Ask Ali: On the importance of being proverbial

On the importance of proverbs, and a cool history of the traditional barjeel.

On the importance of proverbs, and a cool history of the traditional barjeel.

Dear Ali: What is the significance of proverbs in the Arab world? SA, Japan

Dear SA: Are you kidding me? Half of our daily conversation is based on proverbs! In almost every Emirati house there is someone who is really into Arabic literature and poetry. Historically, Arabs were known for being good poets and storytellers. That was our culture and our way of life; therefore, such characteristics and attributes were highly valued by our ancestors, and made their way into our hearts and minds as well.

This storytelling flourished during the onset of the Islamic era, as people used to memorise words, sayings and messages of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in order to preserve, spread and show their devotion to Islam. Arabic proverbs became one of the main forms of communication, partly because of their educational value and ability to add wisdom to day-to-day conversations.

Proverbs were quoted from the Holy Quran and the Hadith (sayings of the Prophets). Although most of our proverbs are in classical Arabic, we in the Emirates have our own proverbs. They are inspired by daily observations, local folklore and our faith; they are mostly in our local Khaleeji (Gulf) dialect.

Go to my website,, to read some of these lovely proverbs, such as this one, which is one of my favourites: "Those who don't know the shaheen, grill it." Shaheen is a type of falcon, and as we all know, falcons are not edible, but are often used for hunting food. This proverb means that those who don't know what a Shaheen is would probably grill it! So in other words, those who are practising a trade in which they have no experience or perform a task in which they have no skills are bound to do more harm than good.

Dear Ali: I'm a student at a local school, and we are working on a project about architecture in the Gulf region. I'm wondering what would be your best subject to tackle for such an assignment? NH, Abu Dhabi

Dear NH: I love it when smart students ask me for suggestions, rather than asking me to do their homework for them. I'm going to share with you what I consider to be unique architectural objects of the region, and without a doubt one of the top structures is the barjeel, or wind tower. It dates to ancient times, and was our air conditioning back in the day.

The barjeel is a traditional air ventilator that does not require electricity, and is used to create airflow and bring breezes into homes and other buildings. Barjeels are constructed as towers rising a few metres above the roofline, and are open on all sides; like a chimney, they catch and direct the air downwards and into the living space. The air is a little cooler even a short distance above the ground, and this air is funneled down into the buildings where it makes being indoors bearable in the hot summer months.

As my German colleague Heike Mockel tells people on the tours she conducts, studies have shown that barjeels can cool the air inside by as much as 10C!

If you want to learn more about these and other historical structures, go to the Heritage Village in Abu Dhabi and tour the traditional Gulf house; it has a barjeel, and if you stand under it you will be refreshed by the cool breeze that flows down it. But hurry, because the weather is already getting cooler!

Language lesson

Arabic: El omr kella inshalla

English: May you/they live a long life

This is a popular phrase used mainly after someone tells you his or her age. For example, if your friend tells you his grandmother is 89, instead of showing surprise say, "El omr kella inshallah", may she live a long life, God willing. This phrase will show respect, instead of envy of her long life.