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 ...
It's the emoji sign of our times: slow down.
Apple is introducing the pinched fingers emoji later this year, and while it's viewed as a universal sign to slow down (Italians love it), it's a multifarious gesture in the Arab world that can be used in many ways, including to tell people to be quiet or to calm down. A popular use is to suggest to another motorist that they should give way.
We even have our own phrase to accompany it, a vibrant slang term, shway shway.
If you're hanging around Arabic speakers engaged in passionate conversation, you will have heard this term and seen its corresponding physical gesture used liberally.
What does shway shway actually mean?
Shway is a colloquial term derived from the Arabic root word shwaya, which means a little bit.
The addition of another shway is purely for emphasis.
Broad and inclusive, the term can be used to address young and old (modify your tone and be respectful to elders). It can help get across the need for emotions ranging from calm to concentration.
Here are six ways shway shway is used in everyday life
1. As the Arabic version of 'take a chill pill'
For moderators of heated office meetings, security guards and concerned loved ones, the term and pinched salute can be an effective rage diffuser.
But don’t only utter it once. Using a soothing tone, say it repeatedly like a mantra until the angry subject regains their sense, and civility is restored.
2. To concentrate
If you have ever moved house using an Arab moving crew, nearly every second word you will hear is shway shway.
When someone is carrying your antique mahogany desk to the truck, their constant muttering of shway shway is as much a message to themselves as to their colleagues to slow down and concentrate on the task at hand.
3. At the table
If someone tells you to shway shway while you're reaching for that umpteenth serving of biryani, then you've either had more than your fill or you are eating way too fast.
I have personally experienced this many times, especially in my teenage years, at the first iftar meal of Ramadan. Absolutely ravenous, I would attack my mother’s lavish spread with such relish that she would shout, "Boy, shway shway." It never worked, though. My nights would often end uncomfortably with endless hiccups and belches.
4. A parental aid
There will be a time in a child’s life when they will think shway shway is their second name, such is the frequency with which parents use the term. It's employed both lovingly and in anger, often when the child wanders unexpectedly down hallways or shopping aisles.
Repetition is key here.
5. To find a bargain
A more modern way of using shway shway is to bargain. At the Madinat Zayed Gold Centre, my auntie exclaimed "shway shway" when the seller quoted an unacceptable price.
As my bargain-loving relative would later tell me, the actual price wasn't the problem. It was the seller's speed to get to his "final price" that was the issue, because it robbed my auntie of the long and unwieldy bargaining negotiations she loves.
In this context, shway shway means to enjoy the journey of bargaining, rather than the destination.
6. When shway shway is not effective
This is a Dh100-or-so lesson I will give you for free. In April last year, I ventured out of my favourite Khalidiya coffee shop to discover a Mawaqif officer rightfully serving me a parking ticket.
“Come on my brother,” I pleaded. "Shway shway, it’s Ramadan.”
He was not impressed.
Really, I should not have listened to the term for once, and hurried back to my car earlier, before the ticket ran out.