What started as a footnote to translate fahlawa has turned into a side research project. I will document my thoughts here.
Untranslatable (the way ‘nerd’ is untranslatable from American English, due to its cultural entanglements), fahlawa is a combination of intuition, horse sense, experience, denial, and wit. It is such an Egyptian word, I smell Cairo when I hear the term. It is *not* knowledge obtained from formal education and methodical pursuits. I would conjecture and say that fahlawa is intimately Egyptian because it is the cynical response of the humble peasant who found himself living an urban lifestyle and in need to compete with his Western counterpart. Fahlawa is a statement that I shall not be intimidated by your scientific and technological advancements that I cannot attain or understand. I can do just as well, just like this *bang* (an episode of fahlawa occurs). Fahlawa is the skill to survive in a modern world you are not prepared for, by using the pre-modern skills that you have learned naturally.
Meditations on Fahlawa
Fahlawa is when you seek sufficiency instead of perfection. It is when a plumber knows that he didn’t properly fix the dripping faucet but indeed reduced the leakage (so you ought to therefore kiss both sides of your hands in gratitude). He on the other hand has to rush to another job or just to change scenes and smoke a cigarette, and because what’s the big deal anyway if the faucet is dripping? Let the cat drink, and the Nile has been providing forever.
Fahlawa is when you can sew with a donkey’s leg, because there are no needles. Fahlawa is to remember that Perfection belongs to the Divine alone, we just do the motions and the rest is in God’s hands. Fahlawa is to flirt with the physical world, to seduce it into responding to your intentions without understanding its body language, or understanding its body language but playing dumb. Fahlawa is a transcendence beyond the empirical rational world, to the realm of Divine benevolence and everything is gonna be alright.
Faced with a situation where you are accused of being inept, backward and ignorant, fahlawa is a statement that I will not take your arrogance. Yes, I may be impressed by your artifacts, but the fact is, I really don’t care. Or I do care, but I won’t massage your ego by showing my interest. What I have is just as good, and at the end, I’m going to heaven and you’re going to hell. How about that?
Fahlawa is the cry of incompetence, with a happy-face mask to cover the tears.
Fahlawa is a cocktail of Arabic root words shaped into a conjugative form that brings to mind various connotations. Poke and pick at the word and you will see the first part of the roots f-h-m and f-h-k, which give rise to the words for understanding and jest respectively. Pick and poke some more and you’ll find the later part of the roots j-h-l, s-h-l, w-h-l, which give rise to the words ignorance, ease and imagine. Why, if you look carefully you’ll find three letters tossed around that make up the root l-h-w… we’re just having fun! All that sculpted in a form that rhymes with darwasha (being a dervish) and humbaqa (that deserves additional late night meditations, but for now; being a jackass fool). In an etymological nut-shell then, fahlawa is the absurd combination of knowing and being ignorant. Its when you face a situation you don’t know how to deal with, so you imagine that you understand what to do and start swirling like a dervish seeking a way out. Or its when you are ignorant, but then shrug your shoulders and act as if you understand, for there is a possibility that you get things right, and at the end, it was only in jest and to have some fun.
What is fahlawa but the practical version of Egyptian dark humor? Did you think that after a long night of cracking cynical jokes, about life, politics and his mother-in-law, the Egyptian would get up in the morning a different person? Nay! It’s the same dweller of the Nile, who has witnessed from time unmemorable the countless days and endless nights. It is the continuous thread of consciousness that passes on from generation to generation; “don’t sweat it.” It’s the melancholic wisdom that looks at the Pyramids twice and thrice, and then finds the grace to laugh out loud.
Fahlawa, it appears is winning the lost battle against Fate and Destiny. It’s when you become victorious by embracing your defeat. Fahlawa is the ingenious discovery that the dumb are in bliss.