Habibi is a typical Lebanese word. Yes, it is an Arabic word. But, the Lebanese have used it (and even abused it) to the extent that it can be safely referred to as Lebanese. The literal translation of ‘habibi’ is “my love” or “my darling”.
Knowing this fact, you would hear the word habibi all throughout your day in Beirut. Don’t be fooled, though, the Lebanese population is not a group of reincarnated Shakespeare’s. This word has almost become a reflex or an automated add-on in conversations. Whenever a man wants to ask a stranger for a favor, he’d say, “habibi could you please pass me the…?” Maybe it’s a polite way of addressing a stranger. That could be it. But, habibi has infiltrated all levels of dialogue. Even between friends, habibi is used. It is used when sarcastic, when being polite, when being nice, etc. It has become a passepartout or an all-purpose term. You can insert it and it literally means nothing, but kind of adds something. Sometimes, you just feel the need to say it or type it in a conversation. Why? You sometimes don’t know.
What does this imply, though? Are we Lebanese that affectionate that we feel the need to bridge the gap between people? Or, have we simply distorted the value of the word? The easy answer is: habibi is part of the Lebanese culture. Even comedians make fun of this aspect. I attended Maz Jobrani’s last comedy show in Beirut, and he impersonated us Lebanese (and Arabs in general) by saying habibi repeatedly. That is how obvious and clear our habibi situation is.
A man can call another man “habibi” and not be questioned, just as a woman can call another woman “habibi” and not be questioned. A man can call a woman “habibi”, and vice versa, and they could just be friends… or even strangers. This overuse of the word has rendered it blank and obsolete, relative to its original definition.
Just like Walter Benjamin discussed how the aura of works of art is being hindered by mechanical reproduction, the feeling of authenticity of “habibi” is being hindered by its overuse. The original word, habibi, has its literal meaning. However, after being overused (reproduced), the sound image “habibi” is no longer unique. It no longer has an aura. It no longer means anything.
But, still, we use it. And, we will still use it. As a Lebanese woman, I admit that “habibi” can get pretty annoying sometimes because of its lack of meaning. But, at the same time, I cannot imagine not hearing it or saying it.