Asking for directions

Asking the way or asking for directions is a very common situation for the foreigner abroad. In the Arab world the situation can lead to very useful opportunities to speak Arabic.  Normal caution should be exercised and it would be sensible for a woman to ask another woman and for a man to ask a man.

Asking the way of a policeman is perfectly possible, but in many Arabic countries the police are to be found on the street only when on traffic duties or internal security.

Excuse me!

The word 3afwan can be used if you have to stop somebody and ask for the way.
You can also use 3afwan as a reply to shukran (Thank you). In this case it means ‘You’re welcome.’

How can I get to the museum?
ayna aT-Tareeq ila-l-matHaf?
أين الطريق إلى المَتْحَف؟

Some Arabs might not feel comfortable admitting that they don’t know the way, and they may give you any description, just to be helpful.

right and left
yameen wa yassar
يَمين ويَسار

You will often find that the person giving you directions will tap the left arm with the right hand to ensure you understand yasaar (left) and similarly for the other direction yameen (right).
yameen (right) is from the same origin as the country Yemen. The reason is that if, from the Red Sea, you are facing Makkah, Yemen is on your right hand. Equally, from the same position, Syria will be on your left hand. Hence the name for Syria is suuriya. This is related to the word yasaar (left).

Thank you so much for the help.
shukran jazeelan 3ala-l-musaa3ada
شُكراً جَزيلاً على المُساعَدة

It is very polite to use the whole phrase whenever you have received any help from anybody. A shorter form, which still expresses gratitude, is:
shukran jazeelan (Thank you very much).

Did you know?

The word for ‘way, road’ is Tareeq, a very important word in the religion and culture of the Arab world.

aT-Tareeq al-mustaqeem is ‘The Straight Way’, which is one of the many names for the Holy Koran.

A Tareeqa is one of the orders of Sufi Islam, e.g. ‘The Whirling Dervishes’.

You may also have heard of the Tuwareg, the nomads of the Sahara Desert, famous for covering their faces. Their name comes from Tareeq, i.e. they are ‘Men of the Road’.


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