LANGUAGE BARRIERS

. . . LOST IN AN UNFAMILIAR CULTURE

Have you ever traveled to a place where  you couldn’t understand the local dialect or language, and the people there didn’t understand you?  I have.  Let me tell you a story.

My husband and I were new arrivals in Cairo, Egypt in 1987.  He worked for the American Embassy while I planned to study anthropology at the American University in Cairo.  Knowing no Arabic, I had chosen to take a colloquial Arabic class at AUC designed to get foreigners started; formal language classes would begin with the new semester.  A couple weeks into the class, I found myself in the position of having to hire a taxi to get from my suburban home to the Embassy in Cairo.  “Maa-lesh!”  (no matter!) I thought;  I believed I knew enough Arabic to do this one simple thing.  I found a taxi driver (who spoke no English) in the market area  near our home and told the driver in Arabic that I wanted to go to the American Embassy, about 30 minutes away.  I got into the cab and he began driving- but NOT toward Cairo!  He continued to ask me what I thought was ‘where do you want to go?’  so I kept repeating the same answer, mystified as to why he kept asking.  Around and around we drove, stopping to talk to several people shopping in the market area.  It dawned on me that he was looking for an English speaking person, as there was apparently some misunderstanding between us.  After what seemed ages (actually about 20 minutes!) an English speaking Egyptian woman got into the cab with me; only then did the remarkable story come out!  She told me in Egypt, it is standard for a driver to seek more than one fare when traveling a certain distance.  However, it is considered inappropriate for a driver to allow a woman (me!) to ride with two or more men alone; so it was necessary to find a woman who wanted to go to Cairo.  Furthermore, drivers expected their passengers to give them directions if the destination is not known to them.  His question had not been ‘where do you want to go?’ but ‘where is the American Embassy?’  I felt so relieved to have my co-passenger explain it all to me!

But what had I felt before the bi-lingual lady had so graciously stepped in?  I had felt frustrated, slightly angry; followed by a sort of low-level fear and anxiety; then stupid, humiliated, humbled.  You may think I shouldn’t have felt all these things, yet I did- all in the course of a mere twenty minutes.  Imagine the gratitude I felt toward my empathetic interpreter!  She had taken it upon herself to solve my problem for me, explaining both language and cultural misunderstandings.  She had erased my uneasiness with two minutes of her time.  She taught me a lesson I will never forget, much more than she could have ever imagined or intended.  To her, it was a simple kindness.  But then kindness is never simple to the recipient, is it?

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