Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Their Daughter and Their Sister, Their Very Own Shagra

When I talk to my American friends who are still in “my” country, we somehow always get on the topics of how “fearless” and… mostly “ridiculous” I was… am… whatever. I wasn’t there to study language, so I never found myself getting “caught in the perfect” of communicating. Some of my most favorite interactions were always when I was on my own with my protector guys who were always posted outside of my building at the little dukan [gas station without the gas]. Again, they didn’t speak a lick of English, but they were fun. I brought them cookies and other food occasionally and they checked their watches and watched who dropped me off at night. Always curious, always protecting.

One afternoon I came home from work, sunglasses on, one working earphone in, big bag full of papers slung over my shoulder. I was chewing gum [chewing gum is like a hooker thing to do…] and seriously sauntering up the stairs into the dukan. The three main guys were in the shop watching the TV. I walk in, don’t even bother to remove my glasses, and say, “Hey guys, what’s up.” Not even as a question. I didn’t look at them. I just proceeded to get some eggs that still had chicken poop and feathers on them in the open air cartons.

I heard a long pause, felt them look at each other, and with a huge smile on his face, Mohammad [my guard] makes a hearty and loud response of, “Walaykum salam, ya Sarah,” and they all laugh. [“Walaykum salam” is literally “and on you, peace” as it’s the response to the traditional greeting of “Salam alaykum”—“Peace be upon you.”]

I stop, look at him, pull my sunglasses up to my forehead, shift my weight, and chewing my gum say, “Oh. I didn’t even greet you in Arabic did I? My bad, guys. But yeah—you got it. ‘What up.’ ‘What up’ zay ‘Salam alaykum,’ bas bil inglesie,’ [‘What up’ is like ‘Peace be upon you,’ but in English.].” Not quite, Sarah….

We smile at each other and the three of them turn to one another to laugh and talk about me. I keep talking to them, in English, about my day and the weather and how they can’t understand a word I’m saying and how that totally amazes me—that I’m just like a blonde chimp before them just talking and talking and talking and how it kind of makes me so happy that we can even share such a special interaction. How I love how they just watch me like I’m a special moving exhibit in a really awesome museum and how all I really want to do sometimes is to tell Sami to put a nous-comb [a t-shirt] on under his terrycloth jogging suit so that I don’t have to see his chest hair. After all, I wear long sleeves, cover my bum with a sweater or dress, and always wear pants. I never come outside with my hair wet and I apologize for chewing gum today.

I take a deep breath, carefully put my little plastic bag of eggs on the quasi-counter, sigh and say, “I’m making cookies.”

“COOOOO-KKKEEEEESSSS???” they all exclaim together in excitement.

“Yes,” I say with a smile, “Cookies. You guys want some?” in Arabic.

“Yes, ya Shagra. Bless your hands. Your cookies from Amreeka are so delicious,” they tell me.

I pay for my eggs, smack my gum and skip down the stairs, around the corner and into my apartment building.

Praise God I live in a neighborhood with no English. I’m forced to constantly engage with people, with these MEN, who want to honor me and who delight in my ridiculous displays of comfort, familiarity, trust and…today… semi-giving up on the culture.

There’s a certain level of stress and tension that enters your body when you have to encounter a man. And walking into any other dukan I would feel my body tighten, avoid eye contact, wear a straight face, confidently and solidly get through my Arabic interaction, giving him the correct amount of money without touching, saying the right phrases and blessings, and be gone. I wanted to prove to them that I was strong, didn’t need their gawking and didn’t want their conversation with me, and that, YES! I’m from America. And no, I don’t know Obama.

But with these guys, with “my guys,” we kept a healthy and appropriate distance, but I also quickly found that I was “theirs” and they were “mine.” We trusted one another, yelled at one another, made fun of one another and delighted in one another.

Praise God, al-humdilallah, for man friends who acted as family, treated me with respect, and watched over my coming and going, without ever speaking my heart language or intimidating me. I became their daughter and their sister, their very own Shagra. Praise God.

Sorry, no pictures with those guys.
Even I didn’t cross that line. ;)
[And this shirt is Haram: Forbidden.
Outside of this place, which was all women and children,
I’d wear a big sweater and scarf to cover up allllll that skin you see
It was hot. I promise.]

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It was Just Another Night in the Middle East

For a few months, I lived alone in the Middle East. I mostly loved it. [If Roommate is reading—you know I missed ya, girl.] But all the bills and maintenance were left to me. So, my guard, Mohammad [it’s his real name, but there’s no point in changing it] is this younger—my age-ish—man who I think is pretty handsome. Whenever I need something I just text him the number “6.” Within minutes he’ll be sheepishly ringing the doorbell. Usually I fling the door open and greet him like a circus clown, so excited that he’s here to fix my problem! [Side story: For maybe 4 times straight, I requested his presence because the light in my kitchen was out. And probably all 4 of those times, once I coaxed him into my door, after he propped the door open, and I stood in the kitchen flipping the light switch on and off , saying in Arabic, “I need help, ya Mohammad. There is a problem. See? There is a problem. I need help.” He would stand on a chair, tap the light bulb and… it magically went on. (Whoopsies.)]

Lucky for him, I was always baking cookies.

Anyways, on this particular night, my kitchen light was in good working order [I know, right?!] and I didn’t even text him—he came to me! I was making cookies [shocker] and as I put on a long-sleeved cardigan, scarf and sweatpants to cover my shorts and tank top, I opened the door to find that he had a bunch of bills in his hand. I could usually decipher what I was paying. I just looked for the drops of rain and knew that one was water, and electricity, well, that was the other one. But tonight he wanted me to understand something.

Let’s be honest here for one little minute: I didn’t really care. It was always about the same, relatively small amount. I just gave him the money and he went to the offices and paid the bills for me. He’d bring back whatever change there was. Easy. Finally! One thing in my life here is easy!!!

But ooohhhh, nooooo. Handsome Muhammad [can I call him that?] wants to mess everything up. We both start off with perfect attention and smiles of hope. He props open the door and keeps hitting the light in the hallway to stay on. I get my wallet and give him the amount on the bill, but he signals me to wait and listen to him. I ask him, in Arabic, “You know I don’t know what you’re saying, right?” He laughs, nods his head, motions for my silence and continues. [Oh. This is serious.] I try giving him double the amount, thinking that I didn’t pay last month, or that they’re changing it or something. [Whatever. Fix it. Want a cookie, Muhammad?]

So we proceed to stand there, talking over each other in our own languages, me trying to shove money on him, telling him he is a good man, that I trust him, and him wanting me to get it. [Since when?!]

Finally I stop him and say, “Mohammad. Come, eat a cookie. [I’m so Arab. The answer is always to eat!] I’ll call my friend.” He succumbs to three warm, chocolate chip cookies for all his trouble and I call my go-to Middle Eastern/American “father.” He’s fluent.

No answer.

Ok, I call his best American friend. No answer.

I call the only Western man I know within 3 miles of my house. No answer.

Great. [Ya know how I’ve been talking about the no husband thing? And how I have to swallow my pride and ask for help? Well, three men are unreachable. What if I was being kidnapped?!]

Then I proceed to call another American guy who just so happened to score an “advanced low” on his Arabic language skills. Congratulations to him, he’s getting a phone call from me.

“Hi Daniel,” [we’ll call him Daniel], “This is Sarah. Can you translate for me? I’ve got my guard here and he’s eating all my cookies and won’t take my money.”

Laughing, “Uh, sure, Sarah. Put him on,” came Daniel’s response.

“Ok! Thanks! His name is Mohammad,” I say.

Mohammad happily takes my telephone and I stand there. They talk and talk and talk and finally Mohammad hands me the phone with an expectant look on his face. Daniel explains that I need to pay the money and some other small circumstance that I can’t even remember now, and I yell, teasingly, at Mohammad, in English: “Ya Mohammad!! Why didn’t you just say so!!?!” Daniel’s on the phone laughing and Mohammad just laughs, shakes his head at me and helps himself to two more cookies.

Moral of the Story:
If you semi-epic-fail at speaking the language,
and asking for help doesn’t necessarily work,
just bribe and reward those around you
with possibly the best part of being American:
Chocolate Chip Cookies.

It worked for me.

And it was just another night in the Middle East.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

language & culture..."still alive."

TYD Trivia: I’m pretty [usually, secretly] excited that I have a master’s degree. Not so much for things public, but rather internal—I have tools in my pocket with which I can organize and understand… my life and the world around me. My most favorite course in grad school was “Language and Culture.” Bottom line: Language and Culture must be approached in tandem: they are co-dependent while co-existing.

For example, here, when something great happens to you, your friend will tell you something like Congratulations--Mabrook!” or “With blessings!” And your required response is,Ahlayabarakfiki!” or “The same [or greater] blessings on YOU!” You don’t just say, “Thank you”—that’s rude! You wish the same goodness back on your well wisher! This is the culture being shown in the language.

You begin to see the hospitality and deep graciousness of the Arab people in the sweet dance that is the Arabic language. [You can also see their desire to constantly “one up” each other in goodness and well-wishes. It’s beautiful. Haha.] So here’s to reaching my dorkiness quota before my 200th word. Let’s keep going.

So, while I was in the ME, I bet you would guess that I grabbed this “Language and Culture” bull by both hands and fully engaged!!!


I was much too… somethin’ to actually study Arabic while I was there, ya know, totally immersed in it. [Oh, regrets… let’s line up.] What it really came down to was that I was too tired, too poor and…. kind of… too sick of Arabic by the end of the day that I didn’t want to hear another word, let alone study and practice it. [In my defense, I always gave my best efforts to memorize and understand what I could via auditory skills. But I definitely recommend a more disciplined and committed way of learning. Shame, Sarah, shame.] I can’t exactly form an accurate, functional sentence, but I got me some colloquial phrases and a little Arab accent that made people think I knew more Arabic than I do. Or they’re so nice and just flatter me beyond what is the truth… Hmmm…

Well, one day, I came home from work especially exhausted and a little down-trodden. My day had turned out to be more than I was prepared for and I just wanted some flowers, but was too pathetic in the heart to go get them for myself [see previous post].

One of my big ole’ protectors [pictured to the left] met me on the street, just smilin’ away, and greeted me more extravagantly than normal [sometimes he doesn’t greet me at all]. He suddenly became very concerned about my posture and countenance.

He gave his best impression of my usual self to communicate his disappointment in my weariness. [That makes two of us buddy—but how did you notice?!] So after the charades he again asked how I was, and I finally responded, “Good! … VERY good!!”

Immediately, I received a personalized, gift-wrapped 3-minute lecture [no lie], in Arabic, about how my Arabic is wrong and how I am not allowed to say this. [Who died and made him the Boss of Arabic?!] He said that I can’t say this because it’s like taking a glass that is already half full of water and pouring “too much” water in it—to the point where it overflows! [Yes, I understood this in Arabic. “Mabrook” to me.] And I interjected that, “Yessss!!!! Shukran!!! [Thank you!!!] This is EXACTLY what I wanted to say!!!”

No. According to him, this is exactly what I don’t want to say.


But in my mind and in my heart, it really IS what I want to communicate: My cup runneth over. This land, its culture, its language, its people—they’ve all exhausted me today, but I love it. Yes, sir, my cup runs over.

However, I’ll kid no one—I did not attempt to explain that in my dilapidated Arabic. Instead I let him finish up insisting that I can’t say this, that’s it’s not good to say, that it’s bad for your cup to spill over. [Probably some other thing in the culture I haven’t encountered and therefore don't understand yet.]

But it makes a little sense to me. In my mind, it’s as if you can never really be overly happy or just “really good” here. DAILY, I would ask people, in Arabic, how they were and the response I would get, always in English, with a dead-pan serious face was, “Still alive.”

And then I look at the person like this:

"What? Still alive?!”

And then they laugh, like it’s so funny. Haha, “Scared the Shagra” or something. But I guess we say it in English too. Not gonna complain, but I’m not gonna be happy, either. Ok, ya Eeyores!

But until I get yelled at by a considerable amount of Arabs, reprimanding my poor Arabic, I’m going to continue to sing that my cup runneth over.

For, indeed, it does.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On Being Single

It was about 10:30 PM on a Friday night. The main street was bustling as everyone was just beginning to leave their houses to go out, eating and visiting. Again, I had another epic yet “to be expected” encounter with a taxi driver. He wouldn’t listen to my directions—the ones I know “work” because I’ve memorized them from an Arab. He wanted to chit-chat with me [no, sir] and offered to take me to his house to visit with his two wives. [Ugh.] Frustrated and annoyed, I get a little sassy and pay him the exact fare, as he dropped me off about 5 “American blocks” from my desired destination. [Thanks, dude.]

I decide to delight in the opportunity to get to walk outside at night, something that doesn’t happen unless THIS happens. I put in my one working earphone on my little iPod shuffle and listen to the sweet sounds of some old-school Caedmon’s Call. We weren’t even on the chorus yet and I was already being followed. By a guy in a white Toyota van—ya know the one I’m talking about? The totally stereotypical “Middle Eastern” van? I pay him no attention and note that I’m alone on the dark side street. No shebab [youth males] are even out to… “protect me” [what? My neighborhood shebab love me.] There’s only one street light on. He does the classic follow behind and then speed up, rolling down his window to make kissing sounds and talk to me. I read the side of his van: Mohammad’s Plumbing Services.

This continues the whole way home, me ignoring him and him driving at 1mph to tail me. Eventually, I glare in his direction, hurl some [pathetically structured] insults and watch as he gets excited about how I’m showing a little life now. I definitely don’t want him to know what building I go into but I was just about home. In God’s sweet protection and provision, the bottom floor of my apartment building is a dukan [a little food/convenience shop—a gas station without the gas]. I walk up the stairs and am greeted by my three main men in the building, who take care of the place and subsequently… me. They only know “Helloooo” and “One, two, three” in English. So I say, in Arabic, “He is no good. He is my problem,” [Arabic’s hard…], and point to the guy waiting in the white plumbing van outside on the street. My three guys jump off their white plastic chairs and race outside, yelling at this man. All I heard was “shame on you!”, “American”, “blonde” and “good girl.” The rest, I’m sure, were bad words I’m not allowed to know.

The guy drives off, quickly realizing that he chose the wrong Shagra to follow, that I did have some male protection and that he did just waste 20 minutes of his night. I was exhausted and my guys could tell that. I sat and had some tea with them before going up to my apartment. I thanked them incessantly and they wished Allah’s protection on my life always. Sweet men.

I know, this makes my life seem so dramatic. But really, this is a story I wouldn’t even really share with friends in the ME—just because it’s “too everyday-ish.” This stuff happens all the time. And we just deal with it. I mean, when I noticed him following me, I just rolled my eyes and my temper flared up since I hadn’t fully recovered from being upset with my lazy taxi driver. When I talk to my married friends they say, “Oh, I just call my husband and he meets me outside and yells at the guy,” or does whatever the situation calls for. Well, guess what? I don’t have one of those—a husband.

I get to fight these fights by myself. Often, Father sends me men who can help, but ultimately, I’m alone in this.

And what makes me laugh is that married women look at me, with big, round eyes, filled with tears, pitying me that I don’t have a husband—especially for a night like this. Haha. No, I don’t have someone to fight for me. No, I don’t have someone to come home to and tell what happened in my day. [Instead, I blog.] And no, I don’t have someone to walk with me and avoid situations like this in the first place.

But I see it as God’s goodness to me right now:

  • Other people are blessed by the time and energy I have to give them because I don’t have a husband or kids to be home for.
  • I get to experience so many other families and friends because it’s just me—it’s easy to bring along just one more person into their families of 8… or 15.
  • I’m forced to learn how to ask for help, trust other people and navigate “community.”
  • He’s the one Who fights for me, protects me, provides for me…

It’s good for me to be single… let me be single. :)
No, I don't hate men—I adore them. I’m just not partnered with one right now.
Today, let me, and whatever single women around you, find delight in His perfect plan.
Remind us that we are useful and valuable to Father’s Family as His single daughters.
It’s not a pity—it’s great.
Just because it’s just hard sometimes, doesn’t mean it’s not Good.
I really just want people to “walk with me.”

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