knew that she had studied both Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic in school. Our immediate goal was to regain some of the knowledge that we had lost or were losing and our ultimate goal was to be able to translate the songs ourselves rather than use the internet or our Arabic friends.

We met once a week at my house and set goals and lesson plans for ourselves. I had invested in some language cassettes including AudioForum and brought those out as well as bought the Egyptian Pimsleur CD series. We were set.

I am an inherent collector and a strong believer that the more you possess the more likely you will “get it” and I had quite an array of teach yourself books, text books, work books and dictionaries. Debbie also likes to collect – but I think she actually reads what she collects.

So between the three of us we had a library probably larger than most language schools. Shortly after we started, Wendy dropped out due to her schedule and the fact that Debbie and I were actually going at a pace too fast for her.

Debbie and I moved our Monday night study class to my dance studio and invited Hana Ali, a friend and a dancer from Pakistan to join us. She had not studied Arabic but being a Moslem knew how to read and write Arabic because she studied the Koran. Also her language, Urdu, uses many of the same Arabic letters and even has many Arabic (and also Persian) words.

We started class with basic Egyptian dialect conversation: messa el kheir, messa el nur, ezzayek, kwayessa, ilhamdulillah – good evening, good evening response, how are you, fine, thanks to God. Class progressed to listening to a little Pimsleur, a little grammar and ended with listening to a song. This was the fun part – our listening comprehension section.

We would write all the Arabic words in the song that sounded familiar, then we would compare the words with each other to see if they really were words and not just sounds and then we would try to translate them into English using our collective knowledge and the dictionary.

Debbie and Hana would use the Arabic dictionaries and I used the ones with English letters.  I found it too difficult to try to navigate the Arabic dictionaries as you need to find the root words first and I was having trouble just finding the correct letters. 

In the beginning, the result was a paper with a few Arabic into English words and no sense in them. Then we would find translations from song books or the internet – not look at the translations, listen to the songs, write down what we heard, compare our words or syllables, use the dictionary, try to translate into some sort of sense with no regard to the poetry of the song and finally check with our translation to see if we were even slightly close. Sometimes we were.  Sometimes our imaginations had taken over.

One thing we did discover was that perseverance pays off and just as the turtle would reach its goal, so would we. We were determined to be literate, conversant and be able to understand and translate our songs.

So how did we do? I feel as if I’m still with Samir Rizkallah in his office at the Bagdad between dance sets straining to understand.

Below is an example of words we (Debbie, Hana and I) heard while listening to Om Kalsoum singing and reading Hana’s transliteration from the Arabic  March 2007.

Our Baeed Annak Word List

  • naseet – forgot – (in class – my most used sentence – ana naseet = I forgot.)
  • noum – sleep –
  • aHlamoo – dreams –
  • layali – nights –
  • ayyamo – days
  • baeed – after
  • Hayati – my life
  • azab – hell,
    agony, torment, torture
  • gheer – without
  • Doumoae – tears
  • aHbab – beloved
  • leyl – night
  • issohd – the black
  • Dowwibni – melt me
  • saharni – I stay awake, insomnia from love
  • Hayarni – I am confused
  • shouq – desire
  • nar-fire
  • we or wa -and
  • u – you, plural
  • i – me, my
  • ak – you
  • m – esh-negative


Below is our translation with a little help from various dictionaries, the internet and an Arabic friend. I hope you can understand the process and how and why we would spend evenings discussing the lyrics.

Baeed Annak (Away from you)


A song for Om Kalsoum
Music by Baligh Hamdi
Lyrics by Maamoon al Shennawi

naseet innoum, wa aHlamu
I forgot sleep and his it’s dreams

naseet layali, wa ayyamo
I forgot the nights and his its days

baeed annak, Hayati azab
Away from you my life is hell
torture agony suffering

mat badneesh, baeed annak
Don’t leave me far from you
Don’t send me away from you
Don’t go away from me

maleesh gheer-iddumuae aHbab
I have nothing but the teardrops for lovers
Never mind the tears of the beloved
(I have no lovers or dear ones but the tears)

maaya baeesh baeed annak
With her, living far from you
With my life away from you
(With whom I live away from you)

ghalabni ishouq wa ghallibni
Passion conquered me
(My longing for you has overwhelmed me)

we leyl issohd dowwibni
And the sleepless nights melted me
(And the nights of your absence is melting me)

we mahma ishouq yesaharni
And no matter how much the desire keeps me awake
And conquered by desire and worn out by sleepless nights

we mahmal baeed Hayarni
And makes me confused

la nar ishouq taghayyarni
The fire of desire doesn’t change me

walal  ayyam bitbaedni
Nor will the days keep me away

baeed annak
from you.

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  1. Hala

    Jun 23, 2009 - 03:06:00

    Very well written and, as always, very funny :-).  You are a natural comedian 🙂

    Your efforts at translating Egyptian songs on your own made me understand and appreciate what must have gone on in deciphering the Rosetta Stone :-).

  2. Terry

    Jun 24, 2009 - 11:06:49

    Hi Amina,

    Always look forward to you articles and enjoy/agree with your music choices and observations in general. This last one has me chuckling remembering good stories of my own…one saying I have not forgotten and continue to use frequently “ana ma barraf”  which I learned as: I don’t know!!!

    Take Care,



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