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.]