Arabic Lesson # 2: “Arab Time”

Arab time.”  Misperceptions abound around how time is perceived in the Arab world.  For many western expatriates, and good-natured nationals, in the Gulf region these words connote an inattention to time, and for some, even a disregard for this important nonrenewable resource.  I have found many inconsistencies with this view, and feel that the concept of time in the Arabian Peninsula is much more complex and textured.  General observations of, and personal experiences with, Arab acquaintances and colleagues, have revealed that the sense of time in this part of the world runs the gamut from Arab friends who are always on time (and who have to regularly wait for me and my husband to be ready for a night out), to Arab cohorts who have no sense of time at all.  Actually, it’s much like in the U.S., and west, where you know some people who are habitually on time, and others for whom you’ll have to allow an extra “cushion of time.”  You find yourself almost calibrating your own sense of time to those around you.  May I say that the “time gamut” just seems more elongated in the Arab world.

In the west being on time usually demonstrates a certain level of respect for the individual(s) we are scheduled to meet, as well as personal responsibility and accountability. . . .  And Americans/westerners tend to be highly productive and efficient, due at least in part to the emphasis on following schedules and meeting deadlines.  Once in our meetings, though, we regularly check our watch, or the clock on the wall, to ensure we’re not late for our next event or appointment, typically finding ourselves distracted by what is coming up next, and not always completely attuned to the present and the matter at hand.  It’s different in the Arab world.  What I have come to believe is that the perceived inattention to time in the Arab Gulf, is frequently quite the reverse, often reflecting instead an inherent reverence for, and recognition of, the preciousness of time at a more organic level.  It’s a belief, both from a cultural and religious perspective, that “people time,” in particular, is all-important and should be cherished and optimized.  Gulf Arabs revel in the moments spent with guests, family, and each other, and in informal, as well as formal gatherings, often appear lost in time, conversing and debating while sipping pungent cardamom coffee, seemingly unconcerned with schedules and appointments.  Even in the most intense business settings, this balance towards appreciating and savoring “people time” is reinforced by images of “tea boys” moving in and out of conference rooms with platters of Turkish coffee, tea, dates and Arabic pastries.

Western Expatriate Novelty Clock

Whether in the workplace or in social settings, “people time” is paramount in the Arab Gulf and throughout the region.  When I first moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from Washington, DC with my husband and two miniature poodles in November 2000, it was difficult for me to slow down in the middle of a deadline for completing a major financial report at work to accept offers of cardamom coffee or mint tea normally coupled with protracted conversation.  I didn’t have time; I had a deadline. . . . We were all frantically busy!  Time was of the essence.  While I still can’t bear to part from my watch, my many years spent in the Middle East have affirmed that these respites from work actually help create an improved sense of camaraderie and team effort, and the work, after all, eventually gets done.

“Arab time” is particularly prevalent, and on full display, when a guest enters an Arab household.  On countless visits to Arab homes I have been the beneficiary of Arab hospitality, and have experienced the altered dimension of “Arab time.”  Once across the threshold of an Arab home you are referred to as “sister” or “brother,” and the focus of the Arab host is on ensuring you are utterly happy and comfortable.  Schedules and previous engagements become immaterial. . . . And unscheduled visitors are not immune.  The guest is not asked if they want something to drink, but is immediately served fruit juice, followed by cardamom coffee and mint tea. . . Arabic sweets are commonly served, as is mezzah (tabouli, fattoush, olives, and such), and the guest is wheedled into having machboos (rice with chicken or lamb).  Somehow, when you’re not looking, another platter of machboos is placed in front of you. . . . And, you must eat, even though you’re quite sated.  The conversation effortlessly flows from a discussion of everyday matters, to regional politics, to the global financial crisis, and before you know it it’s 2:00 AM, and you really do need to get home.  “Oh, just one more cup of tea,” your host cajoles!

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. . . And on to our Arabic lesson on “time,” especially for my western friends! 🙂  (Remember this is conversational Arabic.)

What time is it?

KUM  AL  SAHA?         كم الساعة ؟

It’s 7:30 PM.

SABHA  WA  NUS.      سبعة و نص.   

______________________________________

Are we ready to go yet?

HAL  NAHNU  JAHZEEN  KAI  NATHHAB?           هل نحن جاهزين كي نذهب ؟

No, I’ll be ready in half an hour.

LA  SAWFA  AKOON  JAHZEH  BAHD  NUS  SAHA.          لا سوف اكون جاهزة بعد نص ساعة.

_______________________________________

What time are we supposed to be there?

AYAH  SAHA  NAHNU  MAFROOTH  NAKOON  HUNAAK?         اية ساعة نحن مفروض نكون هناك .

They want us to be there at 8:00 PM.

YAREDOONA  AN  NAKOON  HUNAAK  ALSAHA  AL  THAMNA.           يردونا ان نكون هناك الساعة الثامنة .

_______________________________________

Are we there yet?

HAL  WASALNA  BAHED?             هل وصلنا بعد ؟

No, not yet.  We’ll be there in an hour.

LA  LAYSA  BAHED,  SAWFA  NAKOON  HUNAAK  BAHED  SAHA  WAHDEH.

لا ليس بعد, سوف نكون هناك نعد ساعة واحدة .

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

KUM = WHAT IS (can also mean “HOW MUCH”)

AL = THE

SAHA = TIME (or “HOUR” or “WATCH”)

SABHA = SEVEN

WA = AND

NUS = HALF

HAL = ARE (or “DO,” “DOES,” or “DID,” but only in a question)

NAHNU = WE

JAHZEEN = READY (plural)

KAI = TO (also means, “BECAUSE,” “FOR,” “AT,” or “SINCE”)

NATHHAB = GO

LA = NO

SAWFA = WILL

AKOON = BE (“TO BE” for singular first person pronoun)

JAHZEH = READY (singular feminine)

BAHD = AFTER (or “YET”)

AYAH = WHICH (or “WHAT”)

MAFROOTH = SUPPOSED

NAKOON = TO BE (for plural first person pronoun)

HUNAAK = THERE

YAREDOONA = THEY WANT US

AN = THAT

THAMNA = EIGHT

WASALNA = ARRIVED (for plural first person pronoun)

LAYSA = NOT

WAHDEH = ONE

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8 comments on “Arabic Lesson # 2: “Arab Time”

  1. What a great post, Michele!! Very insightful and interesting. And how fantastic to think about the different ways we can change our relationship to time. What we can learn from our Arab friends is startling indeed! Thanks and keep up the great work! xoxoxoxo!

    • Yes, I know, I love the sense of community and fellowship in the Arab world, much of which centers around food! I’m not so much a “picky eater,” but I’m not a “big eater,” so this sometimes presents challenges, but I appreciate the sentiment!

  2. Yes, the concept of People Time really resonates. At the weekend, here in the UAE, Fraser learnt to ride a bike and stopped half way along the street at a friend’s house for a much needed water break. The friend’s parents insisted on me coming into their house too, gave me a glass of water, before effortless serving me with some delicious fresh oranges with side-plate and sharp knife. Conversation flowed delightfully just as in your article.
    PS. love the photo “R WE THERE YET”!

    • Glad you appreciated the concept of “people time,” Rob. Understanding and savoring this notion has been one of the most important lessons I’ve learned while in the region. I still have to work at it (on a personal level), but I’m getting better! Happy to hear that Fraser learned how to ride a bike, and that as a result you experienced the joy of “people time.”

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