Arabic: Langauge, Coffee, and Culture

I dropped my daughter off at school at 07:30, ninety minutes before my Arabic class was scheduled to start. I say, “scheduled to start” because we have yet to start on time, or even close to time. Never mind, we usually go over at the end, so I guess I’m getting all I paid for.

I enjoy wandering around the Old City for lots of reasons, but one of them is that I get a chance to use my Arabic as I’m gaining it, little by little.

This time, I was in the Old City earlier than usual and found myself in the company of a friendly man. I told him that I was studying Arabic and he was all too happy to speak (much too fast) to me in Arabic.

The conversation started fairly normally: “Where are you from?” he asked. “Jebal Abu Gneim,” I said, offering the Arabic name of my “settlement.” In my thinking, that’s a little olive branch toward those who might be offended that I live in an area that is considered by many to be stolen land. We were both surprised to discover that we are neighbors: he from Um Tuba, I from Har Homa (Jebal Abu Gneim). Two villages sitting next to each other, one Arab, the other Jewish. One considered native, the other considered a settlement. However, he didn’t seem worked up about where I live. In fact, he was impressed that I know of his village, Um Tuba.

After about 90 seconds of nothing about where we both live, he wanted to know where I’m really from. So, I told him Texas. “Oh, Bush!!!” he gushed. Then, he went into a long discourse, mixing Arabic, Hebrew, and English, according to his assessment of what I was understanding. “Bush has a gold brain, but a black heart” he said with conviction and the assumption that I would understand what that meant. I didn’t. And I just stared back at him with what I thought was the “I have no idea what that means” look. (Unfortunately, it wasn’t until AFTER our conversation that I asked how to say, “I don’t understand” in Arabic.)

I did have an idea that my new friend wasn’t being complementary about President Bush, but I wasn’t certain how badly he thought of the former President. After a few moments of dead time gazing at each other, he said it again, but with less Arabic and more – can I say this? – Hebrew. In this part of the Old City, most men seem to be able to speak Hebrew, but they want to do it in whispers, so that others don’t hear them. I’m totally fine if they speak to me in English, but they tell me (in a whisper, of course) that they are more confident in their Hebrew than their English.

Anyway, he began to use the story of Cain and Abel from the Quran to explain what he meant. Because I didn’t catch “Cain and Abel” in Arabic, he offered them to me in Hebrew, so it took him longer than he had hoped it would to get me on track. “Cain who killed his brother Abel,” he clarified, “also had a gold brain and black heart.” And with that, his assessment of President Bush was finished.

I’m not sure if he felt the freedom to share his assessment of President Bush because we are neighbors, or because I’m learning his language, or simply because I was willing to listen.

I suppose it is open to a variety of interpretations as to exactly what he meant. But, I didn’t pursue it because long ago, I stopped being defensive of the President of the United States, whoever may be President. I don’t see much, if any value in going down that road. I do want to understand better what people mean, and find that Arab men that are older than me often use word pictures that they think will clearly communicate to me, but actually only puzzle me.

After the “gold and black” thing, he insisted we have coffee. Now, I don’t drink coffee. Let me say that again, but more clearly: I DON’T DRINK COFFEE. More than once, I’ve explained to people, “I’m not being modest by saying no; I REALLY don’t like coffee. I don’t like the taste, and it usually burns my tongue.” Well, no matter: out came the thick coffee in the thimble size cups. I went ahead and accepted it since I didn’t really have a choice at that point. I held it for a moment and then took the smallest micro-sip possible, valiantly fought off the natural reaction toward severe bitter tastes, and swallowed the unbelievably rancid brew. After that, I just held the cup in my hand with NO intention whatsoever that it would come near my mouth again. He was happy to see that I enjoyed his coffee, which is to say that I must have had better control of my facial gestures than I thought possible. 

He needed to get going, so he bid me a “mah-salami” (“see you later”), but didn’t get away before I had him write his name out for me. I hope to wander over to his village on a Saturday or Sunday to visit. But, I’ll make sure it is time for tea, not coffee.

It seems to me that there are three major currencies among Arab men: coffee, cigarettes, and politics. Unfortunately, I don’t care for any of the three. However, I’m hopeful that my Arabic studies combined with Arab hospitality will give me some good in-roads into this community.

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