Signage in Saudi Arabia

Signage in the Kingdom: With English not only the second language for Saudi citizens in the Kingdom, it is also a language in which they have had to learn a completely different alphabet in addition to reading and writing text from left to right instead of the Arabic standard of right to left. It is also worth mentioning that there is no “P” or “V” in the Arabic language and as a result, any words beginning with these letters are usually pronounced with the “B” sound instead. As I’m sure you can imagine this results in some interesting signage throughout the Kingdom. Turkey Barbers are common (which basically mean that the barber is a Turk); cheken rastrant (chicken restaurant” hair saloon vice salon and many more. One common misspelling that can be humorous but also kind of sad are all the references to the “holly” vice “holy” mosque. During my recent trip in Mecca one of the big highway signs had it spelled “Holly Mosque exit.” Also humorous are the signs for barking when what was really meant was parking. And if a woman is entering the ladies only section of Kingdom Mall in Riyadh, she’ll be greeted with signs advising her “Ladies Remove your Face.” Another one which makes you wonder if it is a misspelling or subtle sense of humor is “chick point” rather than “check point.” While entertaining, with the Kingdom promoting tourism, increased foreign investment, educational reform, perhaps it would be better if these grammatical faux pas were corrected to enhance the image of the Kingdom. Mmmm, maybe offering to correct signage could be a new business venture for an enterprising expat?

And in closing, I’d like to share an article which was published some time back by Tariq Al Meeana in Arab News: What’s in a name…? Drive around in the city of Jeddah and you will often encounter a plethora of shop signs, notice boards, or placards that may amuse you, confuse you, or simply defy your logic.  Spend a few moments mulling over the name, and more often than not, several questionable images roll over in your head as to the nature of these businesses. At a recent after dinner conversation, a group of us was discussing how translations of these signs from Arabic to English often get convoluted and bastardized, and end up taking a wrong turn somewhere.  We were discussing over the course of dessert some such signs that grace our busy streets in Jeddah. I mentioned one that captures my attention every time I pass that shop on Sary Street called “Handsome Barber”.  More than once, I weighed stopping by this establishment to check this barber out.  I mean, if you’re good-looking, why advertise it?  But most of those times, I was driving on the other side of the street, and simply did not have the chance to verify this loud claim. However recently, I happened to be passing by this shop, and with some time to kill decided to pop in for a quick look-see.  What greeted me was a paunchy middle-aged man in a white T-shirt with his belly extending far over his trouser belt, a cigarette dangling in his mouth, busily snipping away on the head of a patron.  He was definitely what I would not categorize as ‘handsome’.  Even his customer seated docilely in his seat was far removed from that description! In Al-Salaamah District, a large sign on the outside of a shop screams out “Butchery City Center”.  Instantly evoking images of the genocide in the Balkans, this establishment is nothing more than a meat-seller.  No wholesale destruction, stealth bombers or NATO forces on Belgrade streets.  Just some sides of beef and lamb hanging on metal hooks. At the Corniche Commercial Center, a little sign by the entry door of a fabric shop states “Bush and Bull”.  You might conjure an image of a local in Manchester or Liverpool.  Something along the lines of the ‘Dog and Duck’ on High Street before you realize that what it means is ‘Push and Pull’.  Why bother after all if the doors open either way? In Al-Safa District, you may notice a very large sign proudly proclaiming ‘Jaafar for Petrol and Furniture”.  Now there is where your mind has to work overtime.  Do you want to purchase gasoline from this enterprising man, or would you settle for fuel scented arm chairs and bedroom sets?  Poor Jaafar.  He may be suffering from uncharted delusions or multiple split personalities.  What next, I wonder?  Abdou for Ice Cream and Travel? Or how about “Laila Plumbing and Concrete Supplies” on Hera’a Street?  The name Laila definitely does not evoke images of such a macho establishment.  That is, unless you expect to find pastel colored water pipes, and rose colored concrete mix.  I would tend to think that names of such places should appropriately be along the lines of ‘Sattam or Mish’al for …such and such’ rather than a delicate and feminine name as Laila or Sara. There’s a “Fish and Ships” out there as well.  The ships bringing this catch of fish in must have mislaid the chips along the way, for they are nowhere to be seen on the signboard. Or “Giftik”?  This one is unusual in that the guy making up this sign did not have to work very hard to please the establishment owner. The actual name in Arabic was “Hadeeyatik” which roughly translates to ‘your gift’.  The ‘ik’ here being the ‘your’ portion of the Arabic translation.  So he does the next best thing…just add an ‘ik’ after ‘Gift’. “Abdullah Jamaarek” is one way to advertise one’s self and the profession one chooses.  From what I gather, Abdullah is a chap who clears Customs (Jamaarek) goods and documents.  He asks the sign manufacturer to produce a direct translation, which unfortunately falls short from making sense. There’s a little villa nestled around the corner from Al-Sholla Center on Madinah Road.  A little sign by the entrance gate says “No Barking”.  I looked around, but could see none of the canine species.  Was it possible that owing to the proximity of his villa to the shopping mall, that the owner was suggesting that no one park his vehicle in front of the house? As we concluded our evening we all had this same thought about business establishments and their owners.  Your name may just end up being the talk of the town! Tariq A. Al-Maeena

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