Who’s the daddy here?

an education

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.

11 Responses to “Who’s the daddy here?”

  1. Ali Hamdan says:

    I’ve long been confused by this strange custom, though it was when visiting my cousin in Basta two years ago and witnessed his wife scolding their son while calling him “Mama.”

  2. Charbel says:

    Surprisingly enough, I’ve never gave that matter a thought before reading your post…
    At first, I thought it may be a shortcut; it’s definitely easier to use the same title for your 12 kids.
    But then I noticed that we only do that when using the titles “papy, daddy, baba, papa, pup…” which are diminutive versions of “father, père etc…” thus the meaning of the words tends to get confused with other titles we use frequently, like “cheri, dear…”

  3. Danielle says:

    This is too much! I remember hearing something about this..but never so detailed. Before I moved to Beirut I tried desperately to get my hands on that movie, but no Blockbuster in town carried it! I even went to the Library, but to no avail!

    Great post Georgia. As always, you keep people coming back for more. Do you use twitter? If so, add me.. @meinlebanon Hope to meet you one day!

  4. What a very interesting observation, i never really thought of this and always took it as something normal. I have another explanation: when parents try to teach their children to speak, they will call themselves as mama and papa and later on I guess it just sticks and transforms…

  5. BeirutBoy says:

    I’ve watched West Beirut too many times to count! Love that movie.

    It’s really cute when parents call their kids “mama” n “papa”!

  6. KHC says:

    Love this post – in fact just linked to it from my blog about this practice. It happens outside the family too – teachers call their students ‘Ustaz.’ My question is, do these nicknames work both ways, or is it only for the ‘superior’ person to use with an ‘inferior’?

  7. GF says:

    Great piece! I’m sure people get annoyed with me, but I have been harassing Arabic speakers in an attempt to have them explain this to me for the last ten years :-) I have never received a satisfactory explanation. In English for example, it is obviously common for me, let’s say, to refer to my own father as grandfather for the sake of the kids. It is easily explained as an aid to help the child know who I am talking about. “family-title role-reversal” on the other hand seems not to be an assist to the child at all. Many times, I have heard my wife’s nieces ask their grandmother “Why are you calling me Teta?! I’m not old!” I worry that the explanation is forever lost since most Lebanese speakers seem not to be aware of its strangeness until I ask them about it. Will continue the search :-)

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