Simanaitis Says

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THE GREAT line “Count them again—in my presence” appears in one of my foreign language phrase books under the heading “Dealing with the Help.” Many years ago, famed humorist James Thurber built an entire travel story using nothing but such conversational bits. See Tony’s Musings at for this wonderful short story, “There’s No Place Like Home.” My comments here are in homage of Thurber’s artistry.


L’Arabe parlé par/Spoken Arabic by Conversations Mohadaçât, by Mahmoud Mohamed Salem, Kawa & Company, 1940. The book is listed at—at a single bookstore in Buenos Aires!

In his Preface, Salem gives a guide to pronunciation of Arabic characters transliterated into Roman. Several of these are easy: “Khah,” خ, “has the sound like that made when one smells a disagreeable thing and wants to spit. It resembles the “ch” in the German “nacht.”

Got it.

But what about “ein,” ع? Salem says it’s “an emphatic ‘Hamzah’ articulated by the forced passage of the voice through the very narrowated throat. It is the last sound of the bleating of sheep.”

Yes, I’ll have to work on that one.

Salem also observes that he “tried to enrich this book with various Arabic dialogues which roughly embrace all the practical needs of life.”

Certainly “Tvdar tikkallim ala mahlak ’aktar” on page 3 is a good start. It’s Arabic for “Could you speak more slowly.”

However, I was a bit surprised to find “Izzayy hâl elâniça okhtak,” “How is your sister?” It seemed so forward a query for only page 9.

The phrases grow in complexity just as their dialogues enlarge to “embrace all the practical needs…”

On page 35: “Yi’dar yi’ralli j’albi zayy ma yi’ra ’illi f’albu.” “He may read my heart as if it were his own.”

However, by page 37 matters take a decided turn for the worse: “It is difficult for me to surmount the disgust with which he inspires me.” This statement, by the way, is particularly succinct in French: “J’ai peine à surmonter le dégoût qu’il m’inspire.”

Further on, page 156, Salem confronts his own version of “Dealing with the Help.” He’s only a tad less aggressive: “I’ll count my linen over to see if it’s right.”


The back cover of Conversations. The book was published in Cairo, Egypt, in 1940.

By page 168 (a Vocabulaire/Vocabulary begins on page 181 of 232), we’ve acquired proficiency for a complete dialogue. The following comes, directly line for line, from “At the Tailor.”

“You’ve made the sleeves too long and too wide. It’s too tight. It pinches me under the arms. It’s too long in the waist.”

And, just to keep the tailor on the defensive, “It’s too short in the waist. It sits on wrinkles between the shoulders.”

The tailor disagrees: “It fits you admirably. You never were better dressed in your life.”

But Salem leaves you with the last word: “Intum gami el-khayyatîn ma-tagudûch abadan fi amalkum ’ayy eib.” That is, “You tailors never find fault with your own work.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014


  1. oldmaven
    March 18, 2014

    My late wife’s take on phrasebooks full of coping with disasters was that there ought to be a Nice Person’s Phrasebook with sentences like “I’d love to see the pictures of your grandchildren.”

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