This past weekend marked a major Muslim holiday, Eid, which shut down most of Cairo for rituals and animal sacrifices I was eager to avoid. So I schlepped a backpack out to Anafora, a Coptic Orthodox retreat center between Cairo and Alexandria, at which two other Mennonite Central Committee team members are working for the year. Anafora draws an eclectic crowd of international volunteers from North America and Scandinavia, and many of the Egyptian staff speak English and French as well as Arabic. Over dinner, one European trilingual observed that she has a different personality in languages other than her mother tongue.
My task for the weekend involved serving tea to three hundred fifty prayer conference attendees, and, because I am tall, pale, and confused, all of them could tell I wasn’t local. Usually our exchanges were brief— a garbled “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in our non-native tongues—but some people were feeling quite chatty, taxing the limits of my vocabulary. My weekend involved a lot of mute confusion, a lot of pointing, and a lot of, “tani?” again? or “ana mish fahhma,” I don’t understand. But I was determinedly genial in all of it, arranging my face to signify my amiability, or gratitude, or general inoffensiveness.
It turns out that my personality “bil Araby,” in Arabic, is remarkably sincere, perhaps because I am incapable of sarcasm. I don’t know nearly enough vocabulary to make the quips that characterize banter around my family dinner table. I can’t follow conversations, so I can’t make a sassy aside. In English, I am precise and quick with words. In Arabic, I am earnest and confused, funny not because of wit but because I am fumbling a language everyone else understands. And though I am keen to learn and grateful to those willing to respond to my errors with good-natured laughter, I would prefer to cause amusement on my own terms. I prefer not to illicit chuckles unintentionally.
Often these chuckles are followed by an informal lesson. I learned a lot refreshment-related vocabulary from tea-drinkers, and “shorshuba,” the word for mop, from my coworkers. But language is, of course, not entirely a matter of vocabulary. Egyptian colloquial Arabic draws on linguistic and cultural complexities to which my access, as a non-native speaker, is severely limited. Even familiar Arabic vocabulary can be unreliable—my friend Brenna spent the whole weekend asking her coworkers, “inti tabena?” are you tired? only to discover on Monday afternoon that the words for tired and snake are remarkably similar, and she’d been using them interchangeably. I have already become infamous among the MCC staff for saying “mobtusa” instead of “mobsuta,” happy. Every exchange underscores an unpleasant reality: this writer and reader, lover of precise diction and clever turns of phrase does not hold the necessary mastery to be any of those things in Arabic. The best I can be is a student. And being a student of Arabic, and a student of Egypt, seems to involve feeling like a prize idiot at least fifty percent of the time. And I can’t even joke about it.
One evening, after wiping up clumps of dried milk and mopping hot chocolate off the floor, Brenna and I climbed on to the roof of the main building to watch night settle on the desert. We talked, as we often do, about what frustrates us, what delights us, what confuses us about living in Egypt—in English, which felt like home after a long day of linguistic insufficiency. I made a joke, a stupid one, that I don’t even remember, but we both laughed so hard we doubled over in our rickety reed chairs. I had spent the day searching for words, and in that moment I landed on the right one. It was delicious.
My sass will be confined to English for quite some time, I think, which may not be a bad thing. I’m snarky in English, but Arabic is teaching me about body language, the kindness of strangers, and the value of fervid goodwill. For now, I’ll amuse with my eagerness, errors, and bafflement instead of my sharp wit. But I’m told that one of the most important words in the language is “insha’allah,” God willing. Until I’ve collected enough vocabulary for zingers, I’ll practice the humility of persistent but sincere bewilderments.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.