Allahu Akbar. God is most great.
The phrase is engraved in shimmering calligraphy on my ring. And every time a well-intentioned shopkeeper or taxi driver (why are they always smiling old men?) asks me if I’m Muslim, I grin sheepishly and mumble a negation.
A trinket picked up in Cairo’s khan al khalili, a tourist-trapping warren of overpriced souvenir stores. But how will anyone back home know that? For them, I conjure up images of a true souk: glinting lamps and a cloud of oriental spices hanging over cobbled streets. Leering men crouched on doorsteps.
Come here, yes, spicy spice girl verry nice.
I kill my wife for you!
I marry you – one thousand camels!
Oh my god.
“You speak Arabic?"
And the ubiquitous reply, as if I’m choosing to disguise my true abilities.
“Shweya shweya: a little.”
My accompanying hand gesture, wavering between yes and no.
His chuckle. “Ohhh, shweya!”
As if we’re all in on the same big joke.
I know lists of food, furniture, family. Slept. Ate. Came. Went. (Only verbs in the past tense: the present, our teacher informs us, is too difficult for now). And, proudly, to flaunt whenever possible: Felool (old regime). Beledy (my country). Baltagiya (thugs). Horreya (freedom).
Tahrir. Pronounced, Tah-rir. Lean into that “h” sound. Only Americans say “Tareer,” flattening breathy Arabic with those nasally r’s. “You coming with us to Tareer on Friday?” Ouch; I wince. Careening through the language that, as every study abroad student hastens to reassure you, is so beautiful. Nothing like the angry Arabic that most Americans absorb from their TV screens. Have you never read Arabic poetry?
In English, words tumble from my tongue. Frolick-stride-meander-hobble-trounce: in what other language can I summon so many words to say, “walk”? I alight in a foreign country. From the moment I step onto airport floors sweating dust and seeping humidity, my tongue is stoppered.
And then, slowly.
Hello. Bonjour. Assalam Aleykum. Ber Ahinya. Habari gani.
Yes. As in, “Yes, I am married.” Waaw. Oui. Ndiyo. Aywa.
No. As in, “No thank you, I do not want to marry you.” Déedéet. Non. Hapana. Laa.
And eventually, my tongue and I reach an uneasy truce: a friends-with-benefits arrangement. I’ll keep a low profile if you shut up and do the work you’re supposed to do.
Still, my tongue betrays me occasionally.
At the Egypt-Israel border, I’ve already removed my incriminating Allahu Akbar ring. Please, go ahead and search my bags. I can assure you that I brought no Arabic homework with me. Oh, you want to see the book I’m reading? “Game of Thrones,” not the Qur’an.
The Israeli guard eyes my passport, lazily interrogating me as to why I don’t want the Israeli stamp on the passport itself (as if we both don’t know the symbol is a red flag in Lebanon, Egypt and other Arab countries). “Are you…ashamed to visit this country? Hmm?” Finally, he rolls his eyes and stamps the border pass instead.
I take my passport. “Shukran” (thank you). The Arabic slips so easily from my lips.
Our eyes meet for a moment, then his slide away. “Next!”
How in the name of whoever’s up there do I say thank you in Hebrew?
2012/12 Traveler's Tongue - Images by Claire Sorrenson
Corrugated iron shacks spill into the alleyway backing one of the suburb’s sandy streets. Some days, Dakar seems to be nothing but sand. Sand, and heat. Sweat trails down the small of my back, staining my white business shirt indecently. A woman, squatting in the dust, washes a bowl and watches me with a blank expression—wary or disinterested; I can’t tell.
She returns my greeting, her eyes ever fixated on me. Through the window of a Qur’anic school, the babble of children’s voices yields to the ragtag chanting of a religious verse. I reach the clearing that forms the neighborhood’s central meeting point. A gaggle of children playing football stop their game to chorus toubab-toubab-toubab (“white person”) as I pass. Normally, women cluster around the water pump, pausing to gossip before heaving plastic buckets onto their heads and returning home. But today there is no water; the first day of a weeklong national shortage.
I arrive at the center late, exhausted after a full day of interviews. I am spending a month in the Yarakh neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal, conducting research and living with a theater troupe called Kaddu Yarakh (“Voice of Yarakh” in Wolof, the local language). This group of actors, commissioned by various non-governmental organizations, uses original, interactive plays to communicate educational messages to the local population. The conveyed ideas always reflect the mission of the NGO funding the initiative.
Laughter erupts around me as I walk in and I grin uncertainly at a joke I didn’t hear and wouldn’t have understood anyway. Even though French is Senegal’s official language, Wolof is the language of choice among friends. The actors are sprawled in chairs dotted across the room, half-watching the soccer game on TV as they toss around jokes and banter. As always, Samba crouches over a brazier tending to a pot of bubbling attaya. The elaborate process of making this thrice-brewed tea requires at least half an hour of the maker’s time. The three rounds of sweet, strong tea are passed around in shot glasses, topped with foam made by pouring tea back and forth between two cups. You sip your tea as quickly as the temperature allows, then pass the glass back to the tea-maker so he can replenish and give it to the next person. Among these underemployed men, as with much of Senegal’s jobless youth, sharing attaya is the national pastime.
I shake hands with each of the troupe members, asking them how they are in Wolof, and take up my usual perch on the bench by the door. I listen to the Wolof ebb and flow around me, smiling when everyone laughs, tuning out and thinking about the interviews from today. Will I be able to get a good quote from all that nonsense the lady at the health organization was spouting? When can I call my advisor and talk to him about refining my research questions? Belatedly, I realize that the attention of the room has focused on me. Mustapha, staring at me intently, has switched into French to ask me a question.
“Pardon?” “I asked if you have a boyfriend.”
This question arises constantly, slung at me on the bus and the street and now here in this room full of unmarried men. I have no compunction about lying to avoid awkward situations like the one that’s unfolding now.
“Yes, I have a boyfriend.”
“Do you miss him?”
“Yes I do. Very much.”
“Things must be…very…cold right now.”
“I miss him,” I repeat. Struck by a burst of inspiration, I add, “He’s visiting me when I go to Kenya in three weeks.”
“I bet things will heat up there.”
The men snigger while I flush and try to stay coy about my imaginary boyfriend. Mustapha, tall and gaunt and wearing his signature patchwork pants, fixes me again with that intense stare. I have recently found out that he is 40, not in his early thirties as I had assumed. Like the other men here, he sleeps on the floor of the center and lives off of the occasional commissions that the troupe receives. In the cramped, two-room space, sleeping has been an awkward arrangement. I sleep in the second room on a mattress next to Rashid, an older man who has gained popularity on many soap operas for his constant stutter, child-like frame, high voice and baleful eyes. (In the troupe’s plays, the audience bursts into laughter the minute he walks onstage). I change clothes under the sheets, or in the corner while he’s still asleep. Mustapha has invited me (jokingly?) to sleep in the other room with all the “real men.”
“Are you always this shy with your friends back home?”
Mustapha’s question comes abruptly and I prickle; do I really seem that shy?
“You know, it’s hard because French isn’t my first language, and I don’t speak much Wolof. Back home I speak English, and I’m more comfortable.”
“So why haven’t you learned Wolof?”
The truth is, despite having taken Wolof lessons for three months, I haven’t learned as much as I could have. Should have. I speak French well enough to conduct interviews and communicate in everyday tasks. As for the shopkeepers and taxi drivers, I know enough Wolof to exchange pleasantries and bargain—in short, everything necessary for surface-level interactions in Dakar.
I don’t voice any of these thoughts when I protest, “I’m trying! But it’s a very difficult language, and I’m also trying to improve my French right now.”
Mustapha looks dubious.
“So why don’t you get to know any of us properly?”
“What do you mean?”
“I asked you why you don’t bother to get to know any of us.”
He’s seen my puzzled face, for he switches into acting mode. I hear my toubab voice emanate from him as he imitates me greeting each troupe member: “Cheikh, nanga def? Waaw, mangi fii.” (“How are you? Yes, I’m fine”). “Ibrahim, nanga def? Waaw…”
Mustapha rattles off the names of the troupe members in the same fashion, accompanying his high voice with earnest hand shaking and nodding. The other guys double over with laughter, smacking their hands on the edges of their chairs in a staccato of appreciation. I smile feebly, feeling the blood rush to my cheeks. His comic jests show how my attempts at being culturally appropriate never extend much beyond a brief exchange of meaningless phrases.
Mustapha is far from finished. He holds an imaginary phone to his ear and imitates my imperfect French.
“Ah, OK Monsieur Diallo, 11 o’clock tomorrow for the interview? Thank you very much. Bye. Hello Madame Diol. Are you available to meet for an interview on Thursday? Yes…Yes…OK, thank you so much. OK, bye.”
Mustapha abandons the phone and scribbles into an imaginary notebook. I mutter something about this not being true, but he ignores me. He turns to his friend.
“Samba, when can I do an interview with you?”
Scribble, scribble, in the notebook.
“I’m going to record this conversation, is that OK?”
Mustapha imitates himself, nodding with servility.
“Yes, that’s OK.”
Vigorous nodding and scribbling in the notebook on my part.
“Mustapha, you’re part of that theater club…what is it called? AEC? ACS? Oh, right, ASC! Can you introduce me to the members of the troupe there? Maybe tomorrow we can go there together?”
Having finished, he sits back in his chair and looks at me expectantly. I sputter out some feeble protests, but I know along with everyone else in the room that his little skit contains more than a kernel of truth.
Samba hands me tea and I drink; the caffeine hits my system like a shot. The others return to watching TV, their live comedy show completed.
Over the next few days, shame continues to prick at me. I’m embarrassed, somehow, to have been called out on my own game. I scoffed at our study abroad program’s enforced “cultural” activities: “OK, we’re hosting djembe drummers in this room, and now it’s time for you all to get up and dance in a circle!” The first week, the other students hung back as I haggled with taxi drivers. During our independent projects, while most people rented apartments in a nice area of town, I took to the old fisherman’s village of Yarakh, living with a theater troupe. Haven’t I traveled around France alone at age sixteen? Haven’t I spent a summer in a Kenyan village, living in a mud house and working closely with the community? I’d slipped into the identity of “the jaded traveler,” valuing the idea of living with the theater troupe and what that said about me, rather than the experience itself. Having prided myself on constructing my own definition of cultural interaction over the years, I realized in this moment that I still had so much left to learn.
Until now, I’ve felt overwhelmed walking into a room full of 10 or so people and trying to have in-depth conversations with each of them. Remembering to shake hands with everyone and recall their names seems hard enough. One of my first days at the center, I shake hands with the small man whose name I’ve forgotten.
–“Hello! I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
–“Oh, Rashid”—I scramble for something to say—“That’s the name of my host father, too!”
He stares at me for a few moments.
–“I know, that’s what you told me last time we met, too.”
The troupe members love watching my frequent cultural faux pas. But Mustapha isn’t criticizing my bumbling interactions. He’s telling me that language is no excuse.
Language is no excuse to sit in the center at night, numbed by a day of interviews and transcribing, and listen to the swirl of Wolof going on around me without trying to engage. I have made a weak attempt at “culturally appropriate” behaviors: sharing everything, shaking everyone’s hands upon entering a room, walking more slowly. The rhythms of these everyday rituals have lulled me into complacency; I never bother to scratch beneath the surface of a “How are you?” I’ve been viewing time as something to control rather than inhabit. When I flip that thinking, relationships take on a different meaning. Why not spend three hours chatting and watching TV and drinking endless cups of tea, when the work following an interview can always be done tomorrow? Why not make an effort to learn Wolof even though I leave in two weeks?
Language is no excuse; and so, I sit and have conversations about destiny in wobbly French and go play petanque with the troupe members and learn when to say, screw cultural appropriateness—get your hand off my leg, Mustapha.
From Senegal to Kenya. Somehow, I hadn’t expected returning to be so hard. On the airplane, it was the Swahili: cold hard pebbles spat into the intercom. So different from Wolof, sweet and strong in my mouth like tea.
My tongue curses me.
For the next two weeks, I want to end every sentence with “Insha’allah.” Instead, I find myself finishing with, “If God wills it.” Any outsider would peg me as a born-again Christian.
Somehow, “Thanks be to God” feels dry in my mouth.
Never before have I been watched like this. In Senegal and Kenya, men glance up idly as I walk by, merely the latest distraction in a chain of events. In Egypt, I find intent behind the gaze—I feel it burning into me as I walk away. Never have I felt this wary. Never have I been this tongue-tied.
My tongue has hit a new barrier. Not just the throaty kh-gh-rr-q sounds of Arabic, but the scrawling script itself.
I’m in Tahrir for the first time since the Port Said protests in February, when 74 soccer fans died in a soccer stadium riot rumored to have been started by thugs in the army’s pay. This time, people have gathered to protest against the sudden disqualification of several leading presidential candidates. Flags and banners whirl and flap; I see writing in black, red and white. Occasionally I detect words like “Masr” (Egypt), “horreya” (freedom), “a’skar” (army). Chants from competing groups swirl together in a hubbub of rhetoric. Amidst the politics, the incongruity of a man selling second-hand clothing (“ten guinea!”); face-painters darting through the crowd like clowns at a carnival; children hawking SpongeBob shirts.
I look over and see yet another man panning the crowd with his camera phone before turning it on me. I catch his eye, double-click my tongue, wag my finger. The language of gestures is universal. After a moment’s pause, the camera swivels away.
I edge towards a tightly bunched circle of Ultra soccer fans jumping up and down and singing raucously. The ringleader wears a V for Vendetta mask, the stiff black moustache at odds with his kufiyyeh scarf and hoodie. I hear the words “Port Said” and “army.” I take pictures, and look up to find that, this time, I’m on the receiving end of the no-pictures finger-wag.
Through it all, I wonder. Would it be different? If I spoke Arabic, wielding a dual identity (“I’m Irish-Lebanese/American-Moroccan/Egyptian-German”) as many elite Egyptians do so adroitly? If I’d been here a year ago, when “it all happened”? If I disguised my short hair with a hijab, playing dress-up for the day?
“Yasqut yasqut hukm al a’skar!” (“Down, down with military rule!”). I understand the chant, but never would I dream of chanting along. The words don’t fit right in my mouth; there’s no history to back them up.
I’m an observer, and yet there’s a sense of ownership to it all, however false. I chose to be here, now, at this moment. For the rest of my life, I’ll follow the news in Egypt. My head will shoot up whenever someone mentions the country. I’ll bond with others: Oh really, you’ve been there too? I’ll have a drunken conversation with a Sudanese taxi driver en route to the bar. I’ll trail a pair of women in the streets, stumbling up against their skirts, because they’re speaking in Arabic. On boring days filled with longing for something more, I’ll dig out my passport and flip through the stamps. The ink, stark on blue speckled pages, gives entry and exit dates, nothing more. I struggle to connect the disparate experiences, but perhaps that’s the point. I drift, not a tourist and never a local, and my feet sometimes brush the ground. Occasionally I’ll try to dig in my heels, saying loudly that I belong in spite of everything—as if, by repetition, the words might come true.
In Tahrir, my tongue toddles through words like it’s learning to walk again. Sounding out, letter by letter: بل. UB-e-l-e-d-y. Beledy? Oh, beledy—my country. The words ripple on a homemade banner. Nearby, a child watches me from her father’s shoulders, strips of red-white-black paint peeling from her cheeks.