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Arabish, Englic, and other languages I speak

October 5, 2006

The effect is jarring – an ancient stone structure guarded by a simple fence and highlighted by light yellow sign in Arabic. Susan and I are on your way down Falaki Street when this temple? building? Fake tourist attraction? replaces the otherwise unbroken succession of apartment buildings in downtown Cairo.

Here is where Cairo intersects with time. A well-lit grocery store plays Arabic pop music down the street from this building that looks old enough to be standing from the same time period as the pyramids. On a cross street, a motorcycle and a donkey cart race it out to see who can get to the intersection first. Also outside our ancient temple: and entrance to the Cairo underground.

The ancient building is supposed to be our landmark, the yellow signs telling us that we need to turn right, but we’re so intrigued by what it could be that we end up calling Ali – who’s waiting for us in her apartment – 10 minutes later, hopelessly lost at the natural end of Falaki street.

Ali meets us, of course, after we send out the universal signal of distress, the “I’m lost” cell phone call. It’s dark, but not late and streets are empty for Iftar. In New York, two girls walking down a street like this would be massively foolish at best and suicidal at worst, but this city seems calmed at the dinner hour and it is still strange enough to move through like wayward explorers, where spontaneity assumes adventure.

The real adventure is the elevator ride to Ali’s apartment. She lives in one of the many non-descript apartment building in Cairo, which is a misleading name. In America, an apartment building means 24-hour door guards, closed-circuit security cameras, multiple elevators and maybe a pool or gym. Apartments in Cairo are living places and nothing more.

The 1920s elevator squeaks to the 7th floor and we all step down to meet the level (the elevator has overshot our request). The inside of the apartment is nicer than the hallway; it’s modestly outfitted with furniture and draped over the carpet are all sorts of cords running to laptops and fans. It is part of American dorm life placed into residential Cairo where the internet is something you get in cafes, sold at 15 minute intervals.

Ali divides the phone cards and lists we get down to our mission: calling 80 women that we want to invite to free English classes – a service run by a student group on campus. In less than a week’s time, I will be teaching English to a class of women, all of them refugees from areas like Sudan and Ethiopia. Tonight is somewhat of a trial run at the challenges ahead. Most of the women speak very little English, some not all. Some don’t speak Arabic. But Arabii is all any of us Gamiaat Amerikiia (AUC) students have besides English – and our Arabic is more limited than these women’s English. I write down a few important phrases and the pertinent information in Arabic for my own reference: Al yom al-ahid, sabaa, binyat Falaki, sufuf ingilizi. Without my textbook to guide me, I will have to rely on whatever Arabic has stuck in my head. Somewhere (well, in DC) Douja is laughing at me.

It turns out, not much of that Arabic has stuck- so much so that a few women cut me off and start speaking English. Another woman simply replies “okay, okay” over and over, as I search for words that will ask her if she will be there on Sunday. Halfway down the list, I run into a group cell phone – one phone shared between a particular group of refugees – a man answers the phone and I ask to speak with the woman on my list. He insists that she is not there, and that he can take a message.

Not happening, at the initial call for English classes, 2000 people showed up. We have room for 250. My part of the project is trying to add in more women into the mix, so hopefully 50 or so will show and for our own needs, and for the modesty of the women, we will have to turn down any men (the other part of the student group is doing mixed classes, which are overwhelmingly male).

We get through the lists relatively fast and Ali makes us foul (think Egyptian, think refried beans) with onions and bread. It is a filling and well-earned meal. We sit on her balcony and make conversation about our various do-gooder efforts at our home schools. I’ve got nothing much to show –based on my dislike for GW political student groups in general, but I casually mention the AIDS protest I took a nominal part in last spring and move the discussion into ballroom. 

This is intriguing to Ali and Susan, and for a moment, Darfur, AIDS and so many of the world’s problems disappear. We all choose something to rule our lives in college – and the workalcholics are not ones (at least not these ones) to assign value judgments to our obsessions. I remember my friend last semester, looking up at me from a venti-sized coffee at midnight and saying “I feel like I’m majoring in AIDS”. The world’s problems are large and incomprehensible, even when you specialize, and the burden of work comes down heavily on those who care the most. I feel like an imposter in this sense – a late to the party one-worlder who feels her resume being padded at the same time of having a genuine sense of pride and worth.

You see, the English language and I are tight, so much so that I decided to major it its literature. Why not help people learn my native language? Part of me wants to say it’s wrong that I can slack off on my Arabic, while the refugees want desperately to learn English – something that represents a great deal of hope. But then that’s how the world works, and it’s not likely that English will stop being a lingua franca (oh the irony in that phrase) anytime soon. My Arabic is limited and now mixed with Egyptian colloquial phrases and sounds (no one in GW’s Arabic department will forgive me for my hard Gs –giddan, gamil instead of jiddan, jamill, jumhahirya)

When Sunday comes and I start re-learning my own language along with these women,  maybe I’ll be moved to break out my Arabic dictionary move often a understand a little more of the cacophony around me.

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