10 Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic Phrases My Family Loves

Help keep this Jewish language alive with these useful phrases.

Most people are familiar with Jewish languages like Ladino and Yiddish, but there are many more Jewish languages that are spoken throughout the world. I grew up in a home where Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic was spoken. It was a language that my siblings, cousins and I were surrounded by as it was also spoken by my grandparents, aunts and uncles. We heard it at our Friday night dinners and other frequent family gatherings. My paternal grandmother lived in London for decades but never mastered English, so we relied on her limited English and my limited Judeo-Arabic to communicate. Not ideal, but we managed.

Although I can understand it quite well, my spoken Judeo-Arabic is not at the level I would like it to be. During COVID, I used our family WhatsApp to collect words and phrases from my aunts and cousins, which I arranged in a huge spreadsheet. I have taken online classes and I’m forever asking my mother to remind me how to say things as I discover more holes in my vocabulary. And yet, despite my best efforts, all I can do with confidence is talk about food, curse and speak in sayings. To be fair, the sayings take me pretty far as a means of communication. Anyone with any knowledge of Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic will tell you how rich the expressions are, and how they seem to cover absolutely anything you could ever want to say. As for the usefulness of curse words and food vocabulary, I think that is pretty self-explanatory.

Like many Jewish languages, Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic is slowly dying as a spoken language. It was the language of the oldest and biggest Jewish community of the diaspora. The first Jews arrived in Babylon in the 6th century BCE after being exiled by Nebuchadnezzar, and they remained until the last of the Jews were expelled from their homes in the 1970s. Over the course of many, many years, Babylonian Jews held on to their language and traditions. Empires rose and empires fell, but the Jews of Babylon remained, building rich centers of Jewish learning and trade. Having been made refugees from the 1950s to 1970s, the Jews of Iraq made new lives for themselves all around the world. They started from nothing, and once again they built successful businesses and strong communities. Unfortunately however, as time goes on there are fewer and fewer speakers of Baghdadi Judeo-Arabic. I try to hang on to what I know and keep it alive for my children.

Here are my top ten words and rich expressions, as passed down to me by my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles.

1. Wakka mazzalem (May their luck run out)

Let’s start off with a relatively mild insult! This one is quite straightforward. Someone is doing something bad and you want them to stop. As so much of Middle Eastern culture stems from the idea of the evil eye and luck, it figures that somewhere along the way we might want someone’s luck to run out.

2. Asht eedak (May your hands be blessed)

You would say this as a compliment to the person who cooked the food you are enjoying. Once you have taken a bite and discovered that it’s oh so good, you ask God to bless the hands that made it. When you think about it, languages that don’t have this phrase are severely lacking.

3. Bil a’eefi (In good health)

You say this when someone is wearing new clothes, enjoying the food you have prepared or admiring a gift you gave them. It could also be the response to asht eedak. It’s full of love for those close to us. We want them to continue to be able to enjoy this and other things in the best of health. Amen v’Amen!

4. Ayouni (My eyes)

When you use this word, you aren’t literally talking about your own eyes. It’s used as a term of endearment. It’s as if you are saying, “You are as precious to me as my eyes.” I remember it being said to me when I was little, and now I say it to my kids.

5. Wayhid kayinfikh il lakhi (One person flatters the other)

I love this one! It is used to describe two or more fools who flatter each other. Each fool believes the other’s words and so they believe themselves to be wise. I’m sure many of you have encountered incompetents to whom this applies! I know I have!

6. Lesh la? (Why not?) Khutrush? (What for?)

My sister and I joke that for our grandmother Aziza, of blessed memory, these two phrases went together. It seemed like anytime we suggested something to her, she would answer with one of the two.
“Do you want to go shopping?” “Lesh la!”
“Do you want to go shopping?” “Khutrush?”

7. Esh in’sawi? (What can be done?)

This phrase is for when you resign yourself to accept that something is not quite as you would like it to be. This is how it is. I have no control over this situation. What can I do?

8. Skitti u’Khalia (Be quiet and leave it!)

If someone is talking about something bad that might happen, it is shut down by this phrase. The deeply superstitious Baghdadi Jews believed that you could set the evil eye in motion just by vocalizing something bad. Don’t even talk about it because you might make it happen.

9. Bas baqqa! (Enough already!)

You know when someone just goes on and on about something? When someone is moaning non-stop about a predicament that really doesn’t seem that bad? When the kids are fighting over the remote control? That’s when this one comes in handy! It’s short, sharp and to the point.

10. Dakh mookhak oo laa-bit nafsak (May your brains get tired and your tummy feel queasy)

This is pure poetry! I can’t say I use it much because it’s not one that comes to my mind at the right times, but I wish I did. It’s the sort of curse that can only be said in this wonderfully expressive language.

Vicky Sweiry Tsur

Vicky Sweiry Tsur (she/her) was born in London to Bahraini Jewish immigrants, with roots in India, Iran and Iraq. This mix of cultures gave her rich and wonderful Jewish traditions, which she endeavors to practice daily and pass on to her children. She now lives in California with her husband and three children.

Read More