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 Quraish, Haroun 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 Soud, Mawlana). 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 hold 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, 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 represent 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 these 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: 


Day English Arabic Solution (AR)



1 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

مأمور الضرائب Tax collector
2 This 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 صالون

ما بقاش في زماننا ينباع حد

غير هو و تمنه بالمليون

لاعب الكرة Soccer player
3 Both 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 المرور Traffic cop
4 This 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 النملية

و بره في المشربية

على البرد قادر وصابر

النجار Carpenter
5 Your 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 قنطرة

ومطار وميناء وطريق

قدمها للمخاليق

بسن حامي ودقيق

مرفّعه بصنفرة

المهندس Engineer
6 He’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

المطرب Singer
7 Hoodlums “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

المصوراتي Photographer
8 Garrulous poet

With skin stretched taut

Roaming here and there

Without taking a fare

In 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 السنباطي Mesaharati...with Ahmed al-Sonbaty
9 His 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 عود

تيجي واكلاهم له الجاموسة

المزارع Farmer
10 We 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 توفيق Teacher...with Walid Toufiq
11 Call 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

المحامي Lawyer
12 True, 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 بيقولي

يا خاطبة عايز أدخل دنيا

المأذون … مع هاني شكر Marriage officiant...with Hani Shokr
13 Like 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 إسود

مكوجي ومقصدار مشهور

الكوافير Hairdresser
14 Shocking, but in touch refined

He doesn’t fear a living line

He 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

الكهربائي Electrician
16 Rarely 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 للدرفيل

أنا كل ما اشوف مركب بألاقيه

القبطان Ship captain
17 At the counter he packs the fodder

And turns to greet the cash

But if there isn’t, it’s ok

On credit he’ll let you pay

عالبنك بيحول الطحينية

ويلف ويحي النقدية

ولو ما فيش أهو بردك ماشي

بالنوتة زي المزيكاتية

العلاف Seller of provender
18 He prescribes but never dictates

“No coffee, tea or transfats”

This is all because his ride

Is private, with “Red Crescent” on the side

يؤمر ولا عمروش يتأمر

بلا شاي بلا قهوة بلا محمر

وده كله علشان عربيته

ملاكي وهلالها مزنهر

الطبيب Doctor
19 He chops the veggies

For people’s bellies

So gets to wear

The tallest headgear

خرط القلقاس

في بطون الناس

خلاه يلبس

أطول غطا راس

الطباخ Cook
20 Two 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

الضابط Officer
21 A 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 بالشفا

بعد الكاس ما بخ فيها تعبانه

الصيدلي Pharmacist
22 Columns 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

الصحفي Journalist
23 Eye as wide as mason jars

He 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

الساعاتي Watchmaker
24 This humble man, beseeching God

Sweats 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

الخباز Baker
25 Because 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

الحلواني Candyman
26 Living 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

الجنايني Gardener
27 No 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

الجزمجي Shoeshiner
28 In the greater and the lesser Eid

The baker and him trade clientele

في العيد الصغير والعيد الكبير

الفران وهو يتبادلوا الطوابير

الجزار Butcher
29 On 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 إسماعيل Tailer...with Gamal Ismail
30 His 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

البوسطجي Postman

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