Rating Arabic Zingers in Action: 7 usages of كل من هب و دب

Reading good Arabic writing is critical to developing your vocabulary and grasp of upper level nuance. My advice to ASL students is to focus on fewer rather than many writers.

After all, as with any language, you can easily waste your limited time resource trying to learn Arabic from bad writing.

When I lived in Cairo I always read the column of the journalist Fahmi Howedi. By reading him every day, I understood his political views. Therefore, whenever he would make use of  certain “Zingers” or catchy phrases I hadn’t heard before I usually could figure out what they meant. And by figuring them out after seeing them in action, I tended to retain them more easily.

I still remember the exact moment, sitting in a cafe in the fall of 2008, when I first learned from him the phrase ( كل من هب و دب ).

The Article Background:

At this time in 2007-2008, many in Egypt felt that the Mubarak government wasn’t doing doing enough to help out the Palestinians, especially in Gaza. The allegation was that the government was more concerned with keeping the US and Israel happy. Here is the point that Howedi made in an article (I unsuccessfully tried to find the link):

President Mubarak is so eager to meet with  (  كل من هب و دب ), such as the Lebanese politician Samir Jaja, and many other random leaders not important to Egypt,  yet he won’t lift a finger to meet with the leader of Hamas.  So much for Egypt’s historical role as a regional leader!

Whether he was “wrong” or “right” in his critique is not important.

The term’s usage was highly effective. I knew exactly what it meant (every Tom Dick, and Harry or everyone and their brother). I have immediately understood that phrase ever since, without ever looking it up to see what the dictionary says.

The Two Requirements for Effective Usage of ( كل من هب و دب  ) 

# 1 Timing: Can’t be overused. And to be most effective has to come at the right time to make a key point.

# 2 Context: most effective when used to support an argument that not everyone agrees about. The more subjective the better.

I did a Google search of the usage in Arabic media over just the last two months and wanted to look and see which writers I think are using it most effectively. Here is my rating on a 10 point scale of 7 recent articles.


(1)  Nasser and Education Policy:

From an Egyptian newspaper:

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 10.43.33 AM.png

The article quotes an interview with Nasser’s daughter. She describes someone who clearly opposed his education policy, calling it the worst thing he did.

Potency:  8 out 10.

It’s effective in conveying the opinion that Nasser’s policies sent too many people to school which created negative unforeseen consequences. It’s adds emphasis and nuance to the argument that wouldn’t quite be the same if the guy merely said  ( كل الناس تتعلم)

(2) – Everyone’s Out to Get Egypt

In a September 2016 Al-Ahram article about Egypt’s foreign policy:

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 10.05.02 AM.png

The writer is happy to see Sisi take an active role at the UN in making sure Egypt’s voice is heard.

Effective usage in conveying the point that people are taking advantage of Egypt, whether it’s true or not (most Egyptians would believe its true).  Good timing. Makes this point very early in the article and in a way that clearly supports his viewpoint.

7 out of 10.

(3) Who to blame for problems with investment? 

An article about Palestine:

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 10.12.15 AM.png

I give it a 5 out of 10. It’s good tactically in terms of the immediate direct usage, but the article’s writing is unclear. Or at least not clear enough that I could get the main gist within 5 minutes of reading, to keep me reading more.


(4)   Women have failed to stop their daughters from going out in the street…

An op-ed in Al-Ahram:


This is certainly the most interesting way the line is used, standalone, but the article is unclear to me and all over the map, so I don’t get his point.

Rating – 5 out of 10


 (5)   Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Refugee Policy

Article from an Iraqi newspaper


Whatever one thinks of Merkel’s policy, that’s a critique people are making, and that conveys in Arabic the exact spirit of what people are saying in English or German.

In both timing and meaning, very potent usage.

Rating: 8 out of 10.


(6) Context: Football/Soccer Management: 

Interview with an Egyptian player:

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 10.33.08 AM.png

The passage

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 10.31.13 AM.png

Critique of the club’s general management strategy. Ie bad player management.

Also noteworthy in that he said it in spoken form – it’s a good line for written or spoken.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

(7) Intervention in Syria: 

Arab League Ambassador asked about the League’s stance Turkish intervention:

Screen Shot 2016-10-05 at 1.00.12 PM.png

Saying, whatever, everyone and their brother is already in Syria, we’re against all foreign interventions. Sends the point better than if all he said was “everyone is in Syria.”

Rating: 7 out of 10.

2 thoughts on “Rating Arabic Zingers in Action: 7 usages of كل من هب و دب

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