Thursday, June 01, 2006

It's the little things

Cairo! Mother of the World, the Big Mango! I began studying Arabic in Cairo, and later spent a year living here. I end up here every couple of years or so and I know the streets and the people and the dialect.

But spending three years in Jordan has really messed up my Egyptian Arabic. Despite the fact that I basically started studying Arabic here, and spent a year more studying only Arabic here, the Jordanian dialect has basically taken over my tongue.

If people in Jordan were confused when I speak, Egyptians are even more confounded. It’s not that my Arabic is bad; I’m pretty decent in Arabic these days, but look so obviously non-Arab that most people are pretty dumbfounded when I talk. I don’t fit well into the boxes people naturally make for themselves.

The funny thing is for all the Arabic I’ve managed to learn, I have the hardest time with the simplest things. I can talk about politics, economics, human rights and just about any thing else. My decent Arabic once brought me the pleasure of a 9 hour stay in the basement of Egypt’s Ministry of Interior (don’t ask), where I sat in a dark hall with a Sudanese illegal immigrant and watched a small kitten hunt and eat cockroaches. It’s an experience I don’t suggest anyone try.

So armed with my extensive knowledge of the region and Arabic, I set out today to find an internet café. Here’s how it went:

Me: a3tek el3afiya. wen fe internet café? (Excuse me, do you know where an internet café is?)
Guy: I’m sorry, I don’t speak English
Me: Ana be7ky 3araby! (I’m speaking Arabic)
Guy: Blank stare
Me: fe internet café gareeb men hoon? (Is there an internet café near here?)
Guy: (Blank stare)
Me: (now pretending to type on a keyboard) Internet café, internet café?
Guy2: Ahhh, cyber, cyber!
Me: Ah, ah, bedy cyber café, bedy ista3mal elinternet

Pretty simple stuff, except when a white guy says this to an Egyptian he might as well be speaking Martian. It’s amazing what appearance and a couple of word changes in life’s simple daily verbal exchanges can do to years of trying to master a foreign language and culture. It’s the little stuff that always flusters me and keeps me humble. Time for a little review of Egyptian.


Post a Comment

<< Home