Translating Ramadan Riddles (Fawazeer)



Translating Ramadan Riddles (Fawazeer)

Like holidays in the West, Ramadan generates its own forms of nostalgia for the joys of Ramadans past. This nostalgia attaches not just to the month’s religious aspect, but to all the shared experiences that Ramadan holds, such as traditional foods, family meals, late nights around the TV or the shisha pipe, last-minute dashes for sohour — and in the realm of popular culture, the special TV programming as well.

In this context, the phenomenon of Ramadan mosalsals (TV programs) is well-known. As the explanation goes, with so many people in a post-iftar daze and trying to stay up late hours until sohour, the nights of Ramadan are prime hours for TV viewing. Accordingly, Arab TV networks release their most ambitious serials at this time of year.

The month of fasting is thus also a feast of TV options, some of which reinforce the Islamic identity of the month (e.g. Omar), some of which revive a glorious Arab past (Saqr QuraishHaroun al-Rashid), some evoke Arab nationalist feeling of modern times (Layali al-Hilmiyya, Bab al-Hara), and some aim to be more topical (Al Gharabeeb Al SoudMawlana). This is not to mention all the mosalsals that are pure melodrama, simple comedy, or full-on imitations of American TV.

But there was another form of Ramadan programming that somehow managed to combine all these themes in one surreal mix: the fawazeer (فوازير). In essence, the fawazeer programs were a short 10-minute variety show containing dance numbers and sketches that present an affectionate pastiche of Egyptian popular culture of the pre-satellite TV era. The core of each fawazeer episode revolved around a riddle that the audience was asked to solve, usually anchored to a specific theme for the entire 30-episode season.

Although the tradition of fawazeer stretches back to the 1950s and continues even to this day through occasional efforts at revival, the peak of the fawazeer programming is widely considered to be the series presented by Nelly and then Sherihan in the 1980s and 1990s. Above all in Egypt, but also in other parts of the Arab world, they form part of the childhood nostalgia of the generation that would grow up to lead the Arab Spring.

Industry Arabic is celebrating this Ramadan by translating the full collection of riddles from the 1981 season starring Nelly, titled “al-Khatba” (الخاطبة). Considered one of the best seasons of the fawazeer, this series presents Nelly in the role of the professional matchmaker. In each episode, Nelly proposes a new potential suitor to an aspiring bride and her family in the form of a riddle describing his profession. For example, the riddle of the first episode goes:

Whether you own shops or tracts
Write for a living or act
Even married or single
You owe him a bill —
This lifelong bureaucrat
أهل الدكاكين والفدادين
والكتّاب والفنانين
حتى العزاب
تعمل له حساب
وفي المأمورية بقى له سنين

The expected answer here is “tax collector.” As part of the humor of the episode, in each case the father replies to the riddle saying, “al-gawaza di mish laazim titim” (this marriage must not take place) followed by the girl wailing “But I love him, daddy” — an age-old dialogue that still rings true in patriarchal Egypt.

But beyond the fascination that Fawazeer Nelly holds as a touchstone of popular culture, they have their own literary significance as well, in that they were written by none other than the beloved colloquial poet Salah Jaheen. Although Jaheen is most known for his collection of Rubaiyat (a poetry collection in Egyptian dialect that many Egyptians can still quote by heart), he was an omnipresent influence in the Egypt of the Nasser and Sadat era. As a daily cartoonist for Al Ahram, lyricist for songs of Abdel Halim Hafez, the screenwriter behind the blockbuster hit Khali Balak Men Zuzu, and playwright of works for Cairo’s puppet theater, there is little from that epoch that Salah Jaheen didn’t have a hand in. In this context, the fawazeer represents the intersection between Jaheen’s literary output as a leading colloquial poet and his broader gift for creating artifacts of popular culture that resonate with Egyptians of all classes.

In the spirit of the traditional Ramadan serial, we’ll be publishing the translation of one new riddle every day during Ramadan. This translation represents the first time this fawazeer will be translated into English. As such, we hope to rekindle the fond memories these programs hold for many across the Arab world, while at the same time bringing their joy and humor to a whole new audience.

To catch the full series of our translations, follow us on Facebook or Twitter to receive a new riddle every day during Ramadan.

UPDATE 1: The Full Series of Ramadan Fawazeer

UPDATE 2: The Answer Key: 

DayEnglishArabicSolution (AR)Solution(EN)
1Whether you own shops or tracts
Write for a living or act
Even married or single
You owe him a bill —
This lifelong bureaucrat
أهل الدكاكين والفدادين
والكتّاب والفنانين
حتى العزاب
تعمل له حساب
وفي المأمورية بقى له سنين
مأمور الضرائبTax collector
2This guy, if he plays well
Is gifted a car new and nice;
Nowadays, no person is for sale
But him, and a million is his price
راجل لو يلعب دوره بجد
ياخذ منحة عربية
ما بقاش في زماننا ينباع حد
غير هو و تمنه بالمليون
لاعب الكرةSoccer player
3Both this man, and referees
Owe their authority
To a little puff of air
A pea makes blare
رف الكورة وهو
بتديهم قوة
آلت نفخ نونو
فيها بلية جوه
شرطي المرورTraffic cop
4This tradesman saws his boards
Whatever knots they hoard
As his minbars higher climb!
I’ve also seen him lurk
In cupboards or lattice-work
Resisting the chilly clime
أستاذ بينشر مواده
يا ما عقد واقفة ضده
ويا ما أعلى المنابر
رأيته في النمليةو بره في المشربية
على البرد قادر وصابر
5Your suitor’s a darling kind
With an enlightened mind
He has villas and garages
And even Nile barrages;
Airports, roads and harbors
He’s lavished on mankind
With a nib precise and fine
He sharpens on a sander
جاي لك جدع سكرة
دماغه متنورة
عنده فيلا وعمارات
وله كمان قنطرةومطار وميناء وطريق
قدمها للمخاليق
بسن حامي ودقيق
مرفّعه بصنفرة
6He’s the one you always invite
To keep the joint awake all night.
Even the seats that see him swoon
Because he speaks in tune
بيتعزم في أربع عزومات
ويجري يسهر في محلات
تعرف مقامه كراسي الصالة
عشان كلامه على المقامات
7Hoodlums “Whiskers” and “Shiv”
Sit for him portrait and side-view
Then off to a room they go
Where they’re not the only negative
المشبوهين سنجة وشنبه
قاعدين له بالوش وجنبه
ولما خطفهم على الأوضة
خلوها ضلمة حسب طلبه
8Garrulous poet
With skin stretched taut
Roaming here and there
Without taking a fareIn a radio show he
Previously starred
Scored by Sayed Mekawy
With Fuad Haddad as bard
شاعر غلباوي
جلده شداد
داير كده هاوي
من غير عدّاد
عملوله غناوي
تتقال في رداوي
سيد مكاوي
وفؤاد حداد
المسحراتي… مع أحمد السنباطيMesaharati…with Ahmed al-Sonbaty
9His feet are sunk in mud
His love’s the sunny sun
He plants a seed, sprouts up a dozen
Only for cattle to come and munch them
رجله في المية مغروزة
وحبيبته الشمس الشموسة
يدق العود، يطلع ميت عودتيجي واكلاهم له الجاموسة
10We grow up and he’s there
With children in his care
According to the well-known verse
After a prophet, next place is yours
نكبر وهو في محله
ويا الصبا على طول
وبيت من الشعر قاله
قربت تبقى رسول
المدرس…مع وليد توفيقTeacher…with Walid Toufiq
11Call him if you have a case
And he’ll guide you through its maze
And if you’re ever in an ambulance
God protect his noble chase
أنا ليا حق هاته
ارشدني في دهليزاته
وربنا يخليلك ابن حبيبك كاتو
12True, a doctor too can want for healing
And a cook fall victim of a craving
But would you believe, I heard this clerk say
Matchmaker, help me marry
أيوه الدكتور ممكن يعي
والطباخ يحلم بالبامية
بس أبو دفتر قال بيقولييا خاطبة عايز أدخل دنيا
المأذون … مع هاني شكرMarriage officiant…with Hani Shokr
13Like a bee, in blooming light he flits
And mirrors make it doubly lit
Curl and straighten, brunette then blond
This man’s a tailor, shrink and tanner all in one
زي النحلة حوالين النور
والنور بيبحلق في البنور
كشكش افرد أصفر إسودمكوجي ومقصدار مشهور
14Shocking, but in touch refined
He doesn’t fear a living lineHe splices, giving death no thought
Because his feet are safe on wood
في سلوكه منتهى العادة
ومن التيار لا ماترعب
يلحم و ما يهموش يموت
اكمنه واقف عالخشب
16Rarely close, and often far
Year-round he wears stiff white garb
The sea-gull sees him and tells the dolphin“
Every time I see a boat, I find him”
القرب ناسيه والبعد غاويه
شتا صيف لابس أبيض وكاويه
شافه النورس قال للدرفي
لأنا كل ما اشوف مركب بألاقيه
القبطانShip captain
17At the counter he packs the fodder
And turns to greet the cash
But if there isn’t, it’s okOn credit he’ll let you pay
عالبنك بيحول الطحينية
ويلف ويحي النقدية
ولو ما فيش أهو بردك ماشي
بالنوتة زي المزيكاتية
العلافSeller of provender
18He prescribes but never dictates“
No coffee, tea or transfats”
This is all because his rideIs private, with “Red Crescent” on the side
يؤمر ولا عمروش يتأمر
بلا شاي بلا قهوة بلا محمر
وده كله علشان عربيته
ملاكي وهلالها مزنهر
19He chops the veggies
For people’s bellies
So gets to wear
The tallest headgear
خرط القلقاس
في بطون الناس
خلاه يلبس
أطول غطا راس
20Two eagles met and had one mission:
To give him a commission
His chief’s command, he hearkens
Then turns around and barks them
صقرين كبار اجتمعوا
وسلموه الشهادة
أمر اللي أكبر يسمعه
وأمره يزداد شدادة
21A jeweler of precise scale
For him, chicken scratch is legible
He shares with us a healing serum
After a serpent adds its venom
جواهرجي عالشعرة ميزانه
نكش الفراخ سهل عشانه
يسقينا بالشفابعد الكاس
ما بخ فيها تعبانه
22Columns are his daily chore
His estate is number four
He rashly dashes into danger
All to feed the daily printer
فوق العامود عمال يجود
وسلطته نمرة أربعة
ويرمي نفسه في البارود
عشان يغذي المطبعة
23Eye as wide as mason jarsHe spots carats near and far
A mechanic if the cog-wheels clinch
He frees them with a tweezer’s pinch
له عين وسع البرطمانات
واختصاصاته قيراط في قيراط
ميكانيكي لو زرجن ترسه
يجي شايله بسن الملقاط
24This humble man, beseeching GodSweats to make his daily bread
And even though his shop’s on fire
He wants the heat even higher
راجي عفو الرحمن
على أكل العيش عرقان
النار قايدة في دكانه
ويقول لها قيدي كمان
25Because his sweetness knows no bounds
Children think he’s number one
At his shop they eat their fill
And so above you hear the dentist’s drill
من كتر حلاوته يا جدعان
عند الأطفال أعظم إنسان
ياكلوا من عنده على كيفهم
ما هو فاتح فوقه حكيم أسنان
26Living in a villa of high society
He’s half-engineer in ingenuity
But when he brings a rose, they treat him curt
Because his feet are tracking dirt
عايش في سراية ماعرف مين
ماتقولش مهندس في التفانين
يطلع بالورد يقول له ارجع
انت رجليك مليانة طين
27No hunchback, no, he bows from courtesy
Because he works amid folks’ knees
His face is thus the world’s footstool
And – what’s stranger still – he thinks it’s cool!
معندوش قتب لكن محني أدب
لشغله وشغله ما بين الركب
في وشه مداس البشر كلهم
ويفرح ميزعلش ياللعجب
28In the greater and the lesser Eid
The baker and him trade clientele
في العيد الصغير والعيد الكبير
الفران وهو يتبادلوا الطوابير
29On his arm there rests a porcupine
That pricks the lumps to sleeker lines
Then in padding he’s such a whiz
You’d bet he’s in the upholstery biz
طالع له في دراعه قنفد
يعدل قوام المقنفد
وتشوفه في الحشو اسطى
تقول عليه ده المنجد
الترزي … مع جمال إسماعيلTailer…with Gamal Ismail
30His colleagues always give him grief
Because he carries lover’s kerchiefs(Although from tears they’re mostly tatters)His shoes and legs are no less battered
And so a bicycle’s his highest dream(Shoukry Sarhan played him on screen)
زملاؤه كلهم اشتكوا
من كتر مناديل العشاق
اللي اتهرت لما بكوا
والنعل داب وانكسر الساق
البسكلتة عنده حلم
وشكري سرحان عمل له فيلم

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