It was while I was watching West Beyrouth, an indispensable element of any Lebanese-learning attempt, for the second time that I discovered what I will call the family-title role-reversal phenomenon. Young Rami Doueiri was calling his mother (Carmen Lebbos) Mama and there she was calling him Mama back. I was astounded.
In the Levant, it is in fact very common for family members to call others by their own relative title. When a child calls out “Papy?” the father invariably replies “Shou papy?” (‘what’s up daddy?’). In the street it can be comic to overhear the reprimand, “Now daddy, speak nicely,” or, “Stop it mamy, behave!”
A few years later I am still searching for a satisfying explanation for this fascinating habit. Some say it stems from parents addressing their children with “Ya habib mama”, or ‘mummy’s darling’ with this being eventually shortened to mama (or other relative title). Others say it is a way for the relative to highlight their role in the child’s life, thereby teaching the kid to call them by the right name.
Still others say it is a way to instill courage in a child by addressing it with adult titles, just as some English speakers may call a boy “little man” and French speakers may refer to a child as “mon grand/ma grande” or “petit bonhomme”. These terms of endearment could be said to emphasize what the child will become. However, in Lebanon, since the form of address is the speaker’s own title, it isn’t gender specific to the addressee. Hence, a father will call both his son and his daughter “papy”, not the son “papy” and the daughter “mamy”, even though the girl may in time become a mother but not a father. And no-one is going to convince me that Lebanese parents look forward to their lovelies growing up and leaving the nest.
In addition, such terms of endearment as used in other countries are not specific to the relation with the child; they may be used by unrelated adults (as baba and mama are in Egypt). This is not the case in the Levant, where the relation between child and relative is both specific and explicit. A same child (even once grown) may be called mama by his mother, baba by his father, ammo by his paternal uncle, khalo by his maternal uncle, teta by his grandma and jiddo by his granddad.
I have not heard this habit extended to include the uncles- or aunts-by-marriage, though. Calling one’s young nephew by marriage “husband of my maternal aunt” might be too long-winded and confusing, even by Arabic standards.