Friday, June 15, 2007

Lost in Translation


Like Sarah, I want to learn beauty salon Arabic. Of course in my case I should say that I want to learn the Arabic of the “saloon,” a sort of ricochet word - the English transliteration of the Arabized version of the English word salon.

But first I have a confession to make. I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t disappointed when I learned that saloons were simply barber shops. Seeing ubiquitous signage for these places during my first trip to the Arab world, I imagined a happy slice of the Wild West in the Middle East, complete with frequent quick draw duels, busy five card stud tables, a blind rag-time piano player who always knew to duck when fists or bullets started flying, and a large brass spittoon for chewing tobacco in the center of the floor. I imagined tying up my horse, pushing open those window shutter-esque doors, sidling into the saloon, and declaring, with one hand on my pistol, that I was looking for the man who shot my pa.

I revisited this reverie yesterday as I walked into the barber shop on my block, Omar Saloon. I sidled in and growled, “I’m looking for the man who shot my pa.” I then summoned a fantastically large quantity of saliva and propelled it into the brass spittoon in the middle of the floor. Actually, I didn’t do this at all. But I really thought about it. I was so caught up in my day dream, in fact, that I momentarily forgot the words for hair cut. The barber looked at me blankly as I stuttered a little bit. Was my Arabic really that incomprehensible? (Or was he just trying to play it cool, concealing the fact that he’d killed my pa?) These are the questions that ran through my head. But as I would soon find out, if anyone had a right to suspect another of killing his pa, it was probably the barber. But I get ahead of myself.

After some more of my mumbling, the barber made a scissor motion through his own amply gelled hair. I nodded. At this point, I’m thinking, “This whole saloon Arabic thing isn’t going well.” But my unease was misguided. He motioned to a chair and I sat down. As he covered my clothes and wrapped starch around my neck, he asked how I would like my hair cut, katheer or shwaya, a lot or a little. I told him, “Shwaya but in the fashion which is loved profoundly by the girls of today.” You’ve got to love Modern Standard Arabic. The barber, named Muhammad, got a kick out of this one.

We continued to talk as he snipped away, making eye contact through the mirror facing us from the opposite wall. He asked me about Chicago and mentioned that he loved Michael Jordan. But Muhammad was especially curious about my work in Amman. Which is kind of a tough point for me because I’ve yet to discover how to explain NGOs. Recently I’ve resorted to telling people outlandish things, like my job is to eat falafel or grow buteekh. But I played it honestly this time, telling him that I was working with a group that promotes “human rights, political liberalization, and press freedom.” Interested, he asked if it was “al-umum al-mutahida,” the United Nations (warning: Arabic language study joke…al-umum al-mutahida is one of the first vocabulary words taught in Al-Kitaab, probably the most popular Arabic textbook in the U.S., so if an Arabic student knows anything, it is probably how to say United Nations. And given the cowboy nature of American actions in the Arab speaking world over the past few years, teaching future Middle East specialists how to say al-umum al-mutahida right off the bat is probably a good thing. Kristen Brustad is a crafty one, she is!) But back to the story. I told him I didn’t work for the UN. He put down his scissors and pulled a folded sheet of paper from his wallet. It indeed bore the stamp of Al-Umum Al-Mutahida. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be exact.

Muhammad used to be a barber in Baquba, an Iraqi town located 50 kilometers north-east of Baghdad. It is just outside of the region called the Sunni Triangle. It has frequently been termed the heart of the Sunni insurgency. A lot closer to theWild West than our humble saloon. Muhammad left in 2004 after things got really bad. He hoped to resettle in the U.S., Europe, or Canada. But the prospects for this appear grim. The U.S. recently agreed to accept 7,000 Iraqi refugees out of a larger total of 2 million scattered throughout the region and another 2 million internally displaced within Iraq.

I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry, ya Muhammad,” I mustered. From my comfortable bourgeois life, how could I possibly appreciate his experience? And how could I fight the sense that I was complicit? But he quickly responded with the deep differentiation – perhaps even undeserved – that I’ve come to expect from residents of the Middle East. “Politics are different than people,” he said, adding with a laugh, “And hair is the same everywhere.”

But, as I learned yesterday, although hair might be the same everywhere, styles certainly aren’t.

My initial direction of shwaya had quickly disappeared into a substantial pile of hair in my lap and on the floor. As Muhammad held a mirror behind my head, revealing a final product that exposed a lot more of my neck than was visible before I sauntered into the saloon, he asked “Shwaya jeel?” I wasn’t really sure what he meant, so I answered with my usual non-commital / I have no idea what you said “mumkin,” it is possible.

I realized the meaning of “shwaya jeel” as he filled his hand with a much more than shwaya - some might say copious - amount of hair gel. He proceeded to douse me in it. Now, loyal readers, you probably didn’t expect to receive stock tips from this humble record of discovery and learning. Nonetheless, Tar Heel Travelers Stock Tip #1: don’t buy stock in Jordanian hair gel companies because there is absolutely no room for growth (or perhaps this is why you should buy…help me, business majors , Economist readers, and Republicans!) – the market is just like my head after the application of “shwaya” gel: flooded, which is also the prevailing style among youth here.

So I looked like this when it was all said and done.

(this is the fashion preferred profoundly by the girls of today?? Mumkin.)

Writing can be framed to make us feel a certain way. But life doesn’t really work this way. It’s sometimes complex, sometimes simple, sometimes somewhere in between (my apologies for sounding a little Zach Braff-ish). And sometimes it affords you opportunities to indulge your egotistical vanity, skirting the discussion of graver issues that frighten and confuse you in favor of bad haircuts.

I shook Muhammad's hand as I left and he smiled, intoning, “Allah m'ak,” God be with you.


Anonymous said...

Who knew you had to go so far or a decent Pee Wee cut?!? If you were my kid, I'd drag you home by your dumb ass, but I'm proud as punch too.

Love and kisses,

Uncle Pete and the rest of the gang

Kevin said...

jesus bro that is rough.

Sarah said...

Whoa- after work today I am buying you katheer hair gel so you can do the mohawk look everyday.

Marium said...


sam said...

thanks for the love, y'all.

for more on baquba:

Anonymous said...

I'm try to view your work in Amman and it doesn't work.
it gives me an error on that

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