About once a week in Tunisia, I experience a version of this conversation:
Taxi driver: [In French or English] Hello! Where do you want to go?
Me: [In Arabic] Good morning! Souq Sibit, please.
Taxi driver: [In Arabic] You speak Arabic?! Where are you from? How do you learn it?
In some countries, attempts to speak the local language are met with scoffing or even requests to stick to English. But here in Tunisia, even less-than-perfect attempts to speak Arabic are welcomed and celebrated. Tunisians are especially excited when foreigners take the time to learn the local dialect of Arabic, referred to here as Tounsi or Derja, which is only spoken by about .1% of the population of the world.
While it’s not necessary to speak Arabic to get around Tunisia as a tourist (especially if you’re on a guided tour), it can be both fun and helpful to learn a handful of frequently used phrases. Here are 7 Arabic Phrases for Traveling in Tunisia. I think they will serve you well.
1. Hello, Goodbye / Aslema, Bislema
Hello, or aslema, is a word you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice (along with goodbye, or bislema), and it’s a great way to indicate that you’re interested in engaging locals at a deeper level right off the bat.
Level up: How are you? Not bad, thanks be to Allah! / La bes? La bes, humdullah!
If you listen to Tunisians greet each other, you’ll notice that they rarely stop at hello. In fact, there are a slew of phrases meaning, essentially, “How are you?” and Tunisians will often use more than one. Usually after aslema comes labes (leh-bess), meaning, “not bad,” and it’s used as both a question and an answer. Labes? Labes. And that’s often followed by humdullah, meaning “thanks be to Allah.”
2. What is your name? My name is … / Shnowa issmik? Issmi…
Ready to make some friends? You can start by asking their names and introducing yourself, like this: Shnowa issmik? Issmi Joe.
Level up: Nice to meet you!
Netcharfou (net-shar-foo) is the Tunisian way to say “nice to meet you.”
Gratitude is appreciated in every culture, and Tunisia is no exception. When your server brings you a cold bottle of water or a steaming hot bowl of couscousi, responding with yaishek, literally meaning “life to you,” is sure to elicit a smile. You may also hear the more formal shokran, the Standard Arabic form of thank you, to which you can respond afwan.
Level-up: Yum! / Bnina!
Speaking of that delicious bowl of couscousi, when your server asks what you think of the food, you can tell him it’s bnina, meaning delicious!
4. Yes, no / Ay, Le
The Tunisian word for yes is ay and no is le (both rhyme with “say”). If someone offers to carry your bags at the airport, but you’d prefer to carry them yourself, you can respond politely by saying le yaishik, or no thank you.
Level-up: Maybe? / Momken?
Feeling indecisive? The Tunisian Arabic word for maybe is momken.
When you order a sandwich in Tunisia, you’ll be asked which ingredients you’d like inside (think Subway-style), and those are almost sure to include harissa — a spicy red pepper paste that’s similar to Asian sriracha, but less acidic and more complex — and slata mechwia, a grilled green pepper sauce that’s slightly less spicy than harissa. Sometimes. Knowing the words for a little, shwaya, and a lot, barsha, can mean the difference between lunch that’s just-spicy-enough or melt-your-face-off hot, depending on your preference for spicy foods.
Level up: Spicy! / Har!
If watery eyes and a runny nose are your idea of the ideal sandwich experience, tell your sandwich maker you’d like it har, meaning spicy. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
6. Excuse me! / Samahni!
If you’re visiting Tunisia at the height of tourist season, you’re likely to find yourself in a crowd at least once. Keep in mind that Tunisians have much less need for personal space than Westerners do, so they probably won’t be offended if you accidentally bump into them. But it’s still polite to say samahni (sa-mah-nee), which translates to “forgive me,” but has the same sentiment as “excuse me” in English (you can also use it to get someone’s attention). And if you’re the bumped-into-one, you can respond with smeh, literally meaning “forgiven.”
7. Give me … / Attini…
While it may seem too direct in English to say to your server, “Give me … (e.g., water, coffee, a sandwich),” it’s a perfectly acceptable way to ask for what you want in Arabic. Attini (ah-tee-nee) is Tunisian Arabic for “give me.” Try this one out while you’re experiencing some slow travel at a cafe, with the Tunisian words for coffee, kahwa, water, meh, or tea, teh.
If you’d like to be extra polite, you can add one of the many Tunisian phrases for please, such as b’lehi, b’rubbi, or minfadlik.
Extra Credit: How much?
The Tunisian phrase for “How much?”, b’kadesh?, can be useful when perusing the souq for a Berber rug or some pottery, but if you ask the question in Arabic, you have to be prepared to receive the answer in Arabic as well. Thankfully, there are lots of videos online, like this one that teach you how to count in Arabic.
Tunisian Arabic and Culture: Truly Understanding
Beyond impressing Tunisian taxi drivers or your friends back home, learning Tunisian Arabic words is a way to gain a deeper understanding of Tunisian culture. Take the word khouya, meaning brother, for example. If you listen closely, you’ll hear this word used frequently on the street, even among people who aren’t technically related. It’s a reflection of Tunisia’s collectivist society (versus our Western individualist societies), which emphasizes the value of membership in the community and behaving in a way that benefits society as a whole.
While you probably won’t have time on your vacation to master the nuances of speaking Tunisian Arabic, even just learning a few words can give you interesting insights into the Tunisian way of life. I encourage you to ask your Tunisian guides to teach you other phrases or names of things in Tunisian Arabic. And marhababik — welcome — to Tunisia!
For additional helpful phrases in Tunisian Arabic, check out this page from Wikivoyage.