ON Travelling to Other Parts of the Arab World, the limits of the Egyptian Dialect and Surprising Interactions Pt I

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So Gazelle has done a little travelling as of late…. I figure I don’t post much about my experiences here, but I might as well let this blog get back to it’s travel blog roots.

This past weekend I went to Beirut, Lebanon. The weekend before that, I went to Muscat Oman. Yup, Yup. Now, I have two more Arab countries to add to the list, and two more sets of experiences to deconstruct, ya know, as a an (African) American woman traveling abroad and all.. ha ha..

But until we get into more detail, I will say that I was super apprehensive about going to either place, because of what I had heard/read/expected my experience to be as a clearly black woman. Both places pleasantly surprised me!

However, a weekend in a place, at the Crowne Plaza (Gazelle is too old to do that hostel stuff anymore…. Hah a) in each city is not exactly the same as say, living in the old Medina of Rabat or Alexandria, Egypt. With that caveat aside, I will say the following:

I went to Oman wearing a scarf, because my Sudanese friend (who by African-American Standards has that “good hair” and looks like a Creole) said that people straight up laughed in her face because her hair got frizzy as she walked around the souk… what??!!!

Ugh. Ignorance is ridiculous. I just didn’t want to deal with that so, like I said, I was hijabi for a weekend. I’ve been mistreated for my color/features enough to know that her experience could very well be my own., and I took her perspective seriously.

I think I looked something like this… then I wore an abaya as well… Apparently that was enough

I do think covering gave me a veil (no pun intended) of respectability that I may not have had otherwise, but whatever. Whatever the reason, people were largely super nice to me. No one acted like I was weird, other-wordly or pointed out that my skin color is a dark brown.  Apparently I can pass for an Omani (yay Afro-Arabs… the head covering probably helped with that)… or at least Arab (no surprise there). People would walk up to me and just start speaking Arabic, without any prompting. I must admit, this made me feel at home. So yes, I enjoyed Oman, even if I got propositioned by a (Saudi?) man. More on that in a future post.

Lebanon. Finally , I made it to the Levant. I was apprehensive about Lebanon, because of personal experiences with Levant Arabs and because of what I have heard as well…. Just google it and you will find a number of websites like this or this BBC article from last month about a photo exhibition on race and racism in Lebanon. Race/colorism is alive and well in Arab communities, but I’ve also realized that speaking with the Egyptian dialect, while it might give me more respect/passage as a someone who can “pass” for Arab, also puts me at a certain socio-economic box in people’s minds (more on this idea later). Add that to my dark skin, and most people come with “Oh, she’s a Sudanese girl who grew up in Egypt.” Le sigh.

Needless to say, the Lebanese have beacoup cache in the Arab World and beyond. And I was worried about seeming like a bumpkin. In the words of a coworker who recently made a trip to Beirut and stayed in the flashier part of town, “Lebanese folk were confused that a black woman could afford to stay in a nice hotel and wasn’t in fact a maid or a babysitter.”

Ugh, who wants to deal with that?

As proof that I’m not making this stuff up, it’s real problem, a real, deal problem in Lebanon

Alhamdullilah, I stayed in the nice part of town, but no one seemed to care. I didn’t receive any stares, no one called me names. In fact, everyone was pretty nice, even when I wasn’t in Beirut. They did note my Egyptian accent though, and the reaction to that was mixed: Honestly, I think I want to work on speaking Darija (Moroccan dialect) to people/using that accent more.

Or perhaps I need to develop a vanilla, devoid of any real regional specificity type Arabic dialect that I can speak when I travel.

As you can see, there are so many ways to say one thing….

Why does it matter? Because appearances matter, like everywhere. And I am tired of people making snap judgments about me based on their assumptions. I prefer to remain an enigma…. Ha ha…

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On Ramadan in an Arab Country Part II

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So here I am two summers later and in the last 1/3 of my Second Ramadan in an Arab country. I will admit things are better the second time around! At least in this instance. Some of it stems from working vs. studying in a place and all the repercussions that follow: not living with host family (Glory to God!), not having to sit in an enclosed classroom/being expected to study and keep up while the spirit of Ramadan flurries about.

 

Some it stems from where my head is now. And the rest of the difference comes from being a more comfortable place. Morocco is fine, but the Gulf is more comfortable (if you can afford it?). Ramadan work hours are more amenable this time around…. 9-2! Hay hay! Can we have this policy instated year round? Ha ha…..

 

But it’s also summer, so a lot of expats are on vacation. This means less people in the streets in general… it’s like a lull has taken over this place. That didn’t stop me from getting into two traffic incidents in one week! But Rabna Kareem! The malls have some Ramadan decorations, but nothing over the top (except for maybe the Ramadan village in the center of one, for kids to play and color and stuff, but that actually is kind of cute, IMO.

 

Morocco is more flexible when it comes to fasting rules though. Here also it is against the law to eat outside during daylight hours for everyone. In Morocco western restaurants (in the case of our town, Meknes, Mcdonalds and Pizza Hut) will still let you sit inside and eat. Mcdonalds had a sign that said (in French, so some of this is pure conjecture) that Muslims could order but could not sit inside and eat. Fair enough.

 

But here is a different story. There are very few places open for you to even carry-out food. Most places don’t open until just before iftar (which drives me crazy because what if you want to order food so that it is at home for you right at iftar time? …. Not everyone has a home-cooked iftar every night….but whatevs) and a few will do delivery, but more likely there is a delayed response, like no delivery until a few hours before iftar or something. That has been my experience anyway. So the fasting rule is more strictly enforced over all, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Another thing that is different is the blacking out of windows. In Meknes, many a day was spent at the Mcdonalds (it had AC and Wifi…. Two things my host family did not possess) Whole weekends were spent there. But they never covered the windows to the place.

 

Here, I notice restaurants with shades like that on the windows, the cafeteria where I work does the same. I’ve heard about this in other countries, like Syria, so I know that the UAE is not alone, but it’s interesting to see in real life anyway.

I guess I am getting more rest… nothing is open during the day except supermarkets. So I just go to work and go home. At work, I crank out what I need to get done and enjoy coming home a little early, to be mistress of my universe. I’ve been to a few group iftars and those are cool too.

So yeah, I was dreading Ramadan here, because of the heat. But since I don’t walk anywhere and just go from the airconditione d car to office and home…. Or maybe the mall… I can barely tell it’s summer…. Weird, huh?

Overall, I am happy for this slowed down time. The introvert in me is relishing the extra quiet…. Time to think, reflect and plan (but we all know that no matter how much we plan….)

On My New Favorite Song….

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So yes, Gazelle  is still alive, just getting a bunch of stuff together collectively known as her life! Ha ha….

I just had an interesting language moment (one of many I have had since I arrived here on the 1st) and wanted to share/memorialize.

A friend of mine, who really apparently knows my music tastes so well it’s a bit scary, sent me a YouTube clip of a really pretty song. It’s from an awesome group called Babylone.  Not to brag, but I like to pride myself on being hip to Arab artists like these, who have a more unique sound and are not afraid to blend old and new styles, so imagine my surprise when I realized I had never seen or heard of them before.

I’m guessing these were the early years?…

At any rate, I listened to the song (and then proceeded to scour the www for every other song they have, yup it’s an obsession of sorts…oh well).  On the first run through I  understood some, but not all.  This wasn’t unusual to me because that is how things usually go with me and songs sung in Moroccan Arabic.  I think that in general, I can here something in Egyptian Arabic and understand 90-95% of it.  Moroccan it’s something like 80-90% on a good day… ha ha… but that’s just life, Moroccan is supposed to the be harder dialect, and 80-90% is more than what a lot of Arabs understand from it.  So I am not mad at me.

At any rate, I found the lyrics online and thought about them until I reached what my best guesses were for the meaning of the song (and yes, guesses, I think that’s what they are for me in any language, sometimes you can be fairly certain of something but still not have all the pieces).

My favorite verse, and so much to unpack here… so many clues that this was not Darija (Moroccan Arabic)…. and even after reading the lyrics it didn’t click… ha ha….

The next step, was to find an English translation and see how mine measured up.  There were a few words I did not know (not surprising) and some parts of the sentence structure seemed strange.

But Alhamdullilah, I found an English translation on Youtube and I was pretty much on point! … except for one verb (the meaning used for it in the song was not among the ones listed in the Moroccan-English dictionary… so not my fault…ha ha) …. Then I read the third verse of that translation, and decided that the English didn’t make any sense.  So, of course, I had to find another.

This second video is the better translation, I believe.

What’s interesting is that it made me realize something.  I was getting on myself for not knowing certain words  and trying to figure out, how in the world should I have known that ?

Well, the simple answer is this:  I shouldn’t have!  Babylone is an Algerian group, not a Moroccan one. I am chalking up the words I didn’t know to this.  I am also chalking up the fact that  I had never heard of them to this.

And so ends my tale of triumph and defeat in language learning after the degrees have been issued and classrooms have shut their doors. Ha ha… It’s just another example of how porous borders are.  Sometimes when studying dialects we do think about theses languages as fitting in little boxes.  But of course, everything is more complicated than that.  I automatically assumed they were Moroccan because 1. (they looked the part— but really they just looked North African and 2. The accent and word choices are what  I automatically associate with Morocco.

Now I know that the weird words and grammar used in this video aren’t weird at all… and I learned a few contrasts between Algerian dialect and Moroccan (it also explains why they use some very-un Moroccan words in their other songs…. Words that I would associate more with Arabic dialects further East.  What I thought was literary license is probably just a difference in dialect).  In some cases, I would sing along to the song using the appropriate Moroccan word, not even realizing that that was not what the singer was saying.

Over all my big finds were that Algerian uses

وين  Instead of فين   to mean “where” this is interesting because وين  is a Word that I associate with Levantine and maybe Gulf dialect… it was all over this song, but my ears glossed over it.

The verb صار (Sar) which once again, for me at least is something that I associate with the Levantine variety of Arabic

The verb حوس   (Hawas) in Algerian means ‘to look for’ but in Moroccan it means to rob blind… ha ha… so imagine how different my understanding of the song was because of this verb alone! (mainly because of this verb.

Algerian does not seem to use the ش   (SH) as a form of negation the way it is in Masri, Moroccan and Lebanese.  When I didn’t see it at the end of verbs in the song, I thought it was them being creative, ha ha…. In this way, along with how things are pronounced in some of their other songs, Algerian dialect really does remind me of Levantine.

But my budding interest in linguistics is now done.

At any rate, Babylone is an awesome group, there is something West African in their music, like they channeled Youssef Ndour or something.  They may not be Moroccan, but I will keep on listening and not beat myself up for what I don’t understand…. Plus, they are easy on the eyes… Ha ha…

hmmm, or maybe it’s just the man scarf that did me in… ha ha…

I do need to figure out however, if the words I didn’t know can actually be used in the same way in the Moroccan dialect or not….

Here is the song with English sub-titles:

It had to be done! on Fast food in the Arab world…

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I love that chicken from Popeyes!  ha ha …

It felt so good to see that familiar logo

It felt so good to see that familiar logo

Seriously, I love Popeyes chicken… probably more than any other kind of fast food, because of the biscuits.  Biscuits, I have discovered is something that other societies just don’t understand.

In the UK, my cousins thought biscuits were tea cookies (ewww, I DON’T want THAT kind of biscuit…ha ha…)

In Egypt, KFC chicken did not come with biscuits, instead you got a dinner roll (ugh!) and if it was fresh, you were lucky.

Ugh! that ain’t no biscuit, man! ha ha…

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that this place does have popeyes and real biscuits too!  They are not shaped as nicely as the ones back home, but the taste is almost the same 🙂

It was soooooo gooood....

It was soooooo gooood….

This move has been rough on me.  I have an infection, have been sick practically since I got here.  I thought it was just jet-lag, then I thought it was a cold, then I realized that Gazelle needs some antibiotics.

I actually did some grocery shopping yesterday, but when I tried ot make my own food, the smell made me nauseous… Popeyes to the rescue…   and you know the best part… it’s halal!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  all the halal chicken I can ever eat! ha ha….

Rabna Kareem!

On the Intersection of Race, Culture and Identity…. again…

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Yeah so I am done with the job posts… and back on language, identity and culture….

I had two experiences that made me go back to the topic…

Last Saturday or Sunday I went to the post office to mail a letter.  The office was closed but you can still slip your mail through slots.  I went inside and there was a Latino gentleman there.  He came up to and tried to ask me a question in broken English.  Noting his accent I told him in Spanish that I speak Spanish.

And he let out a sigh of relief.  His question was simple one, he wanted to mail a letter to Texas, but could not tell which box was the right one.  I pointed him in the right direction.  Afterwards, he apologized for not assuming that I didn’t know Spanish (he was then assuming that I am Latina…ha ha).  He then asked me what country I am from…. um, I am from here! I replied…

But I studied Spanish in college and lived in Spain…

He was really kind and even apologized for not being able to shake my hand since it had motor oil or something on it…

This experience was interesting for a number of reasons.  First, I hardly get to communicate with native Spanish speakers in Spanish anymore (yeah I know the DC area is full of them, but I have no real reason to do so, no real pretext that is, more world revolves around family life and the MENA region so there it goes… ha ha).

Second, he thought I was Latina!  (after hearing me speak, of course) What a difference an accent makes. Language is a beautiful thing…

Apparently I am just a bit too swarthy with features a little too “straight from the Motherland” to pass automatically as an Afro-Latina…. ha ha

My job involves quite a bit of going to a particular embassy… and Alhamdullilah, I am relatively well liked there.  (Actually they pretty much hate everyone else at my organization…ha ha… so I get the honor of going there whenever something has to be done… which I don’t mind, as I get to speak Arabic… including Moroccan dialect).

And this week I went there and was actually invited to the inner sanctum… they let me into the part where people are not usually allowed so that I could wait while they processed some paperwork for me.  The conversation was light, nothing special, but I did realize that at least one of them had no idea that I’m not Arab…. Ha ha… where have I heard that before?

 As I get closer to my departure date, and my thinking about language goes from the hypothetical and the realities of being an American and dealing with US paradigms…. I am wondering more and more about how I will be viewed… and how I will choose to identify.

My work will involve being in an international situation, and so I will have to take things slow.  I mean, being abroad as a student is worlds different from being abroad as an ex-pat.  Gazelle is an adult now… an adult!

I’m sure my mind will not turn off the academic in me… I will continually think about the intersection of gender, race and identity.  But so many choices lay before me.

Do I want to make it point of duty to let people know that I am American?

Or will it be more fun to let them assume I am Egyptian/Sudanese (which at this point I am 90% sure they will) and let the chips fall where they may?  Yup, it’s time to start re-reading my old posts, reconnecting with old feelings and figuring this stuff out now.

I’m sure initially at least, I will be too jet-lagged to do any real thinking about this stuff.

But the realities of daily life will set in especially the realities of meeting (or at least actively trying met  Mr. Right/Mr. Good Enough for me….(… which I have not here… alas…ha ha… those should be some funny posts… dating in a country where dating is…..haraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmmmmmmmm…. well, let’s see if we get to that stage… sigh)….

I guess I know I am going to be boxed in a category and would rather not be in any at all.  However it’ s a part of life and I will have to deal with it at some point.  At the same time, I feel uneasy with people who would rather not identify as things that they clearly are….

Does that make sense?  I am not merely a citizen of the world:  I am (African) American, a woman and happen to have had extended exposure to other cultures, particular Arab and Spanish (not- Latin America, Spain)….

Say What?!?………… um, ok…. but this is not for me

To me, acknowledging my roots is part and parcel of who I am. But aknowledging all the facets of my identity should not mean them dissolving into one another.  I guess this works if I were racially ambiguous like Zoey Saldana (whose stance on race and identity is too simple and a bit too privileged for my blood— read more about that here) or something… but I’m only racially ambiguous on a technicality…  So, to me, it just seems weird to not acknowledge my ethnic identity when it’s clearly what I look like.

Or maybe if I looked like Wentworth Miller, then again, he doesn’t try to pass for white, even if people assume he is…. He’s a brotha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ha ha….

Extra Prayers and Hugs for Egypt

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I am tired and about to go to bed, but I’m throwing a prayer out there for peace and stability in the land that I called home for 9 eventful months.

When the Arab Spring caught up in Egypt, I was like most people, watching from the outside.  I had never been there and so, had nothing personal or tangible to link the events that were unfolding to.

But now, everything has changed. That American that got stabbed in Alexandria?  No, I didn’t know him, but I do know his Egyptian roommates (both great guys who warned him not to go out the protests,  but that is another entry for a time when I am not so sleepy—- Egypt in general was still not as turbulent as this incident might lead you to think, I know… I was there).  Moreover, Egypt is now a tangible place, with names, and back stories of conversations and kindnesses paid to me.  The program I was lucky enough to complete is going to be evacuated, or so I hear. They will probably be transplanted to the program center that I was in while in Morocco. This is all surreal.
And yet, it’s not terribly surprising.

BUt, I will leave the political posturing and ruminating to others.

Right now all I can do is write this blog entry.  And of course,

Yes, indeed I will

I pray for peaceful resolution to this political showdown.  I guess, since it’s my blog I can say what I really think:  Mursi is not the greatest, but he was elected democratically and should be allowed to complete his term.

That’s not what a lot the Egyptians that I knew in Egypt think though.  Allahu ‘Alim. I fear for Egyptian democracy and what will happen if/when the army takes over.  Will they be like the Turkish army, weaving in and out of the direct control of government as need be? I doubt it.

I am helpless to do anything, of tangible effect. No one knows what the end result will be. Somehow it seems that people are making bold declarations,  but I just say Rabna yastur (God help us).

Yeah, more in-depth (apolitical) analysis coming later.

You get the picture, no translation needed…

I can’t count the number of time I  or someone else intimated that Egypt is going to hell in a hand basket (most recently a group of Egyptians told me this).  And in many ways, I still feel like so many indicators point to this being true.  But, as all interested parties are bracing for the worst, and hoping for the best, I will too.

 

On Judging Books by their Covers II

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I think it is part of human nature to put people inside boxes.  When we meet someone new, we try to rationalize who that individual is, where they are from and why they make/made the choices that they make.  I think it’s only natural that we try to make sense of what we are seeing, hearing and feeling.  I’ll admit that I am guilty of this as well, but, I do try to avoid doing this, really I am.

It was one thing to deal with in Egypt, or Qatar or Spain.  It’s a whole other thing to deal with this in the US of A.

Let me explain what I mean. When people find out that I speak Spanish, they automatically assume that I am Latin American, or grew up there, or am married to/involved with someone from the region. Some people even try to pronounce my name with a Spanish flair… Nope. Sorry, I’m just regular old black…

I’ve decided that this woman is of Hatian descent, and is a Santeria priestess. Her Eryka badu headwrap tipped me off!… smh… all of this is probably wrong but oh well…. boxes are more important

When they find out that I speak Arabic, it’s much the same.  The next questions /assumptions are that I am Arab, Muslim, or married to an Arab/Muslim, or was born/raised/spent several years in the Middle East or in an Arab community etc.

None of these assumptions are illogical, and they are all not necessarily incorrect in my case, but what a cat-and-mouse game!

There are two things that irk me about this. First of all, it’s the thought process, “Oh, you’re Arab, that’s why you know such a random language” or “Oh you must be Muslim to be interested in Arabic”  or the worse one “Oh, you’re involved with Arab guy and want to get to know his culture.”  How about I was interested in it for far less trite reasons.  It really can and does happen.

It’s also weird that people seem to look past the fact that people actually study languages in school to the point where they and become conversant or even fluent in them. Why is this reality such a strange concept for some people to wrap their heads around?

Perhaps, what is truly bothersome is not so much the assumptions themselves, but the way that people go about trying to reinforce them.  It’s like when someone can tell you are from another country, and instead of asking just asking you where you are from, they proceed to name countries one, by one: “Where are you from, Nigeria?”

No.

“Ghana?”

No.

“Kenya?”

No… after guess number three, I usually say, how about I just tell you so you don’t have to keep guessing… ha, ha.  Or better yet, why don’t you just ask me where I’m from.

I am going to assume that Laz Alonso is of Afro-Latino American decent. But seriously, it doesn’t really matter, the man is Gorgeous!!!!!!!!! (oh, and yeah, he’s a decent actor as well).

I think this last example differs somewhat from the language examples I gave previously, but the essence is the same.  Instead of trying to make sense of people by defining them, how about we just ask them about their convictions and how they define themselves?

People sometimes (well, most of the time) are put into boxes/categories, but asking can get you to the right filing cabinet more quickly… ha, ha…

Seriously, my story of how I became interested in the MENA region, and how I ended speaking Arabic is interesting.  Really it is.  It may not be as “exotic” as you may think, but it’s the truth, usually has nothing to do with why you thought I came to know x, y or z or experience a, b or c and um yeah, that counts for something, even these days, right?

As I stated above I am guilty of this too, assumptions are a part of life.  However, I usually keep them to myself.  Having people tell their own story, and break down the walls that I had built in my mind, stretching the mold, is always awesome.