Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

When I read Bedu’s recent post, Saudi Arabia- Understanding Umm’s and Abu’s, I became inspired for this post. I suppose I should say it is a rant, but I am genuinely curious about how the following custom got started and what it means.

I’ve noticed that many Arab parents address their very young children as ya Mamma and ya Babba. Both parents will address their daughter as ya Mama and their son as ya Babba, but I’ve also heard mothers saying ya Mamma to both sons and daughters, and fathers addressing both sons and daughters as ya Babba.

I understand the “ya” part, as a sort of a polite equivalent to, “Hey, so-and-so”, for people of any age,  I’ve picked up that custom myself, but the Mamma and Babba part still stumps me when I hear it addressed to children.

In fact, it grates my ears, and I was mortified to hear one of my daughters begin addressing both her kids as ya Mamma and ya Babba, right from the cradle. The poor little girl still thinks her name is Mamma, and the boy is too small to know his own name, much less anyone else’s.

I would never criticize my daughter or anyone for following a harmless cultural custom, but I wish she would realize how ridiculous it sounds when she says it here in the States, especially in public.  I’ve asked various Arabs about this custom, and I’ve heard various answers, none of which make sense.

One Arab father said, “Because I want my kids to know that their babba is talking to them.”

An Arab mother said, “Because my kids will grow up and becomes mammas and babbas.”

Can anyone enlighten me further, or agree with me or disagree that the expressions sound silly? Has anyone addressed a child as ya Mamma and ya Babba? If so, why, and what does it mean to you?

About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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14 Responses to Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

  1. Achelois says:

    Yea! Why do they do that?? It is so weird. My mother says its a term of endearment but I find it so odd.

  2. LOL when my daughter was born my hub was always saying ya Baba to her.

    I asked him why he says that, it’s not her name blah blah like you just said… he said we say it to mean “Oh my child listen to your baba, he is talking to you.” And sure enough soon she was saying Baba waaay before she thought about Mama. becasue everytime he talked to her he was saying it to her “Hey ya Baba, I love you so much.” Then she’d go BABA!
    With my son I got the knack of it by then and was Ya Mama-ing him so much he said mama first. (take that HUB!) but my mom was here and asked me the question looking at me like iw as crazy. i explained it to her too.

    It’s to kinda get their attention to realize their parents are talking to them. Noramlly you say it to what you are to them like I wouldn’t call my son Ya Baba I’d call Ya Mama.

    I hadn’t heard of the explanation about saying they are future Babas and Mamas before but i suppose that makes sence. LIke that tradition of calling them Umm and Abu wheil they are still babaies LMAO. We recently kicknamed our son Abu Huraiyrah because he’s obsessed with cats. Hehehe it’s cute these nicknames sometimes, i don’t think it confuses the kids about their own names because all too soon you will be shouting their names too.

    But I like to shout “Ya Mama, Tai-la-hon!” Across the mall when they run off so strangers don’t knwo their names and they uinderstand I’m saying “You child better listen to your mama and get your butt back here NOW!”
    lol good post

  3. coolred38 says:

    I think its more like a term of endearment…and its very wide spread over here.

    I have on occasion used those terms with my children…I cant say as Im thinking anything in particular when I use them…just something I hear quite often and get sucked into lol. But I do prefer their own names.

  4. Simle Saudi says:

    As they have mentioned before its a term of endearment.

    Its like the term “baby, honey, my love, etc…”

    Dont worry children dont grow up being confused not knowing their own names 😛

  5. Marahm says:

    Well, at least I am not the only one who finds the practice exceedingly odd. OK, so I like Simle Saudi’s expanation, which several others have also suggested. I’m glad to know my grandkid won’t grow up thinking her name is Mama.

    My grandson, from the other daughter, thinks all women are named Mom. He hears his mom calling me Mom, and also calling her MIL Mom.

    He knows my daughter’s name is Mom, so I suppose he’s pretty smart to think that all of us are named Mom!

  6. susanne430 says:

    Thanks for sharing this cultural thing. I’d never heard of it before, but I’ve never lived among Arabs. I enjoyed learning about it.

    I never really liked it here (southern US) when I’d hear people refer to siblings as “sister” or “brother.” As in mom talking to daughter saying, “Tell Brother you love him.” My dad has an aunt who went through life constantly being called “Sis” by her siblings, nieces, nephews and other relatives. It was fine for her, but I would personally hate being “sissy” my whole life. Maybe I am just weird that way. 😀 Your post reminded me of this.

  7. Safiyyah says:

    Salaams Dear:

    This practice is common among Puerto Rican people, too. It is common to hear a parent call the child “mami” or “papi”. To them, it is a term of endearment.

    • Ayman says:

      I am an Egyptian American. I found myself calling my son baba as well. Most answers here are right. It is a term of endearment , and usually you would say baba for boys and mama for girls. Switching these around I can see might get confusing, but here is a good explanation of why a father might still say “baba” to his daughter: Originally a common Arabic saying is “ bi ayoun baba” meaning “by my your father’s eyes”. It is almost like swearing whatever love or statement over his eyes (or his person) and that it is for certain and profound.

  8. Nzingha says:

    safiyyah said what I was going to say.. it was common among my spanish friends growing up. And I tend to do it to, moreso with my oldest girl as she is the ‘mother hen’ of the family.

  9. Many Hispanic peoples do this. In Florida I heard many calling their kids “Mama” or “Papi.” I think it may happen is some other cultures too…

  10. um almujahid says:

    assalamu alaykum

    they do it in Italy too but they add it at the end of the sentence… for example: what’s the problem, ya mamma? …

    • pinky says:

      I would like to know if in Italy do the parents call their sons mama? I’ve never heard of anyone calling their son ” mama”. Being hispanic myself, I do call my daughter ” mama” but in terms of endearment but again, ive never heard of such a thing hearing a boy being called mama. not cool.

  11. Marahm says:

    When I was in Italy, I never heard anyone call their chiild Mama or Baba. All my relatives are older, however. I’ll have to ask them if this custom prevails or prevailed in the past. I don’t think so, though.

  12. Jasmine says:

    This is a funny one. In Egypt, I’ve heard 70 year old women use it for 25 year old boys. I’ve heard 25 year old guys saying it to unrelated kids. It’s mental!

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