The Arabic proverb says, “He who knows the language of the foreign people--may God protect him from their evil ways.” In some ways, the ability to speak Arabic is like possessing a magic key that opens doors. I noticed a few examples while in Cairo:
• In the Mari Girgis neighborhood—as I was walking towards the Art Museum Darb 17-18, a security man tells me in simple English, “Sorry, closed. This area not open.” I tell him in Egyptian Arabic, “ya amm.” Or Hey Uncle—I want to go to the museum. It’s open daily except Friday and it’s very close.” He replies, “You speak Arabic? Ok, come in, please!”
• Even at the market when I purchase postcards, the vendor tells me, “you get a discount because you speak Arabic.” Of course, he says this partly in jest, but I understand his intention.
• At the Cairo Airport, a security man asks me to remove an item from my bag. I ask him in Arabic, “small or big bag? Is my water bottle a problem?” “Hey—you speak Arabic?! No problem at all. Please just go through!” I sometimes think that maybe one day I can show up with a small gun, but as long as I speak Arabic, the staff will waive me through.
Earlier this week, I was in New York. I passed a hot dog stand in Battery Park and overheard the vendor speak Egyptian Arabic on the cell phone. I stopped and thought I had to speak to him. He never got off the phone, so I asked him in Arabic, “I’d like a bottle of water.”
He replied, “$1.50” in English.
I had just bought a bottle earlier in Flushing, Queens for $1.00, so told him in Arabic, “Hey uncle—that’s a bit expensive. Can you make it cheaper? Maybe $1.00?”
He replied in English, “ok.”
This morning, while in Jersey City, New Jersey, I entered an Arabic corner store and asked the vendor in Arabic if he had “koosharee” the famous Egyptian dish of macaroni, rice, lentils and grilled onions. He replied, “insha’ Allah” or God Willing or “yes.” We spoke for a few minutes. I then asked him if he had Molokhayeh, or Jew’s Mallow, a thick green soup popular in Egypt. Again, he replied, God Willing or “yes.” And proceeded to pull out a small tub from the fridge. “I give it to you—free!”
“Allah yekhaleek!” May God Keep You, I thanked him.
I somehow doubt that he would’ve done the same had I simply asked him in English.