Five Arabic phrases that can help defuse a tense situation: From 'tawel balak' to 'la ilaha illa allah'

The Arabic language offers a number of words and phrases that can soothe an angry soul

In this regular column, Saeed Saeed looks into the linguistic and cultural codes of the Middle East. 
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Yallah, join The National’s Saeed Saeed as he takes a deep dive into the cultural gems and quirks of the Arab world and its diaspora ...

Considering the events of 2020 so far, it is understandable if some people are feeling more frustrated than normal.

And, if you are a friend of someone who is acting a little more testy than usual, or you find yourself caught in the middle of an escalating encounter, it is always good to have a few words on hand to help cool down the situation.

The Arabic language offers a number of words and phrases that can counsel calmness in a variety of ways. Coming from a variety of origins, they all help serve the purpose of restoring civility to a spiralling situation, when used correctly.

So, here are five words or phrases that can soothe an angry soul, and how to best use them.

1. 'Tuz'

How this is received depends on the age of the subject. That’s because the word has morphed from its original chilled connotation to a modern schoolyard taunt.

Tuz actually dates back to the Ottoman Empire, an era when authorities took custom duties on merchandise entering its lands. One of the items not taxed and passed through was salt, also known as tuz.

From there the word grew to mean "let it go" or "pass", and came in handy in defusing quarrels. However, in recent years, tuz has transformed from its initial passive meaning to something more passive aggressive. Delivered with sufficient venom, it can mean "get lost" or "I don't care".

2. 'Tawel balak'

Literally translated to mean "expand your mind", tawel balak more colloquially means "take it easy" or "have some patience", and is one of the most widely used phrases by Arab speakers. There is an etiquette to its usage, too.

Similar to its English counterpart, saying "tawel balak" is effective when addressing life's common frustrations. However, faced with a particularly furious dispute, the phrase just doesn't cut it.

3. 'Wala yahimak'

Young Muslim Woman is Having a Serious Discussion with her Boyfriend at Home While He is Ignoring her. Getty Images

This is the pan-Arab way of saying "don't bother" or "forget about it". Wala yahimak is a popular phrase heard in coffee shops when a card game is going south or when a work colleague didn't send that important email.

While the frustration is real and expressed, the term is used to draw a line under the sand.

4. 'Seebu / seebha'

This is used when a conflict truly ramps up. Meaning "leave him" (or seebha for leave her), it is a phrase often used by friends when pulling away the aggrieved.

5. 'La ilaha illa allah'

When all the above prove ineffective, then there is this spiritual option.

Meaning "there is no God but Allah", this is a term best used to douse a potentially dangerous situation. What makes this phrase so effective is it often acts as a mental circuit-breaker.

In the Islamic faith, the statement "la ilaha illa allah" is often immediately followed with "wa Muhammadan rasul Allah", which means "and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah".

This is a call and response prayer that Muslims have been uttering since childhood. This is what makes it such an effective tool.

I have seen countless road rage incidents pacified when passersby numerously plead "la ilaha illa allah" at warring parties. Nearly always, a moment of grace soon arrives with one, or both, of the enraged saying the necessary response of "wa Muhammadan rasul Allah".

Through its utterance, the furious person snaps back to reality with the opportunity of walking away.