Sunday, August 17, 2008

My Two Years of Arabic Save My Jewish Face

At first when the Peace Corps told me that I was going to Sub-Saharan Africa, I was slightly bummed because I thought that my two years of sleepless night spent studying Arabic vocabulary would therefore come to nil. However, I was quite content when I later found out that I would be living and working in Mali, a culturally diverse mélange of West African, Islamic and French cultures across the Sahel plains and Sahara Desert. For the most part I have only really been using my French and Bambara tongues. My Arabic has only helped navigate Allah’s blessings which are wished upon me each day, the instructions on Saudi-built water pumps, and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s ubiquitous presence in the form of posters, hotels and LibyaOil stations now that he is no longer a pan-Arabist patron of terrorism but a pan-African nationalist sugar daddy of trickle-down economic development.

Last night my Arabic finally came to practical use. And it involved the worst of ethnic stereotypes related to people with my distinguishing features – even more sinister than those pertaining to my butterscotch-colored skin. It involved my nose.

So this week was time for my site visit in Diaramana (it will be explained in more detail in a future prior post). But public transportation in Mali is very limited and unreliable, so in order to travel from the Peace Corps training compound at Tubaniso to my pastoral paradise and vice versa I had to spend a few nights at L’Hôtel Joliba in Segou, the capitol of my local Segou Province. Segou is a fairly large city for Malian standards – about 100,000 people – but my presence was fairly limited to this strange parallel universe which is Le Quartier Touriste. This little neighborhood which consists of my hotel, another hotel, a half-dozen upscale bars and restaurants feels like many things, but it does not feel like the country of millet farmers that is Mali.

The vibe there is very Casablanca. Neither I nor any of the other Tubabs patronizing this oasis of Western comforts are really there to see Segou itself, but we are there en route to other places. This applies to the Peace Corps Volunteers trying to get to our sites, some of the few USAID consultants venturing outside of the Bamako metropole to improve the roads and build a new airport, dreadlocked Italian hippies who don’t speak a single indigenous language but thinking that they can revive the economy by teaching Malian kids to play soccer, and of course many French tourists who are there to see the hippos in the Niger on their way to the mosque at Djenné. While in limbo in anticipation for our rides to Somewhere Elsewhere, we wait. And wait. And wait.

And we shuffle from one café to another and drink a lot of black coffee. In this insular bubble from Malian reality the Tubab society is very brackish – you see the same white people over and over. After all, asides from the proprietors of the businesses which cater to Tubabs, there are very few Malians who can afford 4,000 CFA for a brick oven-baked pizza. For someone who is training to integrate into rural Bambara society, I felt like such a member of the neocolonial bourgeoisie that is was quite unsettling.

Of course, there is an entire population of people who feed off of the captive Tubab audience. There is an entire class of Rastafarian-looking fellows who are hawking beaded necklaces, wood carvings and other such souvenirs. It is kind of ironic, because there are multiple Peace Corps Volunteers in Segou whose entire job is to promote the nascent tourism sector which provides much-needed jobs to these artisans. But they can’t tell the difference between the French tourists who come there with wallets stuffed with money precisely to buy such tchotchkes and us Peace Corps Volunteers who are working to stimulate their economy, but don’t actually have any expendable income to do so ourselves. So when I tell them that I don’t have any money, they accuse me of being “a liar” and “a racist.” Every white person in Segou is here because they want to buy useless conversation pieces!

The reason my Arabic finally came to fruition was borne out of one tourist leech who is referred to by the Segou Peace Corps folks as Doujanber al-Damashek. Actually, I am the only one who calls him that – most simply refer to him as “Box Man.” Doujanber al-Damashek is a friendly Tuareg man, an overly friendly Tuareg man donned in traditional green jalabiyya and headscarf who stands outside of any of the handful of establishments where white people might be holding his inventory: a sword, and a box. Every time we walk out of the bar, Doujanber is waiting for us with a big, toothy grin and he unsheathes his sword! He doesn’t speak a word of French or Bambara, and he knows that we don’t speak Damashek, so he just communicates via the universal gesticulations of capitalism. “Oooo… shiny! You must certainly want to buy it!”

Other times we are slowly downing our cheap beers and Doujanber al-Damashek walks up to our café table and plops his box down in front of our faces. He tries to tell us the same two items over and over again, so we know his routine by heart. Some PCVs have fun with this; they put on an affected look of astonishment and exclaim “Oh my, a box! I bet I can put things in it! Wait… do you think it has drawers?” Doujanber al-Damashek opens and closes each of the box’s threes drawesr individually. “Wow, the box does have drawers! I’ve never seen anything like it!” I’m more polite, so I just pull out the linings of my pockets and shake my head in exaggerated sorrow.

Last night I walk over to the bar of L’Hôtel Joliba to pay for my pizza, and Doujanber al-Damashek is sitting there sipping a Fanta, taking a break after a long night of trying to sell his wares. His turban is untied, lying in a ball on top of the bar – clearly Doujanber is there to unwind after yet another day of no takers for his scimitar, or his box.

I actually take my wallet out – a rare occasion, and fiddle with the many large bills the Peace Corps gave me for three days food and lodging. Doujanber is obviously staring at my money. He is to my left, so his view of my side profile allows Doujanber to take in my expansive, Semitic nasal cavities.

Doujanber actually says something – in Arabic, assuming that this Tubab obviously won’t understand. "عندك فلوس! عنت يحود!" But thanks to Fulbright Scholars Naglaa Mahmoud, Heba Arafah, Bouchra Lif and all of the staff at the Five College World Language Program, I understood that utterance crystal clear: “You have money! You are… a Jew

It fazed me for a couple of seconds, for I had to process the slur which I had just heard and I haven’t heard or made a substantial sentence in Arabic in months . The recognition of being accused by an angry Muslim man with a sword at his hip for hindering his business with my ancestry caused a certain, instinctual flight-or-flight response in this Son of Israel. The collective memory of my people instructed me that to tell the truth would only lead to certain martyrdom to prove a completely unnecessary point, and so I preferred the survival technique used by birds which ruffle their feathers and raise their wings to demonstrate that they are simply too big to mess with... kind of like Levi Eshkol during the Six-Day War. In a similar fashion, I had to demonstrate that I was both intellectually and spiritually bigger than this simple Tuareg. The adrenaline from my pituitary gland shot straight to my adrenal gland, which in turn spurred my cerebrum into overdrive to summon the choicest of obscure political Arabic vocabulary words from the folds of my outer lobes. And then I turned towards Doujanber al-Damashek, gave him a look of most blithely disinterested hauteur and my tongue whipped out the greatest triumph of linguistic skills in the totality of the life of Zachary Asher Mason

"لا, ليسة أنا يحود. أنا مركسية لا اعتقد ان في الوطنية ,لأن فقط الفاشيون مثلك يؤمنون به الوطنية. لا احد يشتري الاطار الخاص بك إنشءاللة."
No, I am not a Jew. I am a Marxist. I do not belief in nationalism, because that is only for Fascists like you. Allah willing, no one will ever buy your box

Doujanber al-Damashek was so dumbfounded by this Tubab from New York speaking the language of the Prophet that he dropped his non-alcoholic Fanta all over the barroom floor

Ever since, Doujanber al-Damashek no longer asks me whether I want to buy his box, or his sword

The moral of this story is that everyone should learn to speak Arabic - especially Jews


Anonymous said...

Zak, I love you!! You are amazing!! You should have snapped your fingers in a Z formation before you walked away. Box Man just had it brought like it ain't neva been brought. It sounds like you are having an amazing time, and I can't wait to read about the rest of your adventures. I have to go to work in 15 minutes, so now I will just leave you with my own blog from Palestine:
It's not quite finished yet, there are still some photos and stories I need to upload. Anyway, I miss you a lot, but am confident that you are doing good in the world and having an amazing time.
Love, Hannah Allen
(You probably don't want to read my LJ cause it's boring, but the Blogspot made me put it in)

Josh said...

I kind of love you for this story. Also, glad you showed me your blog; I will read avidly. And you should check out mine:

why does this matter? said...

That is amazing! I don't know if you should post online that you are a Marxist. Especially if you want to become the politico extraordinare you were meant to be. I agree with Josh on the blog. I love it and it keeps me entertained. However, you should do more to publicize this to the general public.

Unknown said...

My blog is chock full of posts about vomit, diarrhea, and my love for glam rock power ballads. If I didn't express my philosophical views, then that would be a strangely disproportional lens of honesty.

Besides, identifying myself as a Marxist implied a wholly secular worldview, which was far preferable to corroborating the angry Tuareg's question of my Jewry. I also said that I wasn't Jewish - which was a little white lie.

michael.a.landau said...


haha, i too am thoroughly entertained! i'm definitely going to check back in for updates- I'm excited to hear what you are doing about getting people water infrastructure. You're awesome! Keep up the good story-telling (style, tone, and content)!

Adrian said...

awesome story

Lili Snyder said...

Hilarious!!! Also, I'm exceptionally glad that 4 years in the system wasn't all for naught.

Unknown said...

Your blog is pretty awesome man. You've got a knack for writing that makes it really easy to read, and very enjoyable too. Mali... damn man haha.

You join the Peace Corps and I'm joining the Marine Corps. It'd be funny to somehow end up in the same country.

Good luck out there, and kick their asses if they call you a Yahudi again!