ا، ب، ت، ث…ا Do you know the alphabet by heart already? If not, you should check out my previous piece in which I discussed the importance of learning the alphabet and where I enclosed a podcast with the correct pronunciation of Arabic letters. If yes, then it’s time for you to start practising your Arabic pronunciation by learning basic expressions that you need to use often. Learning basic expressions will give you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with crucial aspects of the Arab culture, including rules of personal and social interaction. Therefore, I am going to introduce you to some basic expressions in Arabic, mainly greetings, and explain to you why and when they are used.
First, you need to understand the basic phrases that you might see or hear as soon as you arrive in an Arab country. For example, people might greet you with اهلا وسهلا (Ahlan wa Sahlan), which means “Welcome!”. The most common reply is اهلا بك (Ahlan bik) to a male or اهلا بكِ (Ahlan biki) to a female. If it is more than one person, you should say اهلا بكم (Ahlan bikum).
However, there is another way to say “welcome”, which also counts as a common greeting among Arabs. It’s called مرحباً (Marhaban) and it is extracted from the root of the verb رَحَّبَ (rahhaba), which means “to welcome”. The most common reply to this greeting is مرحباً بك (Marhaban bik) to a male, مرحباً بكِ (Marhaban biki) to a female or مرحباً بكم (Marhaban bikum) to more people.
Please note that in everyday conversation, Arabs pronounce مرحباً (Marhaban) as مرحبا (Marhaba), especially when they mean it as “Hello!”. The common reply to this greeting is مرحبتين (Marhabtayn), the closest translation of which would be “two welcomes”. It is grammatically incorrect, but very common.
Whereas مرحباً is a common greeting in the Arab world, السلام عليكم (As-salamu ‘alaykum) is the most common greeting among Arab Muslims and it means “Peace be upon you”. For Muslims, this greeting is an expression of their religious identity, as it sends the message that the speaker is a Muslim (please note that the words “Muslim”, “salam”, and “Islam” all come from the same root, سَلِّمَ (sallima), which means “to surrender” (to the will of God)). Therefore, I do not recommend non-Muslims to use this greeting with Arabs they do not know very well and try to understand their approach to non-Muslims before venturing into religious greetings. By the way, if a Muslim greets you this way, you may reply with وعليكم السلام (Wa ‘alaykum as-salam), which means “Peace be upon you too”.
Moreover, you can also greet people according to the time of day when you meet them. Thus, if you meet someone in the morning, you can say صباح الخير (Sabah al-khayr), which means “Good Morning”. Unlike in English, in Arabic there are several possible replies to this greeting, but the most common one is صباح النور (Sabah an-noor), which literally means “Morning of Light”. However, depending on the mood and creativity of the speaker, the “Morning of Light” can become the “Morning of the Rose”, the “Morning of Joy”, the “Morning of Beauty” and so on. Beautiful, isn’t it? Likewise, “Good Evening” follows a similar pattern, with مساء الخير (Misa’ al-khayr) first, while the other person can reply with مساء النور (Misa’ an-noor) or any replacement of “an-noor” that his mood dictates.
While there is no equivalent for “Good Afternoon” in Arabic, there is a special way of saying “Good Night”, i.e. تصبح على خير (Tisbah ‘ala khayr), which roughly means “wake up to the good”. The corresponding reply to this greeting is وأنت من أهله (Wa anta/anti min ahloo), which means “and may you be one of the good”.
In different parts of the world, greetings usually come with handshakes, hugs, kisses, bows, back slaps, tickles, or a combination of two or more of these gestures. Luckily, it’s not too complicated in the Arab world, as Arabs don’t bow, tickle, or slap anyone’s back when they meet someone. However, in addition to a handshake, Arab men who know each other well will touch each other’s cheeks and make a kissing sound in the process. The same applies to Arab women, who might also give each other a hug if they are close friends or family members. In addition to a handshake, Emarati men also touch noses as a sign that they are feeling comfortable with the other person. Also, when it comes to foreigners, both men and women will gladly shake the hands of people of the same gender, but there’s no cheek touching or nose rubbing, unless the foreigner is a long-time, close friend.
Speaking about handshakes, women should refrain from stretching their hands to Muslim Arab men for a handshake, unless they already know that it is fine to do so. The same goes for men and Muslim Arab women. Islam advises that there should be no physical contact between people of opposite sex who are not related by blood, so it’s better to be safe than embarrassed. However, whereas deeply religious Muslims will not shake a woman’s hand, many Muslims are actually fine with it.
After the initial exchange of greetings and handshakes, people will ask you how you are doing. Although different dialects have different ways of inquiring about someone’s state of being, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) features a standard version: كيف حالك؟ (Kayfa haaluka?) to a male and (Kayfa haaluki?) to a female. Now, nobody pronounces it in the MSA way, but Arabs have a common pronunciation for this phrase without a change in spelling! Thus, instead of saying “Kayfa haaluka?”, which will definitely bring a smile to a native listener’s face because it sounds very unusual, just say “Kayf haalak?” to a male and “Kayf haalik?” to a female. By the way, if you get confused by the similar pronunciation of these phrases, there’s an easy way out: كيف الحال؟ (Kayf al haal?), which means “How’s the situation?”. This is a standard Arabic expression, but it is widely used both among co-nationals and Arabs from different countries.
Again, there are several possible replies to this question. Some of the most common ones include بخير (Bekhayr), تمام (Tamam), or if you are a Muslim, الحمد للّه (Al-hamdu lillah). بخير means “well” (literally “in the good”), تمام means “OK” (literally “perfect, complete”) and الحمد للّه means “praise be to God”.
The most important thing to remember with regard to exchanging basic greetings with Arabs is that you should avoid shortcuts, such as “An’ you?”, that are very common in English. For example, after someone ask us “How are you?” in English, we often say “I’m OK, an’ you?”. However, Arabs always use the full version of all basic expressions and ask several questions about the other person’s life, as they are very polite in their interaction with other people and always make an effort to make the other person feel comfortable and respected. Thus, whereas a conversation between two people in English would sound something like:
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m fine, (thanks), an’ you?”
in Arabic, it would sound something like:
“Hello! / Peace be upon you!” مرحبا / السلام عليكم
“Hello! / Peace be upon you too!” مرحبا بك / وعليكم السلام
“How’s your situation?” كيف حالك؟
“It’s good / Praise be to God. How’s YOUR situation?” بخير / الحمد لله. كيف حالك أنت؟
“It’s good / Praise be to God. What’s new?” بخير / الحمد لله. ما الجديد؟
“Everything’s OK. What’s new with you? كل شيء تمام. ما الجديد معك؟
“Nothing much. How’s your health? لا شيء جديد. كيف صحتك؟
“It’s OK. How’s YOUR health? بخير. كيف صحتك أنت؟
“It’s OK. How’s your …?” تمام. كيف …؟
and so on and so forth. The initial exchange of greetings can continue for several minutes, depending how well the speakers know each other. This is the Arab way of showing concern for the other person’s well-being and also a way to make him or her feel comfortable.
Finally, in English, we usually say “Bye” or “See you” when we part with people. In Arabic, the most common parting greeting in everyday conversation is مع السلامة (Ma’ as-salama), which means “with the safety”. Moreover, there is a formal greeting in standard Arabic, إلى اللقاء (Ila al-liqa’), which should only be used with people that you would like to see again, because it literally means “until the meeting”, so something like “see you again”. In addition to these secular greetings, there is a host of religious ones, which Muslims do not commonly use with non-Muslims. Therefore, it would only make sense for you to know those greetings if you are a Muslim and, if you are, I assume you already know them by heart.
I believe that the greetings discussed above and cultural advice related to them is enough for now. You should review and practise the expressions above until they come to your mind automatically, without making an effort to recall which expression fits into what context. Next time, I will introduce you to more basic expressions and will provide you with more useful advice about do’s and don’t’s in the Arab world, so that you may feel confident when you speak Arabic.
In the meantime, have fun with the podcast below, where I included the most common greetings in the Arab world and their correct pronunciation.
Amalia Costin is a language teacher specializing in English, French, and Arabic. She has a B.A. degree in English and Norwegian, and an M.A. degree in International Affairs from Georgetown University. She is fluent in several languages, but Arabic is her greatest linguistic achievement so far, as it was the hardest one to master. Amalia also has a passion for writing, which she considers to be the best way to share knowledge and debate ideas with people from all over the world.