Friday, February 27, 2009

Talk Like An Egyptian

Last week, my friend Maureen and I did something typically European: we went to an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea whose sole design and purpose, it seems, is to make Westerners forget that they are actually in Egypt.

There’s a heated pool, a coiffed blonde singing Dido covers in the marble lobby, a beach-side bar. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves stand guard outside the “Kiddie Club,” and the main restaurant serves up a buffet night dubbed “Manhattan Grill.” I am not kidding. Take a quick look around, and you’d think you were in Cancun or Club Med or even Disneyworld.

That is, until you see the vacationing Arab women in hijabs, their arms and legs fully covered, lying on beach chairs just meters away from sausage-y German men in their unfortunate Speedos and small-breasted Danish women sunbathing topless – despite the hotel’s signs asking them kindly not to.

Half the clientele was speaking Arabic and eying man-less Maureen and me with suspicion, while the other half was wearing less fabric than it takes to make a dinner napkin and sipping rum punch and thumping along to the tiny Kayne West videos playing on their Ipods.

The architecture was vaguely Islamic, the staff entirely male, the menu devoid of pork. But there were also hamburgers. Snickers in the mini-bars. CNN. Menus in German, English, French, and Russian.

Needless to say, it was a strange convergence of sensibilities – a paean to Westerners’ perverse desire to “get away from it all” in a foreign locale without ever actually having to step outside our own culture.

Maureen, like me, is a Damn Yankee currently living in Europe. She and I went to this resort in Hurghada for the very same reasons the Europeans do – because winter in Yurp is hideous, frigid, and depressing, and Egypt is not only nearby and sunny, but cheap. After two and a half consecutive months of gray in Paris and Geneva, we knew that if we didn’t make like the Europeans and head for the sun, we’d end up making like the Europeans and become alcoholics.

Still, we both felt ashamed of trekking to a land laden with so much ancient booty only to lie on a beach for five days. And so, in addition to booking a trip to Giza, we did our best to mitigate our insulation as uber-tourists by learning a little Arabic. Our contact with the Egyptians was going to be severely limited, we knew, but that didn’t mean we shouldn’t at least make an effort.

So okay. Easier said than done. Arabic writing looks to me like lace. But with help from a few bored security guards at Cairo Airport, Maureen and I learned “thank you” (show-croon), “please” (mum fat lock), “beautiful” (gamilla), and “handbag" (shan-tah). After much perseverance, we even managed to count as high as four. And we learned the polite form of “hello” (as-salem alekham), which I walked around chirping annoyingly to everyone I came into contact with.

To our surprise, we were the only Westerners who attempted this, who treated the Egyptians as anything more than servants. When we croaked As-salem alekham, the Egyptians looked at us with delighted astonishment. “Oh, you speak Arabic?” they laughed. “Welcome to Egypt! Where are you from?”

Clearly, we had impressed them. And yet consequently, we found ourselves faced with a very un-European dilemma. Given all that has been happening with the U.S. and in the Middle East, did we dare fess up to being Americans?

For the past eight years, being an American abroad has meant living in a sort of purdah. Feeling both vulnerable in the wake of Sept. 11th and appalled by the Bush Administration, many ex-pats have either kept our nationality veiled or flat-out lied.

Maureen and I could resort to that great fall-back of saying we were Canadian, or tell the truth and hope that in doing so, we wouldn’t inspire hatred but perhaps a more favorable view of Americans. Self-preservation versus p.r.

Drama queens that we are, we opted for bold, self-promotional, possibly stupid honesty. “We’re from New York City,” we said.

As soon as we said this, the Egyptians smiled. “Oh, you’re American!” they cried. “America and Egypt are very good friends! Obama, yes? Obama is a good man!”

“Obama,” it seems, is quickly becoming a universal slogan of approval and a shorthand for forgiveness. Since the November election, I’ve been in Turkey, France, and Egypt. Without exception, the people there have cried “Obama” as they would “Hallaluyah.” In Cairo, in fact, Maureen and I found the entire staff at our hotel wearing “Yes We Can” buttons. (Granted, they claimed that it meant “Yes, we can serve you better,” but c’mon. No one was wearing “Country First” buttons and claiming they meant “See our Country First, then go to the beach.”)

Some of the Egyptians in Hurghada told us that we were only the second Americans they’d ever met. Others had had a lot of contact with Americans. But all of them were cognizant of our policies and our power. “When America vibrates,” one man told us, “the world vibrates.”

Maureen and I are not only New Yorkers but former waitresses, so we’ve got fairly well-honed shit-detectors. We never felt we were being snowed. The Egyptians spoke thoughtfully to us, with good humor and frankness, asking us about how effective Obama could really be in the face of so many crises, telling us about how important he is symbolically, and offering their opinions.

“Don’t worry about George Bush,” a physical therapist named Wahid told me. “We know that the Americans are not the same as your former president. We know that half of you did not vote for him, and that most Americans now dislike him and think that he has created many problems for the world. We know that you have protested. We have knowledge here. We watch the news, we read, we see on the internet. We Egyptians are well informed about the world.”

Later, en route to Cairo, I recalled Wahid’s words with a renewed sense of shame. The day before, a bomb had gone off in Cairo’s big, heavily-touristed medina. A 17-year-old French girl was killed, and scores more tourists and locals were injured. A second bomb had been found un-detonated. The Egyptians were beside themselves, and Maureen and I were sure that our loved ones back home would be frantic. But when we called the U.S. to assure everyone that we were fine, people had no idea what we were talking about.

The bombing went largely unreported in the United States. When we vibrate, it seems, the world feels it. But when the ground shakes in Cairo, it doesn’t even register.


Hashem said...

This is well written, and deeply thought account that I really enjoyed alot.
Just a few corrections of the arab words, though:
It's Hijab, ot Hajib...
and Showcran....not showcroon
last, we say "min fad lak" not mum fat lak..

I guess I have to get your book "undress me in the temple of heaven"...the preview I read seems so promising...

fivecats said...

when we traveled to the UK three years ago i had an LJ friend in canada send me a Blue Jays baseball hat and two canadian flag lapel pins. i was so angry at bush and his politics that i was certain americans would be ostracized. wrong. the brits and scots we spoke with were of the same opinion as Wahid.

that your families had no idea what you were talking about with the cairo bombing, sadly, doesn't surprise me at all. world politics, from the US perspective, barely extends to the UK and France and those countries we're still fighting with. (which ones were they again? Somethingstan, right?

and, again, i respect and greatly enjoy your writing. it's perspectives like yours that make life a bit more pleasurable.