"I wnt ombling toggle"
Trip Start Sep 29, 2012
27Trip End Jul 01, 2013
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Catching up week starting 11th November
With our Egyptian dialect course finished, the fusHa standard Arabic begins. After our insane cramathon first year at Oxford followed by a 4 month break, sitting down to try and read a newspaper article comes as a shock to the system.
We'll now spend lessons learning the standard Arabic of journalism, current affairs and literature across the Arabic speaking world. We laugh to find ourselves in the reverse situation to a month ago when we touched down in Cairo with nothing but classical Arabic to offer the taxi drivers. Having pushed aside/forgotten this for the last few weeks as we filled our minds with Egyptian, we now can’t speak anything but street Arabic
The difference between standard Arabic and Egyptian is a funny one to explain. Sometimes you can go for a whole sentence using pretty much the same words but with different pronunciation and at others every word in a sentence translated into standard Arabic is entirely different. A friend drew a good comparison saying, 'Imagine you were travelling from the south to the north of England, where a different version of English was spoken (I don’t mean to spark an argument) and you wanted to convey the sentence "I went walking yesterday". To do this you’re told you must use the same past tense, but drop the “e” of “went”, and that the word ambling is what is used for walking, except pronounced “ombling”, and the word “yesterday” would be met by blank stares, so “toggle” is the ticket.’ So if the Standard Arabic is “I went walking yesterday”, Egyptian gives us: “I wnt ombling toggle”. And there you have a typical converted sentence.
So the week rolls on, and apart from trying to keep our 2 different languages from getting muddled, I begin to feel torn between putting time and energy into the standard Arabic, the language for my degree, and the living language of the Egyptian dialect, which is what I want to speak! I realise the year will have to be a juggling act between the two.
Whilst I ponder my dilemma, our week gets filled with teaching at our NGO (great fun, many power cuts), an invite to Cairo Jazz Club by an acquaintance, (something along the lines of a music venue come night club, full of the grooving non-higabed of Cairo’s yuppies) and a Japanese party in the palatial apartment of our new diplomat friends (a sleek, minimally furnished, bamboo-screened place and apparently rented property of an Egyptian film star). On Wednesday we don’t make it into school because of strikes in the metro, which turf 2 million extra travellers onto the roads of Cairo. Commuting across the city to school by taxi would make us an hour late on a normal day, so today we’d probably arrive in time for the last half hour. Instead, with an afternoon spare I decide to undertake mission Go for a Run in Cairo. From what I’ve gathered, running isn’t particularly compatible with the climate, the terrain or the laid back culture, but my theory that a workout routine in the house would be just as efficient has the side effect of making me feel like a lab rat, so I take to the streets hoping to get at least a little way down the road before getting either lost or chased home for my brazen and inappropriate street conduct. As it happens I do get spectacularly lost, though asking for directions is always good Arabic practise (breathlessness adding comedy value), and half-constructed roads and potholes make it a stop-starty route. But concerning my reception, I’ve decided that the attention we attract comes from our appearance more than our actions, so whether I’m walking like an Egyptian or cartwheeling down the street the attention will be there, and I might as well be jogging. I suppose it just adds the element of dumbfounded bafflement to the usual reactions.
Later that evening after returning from a Nassya Project meeting, a few of us are sitting round when there’s a knock on our apartment door. With everyone else occupied I open it to a massive ‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY!’ from out in the corridor. On the doorstep are three beaming Egyptian friends from Nassya, laden with a big parcel and a cake full of candles! Having been really sorry to miss our party at the weekend, the three had spun the plan with the girls – unbeknown to me – of this mini celebration. Slightly gobsmacked, I blow out the candles and we dive into the pile of amazing Egyptian pastries and cakes as I open the package. Inside is a beautiful painting of those silhouetted pyramids, palm trees and camels against a blood orange sunset. The picture takes pride of place on our mantel piece, and still leaves me baffled at the ready generosity and friendship we’ve stumbled upon here when I see it. We spend the rest of the night having an invaluable lesson from our friends in useful street talk, which disintegrates in hilarity. A highlight of the evening is the revelation that Egyptians too have ‘your mum’ jokes.
Now we walk the streets armed with a gem of a come-back.
At the weekend we return to the Arabian Nights-esque Al-Azhar park, this time to meet the new acquaintances of some classmates. Lucy and Zoe came across these characters at a local music festival – the members of an up-and-coming young band. The band members turn up at Al-Azhar with a guitar, and we sit looking out over Cairo being taught Arabic songs and exchanging them for English ones. It’s great fun, and by the end of the night we’ve learned a few big Egyptian favourites, and I’ve been invited to meet up for some jamming sessions bringing my fiddle. Sweet.
The next day, the flatmates and I cross the city to Heliopolis to spend the day with the lovely Salma, connection of Megan’s who took us round the souks a few weeks ago, and all her friends. Having been given the offer to do something touristy, we opt instead to just spend a typical day hanging out in the area. The group make us really welcome, and an afternoon whiled away hanging out in the streets and being shown their favourite places for koshari (pasta, rice, and chickpea mongrel, and Egyptian cuisine must, weird as it first seems) and ice-cream feels like one of the most genuine and affiliating experiences we’ve had.