Written by Maàn Jalal
I was once asked to translate the word ‘3aib’ into English. It was a task that I found and still find to be problematic. The closest I’ve managed to explain the meaning, feelings and issues this word represents, is through the following definition:
3aib [pronunciation of 3: hard, gutteral “A”] – is a set of decorums we are expected to live by in order to reach the goal of appearing, at all times, the ideal person or family to the outside world.
3aib is essentially about shame. It’s taught, instilled, seeps into our conscious through society, education and family. It starts in childhood.
Don’t walk like that. 3aib.
Don’t ask questions when you’re told what to do. 3aib.
What are you wearing? 3aib.
Don’t sit like that. 3aib.
The list of all things 3aib is long, pedantic and ranges in nuances depending on your age and gender. It’s a lot worse for girls and women. Though I understand that parents need to find a way to teach manners to their children, to seize control over their behavior, I can’t understand why shame is an important component to the formula. The method is equally successful as it is damaging.
I once knew a girl called Yasmin. Every boy in our neighborhood was in love with her. Yasmin was pretty beyond measure. Her hair was long, light brown and she always wore colored beads around her wrist that matched the rest of her outfit. Yasmin was pleasant, friendly and approachable but she was also mysterious, unattainable and confident. Able to climb trees higher than any of us, she was also good at soccer and wasn’t scared to pick up a lizard, spider or a cockroach for close inspection. Although she liked playing with the boys, Yasmin chose to spend most of her time with a group of girls from the neighborhood. They took turns listening to a shared Walkman, making up dances and laughing about things that were a mystery to me and every other boy I knew. Yasmin had the loudest most infectious laugh. It was, among her many other talents, a point of discussion among the boys. She laughed like a boy about things that only boys laughed about. But she was a girl. A pretty, cool girl. It was mind-boggling.
3aib is essentially about shame. It’s taught, instilled, seeps into our conscious through society, education and family.
As a nine-year-old it’s hard to tell how you come to know or understand complicated matters, but somehow you just do. For example, I knew that Yasmin and her mother had a tense relationship. I remember at a birthday party in the park, Yasmin was sitting with her friends on a bench singing out the lyrics to Ace of Base’s, ‘The Sign’.
“Yasmin, don’t sing so loud, 3aib,” her mother said, walking passed.
Yasmin lowered her voice. While she and her friends shared a pack of chips engrossed in a conversation her mother walked passed again.
“Yasmin, don’t make noise while you chew. 3aib.”
Then while most of us kids were dancing, Yasmin was pulled aside by her mother who ordered:
“Don’t dance like that. 3aib.”
Always, out of nowhere, her mother appeared like a tornado of morality forcing Yasmin on the path to be the perfect daughter, an exemplary young lady, the proper Arab, the ideal Muslim.
As we got older, I and a few other kids from the neighborhood noticed these incidents and collected them to share with one another. Yasmin’s mother made Yasmin pull her skirt down. 3aib. Yasmin’s mother made her wipe lip gloss from her lips. 3aib. Yasmin’s mother told her to stop climbing trees. 3aib! 3aib! 3aib! The word alone was both the reason and explanation, for any wrongdoing Yasmin found herself in.
3aib came to a climax when we were twelve during a music recital in the local club. I was sitting across from Yasmin and her friends who were talking about the latest episode of Beverly Hills 90210. As if from thin air, the mother emerged from behind Yasmin and hissed,
“Yasmin, don’t cross your legs like that. 3aib.”
Turning around, Yasmin screamed,
“Leave me alone you crazy bitch!”
I don’t think I’d ever been so scared in my life. The mother was mortified, Yasmin looked as though she wanted to cry and the whole room was pretending that they hadn’t seen what happened. Thankfully, a group of kids got up on stage and started to do the chicken dance.
While the annoying tune of the chicken dance filled the hall and the audience clapped along, I was trying to digest what I’d witnessed. The scene had shocked me to my core. I could never imagine myself being as enraged as Yasmin was towards her mother. I could never imagine cursing the way she did. I could never imagine publicly humiliating my parents. That’s probably because my parents never made me feel ashamed publicly or privately. I come from a home that’s fairly liberal in many respects compared to your average Arab Muslim family. The word ‘aeib‘ was never used to educate or punish me at home. But it was used everywhere around me, mainly at school and on the playground and I’d developed an extreme aversion towards it.
‘Leave me alone you crazy bitch!’
As I grew up, I realized that the concept of 3aib is extreme and unforgiving. Interlocked with perception, with how the community sees you as an individual and as a reflection of your family, 3aib isn’t open for negotiations. The choice is simple, conform or be shamed. Care about what the world thinks of your behavior or be doomed. Obey the rules of etiquette or become an example, a cautionary tale to the world.
Just like in the case of Yasmin, I saw how 3aib and the guilt, shame and rebellion it came with morphed the actions and reactions of many people I grew up with. They either curled into submission making life choices they have since regretted or fought themselves and their families to free their minds of the collective societal disdain for what constitutes as conformity.
3aib has a way to bury itself deep in our minds. It is rooted in the Arab’s and Muslim’s absolute obsession with appearances. “What will the people say?” Is a common phrase that follows the word 3aib. The people, the community, act as a massive consciousness that helps keep the constructed idea of 3aib and the serving of shame that comes with it, alive. 3aib is why we don’t trust each other.
Since the fabric of the culture we live in is based on what is and isn’t 3aib, on the idea of doing things for the sake of appearances we automatically, without even realizing it, have a mistrust of others. The appearances they put up, the words they say, the actions they take, are they genuine? Are they real or are they another illusion of 3aib. All of us, after all, are under the guise of acting, of performing to one another, to only show the best of ourselves, because not only is our reputation at stake, but that of our whole family.
It took me time to realize that in fact, 3aib has nothing to do with religion, it has nothing to do with Islam. Haram, which translates to sin, is a completely different concept to 3aib. Often though, our feelings of guilt and shame are the same for both.
It’s incredibly hard to get out of that guilty mind-set that 3aib forces on to our character. Nit-picking through our childhoods and adolescence and realizing that so many of the core beliefs that dictate our lives are in fact driven by guilt and shame can be illuminating, painful, freeing and damaging. It’s a process that can take a lifetime.
Shortly after the incident at the music recital, my family moved to New Zealand and I never saw Yasmin again. But I heard about her over the years through the reports of childhood friends. Yasmin graduated top of her year. Yasmin ran away from home. Yasmin got into medicine. Yasmin is a belly dancer. Yasmin doesn’t talk to her family. Yasmin married a millionaire. Yasmin is a drug addict. Yasmin got fat. Yasmin is still beautiful.
No one really knew what happened to the girl who called her mother a crazy bitch in public. I, of course, used my millennial sensibility and did a search on Facebook. I found her and made a friend request. There was a grainy photo of her laughing. Her hand outstretched toward the camera covered her face but showed her eyes. They were the same eyes. There was a close up photo of her hands over crystal blue water. A photo of her silhouetted against a sunset, another of her from the back looking towards the pyramids of Egypt. Her profile was otherwise, empty.
None of these sparse details indicated what was happening in her life, whether any of the rumors I’d heard about her were true or how 3aib had shaped her. And then I came across a photo of the iconic actress Ingrid Bergman that Yasmin had posted on her wall. It was a classic black and white portrait shot of Bergman looking glamorous with one of her quotes written as the caption:
“I have no regrets. I wouldn’t have lived my life the way I did if I was going to worry about what people were going to say.”
Yasmin never responded to my friend request. A week later when I searched for her again I found that her profile had disappeared from Facebook entirely.
I was born and raised in Dubai before moving to New Zealand from my early teens to adulthood. Originally, my background is a mix of Iraqi/Kurdish/Yemeni roots, which triggers some interesting conversation when asked where I’m from. I’ve officially been back in Dubai since 2013 working as a journalist for the Khaleej Times.
I’m just a writer, writing stuff while reading other stuff other writers wrote. Novelist. Journalist. Bibliophile. My patronus is a hawk.