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Ibrahim El-Salahi Pain Relief at The Saatchi Gallery, London

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The Dung Beetle and the Moon

An Illustrated Selection from Muna Zaki’s forthcoming edition of Sudanese Proverbs, Volume II

Setting the Scene

Above, “the dung beetle’s wedding to the moon”, explained below.

“The dung beetle’s wedding to the moon” is just one of more than a thousand sayings Muna includes in her forthcoming second volume of Sudanese proverbs. This meticulously researched and cross-referenced work flows from a lifetime’s fascination with proverbs and their power to be both universal and culturally unique. Condensing layer upon layer of intergenerational wisdom, folk history and memory, proverbs and aphorisms humble the proud, puncture pomposity and sing of life’s joys and hardships. For the student of Sudanese Arabic and culture, every page of Muna’s collection offers earthy, common sense and eloquent insights on the human condition. Water skins, gourds, the tombs of holy men and the humble dung beetle become ciphers for lived truths. Through the proverb’s wry lens, sorrows will dissolve”like ground cumin in broth”, a locust in the hand is better than a thousand flying things and your impecunious cousin has nothing between their armpits and the stars.

In her second volume, Muna provides the enchanting backstories to many of these sayings. Get to know Muna’s work and read her personal selection of witty and wise proverbs in

Proverbs with Muna Zaki

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 Muna’s blog on Folktales and Proverbs

If you have a favourite Sudanese proverb or a proverb you would like to know the meaning of, we would love to hear from you. If you would like news of Muna’s publication or might be able to advise on the meaning of some of the more obscure proverbs in the collection, please do get in touch. Just leave a message at the bottom of this blogpost.

al-agaarib ‘agaarib – relatives are scorpions. Elegant in its economy, the proverb above is a play on words, encapsulating sentiments we have all fallen prey to on occasion.

Above, some of the proverbs explained in this week’s post below.

An Illustrated Selection from Muna Zaki’s forthcoming edition of Sudanese Proverbs, Volume II

Fifteen Proverbs and Sayings


‘ iris abu d-dardaag li l-gamra.
The dung beetle’s wedding to the moon.

See more proverbs in
Milk and Thorns The Makwagi – The Ironing Man


Sudanese folktales relate that the dung beetle fell in love with the moon, and asked for her hand in marriage. She promised to marry him on one condition; that he clean the earth of dirt so that she could step down from the high night sky to marry him on a pristine Earth. From that time on, the dung beetle laboured tirelessly to fulfil his promise, working hardest on moonlit nights so as to catch the moon’s attention and gently remind her of her promise.

Muna explains this proverb is said about something considered impossible, and is used in particular to describe a suitor who has been given false promises of marriage to a beautiful woman.


‘The dung beetle appears in several colourful Sudanese proverbs and folktales documented in Muna’s collection.

faakir al-gubba fiiha sheekh.
He thinks that there is a sheikh in the dome.

In the Sudan, leaders of Sufi orders are sometimes buried in domed tombs, which often become places of pilgrimage for followers seeking blessings or miracles. This proverb is said about someone who expects to benefit from a person that in reality has little to offer. A similar proverb is: ‘you see the dome and think that there is a sheikh underneath it.’ tashuuf al- gubba taguul tiHtaha sheekh. (تشوف القبة تقول تحتها شيخ.) Religious sheikhs are perceived to have great wisdom and the power to heal illnesses even after their death. Someone who is smartly dressed and has an appearance of a dignity might give you an impression that he has a discerning character, but in reality he is empty-headed and lacks understanding. Another implied meaning is that someone might be bankrupt, but from his outward appearance it would seem that he enjoys great wealth.


ad-daraawiish katalu gharduun.
The dervishes killed Gordon.

This proverb may be used when a stronger opponent is defeated in competition or rivalry. If you ask the stronger group why this happened, they will reply, ‘The dervishes killed Gordon’. Gordon was appointed governor-general of the Sudan and entrusted with the evacuation of the Egyptian garrisons during the Mahdist revolution. He was killed when the Mahdist forces stormed besieged Khartoum in January 1885). In this proverb, Gordon personifies the might of the Khedivate of Egypt and the British Empire, and the more modern weapons that could have potentially been deployed. Destiny favoured the dervishes even though they were armed only with spears, swords and simple muskets.


al-waag‘a min as-sama bititHammala l-waaTa.
The earth bears what falls from the sky. People have to accept God’s will. This is one of numerous Sudanese proverbs urging patience, forbearance and acceptance in difficult times.

‘adam al-‘aruuD jafa.
Failure to offer a guest refreshments is discourteous.
Food and drink given to a guest is called ‘aruuD. The Sudanese consider it shameful, even rude not to offer generously from what is available at home when receiving guests. Fortunately for the conscientious and perhaps put-upon Sudanese host, this proverb is counterbalanced by others reminding us that overly frequent visits “make one dull”.

ar-rafiig gabl aT-Tariig.
The companion before the road.
Be wise in choosing your traveling companion before you start a journey.

in kitrat ‘aleek al-himuum iddamdam w nuum.
If your cares are many, curl up and sleep.
Care is a load on the mind. So do not worry too much. Get that load off your mind so you can sleep tight.

nawaaya tasnid az-ziir.
A small date pit props up the water jar.
Without the support of the small date pit, the large water jar would fall to the ground and be smashed. Important projects succeed with the support of small contributions. Large earthenware water pots are widely used in the Sudan for storing and cooling drinking water.

yasrig al-kuHul min al-‘een.
He could steal the kohl from the eye.
This expression is used to describe a crafty thief or someone who meticulously carries out a bad deed. There are several cautionary Sudanese sayings mentioning kohl, believed by many to have healing properties; such as “he came to put kohl in the eye to heal it, but instead blinded the eye.”

ash-shadar al-kubaar fiihu aS-Samugh.
The old trees have the gum.
This proverb reminds us of the respected role of older people in society, possessing as they do deep knowledge and experience of life. The Sudan is the largest producer of gum arabic. It is collected in the western provinces from acacia trees that are at least seven years old. ‘With the ancient is wisdom, and in the length of days understanding.’ (Job 12:12)

kaan Sifat an-niyya l-‘angareeb bishiil miyya.
If people’s intention is pure (sincere), one ‘angareeb (bedstead with a wooden frame, strung with rope or hide) would be enough to carry a hundred.
This popular proverb urges people to assist one another by sharing their limited resources. cf. ‘A piece of bread eaten in harmony is enough to feed a hundred persons.’ (Maltese)

 

`azuumat maraakbiyya; a boatmen’s invitation

This expression is quoted when an invitation is insincere. Muna explains “Boatsmen spend most of their days some distance from the shore so when they invite a passer-by to share their meal, they are certain that he won’t be able to wade out in the water all the way to their boat. Hence the invitation could be construed as disingenuous.”

yoom ‘asal w yoom baSal.
Honey today, onions tomorrow.
Life is full of ups and downs. We have good and bad days.. cf. ‘What one day gives us, another takes away from us.’

da j-jamal w di n-nakhla; This is the camel and this is the palm tree.

The proverb is quoted to those who have a tendency to exaggerate in what they say. A story lies behind this adage: there was once a man who kept telling his neighbours that he had seen a camel climbing a palm tree. Of course, nobody believed him, but he kept on insisting anyway. Exasperated, the people of the village took him to a place where there was a camel sitting under a palm tree. And to ridicule him they said, ‘This is the camel and this is the palm tree’.

Finally, below a saying that perhaps more than any other, sums up Sudanese values.

This is a cultural post for

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