A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

visibly foreign (ii): hello, neighbors

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 1, 2007

Every morning, I exchange morning greetings with my neighborhood coffee vendors. I say “saba7h al-kheir”, they say “bonjour”; and we all feel pleased by our mutual politeness. The early morning customers smile whenever they see me – clearly, the sounds of a slightly accented “good morning” brighten their days.

Its okay – I understand that watching me speak Arabic is amusing. It amuses my parents – and they don’t even speak Arabic :-). For friends and acquaintances who do speak the language, its even funnier. I’ve sent friends into utter hysterics with a mere phrase or two.

I like to think of it as my contribution to winning hearts and minds – but my linguistic gifts are not the focus of the story I wish to tell here.

On Tuesday morning, one of the vendors stopped me. Mademoiselle, he said. I must tell you something. I have been here a long time. You know Madame S., who lives above you in your building? I have known her since she was a little girl – over thirty years.

Over the past year, I have met most of the women who live in my building – but their names escape me. I have no idea who Madame S. is, but I did appreciate his description of the changes in her hair color between then and now.

I also appreciated the unintended reminder I took from our conversation. My building is not visible from where the coffee vendors have their stands. It lies around a corner and down another street – a street that is home to several residential buildings.

I am foreign, and as a result, I am visible.

Its a good thing I remembered to brush my teeth before I left the house that morning – I wouldn’t want to be known as Madame S.’s unkempt neighbor!

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One Response to “visibly foreign (ii): hello, neighbors”

  1. Everyone knows every that goes on in Beirut. The US Embassy always sends out messages saying, “Vary your routes and schedules.” Even if you do that, everyone knows you’re on your way long before you arrive. It’s even worse if you’re foreign or have light hair.

    Everyone asks me why I don’t speak Arabic often. In fact, my Arabic got worse after moving to Lebanon. I take people’s laughs far more personally than I should. I have no problem failing to speak perfect French in France or not speaking perfect Spanish in Spain (especially because I have a Mexican accent). I don’t mind their laughs. I do mind the laughs of Lebanese.

    It’s for two reasons:
    1) I feel my Arabic SHOULD be better.
    2) Lebanon is an arrogant and condescending country. People step on other people every chance they get. It’s a country in which everyone spits and steps on the people below them and are obsequious to the ones higher up. I’m already insecure, so I prefer to stay in the dominant position and make them feel weak that their English and French are horrible. Even though they claim to speak these languages fluently, their fluidity is about as good as mine in Arabic.

    It’s my form of rebelling against the system. Obviously, the system matters enough to me that I rebel against it. If I didn’t care and didn’t have a connection, I wouldn’t take it so personally.

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