If you’re not familiar with Saudi culture, the Arabic language, and/or Islamic culture, you may encounter some words on the blog that are unfamiliar to you. I created this little glossary to help you out. The glossary is, and will remain, a work-in-progress, and I will add to it as I use words that need to be included. Here are a few points to remember as you use this resource.
- Any Saudi/Arabic/Islamic words defined here are italicized in their first mention in each blog post. (Yup, just like your junior high biology textbook.) The first mention will also be linked to this glossary, which will open in a new window.
- There are some letters in the Arabic alphabet that are often represented in the Roman alphabet (i.e., the English alphabet) by using numbers, because the sounds these letters make don’t exist in English, or they don’t have English letters that consistently represent them. I will spell these words without the number-letters, to make it less confusing for readers who have never studied Arabic. (This qualification may not make sense for people who don’t care much about the English/Arabic language differences, but it’s more for the Arabic speakers and/or Arabic learners who land here and want to tell me that “ayb” is actually “3ayb.” Don’t worry; I do know about those letters. )
- All pronunciation guides are my best approximation based on my own understanding of letter sounds made in my own American English accent. Following the pronunciation guides may not make you sound like a native Arabic speaker, but they will get your point across. I already mentioned some of the sounds/letters that Arabic makes/uses that English does not; the pronunciation guides will not include these sounds (mostly because I have no clue how to go about representing/explaining them with English letters).
- Sometimes I represent words in the Saudi accent, because that’s just how i’m used to hearing them (gahwa, igal, etc.).
- It’s important to remember that there is no standardized Arabic spelling in the English alphabet. Just because I spell an Arabic word a certain way here, that doesn’t mean you will always encounter the word being spelled that way. For example, you may see fatoor spelled like that here, and see it spelled futour somewhere else. Keep in mind that Arabic spellings in the English alphabet are prone to vary, although they refer to the same word (Mecca/Makkah, Koran/Qur’an, etc.).
Phew! Now, here you go!
abaya (n., “uh-BY-uh”): The long, cloak-like garment, which is closed in the front, that all women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear over their regular clothing. The vast majority of abayas worn in Saudi Arabia are black, but some may be other dark, muted colors. Some button, zip, or tie in the front, and some are pullovers. Abayas exist in many different styles and materials.
abou riyalin (n., “AH-boo ree-yuh-LEN”): A large store that carries a large selection of items, from clothing to toys to dishes to school supplies and everything in between. The only thing you won’t find in an abou riyalin is food, although some abou riyalins have a small counter at the front where you can buy snacks and drinks. Abou riyalins are sometimes referred to as “2-riyal shops,” although items in an abou riyalin are offered at a wide range of prices.
addas (n., “ADD-iss): Lentils.
ahob (v., “ah-HUB”): I love. As in, “I love cake.”
alhamdulillah (interj., “al-HUM-du-lil-lah”): All praise is due to God. This phrase is used in much the same way as the English phrase, “Thank God.” (Example: “The plane just landed safely in New York, alhamdulillah.”)
Allah (n., “uh-LAH”): God.
Amrikiyah (n., “am-rih-KEE-yuh”): A female American.
aroosa (n., “uh-ROO-suh”): Bride. In Saudi culture, a newly married woman may be known as the “aroosa” for months after the wedding, possibly even until she has her first baby.
astaghfirullah (interj., “us-TAH-fur-uh-lah”): I seek forgiveness from God. This phrase is used to express disapproval. (Example: “He refused to let his daughter go abroad to study. Astaghfirullah!”)
athan (n., “uh-THAN”): The call to prayer in Islam. It is heard five times a day. The athan is sounded throughout Saudi neighborhoods from mosques throughout the city; it is somewhat equivalent to church bells in American culture. If you are outside in a Saudi city (and sometimes even when you are inside), you will always hear the athan coming from somewhere when it is time to pray.
ayah (n., “EYE-uh”): A verse of the Qur’an.
ayb (interj., “aeyb”): Shame. Used in the same way as the English phrase, “Shame on you!” (Example: “You won’t take your mom out for dinner? Ayb!”)
ayn (noun, “aeyn”): The evil eye; i.e., the Islamic and cultural belief that if someone sees what you have and envies you for it, their envy can, intentionally or not, cause bad things to happen to you and/or whatever you have that caused them to envy you. (Example: “Oh no, I dropped my ice cream cone! I think Ahmed gave me the ayn. He saw me eating it and I know he’s on a diet.”)
barra (adv., “BAR-ruh”): Outside.
bisht (n., “bihsht”): A long, cloak-like garment, open in the front, that Saudi men wear over their thobes, mostly only on formal occasions.
bismillah (interj., “BISS-mil-LAH”): In the name of God. Many Muslims say this (or its longer version, “bismillah ir rahman ir rahim,” which means, “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful”) when beginning something (before taking the first bite of a meal, before starting a car, etc.), in order to acknowledge that they do everything in the name of God.
bukhoor (n., “buh-HOOR”): Woodchips that have been soaked in scented oils. It is burned in a mabkhara, and the smoke it produces is used to scent one’s home or clothing.
burqini (n., “bur-KEE-nee”): A swimsuit designed for Muslim women, which covers everything on the body from the ankles to the wrists, and includes a headcovering.
dallah (n., “DEL-uh”): A metal pitcher, usually with a long, curved spout, used for serving Arabic coffee, or gahwa.
deen (n., “deen”): Religion.
dhuhr (n., “DU-hur”): The middday prayer time. It is the third prayer time of the day.
dua (n., “DOO-wuh”): An Islamic prayer of supplication, calling out to God.
Eid (n., “eed”): Holiday. There are two eids in the Islamic calendar: Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha.
Eid Al-Adha (n., “eed al AD-huh”): The holiday that commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as an act of submission to God, before God intervened and allowed Abraham to sacrifice a sheep instead. It marks the end of the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah.
Eid Al-Fitr (n., “eed al FIT-er”): The holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan and the conclusion of the month’s fasting.
eywa (interj., “AEY-wuh”): Yes. A colloquial term similar to the English “yeah.”
fajr (n., “FAJ-er”): The first prayer time of the day, which takes place just before or at sunrise.
fatoor (n., “fuh-TOOR”): The meal at the end of the day, around the maghrib prayer time, which breaks the day’s fasting during Ramadan. Also referred to more formally as iftar.
fatwa (n., “FET-wuh”): A religious opinion offered by an Islamic scholar. It is not a law, an order, or a binding judgment.
fen (adv., conj., pron., “fen”): Where.
finjal (n., “fin-JEL”): A small cup with no handles, used to drink Arabic coffee, or gahwa. Also sometimes referred to as a finjan.
gahwa (n., “GAH-wuh”): Arabic coffee. It is light brown, has a very distinct taste, and is served in a very small cup with no handles, called a finjal. It is brewed on the stove in a metal pitcher called a dallah. It is flavored with cardamom, and no cream or sugar are added when served.
ghutra (n., “GOO-truh”) Usually refers to a white checkered cloth worn on a Saudi man’s head; however, it can be used interchangeably with shmagh in some cases.
gooli (v., “GOO-lee”): Say. Used as a command.
habibi (n., “huh-BEE-bee”): A term of endearment; roughly translated, it means something like, “my dear,” or “my love,” or “my darling.” Since it is a masculine word, it is supposed to only be used when speaking to a boy or a man, but it is often used when speaking to girls or women, as well.
habibeti (n., “huh-BEEB-tee”): The feminine form of the word habibi; therefore it should only be used when speaking to a girl or woman.
haia (n., “HI-uh”): See muttawa.
hail (n., “hayl”): Cardamom; a ubiquitous spice in Saudi food. Usually refers to cardamom pods, rather than powder.
Hajj (n., “hahj”): The ritual pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia, held yearly. For Muslims, it is compulsory to make Hajj at least once at some point in one’s life, if one is physically and financially able to make the journey.
halawa (n., “huh-LAH-wuh”): Candy.
haram (adj., “hah-RAHM”): Forbidden; not permissible. It is often used as a proclamation independent of other sentences, and is used often to refer to food, but can just as easily be used to refer to a practice or action. (Example: “You put nutmeg in your apple pie? Haram!”)
halal (adj., “hah-LAHL”): Allowed; permissible. Although the word is not restricted to food, it is often used to refer to food; the Islamic equivalent of the Jewish kosher. (Example: “One of the things I love about Saudi Arabia is that the pepperoni pizza here is always halal.“)
hijab (n., “hih-JAB”): The headscarf worn by some Muslim women. Although this word technically refers to the Islamic code of modesty that applies to both men and women, it is most often used to refer to Muslim women’s headcoverings.
hijrah (n., “HIHJ-ruh”): The migration of Prophet Mohammed and his followers from Makkah to Medina. This term is sometimes used to refer to the migration of Muslims to a place they perceive as more accepting of their religion, such as Saudi Arabia.
Hijri (n., “HIHJ-ree”): The Islamic calendar, based on the cycles of the moon.
himar (n., “hih-MAR”): Donkey. Can be used as a mild Arabic swear word, similar to the English usage of “jackass.”
hookah (n., “HOO-kuh”): A type of water pipe with one or more mouthpieces attached, used to smoke flavored tobacco called shisha.
hosh (n., “hawsh”): The courtyard area in between the walls that surround a Saudi house and the house itself.
iftar (n., “if-TAR”): See fatoor.
igal (n., “ih-GAL”): The heavy black doubled cord worn by a Saudi man to hold his shmagh on his head. In Western pop culture, this is ofter portrayed as some sort of strap or belt that is tightened around the head, but in reality, it is simply placed on the head to weigh down the shmagh and hold it in place.
imam (n., “ee-MAHM”): An Islamic leader of worship, usually in charge of a specific mosque, much like a pastor or priest in a Christian setting.
inshallah (adj., “in-SHAH-uh-lah”): “God willing.” It can be used with anything and everything, because in the Islamic view, no one can do anything unless God wills it. (Example: “I’m going to get a manicure, inshallah. Want to come?”) It is sometimes cheekily referred to as the “Saudi ‘no’.” (Example: “Sweetie, I think I really need that necklace we saw in the window at Tiffany’s.” “Inshallah.”)
iqama (n., “ih-KAH-muh”): The resident card in Saudi Arabia. The bearer of an iqama is allowed to legally reside indefinitely in Saudi Arabia as long as he or she has a Saudi sponsor, usually a spouse or an employer. The iqama can be revoked as soon as the bearer no longer has a sponsor (i.e., is divorced or employment is terminated). It is different from a Saudi visa, which is placed in a passport and allows a person to enter the country, but has limitations on how long the bearer is allowed to stay in the country.
isha (n., “ISH-uh”): The night prayer. It is the fifth and final prayer time of the day.
jalabiya (n., “jah-lah-BEE-yuh”): A long, flowing Arabic dress worn by Saudi women, especially during Ramadan.
jannah (n., “JEN-nuh”): Heaven; paradise.
jihad (n., “jee-HAHD”): A struggle that a Muslim undertakes as a part of religious duty. Contrary to the definition frequently disseminated in Western media, it is not necessarily related to any sort of religious or holy war. (Example: “I’m trying to quit smoking. It’s my jihad. I want to take better care of the body that Allah gave me.”)
jinn (n., “jin”): In Islam, a spirit being that can inhabit and/or interact with humans. Like humans, jinn can be good or bad, and they have free will. In Western culture, ghosts are a concept similar to the Islamic understanding of jinn.
jubna (n., “JUHB-nuh”): Cheese.
Jum’ua (n., “JOOM-ooh-ah”): Friday, the holy day in Islam.
kaafir (n., “KAH-fur”): A non-Muslim; frequently translated as “infidel” in English. (I wrote more about this word here.)
kabsa (n., “KAB-suh”): A meat and rice dish with spices. It can be made with many different types of meat (goat, beef, chicken, camel, etc.). It can also be made with different garnishes and spices (eggs, potatoes, dried limes, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, raisins, etc.). There are endless incarnations of kabsa, and it unofficially the national dish of Saudi Arabia.
khalas (interj., “kha-LAHS”): An exclamation that roughly translates to, “Enough!” or “That’s it!” It can also be used to represent the less exclamatory, “That’s all.”
khamsa (n., “KHAM-suh”): Five.
kleija (n., “KLAY-juh): A type of Arabic cookie-like sweet, of which there are a range of different varieties.
kunya (n., “KUH-nyuh”): The nickname that a parent has that refers to his or her eldest child (or sometimes the eldest son, if the parent’s eldest child is a girl). A man is called “Abu (eldest child’s first name),” and a woman is called “Umm (eldest child’s first name).” (Example: “Mom, can you call Umm Nora and ask if Nora can come over to play?”)
la (interj., “lah”): No.
laban (n., “LEH-bin”): A dairy drink common in Saudi Arabia, which has the taste of plain yogurt and a consistency slightly thicker than milk.
labneh (n., “LEHB-nuh”): A creamy, tart, spreadable cheese made out of strained fresh yogurt.
laham (n., “LA-ham”): Red meat.
maamoul (n., “mah-MOOL”): A mound-shaped Arabic cookie with a filling of dates.
mabkhara (n., “MUHB-haruh”): A Saudi incense burner, used to burn bukhoor. Traditionally, a small, flat piece of charcoal is heated and then placed in the mabkhara, and then a few chips of bukhoor are placed on the charcoal to produce fragrant smoke. However, some mabkharas are electric and require no charcoal; the bukhoor just has to be placed in the mabkhara.
maghrib (n., “MAHG-reb”): The sunset prayer time. It is the fourth prayer time of the day.
mahram (n., “MAH-rem”): A close male relative of a woman–i.e., her father, brother, son, husband, etc. Generally a man must be related to a woman by blood to be considered her mahram, with the exception of her husband and her father-in-law. (Example: “A Saudi woman must have the approval of her mahram in order to travel out of the country.”)
mashallah (interj., “mah-shuh-LAH”): “God wills it.” Used when giving someone a compliment or praise. It is believed that saying “mashallah” helps combat the evil eye (which is believed to be caused by envy–see ayn), and “mashallah” is also an indication that the person giving the compliment is not envying the person being complimented. Not saying “mashallah” when giving a compliment is considered mildly rude in Saudi culture. (Example: “Your baby is so precious, mashallah!”)
masjid (n., “MAZ-jid”): Mosque, a Muslim house of worship.
mendeel (n. “men-DEEL”): Facial tissue (i.e., Kleenex).
muttawa (n., “moo-TAH-wuh”): The Saudi religious police, formally known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice; also sometimes referred to as the haia.
najis (adj., “NAJ-iss”): Ritually impure; unclean.
nikah (n., “nih-KAH”): The Islamic marriage contract that officially unites a married couple.
niqab (n., “nih-KOB”): The face covering that many Saudi women wear (especially in Riyadh). It is usually black and usually leaves only the eyes visible.
Qur’an (n., “koor-AN”): The holy book of Islam, said to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Ramadan (n., “RAH-muh-don”): The holy month in the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast (no food, drink, swearing, smoking, or sex) from sunrise until sunset.
salaam alaykum (interj., “suh-LAWM uh-LAY-kum”): “Peace be upon you.” It is a standard greeting among Arabic speakers, used like the English “hello” or “hi.”
sambousa (n., “sam-BOO-suh”): A small, triangular, pastry-like food that can be made in many different savory or sweet varieties. They are eaten especially frequently during Ramadan.
shahadah (n., “shuh-HAH-duh”): The Islamic declaration of faith that one must believe and recite in order to convert to Islam. It states, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger.”
shaytaan (n., “shay-TAHN”): Devil.
shettaf (n., “sheh-TAHF”): The water sprayer located next to the toilet (usually mounted on the wall) in a Saudi restroom, used to cleanse oneself after using the toilet.
shibt (n., “shihbt”): Dill.
shisha (n., “SHEE-shuh”): Flavored tobacco, smoked in a hookah.
shmagh (n., “shmauh”): The folded cloth that Saudi men wear on their heads, held down by an igal. A shmagh has a small, almost checkered pattern, and in Saudi Arabia, it is usually red and white or just white.
shorba (n., “SHOR-buh”): Soup.
shukran (interj., “SHOOK-rahn”): Thank you.
sofra (n., “SOH-fruh”): A large sheet of plastic that is spread out on the floor for trays of food to be placed on it, so that people can sit around the food and eat.
subhanallah (interj. “sub-HAHN-uh-LAH”): “Glory be to God.” Used similar to the English “wow.” (Example: “The Grand Canyon is so beautiful! Subhanallah.”)
sunnah (n., “SUH-nuh”): A practice followed by Muslims because it is believed to be based on the example of Prophet Mohammed and his earliest followers.
suhoor (n., “suh-HOOR”): The early morning meal eaten before fasting begins at fajr during Ramadan.
surah (n., “SOO-ruh”): A chapter of the Qur’an.
tafseer (n., “taf-SEER”): Exegesis, or critical explanation, of the Qur’an.
tahiniya (n., “tah-hih-NEE-yuh”): Tahini, a thick paste paste made of sesame seeds.
Tamimi (n., “tuh-MEE-mee”): The Saudi incarnation of the American supermarket chain Safeway. Expats tend to frequent Tamimi because it carries many American products that are often unavailable elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.
tarawih (n., “teh-ruh-WEE”): The prayers that take place every night during the holy month of Ramadan.
tarha (n., “TAR-huh”): Scarf. Often used to refer to the headcovering that comes with an abaya.
thobe (n., “thoab”): The long garment that Saudi men wear. A professional thobe looks something like a white full-length business shirt, with a chest pocket, collar, and long sleeves with cuffs. In the winter, thobes in darker muted colors may be worn.
tibsi (n., “TIB-see”): A large tray, usually round and usually silver, that is used to serve large amounts of food, particularly kabsa.
Umrah (n., “UM-ruh”): Often referred to as a “lesser” pilgrimage, it is a ritual pilgrimage to Makkah outside of the regular Hajj time. It entails some of the same rituals as the Hajj pilgrimage, but not all.
villa (n., “VIH-lah”): A freestanding house (i.e., not an apartment or a duplex). An average Saudi villa is much larger than the average American home, generally having no less than three floors.
Vimto (n., “VIM-too”): A concentrated fruit cordial drink, most commonly consumed during Ramadan.
walaykum asalaam (interj., “wah-LAY-kum uh-suh-LAHM”): “And unto you peace.” This is the appropriate response when someone says, “Salaam alaykum.”
wallah (interj., “WAH-luh”): “I swear to God.” (Example: “Wallah, if you don’t bring me a cupcake, I’m going to cry.”)
wasta (n., “WAH-stuh”): Influence, or a person who hold substantial influence, especially in terms of bypassing bureaucracy. (Example: “I would love to help you get the marriage permission, but my wasta at the Ministry of the Interior doesn’t work there anymore.”)
wudhu (n., “wuh-DOO”): The ritual washing process that Muslims must complete in order to prepare for prayers.