Tunisian proverbs are widely used part of every day speech, despite the occasional difficulty in properly deciphering them or tracking down their origins.
Many of these proverbs are old sayings that came from other Arabic countries and have changed over time to reflect their specific Tunisian context. In Arabic culture and literature, animals are often used as metaphors, images and meanings that often feature in idioms and proverbs throughout the region.
-je y’âawen fih ala qbar bouh hrablou bel fes
He brought him to help him dig his father’s grave, he ran away with the spade.
Said about a person who invites another person to help him with a problem, but where the newcomer only makes it more complicated or, even worse, does something bad to the one he was supposed to help. That is to say, there are people who would seek to make a profit from any opportunity, no matter how hard the situation.
-dhil el kalb hattouh 100 sne fi qasba tlaâ aâwej
They put the dog’s tail in a rod for 100 years and it came out bent
It’s said about people who are corrupt or just plain bad and who never change. Dogs are often used as negatives, and many proverbs revolve around them. This one tells how impossible it is to change someone, no matter how much you try and no matter how hard your method.
-meêza walaw taret
A goat, even if it flies.
Said about people who are stubborn and who refuse to admit their mistakes even when the evidence is there. It’s an Arabic proverb, which means it doesn’t come from Tunisia originally, but it’s still widely used.
The original story behind the proverb is as follows: two men were walking in a field, where they saw something black in the distance. One of them said it was a crow, the other said it was a goat, so they decided they’d throw a stone. If it flew it was a crow, if it didn’t, it was a goat. They threw the stone, and the crow flew. The second man said “It’s a goat, even if it flies,” proving how far he would go in his stubbornness.
-el bhim tbaddel wel karrita heya heya
The donkey was changed, but the cart remained the same.
This is a way of saying “things didn’t change” while insulting the people in charge at the same time. It became more popular after the 2011 events, with people trying to raise awareness about the ancient ruling party members who were still in charge after 2011 using this idiom.
-idha ken el bouma fiha khir, maysabouha essayeda
If the owl were good, hunters wouldn’t leave it (in peace).
Owls generally feature prominently in Tunisian culture, and many horror stories revolve around owls. The most common one describes how night owls go into rooms where baby’s sleep and begin rubbing themselves against the infant’s chest, causing them to laugh until they choke and die. The metaphor here says, if there’s something easily attainable that people are not exploiting, then there’s a good reason to avoid it.
-ki inahhaq el bhim fel bhar
When the donkey brays at the sea.
Which is often said about something that’s impossible to do.
This is a widely used idiom but most people use it without knowing its origins, which seems to be lost. It’s not impossible to imagine a donkey braying at the sea, but it’s still used to say to describe something impossible.
The short version of the story behind this idiom is as follows. A poor woodsman had a mute and deaf donkey that ran away once. The donkey ended up in a Sultan’s palace, where he started eating grass and flowers in the gardens. The Sultan wanted to kill both the donkey and his owner at first (without knowing who it was), then he changed his mind and decided to reward whoever was able to tame him and teach him how to behave in the company of Sultans. The woodsman, who already knew how to tame his donkey, showed his skills to the Sultan.
When the latter told him this donkey has to learn to be courteous in the presence of Sultans, the woodsman said it would take him ten years. When asked how he would know if the donkey has actually learned his lessons, the woodsman said he would know when the donkey “brays at the sea,” fully aware that the donkey was mute.
The Sultan offered the woodsman a palace and the money to do the job, which the woodsman accepted, knowing full well that, in those ten years many things could happen (the death of the donkey, the Sultan or even himself).
The full story in Arabic can be found here.
-ma thammesh qattous yestad l’rabbi
No cat hunts for God.
The meaning could be lost in translation as people use the expression “for God” as a way of saying “for no reason.” Thus it becomes some sort of warning, a way of saying “be wary of people who are offering to help you for free, without asking for anything.” They are always hiding their true motivations.
-eeryen yesleb fi meyyet
A naked man is stealing from a dead one.
Another popular proverb, as there are many occasions where people can use it. The naked man here is not meant literally, it means someone quite poor, weak or generally in a bad situation. The dead man refers to someone who’s even poorer or weaker than the first one. If the first man decides to cheat the second one, he’d be stealing from a dead man.
-kol qird fi îin ommou ghzel
Every monkey is a gazelle in his mother’s eyes
Monkeys are often used as a way of teasing or even insulting people. The gazelle is regarded as a beautiful animal, full of grace and charm. The mother here is not literal, although it could still be the case. The phrase is intended to describe people who never admit their own mistakes (or those of their relatives or friends) or who fail to see their own flaws, thus making them see the “beautiful” gazelle instead of the “ugly” monkey.
-hanout msakker wa la karia mchouma
A closed shop is better than a bad rent.
This is basically used to say “I prefer to stay out of trouble.” A closed shop (again, the shop is not meant literally) doesn’t need to be repaired or maintained. Moreover, it’s closed, which means there are no activities and no responsibilities involved in running it. If the owner of the shop rents it, they’ll have to deal with the many problems that inevitably arise over time. It’s also used when someone refuses what seems at first to be a good opportunity, but becomes less attractive when looked at closer.
Prior to working as a journalist, Inel worked as a computer programmer. Inel is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. He writes mainly about freedoms, liberties, and minorities' rights in post revolution Tunisia. He currently blogs about films in French and writes metal reviews.