Tag Archives: irony

You’re not from these parts are you

One of these things is not like the other

Brace yourselves. This might shock some of you.

I am not fluent in Arabic. It’s unbelievable, I know, and after 4 years of studying it no less. Moreover, I do not believe I will ever be “fluent” in Arabic. Though in the far future I may be able to consume the Arabic language perfectly through the mediums of reading and listening, I am completely certain that my language production will remain quite obviously non-native.

I dream of future self like this:

Native Arabic Speaker: “Hey you down for getting a bite to eat after we ditch this joint”

Me: “I think that a nice plan but first of all it is necessary for me to go to the house and get my knapsack since I have left her there.”

Despite my language short comings, I can still speak Arabic better than most infants, toddlers, and other foreigners. Therefore, I feel my Arabic studies cast in a particularly ironic light when someone, perhaps a toy shop employee, sees me, surmises that I am not Egyptian and instantly becomes mute, believing he cannot say one word to me unless he says it in English, a language in which he never progressed past “Welcome in Egypt.” He quickly determines that his only other option for communicating with me is through a complicated series of sounds, hand motions, and facial expressions that would be much simplified through the miracle of speech, which he has already ruled out.

Should I begin this mode of vocal communication by speaking in Arabic, the result is usually confusion, surprise, and then disbelief, sometimes with a swift return to hand motions and one word sentences. In the most depressing of cases, the person will not recognize that I’m speaking Arabic (albeit poorly) and will ask someone passing by if they speak English, and I’m standing there like an idiot thinking about my past four years of Arabic study, realizing it’s all led to this point of me being unable to find out where the spices are at the grocery store.

Here’s another example:

Man who comes to check the gas meter knocks on the door. I answer it. He notices I’m probably foreign, tipped off by the American flag I drape around myself at home. I’m speaking in Arabic, he’s speaking in English.

Me: Good morning.

Him: Good morning. (motions to his notebook) Gas.

Me: Please come in.

Him: (motioning with questioning signals, asking where the meter is)

Me: It’s in the kitchen.

Him: (goes into the kitchen, checks the meter, emerges) Eight pound.

Me: (I pay him and he gets ready to go) Goodbye

Him: Bye Bye

Of course, there are plenty of circumstances when I have wonderful conversations with people who are delighted to know that I can speak their mother tongue despite the fact they are slightly baffled that anyone would learn Arabic, saying

“Why? Why do you learn Arabic?” (I often ask myself the same question after every disaster similar to the spice search.)

But occasionally you meet a person who simply will not believe someone of my appearance could speak scribbly. Encountering this disbelief  is just another one of the joys of learning Arabic.

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Concealed sandwiches prohibited

Main cause of Revolution failure: laxness with sandwich-carriers

The Tahrir sit-in continues as do my experiences with tafteesh, which are especially lovely in the morning. After I wake

up, it usually takes me about an hour to feel like I’m not underwater and appreciate that the things happening around me are, in fact, real. Since I woke up a mere 10 minutes before leaving for school this morning, I had the distinct feeling of being in an aquarium while walking out into the haze of the humid Cairo day. The sensation was intensified by the fact that the metro was unusually moist, the air within the women’s car as warm and embracing as kisses from grandma, though much less pleasant (love you, grandma).

Before surfacing in Tahrir square, I and the other CASA students I had swum into on the way to the metro made our way through the ladies-only tafteesh, conducted by a female trainee no older than fifteen who doubtless has a crush on Robert Redford or whoever the kids like nowadays. There are anywhere from one to two steps in the tafteesh process: 1) exhibit ID 2) submit bag to be searched. The steps occur sometimes in this order, sometimes without the bag search, and sometimes with additional mandatory small talk. The bag search process can be a hassle especially when the girl doing the searching has no idea what a weapon looks like but knows what people searching for weapons looks like, carefully examining everything with equal care, pens, pencils, pocket sized notebooks, ribbon wands, etc. It is also a hassle when one has an American-style, million pocket adventure backpack, each pocket of which must be searched.

One of the girls I was with had such a backpack, which was large and full of things a student uses: books, pencils, and sandwich in a sandwich box. Out of everything that could have aroused suspicion, Ms. Tafteesh was most captivated by the encased sandwich, which looked as American as an apple pie playing baseball, complete with wheat, not white bread, in the sliced loaf style that we so adore. In the amount of time tafteesh girl took to examine the sandwich, I could have clubbed her with my water bottle, grabbed the sandwich, run up the stairs, and been apprehended instantly by other security personnel, who I would have attacked by smearing the contents of the sandwich on their faces. All this to say I think her focus could have been better spent elsewhere.

I have not been able to stop thinking about the girl and the sandwich all day. Though I realize the shape must have been slightly strange for her, I wonder what kind of weapon she thought it could be. Did it signal the presence of a spy? Could it contain some sort of bomb or knife? Did it remind her of a family member? Could it be planted somewhere and cause a strange sensation for someone when stepping on it barefoot? Could it be planted somewhere and explode?

Maybe I’ll never know what was going through Ms. Tafteesh’s mind as she pondered the sandwich. But I did think of something strange later on: I have never actually seen said student eat her sandwich. I have, on the other hand, seen her lurking around campus and hiding her sandwiches under desks and in trash cans. Maybe that girl at the tafteesh station was onto something.

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