Swearing: A desired part of language for any teen, person who stubbed their toe or, as it turns out, a study abroad student. For some reason, something about learning another language in another country brings out students’ need to explore. Not to mention swear words are among the top five requested parts of language non-speakers or learners ask you to tell them*. Two summers ago, I traveled with several Arabic learners to perfect our language skills and discover more about Egyptian contemporary culture. Over the course of a couple weeks we became fast friends with a group of self-proclaimed rebels.
One night they invited us out into Cairo with them to take part in the social ritual of hashish (hooka) smoking. Giddy and happy to be out in the night, when the air didn’t stick to us like the dusty suffocating heat of the day, we walked down the winding streets of Zamalek with our new found friends. Walking through the clamor of downtown Cairo, our friends eventually lead us to a Shai and Hashish business situated in a small square. We walked down the narrow path, past several segmented outdoor seating areas before stopping at one hidden, behind crowds of people, in the back. Awkwardly stepping over the dirty red-velvet, chained barriers we found a motley variety of seats. There we quickly sat down and joined the crowds of Egyptians in casual chatter, chess and, of course, tea drinking and smoking.
Perhaps it was the lateness of the night, but we had eventually grown comfortable enough to request the inevitable: teach us some swear words. Our new friends laughed and promptly denied us, but over the course of a few hours we convinced them to teach us at least a few. Some leaned back and said them with a relish that suggested they had only withheld earlier to tease us. There was one word, however, the girl next to me insisted, through a fit of embarrassed giggles, she couldn’t tell us.
When she did she offered a paper thin explanation, her mouth hidden by her hands, her speech riddled with laughter. She only murmured very quietly: “Sometimes, when I am very shocked I say “a7a” (pronounced “Ahi” or “Aha”) but don’t EVER say that. Never ever.”
According to Urban Dictionary, “a7a” is translated very roughly to “f*ck you”, but that wasn’t particularly what she found most embarrassing. As I discovered later from my rather conservative Arabic teacher, who claimed she certainly had no idea what the meaning was, “a7a” also had another taboo part to it. Apparently, the word was said to imitate a woman’s orgasm.
Knowing my friends were either unwilling to seem salacious while discussing the origins of the word, or uninterested in talking about its usage, I decided to do a little research on my own. While walking through the alleyways of Tahrir Square, I found the above piece of graffiti. “A7a”, a defiant boy exclaims, “I am the revolution.” Here this doesn’t seem like just a swear word; it doesn’t seem taboo or demeaning. If anything, the word is meant to inspire, to galvanize. In fact the word a7a appears to have a history of rebelliousness. In 1967, after then President Nasser suffered a humiliating electoral defeat and refused to step down, crowds of Egyptians responded with this word. “Aha, Aha, la tatanaha!” (Don’t abdicate), they chanted. In the 2008 film H-Dabbour, Ahmed Mekky was able to sneak the word past Mubarak’s film censors by spelling it in English**. In 2013, photographer Bashir Wagih opened a exhibit on the word A7a meant to examine the history and meaning of the word. In an interview Wagih said A7a was originally a word to show your right to object. Even today, he said, though Arab linguistics professors say the word has no specific meaning, Wagih found many stories suggesting the word was meant to show people’s right to object, especially in cases where rulers took away rights.
During the interview, Wagih highlighted one origin story where people took to the street after a King declared no one could object to a royal decree. According to Wagih, they said only one thing “Ana 7aq Al-athr”. I have the right to object. This chant, he says, was soon shortened to A7a, taking the first letter of each word***.
More research needed…
(In which Leah asks some questions)
Interestingly, the word in the painting above is also spelled in English, though I can’t be sure why. Even so, it’s revolutionary history not withstanding, it seems the most taboo part to, even my most liberal friends, was the myth of its origins. This myth, for me at least, brings about questions on how the culture treats topics involving sexuality. Later, when I asked a male friend about the origins of the word he denied it had anything to do with the word; yet, the myth persists. It seems interesting that everyone knows that the word is meant to imitate the sound of a woman’s orgasm but many seem unwilling to talk about it or mention it. Is that unwillingness an indication of a larger societal issue? What is the place of sex and sexuality in Egyptian culture? Does something as small as an urban myth about a swear word matter? How does the myth relate to how Egyptians view issues like sexuality, gender, and sexual harassment?
SOMEWHAT UNRELATED FACT TIME: The first King of a united Egypt was named King Aha. Read more about him here.
To those from Egypt and those who speak Arabic: Think I’ve got it wrong? I’d love a correction! I’m always open to learning more.