From In Our Own Words

The language

Arabic is language that is widely used in the Middle East. It is named after the Arabs, people who reside in the Arabian Peninsula. It is also the language of the Quran which is the Islamic Holy Book. Arabs who have undergone formal education are usually able to understand both Classical Arabic and spoken Arabic. Dialects differ from one Arab country to the other, and they are sometimes mutually unintelligible to one another. The initial focus of this page is on the Egyptian dialect.


These are the terms and phrases used in Arabic to talk about struggle and distress. There are a few letters in Arabic that are often substituted with numeric symbols since they have no direct pronunciation in English.

- The first one is the letter ع, which is the throaty sound you make when a doctor attempts a tonsil check with a wooden stick in your throat, this letter is symbolised by the number 3.

- The second letter is أ, which is like a short 'A' sound like the beginning of the word 'Astrounaut', this is translated to two 'A's.

- The third letter is غ, which is the gargling sound you make when using mouthwash. It is represented by the number '3' with an apostrophe: 3'.

Generic Mental Health Vocabulary

The table below outlines some of the core expressions of mental health distress in primary care for Arabic speakers.

Term/Phrase Meaning (in English) Part of the body affected (if applicable) Sound Recording Example use in a sentence
(Wagaa3) Pain Anywhere (Ana mawgoo3/Ana mawgoo3a) I am in pain - masculine & feminine.
(Nafseya) Psyche/Soul Heart (Nafseyety ta3bana) My soul is tired.

(Kaaba) A depressive state Anywhere (Hases be kaaba) I feel a sense of depression.
(Khoof) Fear Anywhere (Ana khayef/Ana khayfa) I am scared. - masculine & feminine.
(Daght) Pressure and Stress Brain and heart (Ana madghoot/Ana madghoota) I am under pressure/under a lot of stress. - masculine & feminine

Unique Attributes of Expression of Distress in Arabic

Emphasis on Fatigue and Exhaustion

Often in Arabic it is more accessible for people to express their pain through tiredness. Besides there being an emphasis on physical health as evidenced by the prevalence of psychosomatic manifestations of mental health; depressive symptoms are often expressed as tiredness. This is not very removed from the nature of depression, especially when we consider anhedonia, and adrenal fatigue as common to most depressive experiences.

The Absence of Anxiety as a Construct

One of the more undefined mental health symptoms in Arabic is anxiety. From the preliminary research conducted and clinical experience across the working groups, there seemed to be no direct translation of anxiety as it is understood in the West. There are ways to describe nervousness or being jittery due to certain situations. However, anxiety as an overall experience is simply not directly translatable. This means that practitioners would need to attune themselves to the many faces of anxiety in Arabic language. Often this comes up as fear, and it might be more useful to reflect on the embodied response and asking what is happening in the body.

The External Quality of Symptoms

For individuals who speak Arabic as a first language, often there is a way of portraying mental health symptoms as external to themselves. There have been many hypotheses around the reason symptoms are external. An example of that would be the use of the word 'suffocated' as an expression of despair. There is an assumption that they are feeling suffocated by something or someone within the syntax of the sentence. That external quality could be linked with what many psychologists would refer to as an external locus of control. However, from the discussions that ensued this finding in the data, it is thought best for the practitioner not to try to make the individual internalise that experience more. Especially as it should be seen as a valid defence mechanism against a loss of identity.