Interview of a Native Speaker

In this interview, Ohood Alomar will kindly answer some questions regarding an old Arab cultural practice that is just as common today as it used to be in the past.

Addressing Elders in Arabic culture

Thank you, Omm Ahmed for your kind participation in this interview.

I understand that in the Arabic culture, addressing a person with the proper title of respect is very important. Can you please explain some aspects of the etiquette of addressing an older person?

“Sure! Out of respect, Arabs, use titles like aunt and uncle when addressing elders whether related to them or not. Example before saying the name of any related or acquainted woman of an older generation, we say the word khaalah (i.e. aunt) before saying her name and for any related or acquainted man of an older generation, we must use the word khaali before his name, example, khaalah Zakia, ‘ammi Mostapha, etc. ”

Why have these specific words of khaalah and ‘ammi been chosen for this custom?

“The idea is that any person from my mother’s generation is considered like her sister in faith and any man from my father’s generation is considered like his brother in faith. That is the way we show respect to our elders. In Arab culture no person can be more beloved or respected as the parents. So treating our elders as if they are “brothers’ or ‘sisters” to our parents means that we are dignifying them. By the same token, it would be scandalous and insulting if a person addresses his/her elders like mother or father-in-law, for example, by just saying their first names, without using the words khaalah or ‘ammi. It would be shocking because it means that we are treating them as lower than their ranking.”

I believe that this cultural practice is widespread in the Arab world and within the Arab community in the United States.  Is this true?

“Yes, it is true. Arab Americans have maintained this practice because it is a basic form of civility. It is also so deeply engrained in the culture and an important sign of good breeding that people are not about to give it up. No self-respecting Arab wants to be thought of as lacking manners, especially with older people.”

What about with total strangers, do you still have to observe that rule?

“Yes, we do. We must use those titles of respect with any Arabic speaking person because that is the norm, even if they are total strangers, unless we are dealing with people from different cultures who may not know about this practice or understand us.”

What about the grand-parents, how do you address them?

“Grandparents are the most honored people in the extended family. Depending on the region one is from we use different titles. In much of the Middle East, we use seedee for the grandfather and sitti for the grandmother without adding their first names.”

What other titles of respect are also frequently used? Is there another way of showing respect that is typically from Arabic culture?

“Yes, addressing a person with his/her kunyah (i.e “father of …” or “mother of …”. and adding the name of his/her first born instead of using the name of that person) is an old Arab custom still used to show respect. For example, to show me respect, many Arabs call me by my kunyah: Omm Ahmed (i.e. mother of Ahmed) – just as you did at the beginning of this interview – instead of calling me by my name ‘Ohood. I love that and really appreciate it, thanks!”

Are these titles used among family and friends only?

“No, these titles are very widely used and express a true mark of respect and good manners, everywhere. They are even used in professional circles among colleagues, employees, and between supervisors and subordinates, in Arab countries, in the Arab American communities, and worldwide.”

Do older brothers and sisters get to be addressed in a special way too?

“Of course, respect to the older brothers, sisters and cousins must be observed and is very important in the Arab extended family. We cannot just say their names without the proper title which may change slightly from one region to another.” 

Several times, I heard Arabs use the titles elhaaja” or “elhaaj” to address an older lady and an older man who may not have perform hajj (pilgrimage) yet. Aren’t these titles reserved for pilgrims only? Why are they used to address non-pilgrims?

“Well, long ago, the title of haaj or haajjah (pilgrim male or female) was reserved to a person who performed Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah). The title was used with much respect due to the great merit and blessings of having performed that important religious duty (Hajj). But nowadays it is frequently used for the elderly, first because people assume that by the time a person reaches old age, he/she most likely has performed pilgrimage. Second because it is another way of giving importance and consideration to their old age. Remember the older the person the more honored he/she is among people. Also we believe that we get blessings by treating people with respect especially the elderly. There is a saying of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) that says: {Is not of us he who is not merciful to our young ones and not respectful and honoring of our elderly.}”

Do you use these titles with non-Arabs as well?

“With non-Arabs, we do not use these titles because most non-Arabs do not know or use them and may not understand them, except with Muslims who have similar rules and understand their importance, such as Muslims from the Indian subcontinent. This is like a common bond between us.” We do not want to force our traditions on anyone, you know.”

I think that in secular circles people use other titles. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes, in more modern and secular circles, people often use the titles of “sayyed” and “sayyidah” as in Sir and Mam or Mr., Miss., and Mrs. Or professional titles like “doctor” and “doctoorah” for Dr. (MD or PhD), “ustaadh” or “ustadhah” for professor, etc. Especially in Egypt, among intellectual circles, these titles are very important.

I believe that this etiquette of addressing people with special titles is just a tradition but what is the real perspective behind it?

“These titles are used to show respect based on clear Islamic instructions for being polite with others. This practice is not just a tradition. It is actually based on moral and religious norms deeply engrained in the social fabric of Arab societies and communities. It is also an Islamic instruction based on religious texts that demonstrates how to address and treat people with proper titles and etiquette. Dignifying the elderly, honoring one’s parents and elders, etc. is also based on the belief that we get blessings for being humble with our elders and for treating them politely and respectfully. These beliefs motivate this type behavior and motivate the teaching and passing down of the instructions as well as keeping up the tradition from one generation to another. It is every parent’s responsibility as it reveals a person’s social commitment to a moral code and an identity trait for being brought-up well and having self respect as well.”

Does this perspective mean that only Arab Muslims use this etiquette?

“No, but originally that is how the tradition started and that is why so many people have maintained it. However many non-Muslim Arabs have adopted it too as people learn from each other and share cultural understandings.” 

I believe that when people become more secular, they stop using those titles. Am I correct?

“ Sorry, I do not agree. I have known many immigrants, members of my extended family included, who have spent most of their lives here, their children and grand children are totally American; but they have not stopped using those titles with other fellow Arab Americans.”

Interesting! Thank you very much, Omm Ahmed, for taking the time to answer my questions about this cultural practice, and for sharing with me your knowledge and insights. Shokran!



Self Portrait

As a child, I was fascinated by languages. I always dreamed of mastering several foreign languages and being able to understand and communicate with people from different cultural background. The image of a juggler being able to throw and catch the colorful balls – which represented languages for me – was vivid in my mind.

I am still entertaining the hope that one day, somehow, I’ll be able to fulfill my dream. Today, however, if I am to teach digital natives effectively, I must add a new and special ball and learn to use adequately all these new computer technologies mentioned in CALL J

No problem, as a life-long learner, I would like nothing but that. The challenge is mostly about time limits, though. Technology is advancing and changing the learning/teaching world too fast for me. I visualize it as a bullet train that won’t allow me the chance of admiring the scenery we zoom by. I already see my digital native students busy texting and checking their emails on their smart phones … very comfortable with the train’s dizzying speed. Unlike me, none of them seems to care about the scenery. They probably watch it on their ipads.

            I guess, in my mind, I am still transitioning between two very different worlds of learning/instructing. As I look back at my own French learning experience, in my childhood’s French school, I clearly see how language, culture, and content were incorporated.  They probably did not have the standards defined then as they are now, but I assure you, the 5C’s were in every lesson and every learning activity. I remember that very well and can prove it. The only thing missing was technology, except for a small, loud, heavy, manual, black typewriter and telephone that only the principal’s secretary had access to, under the watchful eye of the principal.

Oh well, time to move on and catch the train … J