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When Cream Is Not Cool

November 4, 2011

A t-shirt design for people who are ishta--or think they are...

For the last ten years I’ve been co-author/co-editor of a column on linguistic anthropology in Anthropology News.

Sometimes my columns are about the mysteries of language use in Egypt, like this one, my most recent:

When I taught linguistic anthropology in Egypt, I used to use the untranslatability of idioms as a way to draw student attention to problems of overreliance on lexicon and syntax to understand meaning.

I asked students to describe a word or phrase that made no sense when directly translated and then to provide a gloss.

One of the most commonly offered idioms was ishta, literally “cream.” This word is used, mostly by young people, to express that something is appealing.  For the most part, “cool” is a good gloss for American English speakers of my generation.

But not always.

Going over some interviews taken in 2000, I discovered uses of ishta that did not fit this gloss.  For example, Samir, a college student, was describing why young men of his class often prefer the traditional ‘ahwa (coffee house) to the Starbuck’s-style coffee shops that were springing up all over Cairo.  In doing so, he produced a use of ishta that did not fit my understanding of the word’s appropriate use.

Mark: But a girl can’t go to an ‘ahwa?
Samir: They could go but ishta, the people are close-minded so it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to go.

Clearly “cool” doesn’t fit here. What does Samir mean? I posted a cry for help to an Egyptian graduate student listserv. I received ten responses.

The only trained linguist who responded professed herself as baffled as I, suggesting it might be a mannerism or idiolect.

The students, though, all recognized Samir’s usage and offered glosses. Christine Shenouda offered “they can go but that’s fine, they don’t go because people would have bad thoughts about them.”  Maysa Ayoub suggested “Cool, they can go, but preferably not because people are close minded.”  Wesam Younis recommended “it’s okay if they go (because it isn’t dangerous).”

Hassan el-Mouhi glossed the text as “if girls go it is on their own responsibility, they don’t care for the people.”  But he also raised the possibility that ishta might be used here as “a common word on the speaker’s tongue, like ‘okay,’ in order to give himself a pause or a break to rethink of the rest of the sentence.”

Saif Nasrawi drew attention to the contextual nature of ishta, which can be deployed to mean not only “cool” but “well done,” “oh, great!”, “understood,” and “I don’t care.”

Several students emphasized the “vulgar” origins of the word.  Journalist Nermine Helmy claimed that a decade ago “parents were shocked when they heard the term, because to them it was associated with servants or maids … but now it has become more acceptable.”  Yet ishta may have somewhat different meanings for people of the middle and lower classes.  In the sha’abi (popular) community of Sayyida Zeinab, for example, Kate Pavljuk found the most common use of ishta to be by men “cat-calling” at women.

Ishta, wrote Kate, “also means hot [in the idiomatic sense of “sexually attractive”]”  From cream, “the meaning transgressed to ‘thick.’  Thick is hot.  Egyptian men, especially those of the lower classes … like thick, full-figured women.”

She suggested that the true meaning of ishta derives from its very ambiguity, its capacity to mean many things at once.  Samir’s use in the text perhaps expresses “the ambiguity and ambivalence of social norms amongst young university-aged Egyptians today.  I took it like, ‘its cool, but its not cool.’ [Or] is she a good girl or a bad girl?  It’s cool if she wants to be a little wild, but reputation, reputation, reputation.”

Nermine Helmy summarized the discussion by calling ishta a “joker” word: “You know how the joker in some card games can stand for any number, spade, hearts or whatever?  Well that’s exactly what ishta does. You can just stick the word anywhere, in the middle of a sentence, at the end of it, in its beginning or you can just say it alone. Most of the times it is said when there is nothing to say.”

For teaching the context bound nature of most linguistic meaning, this idiom is ishta!

Click here to read the column on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology Blog.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mostafa permalink
    November 17, 2011 11:31 pm

    My only comment is that in terms of cat-calls I always took ishta to mean “white” – given the affinity for lighter skin in most societies (Egypt included as I am sure you know)… Like many times guys would say “3amla zay el ishta” (you are like a piece of cream) and always assumed it was in reference to the white color of cream…

    Not sure there is an exact definition given its slang usage… However, would agree with Hassan el-Mouhi saying that in that particular usage it is a pause/break for the speaker…

    In my experience, I would say that most usages of ishta are derived from “cool” (other than cat-call) in some way or other…

    For example, “[Ishta yaani] they could go but the people are close-minded so it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to go [ishta yaani]” would be a usage of ishta that isn’t a pause/break but means “its cool – they could go despite close minded people…” or “they could go despite close minded people, its cool”

    I would translate much of its usage to “that’s cool”… even the examples you give from Saif Nasrawi ““well done,” “oh, great!”, “understood,” and “I don’t care.”” all could be replaced by “that’s cool” in English (just said in different tones)…

    For example: a friend does great on an exam I can reply “wow, that’s cool man” (=well done)

    I’m told I can leave work early: “that’s cool” (= oh, great)

    My girlfriend and I get into an argument and I get lectured “fine, that’s cool” (=understood)

    I’m told something I am not interested in: “yeah, that’s cool” in a sighful manner (=I don’t care)

    • MPeterson permalink
      November 17, 2011 11:49 pm

      Thanks for your detailed and well-thought out comments. I agree with you that “cool” can mean a lot of different things, so perhaps “ishta” is more even cognate than I said at the beginning (in fact, the only thing I would disagree with is that ‘ishta’s meanings are cognate to “cool,” not “derived from” which implies a causality I’m not sure can be defended).

      Interesting gloss on “ishta” as a cat-call. Since “ishta” is both thick andwhite, it could mean either–or both at the same time. The capacity of metaphoric language to contain multiple possible meanings in tension is well-attested in the literature. Idioms like this are one of the things Malinowski had in mind when he claimed that true translation was never possible, there are just various kinds of glosses…

      • Mostafa permalink
        November 18, 2011 4:08 am

        Yeah – totally agree on my improper use of derive, did not mean that casaulity at all…

        I never thought of the cat-call use as thick (although would FULLY agree with the statement that “Thick is hot. Egyptian men, especially those of the lower classes … like thick, full-figured women.” – although would even question how much it applies to “lower classes” – I’d posit that the majority of male society prefers the more full body type than skinny model type, something I have found interesting vis a vis the West – although full-figured women do have their admirers in the West as well)…

        Your blog is great and have added it to my daily list of places to check on news/analysis for Egypt (and can tell you the content is appreciated by many of my fellow Egyptians during this period – e.g. your “partial guide to political parties”!)

        Thanks again!

  2. MPeterson permalink
    November 18, 2011 1:05 pm

    Thanks for the kind words. It’s good to know the work is appreciated.

    I think you are quite right about appreciation of body types cutting across classes. When I was teaching at AUC I had a very forthright chat one day with a full-bodied American woman doing her junior year study abroad at AUC. She was very pleased with the masculine attention she received there versus back in the university she attended stateside.

    But I think its common for most AUC female students to strive for a European-American style figure. el-Sayed el-Aswad has some interesting things to say about the relative “sexiness” of thin versus thick women in his study of cosmology among peasants in the Delta.

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