By Mark Allen Peterson (Miami University)
When I taught linguistic anthropology in Egypt, I used to use the untranslatability of idioms as a way to draw student attention to problems of overreliance on lexicon and syntax to understand meaning. I asked students to describe a word or phrase that made no sense when directly translated and then to provide a gloss.
One of the most commonly offered idioms was ishta, literally “cream.” This word is used, mostly by young people, to express that something is appealing. For the most part, “cool” is a good gloss for American English speakers of my generation.
Going over some interviews taken in 2000, however, I discovered uses of ishta that did not fit this gloss. For example, Samir, a college student, was describing why young men of his class often prefer the traditional ‘ahwa (coffee house) to the Starbuck’s-style coffee shops that were springing up all over Cairo. In doing so, he produced a use of ishta that did not fit my understanding of the word’s appropriate use.
Mark: But a girl can’t go to an ‘ahwa?
Samir: They could go but ishta, the people are close-minded so it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to go.
Clearly “cool” doesn’t fit here. What does Samir mean? I posted a cry for help to an Egyptian graduate student listserv. I received ten responses.
The only trained linguist who responded professed herself as baffled as I, suggesting it might be a mannerism or idiolect.
The students, though, all recognized Samir’s usage and offered glosses. Christine Shenouda offered “they can go but that’s fine, they don’t go because people would have bad thoughts about them.” Maysa Ayoub suggested “Cool, they can go, but preferably not because people are close minded.” Wesam Younis recommended “it’s okay if they go (because it isn’t dangerous).”
Hassan el-Mouhi glossed the text as “if girls go it is on their own responsibility, they don’t care for the people.” But he also raised the possibility that ishta might be used here as “a common word on the speaker’s tongue, like ‘okay,’ in order to give himself a pause or a break to rethink of the rest of the sentence.”
Saif Nasrawi drew attention to the contextual nature of ishta, which can be deployed to mean not only “cool” but “well done,” “oh, great!”, “understood,” and “I don’t care.”
Several students emphasized the “vulgar” origins of the word. Journalist Nermine Helmy claimed that a decade ago “parents were shocked when they heard the term, because to them it was associated with servants or maids … but now it has become more acceptable.” Yet ishta may have somewhat different meanings for people of the middle and lower classes. In the sha’abi (popular) community of Sayyida Zeinab, for example, Kate Pavljuk found the most common use of ishta to be by men “cat-calling” at women.
Ishta, wrote Kate, “also means hot [in the idiomatic sense of “sexually attractive”]” From cream, “the meaning transgressed to ‘thick.’ Thick is hot. Egyptian men, especially those of the lower classes … like thick, full-figured women.”
She suggested that the true meaning of ishta derives from its very ambiguity, its capacity to mean many things at once. Samir’s use in the text perhaps expresses “the ambiguity and ambivalence of social norms amongst young university-aged Egyptians today. I took it like, ‘its cool, but its not cool.’ [Or] is she a good girl or a bad girl? It’s cool if she wants to be a little wild, but reputation, reputation, reputation.”
Nermine Helmy summarized the discussion by calling ishta a “joker” word: “You know how the joker in some card games can stand for any number, spade, hearts or whatever? Well that’s exactly what ishta does. You can just stick the word anywhere, in the middle of a sentence, at the end of it, in its beginning or you can just say it alone. Most of the times it is said when there is nothing to say.”
For teaching the context bound nature of most linguistic meaning, this idiom is ishta!