I’ve made a breakthrough!

27 Aug

This morning after Patrick headed to campus for orientation, I got up and headed towards the market to pick up a few things for dinner and check out a cell phone store we had heard about. To get to the market, I walk 15 minutes through shady streets, dodging taxis and avoiding stepping on the dog tails hanging out from underneath parked cars. Sometimes there’s a sidewalk, more often there’s not. Along the way I usually pass about a couple dozen people, women coming back from the market and kids riding bikes. Mostly though, I pass men, lots of them. Each building has a doorman, a boab, who sits in front of his building chatting with other boabs. On sidewalks or benches, elderly men gather in groups of two or three and quietly sit and watch the neighborhood wake up.

Being a stranger in a strange land, I’ve kept my head down and my eyes averted when I pass the many people on the street, especially the men. I don’t know if they want me there or if any acknowledgment on my part would be inappropriate. Sometimes I give a head nod, but never a smile. I just don’t want to convey anything that might be offensive or construed as an invitation. Usually I get a stoic look back and I move on, sure that they just want me to go on about my business so they can go on about theirs.

This morning before I left the house, I decided to try an experiment. I was going to greet the people I passed with the Arabic phrases I’ve learned and see how it went. If I was out of line, I would quickly find out. So off I went. Halfway down the block, I passed the next building’s boab washing car windows. “Sabaah il khayr” I said shyly when he looked up. He broke into a friendly grin “Sabaah il noor” he replied and waved. I walked on smiling, bouyed by this exchange. Almost immediately, I passed by the withered old street cleaners that I saw every morning. Usually I avoided their gaze, but this time I smiled across the street at them. Both of them smiled widely and waved excitedly, like little kids. I waved back and walked on, thrilled! I hadn’t even made it to the end of the block and my experiment was suceeding!

I greeted everyone I passed on my way. On one street I looked up at an apartment building where a women was shaking out a rug over her balcony. I waved and she immediately waved back and called “is salaam alykum,” peace be upon you. With everyone I passed, a smile and greeting was like a key. Every time I used it, it opened up those stoic faces into friendly neighbors who would greet me back and ask “issaak?” how am I doing? I would reply and ask them the same before walking off. The usual reply was “kwayis awi, alhamdulillah.” Very good, thanks be to God.

My market experience was better, bolstered by the confidence these small exchanges gave me. I tried Arabic when ever I could and was as friendly as possible and it made a huge difference. It was almost comical how much spring this put in my step. I felt like I should have a bouncy soundtrack following me. After my shopping was done, I sat down at a cafe and had a croissant and a lime hibiscus- an incredible native drink that is so refreshing. While I was talking to my waiter, the morning prayers were called out. I asked him about them and we ended up having a great conversation in which he passionately explained the tenets of Islam and emphasized things that Muslims and Christians had in common. He was trying very hard, in broken English, to make himself understood, but what really came out was the expression in his eyes, through which one could tell he truly loved his faith. He pointed out a few local mosques in the area that had books in English about Islam in case I wanted to learn more. There was not an ounce of an attempt to convince or convert, just to reach understanding.

In retrospect, I feel silly for thinking I would offend with friendliness. There’s certainly a difference between a come hither smile and a smile that says hello neighbor. And here I was thinking those I passed were unfriendly and wouldn’t want to acknowledge me when they may have been thinking the exact same thing about me. The subconscious limits we place on ourselves sometimes are funny. I’m glad I broke through this one and look forward to friendlier days ahead.


9 Responses to “I’ve made a breakthrough!”

  1. DaD August 27, 2007 at 2:49 pm #

    Its amazing that a single simple smile can be the most powerful tool in breaking down a barrier.
    Have wonderful adventure.

  2. tracy m August 27, 2007 at 4:06 pm #

    This is awesome- I’m finding myself a tiny bit envious of your adventures.

  3. mom August 28, 2007 at 2:23 am #

    I’m extremely happy for you. It’s good that your street neighbors get to know and recognize you. These will be the people who will come to your aid if needed. These will be the people who will watch out for you and notice when you don’t show up or seem to be in distress. You’ll be fluent in the language in no time. How we envy your daily adventures! Please continue your writing as often as you find the time. We feel as if we walk along beside you in your new discoveries.
    luv you three lots

  4. Eric and Renee August 28, 2007 at 4:26 am #

    Patrick and Melissa,
    Thanks for letting us tag along on your adventures with your colorful narratives. We are glad to live vicariously and shop in English for the moment. Our thoughts are with you and we certainly wish you all the best. Take care and good luck!

  5. Priscilla DeLeon August 28, 2007 at 6:49 am #

    Hi Melissa and Patrick,

    How exciting! It is amazing what a smile will do and can achieve. I could picture you on your walk. It brought a smile to my face. Just want you both to know—-we are praying for you guys. We look forward to reading your e-mails.
    Much love,
    Aunt Priscilla

  6. Elaina August 30, 2007 at 3:11 am #

    I thoroughly enjoy reading about your exotic experiences. I have always wanted to travel to the Middle East. There is something about it that makes me think I would really feel alive there. I’m proud of you for your bravery and friendliness. I don’t know if you would get such a warm reception in a large U.S. city (I know, I’m cynical). I can picture you almost skipping along down the street with your bright bouncy hair, becoming the most popular American girl in Cairo. Thank you for brightening my bland suburban existence.

  7. becca August 30, 2007 at 3:32 pm #

    so cute! how nice to have a positive friendly. appropriate experience along the streets. Im trying to choose the soundtrack music for your stroll…

  8. Shabnam August 31, 2007 at 8:32 am #


    I am so pleasantly surprised at your narratives. You are quite a writer and maybe life in Egypt would provide you with the perfect setting in which to write your maiden novel. Have read your 1st two pieces, have still to read the Friday and Breakthrough one. Must say your speed of writing far exceeds my speed of reading. But i am simply loving your blogs. Thanks for keeping us posted.

    And oh yes, say hello to PatricK too. I think i know him 😉

    Hugs to both of you,

  9. Mike September 6, 2007 at 2:37 am #

    Do you mind if I live vicariously through your experience? I nearly accepted a position at American U in Cairo. I am happy where I am, but every now and then I wonder about the adventure that almost was. Thanks for writing about your experiences so that the rest of us can read & learn.

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