Primrose Arnander and Ashkhain Skipwith have put together three books of proverbs from Arab countries. The first one I ever encountered was Unload Your Own Donkey, which is the untranslatable Arabic equivalent for “mind your own business.” I have said that donkey thing to people in my small Appalachian town a couple of times, and it doesn’t translate. Which may have worked in my favor.
That’s the fun thing about this book–one of, anyway: that the proverbs are written in Arabic and English, and that they translate word-for-word without making much word-for-word sense for the most part in English, and yet you can see the folk wisdom behind the words–Arabic or English.
Take, for instance, a phrase originating in an Arabic proverb that has more or less entered the American mainstream, “the camel’s nose under the tent,” which is pretty much the same as “the tip of the iceberg.” It’s a cute way of saying something is creeping up on us that will get bigger before it goes away.
One of my other favorites, “The fly has acquired a shop and it is closing early” is another of my favorites. If you think about it for a minute, you can see our American equivalent: “you’re in over your head.” Then there’s “his son is on his shoulder, and he is looking for him” (as plain as the nose on your face).
And my other favorite, “Someone scalded by soup will blow on yogurt” (once bitten, twice shy). I was swapping proverbs with a British friend of Arabic background, and she laughed at this one and told me her family used to say, “Someone bitten by a snake will run from a coiled rope.”
“Bankrupt merchants search old books” (flogging a dead horse). “If things didn’t break, there would be no potters” (every cloud has a silver lining). “Advise the ignorant and become his enemy” (pearls and swine) and “like honey on top of cream” (gilding the lily) are some other fun ones.
The pictures in this book are sweet and fun to go along with the proverbs, and it’s a great dip-in book–not a story, but a diversion. I haul Unload Your Own Donkey out when I need a laugh. I also have its sister volume, Apricots Tomorrow (tomorrow will be a better day). Admit it, you have the theme song from Annie running through your head right now, don’t you?
And just for laughs, the third title in this series is The Son of a Duck is a Floater. (Have fun figuring it out.)