Arabic Proverbs, or, the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians


This collection of Egyptian proverbs was compiled in the early 19th century by the traveler and Arabist John Lewis Burckhardt (1784–1817). It is based on an unpublished manuscript by Sharif al-Din ibn Asad, an unknown author of the early 18th century. The proverbs are given in the original Arabic, as well as translated into English and provided with explanatory notes on language and cultural practices. Many of the proverbs can be readily understood by the non-Egyptian reader. “The beetle is a beauty in the eyes of its mother,” for example, needs no explanation. Others require the addition of context. “A thousand cranes in the air are not worth one sparrow in the fist” leads Burckhardt to explain that the crane is abundant in the Nile Delta and that “fist” stands for “hand” in colloquial usage, making this proverb the Arabic equivalent, in effect, of the English “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Other proverbs require a good deal more explanation. One example is, “A thousand lovers bring less shame than one temporary husband,” which refers to al-mustahil (complex procedures for remarriage to a former husband). Burckhardt states that this was a common practice in Egypt at the time of his residency. Egyptian colloquial speech differs markedly from the classical Arabic, and it is thus unfortunate for today’s reader that the Arab text of the proverbs is not vowelled. Egyptians are known for their proverbs and sharp speech, so it is surprising that there are not more anthologies of sayings and proverbs. Perhaps the best known is al-Amthal al-‘ammiyah (Colloquial proverbs), a collection in Arabic by Ahmad Taymur Pasha (1871−1930). This work, which is vowelled, offers an interesting comparison with Burckhardt’s compilation of a century earlier.

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John Murray, London

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232 pages ; 28 centimeters


  1. Taymur, Ahmad, Al-amthal al-‘ammiyah (Colloquial proverbs). (Cairo: Taymuriyah Publications Committee, 1970).

Last updated: April 9, 2015