‘Bidaaya’: Arabic word for beginning is also the start of the beginning

Origin of the term has three definitions

Bidaaya is the Arabic word for beginning
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It’s only apt to connect a new year with new beginnings.

Putting aside New Year's resolutions that may or may not come to fruition, many people feel energised at the start of the year simply because it feels like a fresh start. But, as this week’s Arabic Word of the Week reveals, beginnings can mean more than simply the start of something.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit asks the King of Hearts where he should start reading an important paper involving the trial of a tart burglary – a case the king is presiding over as judge.

The king responds: “Begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end, then stop.”

Aside from Carroll’s wit and playfulness, he cleverly reveals the obviousness of things while making them sound absurd. With the line "begin at the beginning", he points out that the beginning is the start and also the beginning of the start – a concept shared in the Arabic word bidaaya.

The word means the beginning, before anything else, the start of the beginning. Bidaaya also refers to anything that happens before the start of something and that results in the beginning itself. It is the prologue to the first chapter, while also being the first chapter.

Bidaaya is derived from the verb badaa, which consists of the three Arabic letters, bah, dal and alif. Badaa can mean something starting, something happening or when something is being created.

From badaa comes the word bidaaya, as well as other words connected to the concept of beginnings in some way.

There is badaa’a which means to either introduce a person to someone or a group, beginning their relationship in a manner of speaking, or it can mean to accommodate someone before yourself. Ibtidaaye means the first or primary. It refers specifically to primary school or the initial proceedings before the creation of a contract or an initial court case.

There is also mabdaa and its plural, mabaada, which refers to a set of official guidelines, rules or values concerning anything from a company’s code of conduct or the use of language, etiquette, law or art.

Egyptian author and recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Naguib Mahfouz grapples with the concept of beginnings in physical, spiritual and metaphorical ways in his novel The Beginning and the End. Published in 1949, the story centres on a middle-class family who struggle to get ahead and avoid desolate poverty after the death of their father.

Through his observation of life and human nature, Mahfouz reveals the dynamics of the family and particularly four siblings who attempt though various means to begin new chapters in their lives. The novel is captivating and heart-rending, with Mahfouz pushing the concept that people must always begin somewhere to better themselves, no matter the odds.

The novel was adapted to the screen in 1959 by famed director Salah Abouseif and starred Omar Sharif and Sanaa Gamil. The film was ranked by Cairo International Film Festival as the seventh on a list of the top 100 Egyptian films of all time.

Updated: January 05, 2024, 6:02 PM