Letters From Cairo


Press 1 for Arabic

It’s a cinch to have groceries delivered in Egypt—as long as you know how to place your order.

One of the great things about Egypt is that you can have virtually anything delivered right to your door within minutes. You can order fresh vegetables chopped up to your specifications, fish, anti-fungal cream, paper clips. All it takes is a phone and some cash for a handsome tip. But most important is knowing the right way to ask for what you want.

My mother used to like taking a brisk early-morning walk to the corner store a block away from her Cairo apartment, but now that she’s getting on in years, she takes advantage of the delivery option.

The other day, she arrived in Cairo from her home in New York. She needed to stock her fridge, so she called the store. One would think there aren’t many offensive ways to order food, but she found one.

It isn’t that anything was lost in the translation, but when you’re dealing with the Average Ahmed in Egypt, you need to make an immediate choice as to how you’re going to present yourself before you open your mouth to speak. Native or foreigner? Imagine there’s a voice prompt before all such transactions: Press 1 for Arabic, 2 for English.

Knowing which one to pick requires a little finesse and the ability to self-edit before words escape the mouth, two skills my mother lacks severely. Her mantra, however subconscious it may be, is “I think, therefore I say.” She is a native Arabic speaker, so her English has often consisted of short, declarative sentences she’d lob at me outside fitting rooms (“This skirt it’s too short”), and that she’d use to resist promotions to supervisory slots in the commercial banking job she’d held for more than 25 years (“I’d rather to stay here”).

When you’re dealing with the Average Ahmed in Egypt, you need to make an immediate choice as to how you’re going to present yourself.When I was growing up, my parents would speak to me in Arabic, and I’d answer them in English. It angered and saddened them. But sometime around my sophomore year in high school, something clicked. I’d been taking French for five years and had begun my second year of Latin instruction. Why not Arabic, I thought? So I began to use it, and it was as if I’d always been fluent, just never out loud.

Maybe that took some of the pressure off, because after that, my parents let their guard down. They even fell into my pattern of switching back and forth between languages.

So on the phone in Egypt with the grocery store clerk, instead of making her language choice categorically, Mom sort of jumbled it all up, and with the wrong guy.

I only heard her end of the conversation, which so far had been in Arabic, but when prompted to let the clerk know how many eggs she wanted, she replied in English, “Two dozen.” My father and I exchanged a look, and not just because 24 eggs is a ridiculously large number. She went on to ask in her half-Arabic, half-English pretentious lilt, for two bottles of mango juice.

The Arabic words for “eggs” and “mango juice” are completely different than they are in English. But though he had probably received no more than a high school education, the guy on the other end must have at least been able to figure out that this woman was sprinkling English words in here and there. And unless you’re in some gathering of Egypt’s elite social class, you don’t order your stuff in English when it’s clear you’re an Arabic speaker. If you do, it’s assumed you’re doing it so that either the non-English speaker can’t understand you, or so that the non-English speaker understands very well just who you are.


* * *

That my mom was tossing around words the grocery clerk might not have understood was really quite surprising, ironic even, given her difficulty with English back home. She’s lived in New York almost 40 years, yet to this day she’ll jumble words like a dyslexic reverses letters (paddle boats become boat paddles, skateboard becomes boardskate). She’ll completely mangle others, such as when she insists that rocking chairs are “rockychairs,” and “hiking” is “hockey.”

And then there were several humiliating incidents, such as the time she and I were riding the subway together and, referring to a bottle of Snapple iced tea she’d brought along, she asked me loudly over the steady rocking of the train, “Want some nipple?”

I scanned the subway car to see if anyone had caught this, but saw only an Asian man looking down at a bag of what must have been fresh fish sitting on the floor between his legs, and a Latino couple—she engrossed in a subway ad for a podiatrist, he napping. “Snapple, mom,” I hissed. “It’s called Snapple.”

But our positions were reversed when, on summer trips to Egypt when I was a kid, my parents simply forbade me from speaking English in certain settings—taxis, outdoor markets, jewelry stores—where it was assumed that once anyone got a whiff that we were Americans, cartoon dollar signs would appear in their eyes and we could forget about getting a good deal. I learned to keep my mouth shut, for fear I’d slip and ruin my parents’ chances at not getting bilked.

Referring to a bottle of Snapple iced tea she’d brought along, she asked me loudly over the steady rocking of the train, “Want some nipple?”That sort of thing leaves you feeling self-conscious about language years after the fact. Now during trips to Egypt, I’m Spartan in conversation. That means no small talk with taxi drivers and no haggling unless it’s absolutely necessary.

One bright spot: I’m becoming a natural at the angry outburst in Arabic. But I still dread awkward conversations such as when I’m expected to console someone after a loved one’s death. This I do poorly. I don’t know all the canned phrases one draws on for such occasions. So instead I offer up a literal translation from the English of, say, “He’s in a better place now,” which frankly, comes across as flippant, or droll (depending on the audience). But I generally avoid funerals if I can. I know some of the things I do say come out all wrong, and it’s only because someone was charitable that I wasn’t made to feel like a complete imbecile.


* * *

Several minutes after my mother places her grocery order, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the delivery person. My father pays the bill—£19 Egyptian (about $4)—and dumps the grocery bags in the kitchen. My mother picks up the carton of eggs to unpack them into the fridge and suddenly screams for my father. He’s back in his room now and taking his time getting to the kitchen. She is shrieking now, something about cockroaches everywhere.

Underneath every egg she has discovered a fistful of cockroaches, and when disturbed, they run like mad for cover. The eggs are sitting in one, big, open-topped carton of 24, which buckles and sways like a huge, heart-shaped waterbed in my mother’s arms. By some miracle, she has managed not to drop a single one. The roaches by now are jumping ship en masse, some landing on the counters, others plunging to the black-and-white tiled floor. Frantically, my parents try to drown them in the kitchen sink. There are too many, hundreds it seems. When my mother finally emerges from the kitchen, there is a dusty looking cockroach on her upper back. I brush it off and squash it on her black floral oriental rug.

Call me paranoid, but I think the grocery store clerk was sending a message loud and clear, horse-head-in-the-bed-style.“Disgusting!” she says, still breathless. “I’ve never had roaches in this apartment. Now they’re going to lay their eggs all over the place!”

Call me paranoid, but I think the grocery store clerk was sending a message loud and clear, horse-head-in-the-bed-style. A few people are amused by an English word here and there. But a great many resent it, especially if you’re clearly capable of communicating in their native language. Uppitiness is not well tolerated among Egyptians.

After things calmed down, my father asked what he ought to do with the eggs. Before he put them in the sink, he noticed they were speckled with tiny dark spots that he initially thought were black pepper.

“Return them,” I said. “Egg shells are porous.” My father immediately got on the phone with the grocery store clerk, demanding that he take the eggs back. He spoke every word in Arabic.