A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 24, 2014

Why is a Taboo Word Taboo? The Curious Case of أحا (a7a)

I've been thinking for some time about writing about one of the most distinctive words (or interjections, or expressions, or inarticulate grunts) in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, which most Egyptians consider profane at best and obscene at worst, but can't really explain why, since it has no clear etymology in any language. This is the word أحا (aḥa in the most common scholarly transliteration, a7a in the popular Internet form): the Arabic  ح , a pharyngeal "h", should not be confused with ه (equivalent to simple English "h") or the fricative خ kha guttural kh like German Bach or Scottish Loch. ح is a raspier "h" in between these two. You can hear examples below.

Arabic, for all the social conservatism prevalent in society today, is a language rich and full of linguistic profanity and obscenity. But the vast majority of those are of obvious meaning, usually relating to damnation, sex, or bodily functions, and most stem from Classical Arabic (one or two from Persian or Turkish). But not this word. It's sui generis.

As Adel Iskandar put it in an article in Egypt Independent, "Egypt's Deafening Three-Letter Yell,"
Yet the term, whose etymological roots are very difficult to disentangle, remains a salient part of Egyptians’ expression of disdain, shock, agony, anger and a plethora of other hyperbolic emotional states. Whether it is a verb, noun, adjective or onomatopoeia is inconsequential because its meaning is understood.
In a personal conversation with writer and blogger Ahmed Nagy back in February 2008, he lashed out against the culture of conformity and the high premium paid to those who speak in polite euphemisms about the state of their lives and country. “So what if I say a7a! It is how we speak in this country! We hide behind politeness and accept what is happening around us!”
But the term is not a newcomer to the Egyptian vernacular. Anecdote and testimony suggest the masses pleading with former President Gamal Abdel Nasser not to abdicate after the humiliating defeat of 1967 shouted “Aha, Aha, la tatanaha!” (A7a, a7a, don’t abdicate!). Since the revolution, it has been used publicly to reflect on the deterioration of the country’s political arena, from songs like “Aha ya thawra” (A7a, oh, revolution) by Ahmed al-Sawy to songs by the Ultras football fans.
Historically, the fissures between socioeconomic classes in the country were maintained not only by access to authority and power but rather through the admonishment of the masses, on the grounds of what is often described as “vulgarity.”
A7a was once the explosive, screeching, unnerving, alarming and deafening yell of the “vulgar” poor. But as class consciousness was shaken to its core under the feet of a mass revolutionary movement, so has its vernacular. A7a now permeates all social classes with fervor, shattering social norms and elite mores.
UPDATE 2/26/14:  documenting the "a7a! a7a! La tatanaha!:" anecdote: a photo from the 1967 demonstrations against Nasser's resignations, with the chant clerly spelled out on the sign (right).

Here's the song "A7a ya thawra" he mentions, in Arabic of course:

Though أحا is not clearly profane since no one knows what its origins are, most efforts to explain it in English, even in scholarly dictionaries,  do resort to profanity. As a result I will issue one of my rare language warnings here since we'll be venturing into NSFW four-letter territory a little bit here.

I had been collecting notes on this for a good part of the past year, but I was moved to finally write about أحا  (for simplicity, hereafter a7a) this past weekend while watching Jehane Noujaim's wonderful The Square on Netflix. Like any film of ordinary Egyptians under stress "a7a" occurs frequently. The folks who did the English subtitles, who seemed quite good, treated it many different ways. I wasn't taking notes so this is unscientific, but I think they may have ignored it a time or two, and after that translated it (in roughly ascending order of objectionableness) as "damn!," damn it!," "shit!," "bullshit!," "fuck!," "fuck it!," and "fuck [insert name, subject, or situation here]." There may have been other translations. And yes, the subtitles are NSFW if you watch the movie. Whether the Arabic is also objectionable depends on how offensive you find a7a.

I thought all those translations were dead on in terms of conveying, in English, the meaning of the Arabic expletive in various differing contexts. A7a is that kind of word. But it doesn't mean, in the sense of semantically equate with or translate, any of those words. So what does it mean?

Answer: nobody knows.

Of course, when nobody knows, folk etymology takes over, so there are plenty of self-contradictory explanations. Among them:
  • It's the sound women make during orgasm. This is the only folk etymology that comes remotely close to explaining its taboo nature; the others are pretty anodyne. But does anyone believe this? Though some women may make similar sounds in ecstasy, why then use it as a sound expressing disgust? Does anyone believe this, though it's the most often cited?
  • It's short for أنا حقاً اعترض or "I truly oppose," said to date to the Fatimid era. Acronyms as etymologies are always suspicious and usually folk creations: "posh" does not come from "Port Out, Starboard Home,"; "wog" does not mean "Wily Oriental Gentleman", and surely you know that "fuck" comes from neither "Fornication Under Consent of the King" or "For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge."  Arabic is even less fond of this kind of thing than English, except in modern political movement acronyms.  There's a rather encyclopedic literature on the Fatimid and Mamluk eras. One source, just one, would be really nice. No one cites any. In fact, I'm having trouble locating my own source for this factoid! I saw it on the Internet so it's obviously true ...
  • Article in Al-Ahram: "The most believed theory of the origin of the word was that during the Fatimid era in Egypt the word "to object" (Ahtag) was banned, so Egyptians started using the word "A7ta", which later turned into "A7a."" أحا (a7a) Most believed by whom? I've never seen this anywhere else. Why would the Fatimids ban "I object"? Huh? And why does everything get attributed to the Fatimids? They're pretty well documented, and no one has a source.
I have one comment on all the etymologies, after due scholarly consideration:  أحا 

So what do the lexicographers say? Well, there aren't that many dictionaries of Egyptian colloquial to begin with, and many of them don't touch it. The go-to authority, Martin Hinds and El-Said Badawi's A Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic, Arabic-English (1986) is the ultimate authority; when I was in Egypt for the first time in 1972, work on the dictionary was dominating attention at AUC's Center for Arabic Studies, and the team helping Hinds and Badawi included such later familiar names as Humphrey Davies (translator of The Yacoubian Building and much else). The late Martin Hinds was a fine historian and El-Said Badawi was (is, as I hope he's still around) a fine Arabic linguist; he was also a nice and gentle man, but Hinds and Badawi have to resort to a four letter word to explain it in English:
To "Fuck that!" you might add the American "fuck this shit!" and just plain unadulterated "Fuck!" or "Fuck it!" as an expletive/interjection. But there's no obviously sexual context in a7a, though the same may be increasingly true of "fuck!,"which rarely refers these days to sex. But you can't translate a7a as "fuck" or "shit" or anything else without the context.

The other possible lexical reference in English I could locate is in Socrates Spiro's An Arabic-English Dictionary of the Colloquial Arabic of Egypt (about 1895) offers a definition of a word it spells with a خ kha instead of a ح ha, and which it spells without the final vowel,  but which otherwise seems to be in the right semantic territory.

But this may be just a simple interjection. Ach!

We;ve already seen several examples of its everyday use. Let me offer several more, from the artistic to the humorous to the vulgar.

First, the artistic. In March of last year a Cairo gallery did an exhibition of photographs centered around photos of people saying a7a, apparently intended to more or less gentrify the word. It was written up in Al-Ahram  and also and more pretentiously on art critic sites:
Offensive words’ social stigma often have no known origin. The meaning and acceptability of linguistic expressions evolve together with society, however, and new uses appear. In Egyptian colloquial Arabic, the word A7A, a common transliteration of the Arabic letters alif, haa, and alif, is prohibited from being broadcast, published, printed, or distributed in any formal way because of its perceived vulgarity. But for a generation questioning social norms, socio-economic hierarchies, and political passivity, this word commonly meant to evoke a sense of objection, frustration, and contempt is being used more than ever. 
There's also a video of the exhibition. (You can set the closed captioning for English, if you don't mind computer translated approximations.)

The name Hor-Aha
On the lighter side, it has long been known that one of the earliest kings of a united Egypt bore the Horus name of Aha, or Hor-Aha. Some think the king was the unifier known as Menes or Mina; some think it was his father Narmer. Hor-Aha means Horus the fighter and has nothing to do with the modern expletive. And King Aha has been known since the 19th century.

Last year, however, the BBC wrote up a popular account of a new finding from the Royal Society. The BBC report is no longer online, at least the link is dead, and in typical popular journalism form it presented the new findings as if everything in them, including the names of the kings, was new, when in fact the only new thing was the precise dating. The Royal Society abstract, which is still online,is "An absolute chronology for early Egypt using radiocarbon dating and Bayesian statistical modelling."  (Aren't academic titles so enticing?)  The BBC report, now seemingly gone, made it seem as if  everything in the story was new. The Egyptian Twitterverse, assuming King Aha was a new discovery. had a lot of fun (and need I remark that #a7a is a popular Twitter hashtag among Egyptians?); this selection only from the English tweets:

So a7a is pervasive, increasingly transcends class, and has been the subject of snooty art gallery exhibits. But it's also still a one-size fits all vulgarity to express anger, disgust, rage, and the like.

So I will end this by quoting a decidedly not-safe-for-work rant by a columnist for the online site Cairoscene (a sort of what's-on-in-Cairo English language site with a Yuppie/hipster feel and a definite attitude). Their columnist Sally Sampson writes a column called "Bitch," so you may guess this isn't going to be an exercise in scholarly linguistics, but I do feel it gives a real sense of the versatility of a7a. Last March she launched a rant, "Swear it all over again," arguing that women should be allowed to cuss as freely as men. It is both elegant and profane as hell, and it's impossible to extricate the a7a examples from the other obscenities without doing great violence to her message, so here is an extensive quote; very NSFW:
I’m not supposed to be vulgar or crude. I’m not supposed to know these words, never mind speak them. My mother looked at me yesterday and screamed, “If your grandmother were alive and she had heard the things you say, she would’ve taken off her slipper and hit you in the face with it!”
I get it…It’s considered impolite and of course, there is a time and a place for everything, but surely, societal codes of conduct should apply to everyone equally! There shouldn’t be a certain lee-way granted to specific persons by virtue of their genitalia! I mean, why are we cutting slack for the dude, jumping out of his car screaming “A7A!!!’”at the microbus driver when the thought of a woman doing the same thing is enough to send tremors and mini-convulsions shooting through our bodies?
And BY THE WAY, I like the word A7A! In fact, I fucking LOVE IT! In Arabic, NOTHING, in my opinion, is more expressive of frustration!
When that car cuts you off: A7A!
When the prices go up: A7A!
When the President goes on live television and publicly scratches his balls: A7A, A7A, A7A!
Why can’t I say A7A when someone fucks me off? Why do men get rights to that word in Egypt, without sharing that privilege with women who have just as much of a reason to let off steam?! Why must we be eloquent and recite sonnets when we’re aggravated by something or someone?I don’t have time or patience when a car cuts me off to be like, “Truly, kind sir, you have indeed wronged me. For your ways are an abomination of sorts to the overall order that has been set in stone before the foundation of our civilisation to ensure that we may co-exist harmoniously together!”
NO! I’m gonna scream:  “A7A! FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKER!” and then it’ll be over and out of my system. To try to channel my inner Jane Austen, however, when I’m about to ‘bust a cap in someone’s ass’ as 50 Cent, 2Pac, Snoop Lion (formerly known as Dog) and all my other ‘homies’ would say, is almost criminal!
And I can't really think of any way to follow that in explaining the usage of a7a, except to offer the warning I would give to any learner of another language: never use profanity unless you are utterly sure of its meaning, of the attitudes of those around you and even nearby, and whether or not they are drunk and/or carrying bladed weapons.

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