After Spending Months in the Middle East, I'm Convinced a Single Phrase with more than a Dozen Meanings is Key to Understanding Arab Culture
- I recently spent two months in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Morocco.
- While there, I kept hearing locals use the Arabic phrase “inshallah,” meaning “if God wills it so.”
- The phrase is one of the most common Arabic colloquialisms and can be used to mean “hopefully,” “maybe,” or “who knows.” It can also be used to politely tell someone no or to relieve yourself of responsibility.
Spend any amount of time in the Middle East and you will become familiar with the Arabic phrase “inshallah.” The phrase translates roughly to “If God wills it so,” but that does little to explain its versatility.
Prior to my trip to the UAE in November, I’d had little contact with the Arab world and as such, I had never heard the phrase. By the time I made it to Egypt and Morocco, it punctuated the answer to just about any question I asked a local.
The colloquial meaning of “inshallah” depends on the context. It could mean “hopefully,” “I hope so,” “maybe,” “who knows,” or “It’s not my problem,” among a dozen other meanings.
I first heard the phrase when I asked a taxi driver how long it would take to get from Dubai’s historical Deira neighborhood to Palm Jumeirah down the coast. “Thirty minutes, inshallah,” he responded. As in, we’ll get there in 30 minutes depending on the traffic, which is out of my control.
Once I started picking up on it, I heard it everywhere. When I suggested a popular cafe to a source to meet for coffee, he told me we’d get a table, inshallah. When I asked a hotel attendant if the hotel had an extra power converter, she said she’d find me one, inshallah. When I talked to a marketing coordinator about the prospects of interviewing an exec, she responded, “Inshallah.” When I asked an Egyptian CEO about his tech startup, inevitably, every sentiment was punctuated with “Inshallah.”
At times, the phrase can be maddeningly imprecise. In Egypt, when I asked a tour guide what time we would leave for the day, he told me “9:30 a.m., inshallah.” We left an hour later. Other times, it operates as a polite cover for something someone doesn’t want to tell you, like when a guesthouse had given up my room due to a double booking.
But the phrase’s durability only became apparent to me after I started using it as those in the Arab world do. As New York Times international editor Michael Slackman wrote in 2008, “inshallah” is “a bit of theological bobbing-and-weaving to avoid commitment.”
If someone invites you to a party that you aren’t sure you want to attend — but is hosted by someone you don’t want to offend — you might say, “I’ll be there, inshallah.” If something happens out of your control, like bad traffic or food poisoning or a late night at work, well then, God didn’t will you to be at the party. No hard feelings.
I found the phrase particularly useful when dealing with touts in Morocco’s many medinas. When I first started walking through the markets, the touts would tail me forever to convince me to eat at their restaurant or look at their shop. No amount of “No, thank you,” “I’m busy,” or “I’m not interested,” dissuaded them. But as soon as I said “Maybe later, inshallah,” they smiled and said okay.
At its core, inshallah expresses an ambivalence to the world, particularly in Egypt. After decades of corruption, inept governance, and a weak economy, many shrug when asked a question — like whether the museum is open, the car will be fixed, or if tourists will return to the nation’s once bustling sights — and say, “inshallah.”
While “inshallah” has not always carried this contradictory mix of hope and hopelessness, it reflects a life spent in countries with opaque, impenetrable bureaucracies. Arab News columnist Ibrahim Al Ammar lamented this version of “inshallah” in a column noting how it has come to be associated with scenarios like when one visits a customs official to get their identity documents fixed only to be told week after week that it will be done “tomorrow, inshallah.”
At the beginning of my trip I was confused by “inshallah,” halfway through I was infuriated by it, and, by the end, I was saying it myself. That might as well be a metaphor for my several months immersed in Arab culture.