Meet Mahmoud, one of my four language exchange partners. At 21, he is short, has a chocolate complexion, curly, black hair and a big smile with pearly white teeth. From Aswan, the southernmost city in Upper Egypt, Mahmoud studied some English in school, but never built a solid foundation. Mahmoud is the “office boy” at his company. That is to say, he is the coffee boy. In Egypt, offices generally have one or two people who prepare coffee or tea for the office staff. They also clean the office at the end of the day. I met Mahmoud through my friend Hazem, my first language exchange partner. Hazem told me that Mahmoud wanted to improve his English.
For the past several months we have met twice a week for two hour language exchange sessions: an hour of English and an hour of Arabic. In our first session, I had to teach him basic grammar and review the alphabet with him. I very often feel my Arabic ability is about the same level as his English, so it is somewhat of a symmetrical match. Although Mahmoud is 21, he sometimes behaves like a teenager. He giggles like a girl. And is fairly playful.
Mahmoud makes about 400 LE ($80) a month, which is a typical salary. He sends half of that to his family back home in Aswan. He lives in the office and doesn’t have much of a social life. In his 10 months in Cairo, he has never attended a party, so he expressed a strong desire to attend one. As I was preparing to host a small gettogether, I invited him; however, he was afraid that there would be beer and hasheesh (marijuana). Alcohol, of course, is forbidden for devout Muslims. Hasheesh is also frowned upon, in general. (However, it is also the drug of choice for many young Egyptians.) I told him that there would be small amounts of alcohol that some friends would bring, but there would be no hasheesh, as I am not a pothead.
I tell him that President Jimmy Carter visited Cairo the previous night and spoke to the American University in Cairo (AUC) community about peace between Israel and her neighbors, especially Palestine.
“Do you like Israelis?” he inquires.
“Yes, I do,” I reply.
“I don’t like Jewish. In the past, the prophet says they war with Muslims.”
I ask him, “How many Jews do you know?”
He met one Jewish tourist in Aswan two years ago and spoke to him for 10 minutes. Mahmoud did not have a good impression of the Jewish visitor, which only confirmed his low opinion of Jews. Of course, in this aspect, Mahmoud is a typical Egyptian. While Egypt and Israel are officially at peace, there is very little cultural exchange or tourism between the two. In fact, any Egyptian who does visit Israel should expect to be called into the Egyptian Intelligence Ministry for an interrogation.
I ask him, “How many Chinese do you know?”
He explained that once he met two Chinese girls who were lost in Aswan, so he directed them to the tourism office. That was about a 10 minute exchange. “They were very beautiful,” he recounted. I am the third Chinese he’s ever met in his life.
Mahmoud asks me, “Do you not know Kung Fu?” This is a very common question Egyptians ask of Asians. Usually, I’ve denied that I know any martial arts; however, after many weeks of the same questions, I decided to be mischievous and say that actually, yes, I do know Kung Fu and I studied at the famed Shao Lin Temple. When Egyptians ask me to demonstrate my technique or to teach them, I say I cannot, as “it is a secret.” Moreover, the true master does not settle problems with his hands; rather, he uses his mouth. This answer usually leaves them with a sense of awe.
After I said I do no know any martial arts, he asked, “Why do you not know Kung Fu?”
I tried to explain by asking him, “Does every Egyptian own a camel?” or “Does every Egyptian know how to build a pyramid?”
Obivously, not every Egyptian owns a camel or knows how to build a pyramid and I think he got the point.