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Who perseveres in his journey will arrive

All photographs in this blog are copyright Imogen Thurbon

Sudanese Proverb – Light and Shade, Part One


Visit Muna’s blog on Folktales and Proverbs

Muna Zaki has been fascinated by Sudanese proverbs all her life. As an undergraduate,  she carried around a notebook in her pocket so she could jot down any proverbs and sayings she heard. Her first volume of proverbs, pictured above, offers a distillation of  Sudanese culture as reflected in more than 560 proverbs.  She is currently revising her second volume of over a thousand proverbs and which will be both alphabetically and thematically  indexed.


As well as celebrating Sudanese folktales and proverbs in their own right, Muna’s blog explores the cross fertilization of proverbs and folktales in Sudanese culture.  See here, for example, her article Who could say that the mule is in the pitcher?

Muna’s interview below includes numerous examples of  both pithy and witty Sudanese proverbs and in this first part she explores the prevailing themes and unique poetic and alliterative power of Sudanese proverbs.


Who lives in storms is unperturbed by breeze – seen during a sandstorm in 2018

In Part Two, published next month, Muna explores the darker side of Sudanese proverbs and I discuss how proverb analysis can enrich community literacy meetings as social and gender stereotypes are debated, challenged and reworked.

Grinding sesame seeds for oil in the outskirts of Khartoum, using a blindfolded camel


The camel does not see the bend in its neck. Muna tells the story of this proverb in her blog –  The camel does not see the bend in its neck.


Muna, what inspired you to undertake this field of research?

My interest in proverbs began at an early age. I think it was nurtured by listening to relatives and neighbours – especially my habooba (grandmother) – who always seemed to have a proverb for every occasion. While teaching Colloquial Sudanese Arabic to expat students in Khartoum, I became more and more aware that understanding proverbs and sayings are an integral part of mastering a foreign language. I also think proverbs provide an insight into the cultural traditions and history of a nation. Another motivation was to preserve a written record of the proverbs for posterity and especially for my bilingual son after we had moved to the UK.


Grandmothers and older women are instrumental in passing on wisdom in proverbs form 

You mention preserving this heritage for your son. Were there other reasons for setting these proverbs down in writing? Who would you like to read your volume?

I hope this collection of proverbs is useful for Arabic language learners, especially those interested in the Sudanese dialect. I also see it as a useful reference for anthropologists and foreign visitors to the Sudan. That’s why it was important for me that every entry  is transliterated and I’ve provided detailed explanations in English. The book might also appeal to those with a more general interest in proverbs so I have included comparative proverbs from other cultures in order to appeal to these readers and to help with explanations.


Companionship and dignity in Sudanese greetings 

There must have been considerable challenges in compiling a collection of this size and breadth.

Yes, I realized as I was researching these proverbs that some of them had several different interpretations and that they are used in surprisingly diverse contexts. The present generation often only has what I’d call a partial knowledge of all but the most common proverbs, so I had to consult a wide range of people to clarify meanings.

You mention the present generation. It’s often said that proverbs – especially as preserved and memorised by elders and women in particular, bridge generations.  Did you find much proverb use among young people? Do you worry that their use will fade?

It’s interesting to see how proverbs are still widely used in everyday conversations and public figures often use them in their speeches. They are also found alongside the heading of articles in Sudanese newspapers. I do think there is a danger that the more archaic and unusual proverbs will eventually fade from use but the fact that so many proverbs remain in circulation is a reflection of their common usage and abiding popularity. 


On the road to Meroe, after the rains 

It’s also exciting to see how young people are inventing sayings – that might eventually become proverbs over time – using the language of the internet and social networks.


Proverbs have been described as “small packages of truth.” What would you say they tell us about Sudanese society and culture? Are there any that really encapsulate cultural truths about Sudan for you?

Proverbs certainly reflect generic truisms and Sudanese proverbs provide a path to understanding the prevalent culture and social discourse.  Alongside many of the proverbs in my book, I’ve included cultural points to help the non-Sudanese reader gain a better understanding of Sudanese culture.

The proverbs are also rich in wisdom, advice, morals and history. Many of the proverbs refer to legendary or actual historical figures and events.


On the roof of The Khalifa’s Palace, Omdurman and General Gordon’s piano in the National Museum, Khartoum

Many others refer to social relationships. Some proverbs, for example, encourage social solidarity:

* كان صفت النية العنقريب بشيل مية
kaan Sifat an-niiya al-‘angareeb bishiil miiya.
If people’s intention is pure (sincere), one ‘angareeb (bedstead with a wooden frame, strung with rope or hide, see below) would be enough to carry a hundred.


The Khalifa’s giant angareeb and bed frames in a carpenter’s workshop on the Nile.

* الناس بالناس والكل برب العالمين
an-naas bi n-naas wa l-kull be rabb al-‘aalamiin.
People support one another, and all are supported by God.
Helping those in need is to be encouraged.


Other proverbs call for contentment even when one possesses little, for example:* لالوب بلدنا ولا تمر الناس
laaloob baladna wa la tamur an-naas.
Better our laaloob than people’s dates.

The laaloob, pictured below, is a fruit that grows on a desert date tree called the hijliij (balanites aegyptiaca). It tends to be sucked due to its bitter-sweet taste. Since dates are considered better than laaloob, this proverb calls for contentment even when one possesses little.


Other proverbs contain both wisdom and stern warning, such as:
* يا حافِر حُفرة السوء وسع مراقدك فيها
ya Haafir Hufrat as suu! wassi‘ maraagdak fiiha.
O digger of a pit of wickedness, widen your lying place in it.
This proverb urges people not to commit an act of evil out of fear that it might rebound onto them.


Both universal and unique to the region – is there anything you’ve noticed that seem unique to Sudanese proverbs in terms of the imagery or the metaphors they use and how much do they share in terms of cultural references with other Arab and Afro-Arab cultures?


Water jugs for Islamic ablutions and drums in the doorway of the church, Comboni Institute, Khartoum.  

We can see that some Sudanese Arabic proverbs are clearly drawn from Egypt and the wider Arab world and while some of these are recited in their original form, others have been adapted to the Sudanese dialect.

For example, an Egyptian proverb:

* عند المخاضة يبان القليط
‘ind al-mukhaaDa yibaan il-gileeT.
The Sudanese form of the proverb is:
* الكوك ببان عند المخادة
al kuuk bibaan ‘ind al makhaada.
The scrotal hernia becomes conspicuous when crossing a body of water at a ford.
The weaknesses and bad traits of people are revealed on certain occasions. When crossing a ford the men would have to hold up their loose jallaabiyya and in doing so might show their deformity.

Other proverbs share proverbial philosophy found in many other societies around the world without have any clear evidence that they have been copied.


The great pyramids of Meroe 


You have both Egyptian and Sudanese heritage. Do you see much overlap with Egyptian proverbs and sayings?

Many of the proverbs and sayings in this collection are commonly used in both Egypt and the Sudan.

Examples of these include:

* أسياد العرس مشتهين المرقة
asyaad al ‘iris mushtahiin al maraga.
The family arranging the wedding long for the broth. In the Sudan, it is considered good etiquette to urge guests to eat the best portions of any meal. ‘Those nearest to wealth are often prevented from enjoying it; the great enjoy the least. In this proverb it is supposed that the guests devour all the meat of the nuptial feast, leaving the members of the family to long even for the broth.’ (Burckhardt, Arabic Proverbs, no. 72)


Sudanese wedding clothes – Regional Folk Costume of the Sudan, Griselda El Tayeb, 2017, p 123

* يكتل الكتيل و يمشي في جنازتو

yaktul al katiil w yamshi fi janaaztu.
He murders the victim and walks at his funeral.
A culprit seeks to free himself from accusation through a display of false empathy. In this case, the ‘murderer’ goes to his victim’s ‘funeral’ pretending to be sad by shedding crocodile tears in order to remove any suspicion of his involvement in a bad deed.

* ابن الوز عوام
ibn al wizz ‘awwaam.
The gosling is a good swimmer.
Like father, like son. Children take after their parents.

* القرد في عين أمو غزال
al girid fi ‘een ummu ghazaal.
A monkey is to his mother’s eyes like a deer.
This proverb implies that parental love can be blind. It encapsulates the Arab idea that the deer is a symbol of beauty.


Proverbs are often funny – do you have any examples of humorous proverbs or ones which enjoy conflicting or contradictory interpretations?

Sudanese proverbs, just like those of many other cultures, often make colourful reference to bodily functions, physical flaws and slapstick foolishness. Below just a few:

* أب سنة بضحك على أب سنتين.
ab sinna biDHak ‘ala ab sinnateen.

Those who have one tooth are making fun of those who have two teeth.
This proverb is applied to hypocrites who criticise others for the faults they have themselves. A similar proverb of Arabic origins is: ‘The pot calls the kettle black.’

Painted in Waterlogue

* عريان و لابس صديري
‘iryaan w laabis sideeri.
Naked, yet is wearing a waistcoat.
Applied to a pretentious person who through his appearance attempts to give an impression of grandeur and importance. cf. ‘Fur coat and no knickers.’

* كل عفناً ليهو شمام
kull ‘affanan leehu shammaam.
Every stench has a sniffer.
Applied to those who visit dens of iniquity.

* ركبوه الحمار دخل يدو في الخرج
rakabuuhu al Humaar dakhal yaddu fi l-khuruj.
They allow him to mount the donkey, then he entered his hand in the saddlebag.
Applied to a person who exploits the kindness of others. cf. ‘We gave him milk to drink, he became a partner to the cow.’ (Moorish)

Processed with Snapseed.

* يقطعو في أضنيها تقول خلو لي مكان الفدو

yigaTTi‘u fi iDneeha taguul khallu leey makkaan al fadu.
They are cutting her ears and she says leave for me the place for my ear ring.
This is used to scoff at the excessive stupidity of a person.

* على شناتا قامت لها سنّة في لهاتا
‘ala shanaata gaamat laha sinna fi luhaata.
On top of her ugliness, a tooth has grown on her epiglottis.
This proverb refers to a flawed person who has added new problems to her existing woes.


Personal collection of Sudanese beadwork and jewelry 

* شال الخروف ضرط قال متعلم على شيل العجول
shaal al-kharuuf Darat gaal mit’allim ‘ala sheel al-‘ijuul.
He carried the sheep, farted (from its heavy weight) and then he said he is only accustomed to carrying calves.
Said of a person who has failed to carry out an easy task but asks to be given a harder one.

* راح فسوة مدنقر
raaH faswat mudangir.
As wasted as a fart (break wind noiselessly) of a bent person.
Applied to something that is easily wasted without any benefit.

* دبرة الجعاب بداووها في البيت
dabarat aj-ji’aab bidaawuuha fil beet.
A buttock wound is treated at home.
Even in an emergency that requires rapid intervention, treatments of wounds to private parts should be covered and hidden. The message of the proverb is not to expose flaws or scandals to others.

* كاسي كاسي كان نموت نحسي كان يوم القيامة يكسروا لي في رأسي
kaasi kaasi kaan namuut naHsi kaan yoom al giyaama yakassiru leey fi raasi.
This is but my cup of wine, I will drink it all even if I die, or even it’s broken on my head on the judgement day.
Said of a person who is determined to commit obscene deeds regardless of the consequences.


Water pots at Hamed al Nil, Omdurman 


Proverbs are often rhythmical and rhyming – do you have any favourite ones – just in terms of sounds and rhythms?

Many of the proverbs have a similar rhythmic pattern that is achieved by the arrangement of syllables and a parallelism between the two parts of the saying. This rhythmic pattern is often reinforced by the use of internal rhymes. For example,

* سيك سيك معلق فيك
siik siik ma’allag fiik.
Siik siik it is stuck to you.
Siik siik rhymes but has no literal meaning. Applied to something or someone that you cannot rid yourself from.

* من برا هلا هلا و من جوه يعلم الله
min barra halla halla w min juwa ya’lam Allah .
It looks marvellous from outside, but from inside God knows.
All is not as it appears. cf. ‘Appearances are deceptive.’ (English)

* كل زول و همّو إلا جحا و عمو
kull zool w hammu illa juha w ‘ammu.
Everyone has his own worries, except Juha and his uncle.
Every person has his own share of trouble.


Finally, Muna, do you have any particular favorites among all the many proverbs you have collected?

Well, it’s difficult to choose but here are just a few of my favourites:

* الجمرة بتحرق الواطيها
aj-jamra bitaHrig al-waaTiiha.
The ember burns those who step on it.
A person feels his own agony and distress more than anyone else.


Hot charcoals in an incense burner.

* كلاب كان إداوسو بخت أرنب
kilaab kaan iddaawasu bakht arnab.
When dogs fight among themselves, luck goes to the chased hare.
During times of conflict and confusion, there will be opportunities for some to take advantage of the situation.

* الدنيا دوّارة، يوم ترضيك و يوم ترميك
ad- dunya dawwaara, yoom tirDiib w yoom tirmiik.
Life is revolving, one day it pleases you and one day it puts you down.

* ركاب سرجين وقاع و مساك دربين ضهاب
rakkaab sarjeen waggaa‘ w massaak darbeen Dahhaab.
The one who mounts two saddles falls and the one who takes two different roads will become lost.
Applied to those with divided loyalties. cf. ‘No man can serve two masters.’ An allusion to the Gospel of Matthew (6:24)


Children playing in the gateway of the Christian cemetery, Khartoum 

* ان جادت عليك بخيط العنكبوت تنقاد وان عكست تقطع سلاسل الحداد
in jaadat ‘aleek be kheeT al ‘ankabuut tingaad w in ‘akkasat tigaTTi‘ salaasil al Haddaad.
If it [life] becomes easy it can be led by a spider’s thread, and if it becomes opposing it will cut the blacksmith’s chains.
When God makes your path easy, difficult problems can be solved by unexpected means.

* الكلمة الطيبة بتمرق الدابي من جحرو
al kalma aT-Tayyba bitamrug ad-daabi min juHru.
The gentle word gets the snake out of its hole.
You can soften the wicked hearts of your enemies by using kind words. This will allow you to settle disputes easily for kind words turn away wrath.


* المسامح كريم
al musaamiH kariim.
The tolerant soul is a generous one.
Live in peace with one another.

* بلداً ما فيها تمساح يقدل فيها الورل
baladan ma fiiha tumsaaH yigaddil fiiha al-waral.
In a country where there is no crocodile, a monitor lizard swaggers.
In a chaotic country where any effective authority is absent, any person with some power and lack of respect for the law (represented in this context by the monitor lizard) can engage in corrupt behaviour. A similar English proverb is: ‘When the cat’s away, the mice will play.’

* الما عندها ضنب يحاحي ليها رب العالمين al ma ‘indaha Danab yaHaaHi leeha rabb al-‘aalamiin.
That which has no tail, the Lord of the worlds will drive insects from its skin.
The theme of this proverb is that God will protect the weak. An equivalent proverb of French origins is: ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.’

* الله ان جاد ينفض الفي الرماد
Allah in jaad yanfuD al fi r-ramaad.
When God gives generously, He would wipe off those who are in the ashes.
When God is gracious to somebody, He lifts him up from a very low state to a high and sublime position.


Thank you, Muna, for providing so many curious and stimulating examples of Sudanese proverbs –  they show just how rich, varied and creative these sayings can be.

In Part Two, Muna discusses the dark side of Sudanese proverbs and her future research  I look at how debating the subtext of proverbs can enrich women’s community literacy work.


Amel Basheir Untitled, ink on paper, 2012, reproduced in Contemporary Artists of the Sudan, Art in Times of Adversity, 2015 

















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