The opportunities I’ve had to practice Arabic over the past two days have left me feeling dissapointed with myself. Unlike my first couple of days, when my time was occupied with tourist activities (visiting the pyramids, Bedouin Night, and a Nile Cruise), more recent days have brought more opportunities to interact with Egyptians.
On Tuesday, I walked with a friend through Downtown and Islamic Cairo from Tahrir Square (the city center) to Khan el Khalili, Cairo’s oldest bazaar, and spent several hours eating and window shopping with friends in Khan. On Wednesday, I walked around Zamalek and to the El Sawa Cultural Wheel to hear a poetry reading.
This experience produced my first feelings of embarassment and shame for studying in Egypt with virtually no knowledge of Arabic. My friend — who also knows no Arabic — wanted to buy some fabric at the extensive fabric district in Islamic Cairo and the cordial workers and children asked me questions in Arabic that I couldn’t respond to with more than a blank stare. In Khan el Khalili, I was able to ask the owner “how much is it” (bi khem da), but couldn’t understand his answer (45 pounds) because I only know 1-19 in Arabic. While walking alone in Zamalek, two people approached me with questions in Arabic, and I only had the presence of mind to tell one of the individuals that I didn’t understand what he was saying (mishfahim) — the other time, I walked away before remembering how to respond. I wasn’t able to apologize for my unhelpfulness because I didn’t even know how to say “I’m sorry” in Arabic (ehsef) until I asked my professor during today’s survival arabic course.
My dark appearance has been both a blessing and a curse. Locals and study-abroad students alike think that I look a fair-skinned Egyptian (in fact, a fellow study abroad student couldn’t believe that I didn’t have any Arab ancestry). Thus, especially when I’m alone, people usually address me on the street in Arabic, even in Zamalek where most passer-byes know English (and indeed, end up speaking it with me). My physical ability to blend in makes me more actuely aware of the extent of my language deficiency.
Traveling to, and especially studying in, a foreign country with no knowledge of the language necesitates a certain degree arrogance and sense of entitlement. I realize the dominant-submissive relationship in my own travels (where I expect people in another country to cater to my needs — in this case, linguistic needs — even though I am the visitor in their home) has been replicated many times over between Western and Arab peoples in political, social, and cultural spheres. Such privledged expectations have produced a backlash amongst Arabs (who understandably do not always wish to serve others in an asymetrical relationship), and are in part responsible for the profileration of anti-Western sentiment and jihadi groups in the region. It is upsetting to realize I am part of this vicious cycle.
This arrogance is accompanied by ignorance. Teenage and adult Egyptian men are able to converse in English with myself and other tourists: they extoll the virtues of America (“Obama, Obama,” “Yankee Doodle,” or “#1″ are the most common resplied by Egyptians when told that you’re from America) — albeit the ones who express such opinions are trying to sell you stuff; drive a hard bargian (they are none too shy to ask for baksheesh – tips); and flirt with American women (female study abroad peers have been told “I’d kill my wife my you,” ”I’ll make you my Sunday\Monday wife,” and “you look like Beyone.”) And although virtually all of these people have received less formal education than myself and many are younger than I, they have a far better command of my language than I have of theirs. This dynamic makes me feel guilty that I haven’t put my education to better use.
Feelings of arrogance coupled with ignorance lead to a sense of shame, which tempts me to further conceal the little knowledge I have. Too often I walk past Egyptians and nod my head or say “hello” even though I know how to say salaam aleichum (peace be upon you), sabah el cher (hello or good morning), and meseh el cher (good evening). When Egyptians are kind enough to do me a favor, I frequently say “thank you” although I am perfectly capable of saying shokran. I must resist the temptation to hide behind the shelter of cosmopolitan Zamalek or more Arabic-proficient AUC peers and continue exposing my Arabic, however little or poorly pronounced it might be, to the harsh judgment of the Cairo street. And I must defy the inevitable feelings of frustration and apply myself in my colloquial Arabic class so that my vocabulary expands and I am able to exchange whole sentences with locals instead of a few basic phrases. Only through diligent study and constant practice will I be able to escape the sorrow that accompanies not knowing any Arabic.