When i navigate in a country where I really don't speak the language or speak about fifty words, which is the case in Lebanon, I prefer dealing with strangers. The conversation stays superficial. Where are you going? How much does it cost? How do i find the hammam? Simple and non-commmittal. We t took the mini-bus to Batroun by taking a service to the Daoura. I kept asking where au Batroun? And folks kept pointing ahead until we found the precise stop. I stepped out like an agressive Lebanese and made every bus pause for my question.
Adi, Tony's son, was with me and he had enough Arabic to help out, but stood back while I yelled down the bus. Our route took a local route out of the city, Batroun is to the north and we had to travel through Jounieh which is super developed and Jbail which is now brugeoning with condos, to Batroun. It all worked out until we had to take a taxi to the village. The driver was from the village and there the conversation took that dive to the depths. Who are you? Who is your family? Do you know so and so? The questions went on and on and i understood most of them, but didn't know how to answer.I pressed Adi to help, but the back seat was low volume. The inconvenience of not having facility in Arabic reared its ugly head, yet again. The drawbacks of growing up in the assimilationist days were always taunting me. Particularly in the taxi with the grumpy driver Botrys.
The next day, the hired driver, Raymond, was different, he had two languages: french and arabic. Two languages i know less and lesser. But I tried to piece together what I wanted as we drove to my destination Tripoli. Unna biddi mashe via la mer. Two languages to say, we want to walk by the sea. I asked him questions about the war, En la guerre, fieh bombs en Troplos? Three languages. Fortunately, he answered incorrectly, since i knew more of the history than he did and so i didn't pursue the conversation. But the directions to what i wanted to do and what I wanted to see were hard to explain. Souk baladi, Quarter Christian...we got those covered. The information I needed about the Christian population went unanswered. Instead he took us to a friend's fish restaurant where the bill miraculously came to exactly $100! How could I argue?
Today, I am with a white American friend in Jerusalem who rattles off Arabic to merchants, checkpoint guards, gas station attendants, the annoying guys at the Kalandia border trying to wash our windows. I sit in the back feeling out of sorts. Why can't i say Eh desh? I can ask how much somthing is, and then guess which schekels go with the answer. I saw myself getting passive in a language i could understand, most of the time. Her facility threw me for a loop. I lost footing for a minute.
Anthony and I just got back from exchanging money. We went into the center of Ramallah alone. Lo and behold, something rose up in my throat that was from a childhood dream. I handled all the transactions, asked for everything we needed, added on a trip to two stores where we bought water, grapes, ice cream bars, and batteries. Everyone smiled at my weak Arabic and talked back to me as if they were not speaking to someone as illiterate as I. in fact where Americans slow down and yell at non-English speakers, these guys seemed to speed up. But I didn't feel patronized.
When we got back to the apartment though, we emptied our pockets, and studied each of the coins. The sizes of the schekels and their denominations. We did fine, didn't get ripped off. As a matter of fact, the four batteries were only 60 cents.
Tomorrow, Bethlehem, more Arabic. I will close my eyes, think back to the kitchen where the words between my mother and grandmother were flung like her bread dough. Smell it, use it and be okay. So I say.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports