I always learned that the Arabic word “Sabr” translates to “patience” in English.
That's the translation I had in my head when over 14 months ago, I wrote That Cliché PC Post about Patience. I talked about patience as the value I needed to learn in order to finish my 27-month Peace Corps commitment through all the obstacles. Yet 18 months into my Peace Corps service, I've realized that there's a fork in the road where patience dead-ends and Sabr continues.
You see, waiting, or being patient, implies an eventual end point. If someone tells me to “Sabri” (female command form of Sabr), it’s never been clear what I’m waiting for—and there’s never any guaranteed payoff. As “Sabr” has become an ongoing theme in my time here, patience, or the ability to wait, increasingly felt like an insufficient translation.
So I consulted the Wikipedia page on the concept of “Sabr.” As it turns out, Sabr is a really significant concept in Islam. Sabr more accurately translates to “endurance,” “perseverance,” or “persistence.”
With Arabic, and perhaps other religiously connected languages like Hebrew, I sometimes observe a depth in words that English doesn’t have. Arabic’s system of root letters connects values, traits, and concepts that in English remain discrete. Indeed, in an entry for “Sabr,’ the Encyclopedia of Islam points out, “the significance of this conception can hardly be conveyed in a West European language by a single word.”
The root ṣ-b-r, according to Arabic lexicographers, means to restrain or bind. Again, Wikipedia says that “In the Quran, words that are derived from the root ṣ-b-r occur frequently, with the general meaning of persisting on the right path when under adverse circumstance, whether internal or external, personal or collective.” It’s mentioned when talking about fasting (Ramadan is the month of “Sabr”), internal struggle (in terms of finding Sabr when you want to give up), and the death of loved ones (Jacob exhibits Sabr in his acceptance of his son passing away).
Sabr and Shukr (gratitude) are the two major components of faith (Iman). In this vein, Sabr is associated with staying true to one’s commitment to faith with the expectation that you’ll be eventually rewarded; even if it’s not in this life. Thus, there is humility and hope—rather than any frustration—that is implicit in the waiting. This is one Hadith on the significance of Sabr:
In English, there is no verb for patience; there is only waiting. No one would ever say, “I’m just patienting.” When someone tells me to “wait,” or even to “be patient,” I assume that I’m only going to wait for a fixed period of time before getting upset. I grew up with the attitude that if waiting didn’t work, I should take matters into my own hands.
If I’m at a restaurant and my meal hasn’t come for an hour, I should speak up. If the bus doesn’t come when I need it to, I should take a taxi. If my friend keeps flaking out on plans, I should stop trying to set a date. If an employer is being unfair to me, I should look elsewhere for a job. In this case, I think my own understanding of waiting and patience is intertwined with my class privilege and an idea that I’m entitled to certain rewards in transactional relationships.
While I try to avoid generalizing, it is widely recognized that language affects and reflects culture. Aside from Arabic, other languages—including Turkish, Urdu, Pashto, Persian, Sindhi, and Uzbek—adopted the Quranic word Sabr as well in talking about patience. I wonder if these speakers understand waiting and patience from a completely different starting point.
In any case, a lot of people in Sidi Bouzid are used to rolling with the punches and enduring for long periods of time, with the understanding that there might not be a clear-cut payoff in the foreseeable future. Many times, there is no other choice.
Kendimi Suçlu Hissetmiyorum (I don’t feel that I am guilty)
In the context of work-related challenges, a few of my counterparts have a way of accepting realities, situations, and people, with a patience and persistent sense of empathy that I personally am still trying to develop. Some of our challenges include:
I specifically admire those friends who can resist the impulse to blame. One of my favorite singers, Nil Karaibrahimgil, writes in her song “Gençliğime Sevgilerimle…,”
When I start blaming others or myself, I lose sight of my commitment; not to God or faith, necessarily, but to certain principles. When I joined Peace Corps, I made a commitment to the idea that meaningful, impactful international exchange takes time, understanding, hard work, and even failure.
Each time I choose Sabr over blame, I’m honoring that commitment. After all, I don’t want to just “wait” for the next eight months to be over. I want to take whatever challenge comes at me, and meet it with patience, acceptance, empathy, and perseverance, all at the same time. I want to learn to Sabr, and Sidi Bouzid is still the perfect classroom.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!