When does catchy become cheesy?
It’s a question some Arabic speakers may have pondered when hearing the latest western pop star use the word ‘habibi’ to showcase their international outlook or salute their regional fans.
From superstar rapper Drake, who has dropped the term of endearment in as many as three songs (including this year's Only You Freestyle) to The Voice France singer Kendji Griac's newest single, the ubiquitous word is arguably one of the Arabic world's biggest cultural exports.
While habibi is a fun and affectionate term to use – and we appreciate all attempts to embrace the region's vernacular – there are plenty of other words that artists could work into their material.
The Arabic language is full of wonderful and colourful words and metaphorical phrases that provide as much impact as habibi in terms of style, rhythm and melody.
One person who knows a lot about that is Freek.
Born Mustafa Ismail, the Somali rapper and Dubai resident found international success on the back of his single Wala Kilma.
Translated to mean 'not a word' in English, and accompanied by a video shot in an abandoned Soviet aircraft in the Umm Al Quwain desert, the catchy refrain found fans across Europe, with the track topping more than one million streams on YouTube and a UK tour in late 2019.
It goes to show, he says, that the Arabic language is full of riches for those who wish to delve a little deeper.
"I have nothing against the word habibi," he tells The National. "But it is up to Arabic-speaking artists to show western artists that there are other interesting words out there.
"That’s what I am trying to do with my music. I am trying to introduce interesting words and Arabic slang into the music to show people the language is fun, cool and offers a lot artistically and creatively.”
In that spirit, here Freek breaks down 14 Arabic words and sayings that can be used by artists with another mother tongue. From the pan-Arab term shway shway to the Emirati slang of khassi, these words hit the right note of fun and authenticity.
1. A-yish al door
This is Gulf slang and it is also very metaphorical. If you break this word down literally, it means "living the role". It is often used to describe someone who is full of themselves, in denial or living in a fantasy land.
So if someone asks your opinion of that person, you can just roll your eyes and say, “man, that’s guy’s a-yish al door".
This is one of the most famous words in the Arabic language and is used by young and old. Akeed means "for sure", that you are "down" to do something or that you are "on it".
3. Aslan aadi
The Arab version of "yeah, whatever".
This is a cool phrase that can work within hip-hop tracks because it expresses nonchalance. So, you can rap about how someone broke into your house and you just say "aslan aadi" because you don’t care.
I am surprised this is not widely used in English rap because it is a word you hear everywhere. It means money and, like habibi, is a word that everyone understands no matter where you are in the Arab word. Whenever you go to a souk, you will hear someone saying, "you have fulus?"
This is the next Arab word I predict will go international because I am hearing it used by UK artists more and more. I am not surprised because it has attitude. Meaning "finished", it can be used to describe the end of something, either physically or emotionally. You can say, "I went to the store and grabbed all the things, khalas", or you can also say, "man, I am done with you, khalas!"
Another catchy phrase. This one is used around the Gulf a lot and it basically means "forget about it". You had a bad day? Just khali-wali, man, and keep it moving.
This is an Emirati term that I love.
I don’t know how to give you the exact translation in one word, but it essentially means something that is not on your level. So if someone asks if you are going to the party tonight? You just say "khassi" to show how whack it is.
I love this word because it has a sense of mystery. It basically means “I’m here” or “I’m around". It’s a good one to use when people ask where you have been. You can just say “mawjood” without really having to explain yourself.
9. Miyah miyah
If you are a rapper, you can have so much fun with this. It literally means "100 out of 100", and makes for a cool reply when people ask how are you doing or how things are going. It can also be used to state your commitment and that you "are down for whatever, miyah miyah".
Don’t ask me how or why, but this quirky Emirati word can either mean luggage or a very attractive person. Both definitions are not linked in any way. You can easily go to an airport carousel and say “hey there, do you have my saman?”
11. Shway shway
This is the title of one of my new tracks. This is a great phrase because it is really metaphorical. It means "just a little bit", but you can use it in a variety of situations. It is also quite easy to rhyme with.
12. Wala kilma
I am not saying this because it's another one of my songs, but I think that this works perfectly in hip-hop. It essentially means “not a word” or “shut up". In my song, I used it to clap back at my haters. I was saying “shhh, wala kilma", this conversation is over.
This word can be used in many ways. It can mean “so-so” or “whatever” to describe a boring day, but I normally use it as an Arabic version of "you know". This way, when I am rapping, I can use it at the beginning or the end of a line.
While it technically means "let’s go", how you say it really gives this word its meaning. If you say it when you are happy, it can basically mean "let’s get the party started". If you say it when you are angry, you're telling the person to move it. This is another word you can easily use at the beginning or end of a sentence.