Talk Like an Egyptian

Cary Barbor traverses language, culture, and class to connect with her new family.

Cary Barbor | Longreads | June 2019 | 14 minutes (3,384 words)

My new husband Mike reached into the suitcase open on the bed. He picked up my olive green cotton jacket between his thumb and forefinger. Worn and soft from many washings, it was a favorite. I liked its Mao collar and faux-wood buttons.

“You can’t wear that with these people,” he said.

Mike learned English as a teenager and sometimes uses odd and distancing phrases like that, like “these people,” to talk about people very close to him. The people closest to him.

“What people?”

“My mom; my stepfather. They are formal,” he explained, placing the jacket on the bed. I would need the proper clothes to fit in.

Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” flashed in my mind. Men with top hats and women with parasols. Formal like that? I didn’t have clothes for that. I had met his parents briefly at their apartment in Cannes, in the south of France. I thought I had passed muster. But now I wasn’t sure. And now I was packing for a long stay with them in Cairo, their real home, where I would be even more of an alien.

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, and not one of the fancy ones. My father was a chemical engineer for an oil company and my mom, a homemaker and then a secretary. My two older brothers, my older sister, and I went to public school and Catholic church every Sunday. We were certainly never hungry. But there was always a whiff of “not enough” in the house. If we wanted new shoes, we had to show our mother the old ones with actual holes in them. I realized later that was more about her childhood home, with a mentally ill and unemployable father, than the financial status of ours. Still, that feeling hung in the air, getting into the fabric like smoke.

***

“You are the guest of honor, please start,” said Mike’s cousin Kamilah, gesturing to me. My plate was piled high with chicken, duck, green beans and okra in tomato sauce, and two kinds of rice.

I had met his parents briefly at their apartment in Cannes, in the south of France. I thought I had passed muster. But now I wasn’t sure.

Shukran,” I said, picking up my fork tentatively. The smell of cumin and roasted tomatoes only exacerbated the nausea I was feeling from something I’d eaten the day before. My eyes scraped dryly when I blinked. I was flanked by my new mother-in-law and my husband’s aunt, who talked across me in loud Arabic. I painted a smile on my face and dug my fork into the rice. That seemed like the right thing.

The day after Mike had rejected my olive green jacket, I had gone to Ann Taylor on 6th Avenue on my lunch break and bought a classic sweater set. Two, actually — one in bright pink and one in navy.

I was wearing the pink one now, with a long grey skirt. I looked around. I fit in, I guessed, if just barely. I spotted a couple of large diamond rings on the fingers around the table. I reflexively curled my left hand, with its plain sterling wedding band, and rested it on my lap under the table. I preferred wearing no jewelry at all, but the simple ring I wore, bought off Etsy, was my compromise. The lovely diamond wedding and engagement rings Mike had given me were sitting in a small velvet pouch in my suitcase, forgotten, at the moment. I wished I could magically will them onto my finger, to cue these women that I belonged. That Mike had chosen well.

And then there was the impenetrable language. The conversations on either side of me of were in Arabic. Mike’s cousin Nour sat across from me and smiled. “Where are our manners, Cary? We should be speaking English.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling. My shoulders relaxed a bit.

“How is the visit so far?” Nour had gone to school in the US and her English was perfect. We discussed my sightseeing plans, and the side trips Mike and I planned to take. We had gotten married very recently, in March, 2008.

Nour nudged her mother next to her and said, “Englizi!” smiling and indicating me with her chin.

“Oh, sorry, Cary,” Nour’s mother said. “Are you enjoying your lunch?”

“Very much so. The duck is delicious.”

“Do you have a cook at home, Cary?” asked Mike’s aunt, Tante Rehema. It was just the women at this lunch party.

“No, just me mostly … and Mike, er, Mustafa cooks occasionally.” My husband had changed his name when he moved to the US as a teenager, but these women all knew him as Mustafa.

“Oh!” Tante Rehema looked down to hide her surprise. “Well, I love how Kamilah prepares the green beans. In that tomato sauce.”

“Yes, I’ve never had them like that,” I said. “Does Kamilah do her own cooking?”

Rehema and Nour laughed. “Oh no; I guess I should say I like the way Fatimah prepares the beans,” Rehema said.

My mother-in-law Amira spoke up: “But Kamilah really knows how to train her cooks. They don’t know how to cook until they come to her.” I looked at her to see whether she was kidding. She was solemnly tucking into her beans again. One of the house staff was combing the tassels of the rug into straight orderly lines. He did this several times during the lunch, crouching on the floor and using an actual hair comb.

“Remember the one who came to you wearing that black tent of a dress?” Amira asked, smiling at Tante Rehema.

“I went to HM in Heliopolis and got her a uniform,” Tante Rehema recalled. “She didn’t want to wear it. She started crying.” She scrunched up her face and rubbed her eyes with her fists to imitate the girl crying. The two women laughed. I continued eating.

“They don’t want people to know they are working for a family,” Rehema said.

“A family?” Amira spit out the words. “They should be proud.”

I looked around the table and swallowed. I had thought the biggest hurdle would be cultural: My new husband’s parents were Egyptian, Muslims, Arabic speakers. But maybe I was wrong. The class difference felt like a tall, intimidating wall I could not scale.

I felt a pang of loyalty to my parents. They’d given us everything we needed. They were far from perfect, for sure. But if they’d ever had household help, they wouldn’t make fun of them. I took a breath, pushed down my defensiveness and smiled at no one.


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My in-laws always had a few staffers working in the house. Exacting perfectionists both, they were difficult to work for. Not many of the staffers lasted long. It was when they were slowing way down from age that they hired Samia. She was a large woman who didn’t take up much space. Her manner was serene, and she seemed content to carry out Amira’s endless, specific demands. She did laundry. She cooked. She ran errands. Her smile was bright and she was better educated than the other household staffers. The first time I met her, she spoke to me warmly and in English. I liked her immediately.

Whenever Mike and I visited, she would be at my side silently with an Arabic coffee, pungent with cardamom, before I even asked. It was mazbout, which means with a bit of sugar. It also means perfect. And it was. With the consistency of quicksand, served in a delicate china cup, it was a tonic for even the most beastly jet lag.

Samia would present me with jars of homemade za’atar spice mix to take home on the plane. She called me “habibi,” sweetheart. I would never admit it, but I felt closer to her than to my in-laws.

***

Starting shortly after that first Cairo trip, and for nearly a year, I tromped to weekly Arabic classes on the second floor of a nondescript building on West 29th Street in Manhattan. There, a sweet and very patient young Syrian guy took the five or six of us through our lessons. I got to where I could say a few phrases and read some of the children’s books my mother-in-law sent me. But that year crash-landed with my parents both getting very sick, first my father and then my mother. I practiced writing my Arabic script, leaning on the flimsy plastic tray at my Megabus seat, quietly mouthing pronunciations to myself, as we sped down the Jersey Turnpike, back and forth to Philadelphia.

My robust, healthy father went in for a hip replacement and never recovered. He shocked us all by dying a few months later. Six weeks after that, my mother died too. Her death we had expected, anticipated even, as the Alzheimer’s disease she’d had for years rendered her incapable of most things, even eating. Then came the tasks of arranging one funeral and then another, so close together that some far-flung relatives made it to just one, unable to make the trip again so soon. My siblings and I emptied the apartment. I wept over the report cards and notes my mother had saved, the grief so oppressive, I felt like I was operating from the bottom of a well filled with hot oatmeal. The Arabic studies fell away. My in-laws sent cards, and sympathy on the phone.

Whenever I visited my in-laws, I would try hard, so hard, to talk to them in my rudimentary Arabic. I got a whole lot of traction out of Sabah al kheir: good morning. Also Shukran: thank you. But when I needed to form a more complex thought, my brain would seize up. I would blurt out a word like: shep-shep (slippers) when I meant mesh-mesh (apricot). They would look at me for a beat, then turn back to their conversation. I would nod at them, a desperate grin plastered on my face.

In the morning during our visits, I’d emerge from our bedroom to find my mother-in-law perched in her chair at the table, hunched over with back pain, her eyes darting around the room, waiting, hypervigilant, for me and Mike to get up. She’d have been up for hours. My father-in-law, Ahmed, would be at the other end of the table, reading the newspaper or playing with his iPad. He was almost completely deaf and refused to wear his hearing aids.

“Good morning, beautiful girl,” he would bellow in his heavily accented English, his eyes twinkling.

Sabah al kheir, I would say, smiling, and kiss them both on the cheek. Mike would already be engaged in a long conversation with the cook and pulling containers out of the fridge. He would offer me chunks of cheese, slices of ham, Arabic bread, labneh. I knew his mother had ordered him to do so. She knew my favorite was foul — fava beans mashed and mixed with spices and oil. I was grateful for the silent language of food.

I ate slowly. Cool chunks of white cheese tempered the spicy foul. I’d dip pita bread into creamy labneh and sprinkle za’atar on top. The conversation in Arabic would bounce around my head as I savored each bite. I’d look up to smile and nod every now and then, to keep from seeming rude. The tastes and textures kept me occupied and I was content to stare into the middle distance.

Occasionally, one of them would throw out a word in English, looking at me with an expectant smile. It pulled me back from my reverie, into smiling and nodding again. It woke up that unmet desire to connect, truly connect, with them. But, their obligation complete, they went back to full-on Arabic, and I was left with an emptiness. As soon as I could, I would tuck a book under my arm and pad to the porch with my coffee.

Years ago, I worked with a photographer who would call out, “pleasant in the face,” from behind her camera, all day long, as she was working. “Pleasant in the face,” she would say to the models. She was after a small, closed-lipped smile. A signal that all was well, but in a noncommittal way. I thought of her often in my in-laws’ apartment. “Pleasant in the face,” I said to myself. A vague smile, then an escape, to the porch, to a book.

***

As Amira aged and her health worsened, she needed Samia’s help for increasingly intimate duties — getting her out of bed in the morning, getting her dressed. My mother-in-law seemed to take it all in stride. It surprised me that she let someone in so thoroughly. But she was used to having staff in her private space. Her whole life she’d been directing them.

Amira sat most of the day, keeping a hawkeye on what the household staff was doing and issuing a nonstop stream of corrections. Barely five feet tall standing straight, Amira’s osteoporosis and scoliosis now had her curled over like a shepherd’s crook.

Samia became the eyes and ears of Amira and Ahmed, taking care of all the business in town they could no longer manage, at first mostly shopping, but eventually banking too. My husband even taught Samia to drive, a move I cheered as not only a help to the household but a feminist statement. Samia was a single mother, a status in Egypt that conferred great shame as well as economic hardship. Now she could have more independence.

Amira complained, but there was no denying the tenderness between them. I could see it, as Samia helped her into the bathroom. I would hear Samia and Amira’s muffled voices through the closed bedroom door and think, we are so lucky to have her.

Samia even helped Ahmed — a proud, accomplished man, now in his 90s — with his baths. He didn’t want help, but he just couldn’t manage the job alone.

Whenever I visited my in-laws, I would try hard, so hard, to talk to them in my rudimentary Arabic. I got a whole lot of traction out of Sabah al kheir: good morning. Also Shukran: thank you.

I usually felt nervous around Amira, which rendered me quiet and increased the distance between us. Once, while getting ready for a family wedding, I held up two necklaces and asked her which I should wear.

“Both of them,” she said.

The way her eyes sparkled revealed how much she would have enjoyed a daughter-in-law who was as interested in clothes and jewelry as she was. I played the role as best I could, but I would never be that daughter-in-law.

I was sorry we weren’t closer, especially after my own parents were gone. My sabah al khier and shukran produced a smile from her, but not a real connection.

I had seen pictures of her from the 50s, so chic in Chanel suits on clean, majestic Cairo streets. I longed to talk to her about what her life had been like then. Or what Mike had been like as a boy, back when he was Mustafa.

***

Some years later, my father-in-law Ahmed was at home when he got a call from the jeweler at the souk downtown. Samia was there, the jeweler said, trying to sell Amira’s wedding ring. In his firm, decisive tone, Ahmed confirmed that she absolutely did not have their permission. The jeweler held her until the police came.

A few minutes after that call, Samia had called the house from the police station and asked to speak to Mike. He told me later, scoffing with disbelief, that she said she’d be back at work the next day. I pictured her saying it. The gleam of her smile, the affable shift of her weight.

The next day, Mike went with Hatem, the driver, to search the room in the house where Samia had been staying. It was filthy, Mike said, the floor covered with old plastic bags. They found receipts dating back several years for jewelry she’d been selling off.

It was only a couple of months after that when Ahmed died. He had been complaining of pain and other problems and one morning he never woke up. Though he was 94, we wondered whether he might have lived longer if it weren’t for Samia’s deep betrayal. He never really got over it. He wasn’t a guy who let people in. But he’d had to let her in, out of the necessity of old age. After a lifetime of handling everything, he no longer could.

***

About a year after Ahmed’s death, we traveled to Cairo for another visit. Amira was not well. She was home now, but had been in the hospital and on a ventilator just before we got there. My time to connect was running out.

I approached her bedroom on tiptoe.  It was late, but we had just arrived and I wanted to check on her. Mike was already in there, talking to one of the nurses.

He was at her bedside, bending over to kiss her forehead. The nurse was on the other side of the bed, adjusting the dial on the oxygen tank that sat on the floor.

They had moved a hospital bed in and set it up in an alcove at the end of her room, where it fit perfectly, with room for the people taking care of her to move around all four sides. There were windows on all three walls, open to the breeze that fluttered the sage green curtains hanging there. I could hear growling and occasional barking from the feral dogs that wandered the streets in her upscale Cairo neighborhood.

The doorbell rang — a full-throated trilling bell from another era. It was after 10 p.m., but that was when things started hopping in Cairo. I heard rustling near the front door and deep voices speaking Arabic.

A young man strode into the sick room. He put his bag on a chair. He was thin and light on his feet, with dark hair against his pale skin that made him look even more youthful. Mike came around the bed to shake his hand. The young man smiled and rolled up the sleeves of his button-down shirt that was half-untucked from his pants. Amira looked up from the bed. There was a sharpness in her eyes. I couldn’t tell whether it was from annoyance or fear. The doctor put his hand on Amira’s forehead to greet her and I saw her face soften. Then he turned to talk to the nurse and Mike. Amira closed her eyes.

I took my place outside the circle that had formed around the bed, hoping to decipher a few words. The doctor went to the other side of the bed, checking the oxygen without, I noted grimly, washing his hands after coming in from the dirty street. Amira was looking for me and found my eyes. It caught me off guard, but my heart broke open to it: This was my family too. No matter how incomprehensible the language, how exotic the culture, how severe the class difference. I’d been coming for 10 years, barely conversing, but I’d been here. Bringing the brownies my mother-in-law liked in my suitcase. Telling Mike to translate my messages to them when they talked on the phone.

I stepped forward into the circle to take her hand. Mike had told me that amid all the arrangements after Ahmed’s death, the hours he spent on the phone with lawyers and bankers, that Amira had provided for me in a trust. I was stunned, and touched. One thing I’d learned about this family, whether by culture or class: Money was extremely important. It was how they showed love. How they judged and rewarded people. And, in its withholding, how they showed displeasure. It was all so different from what I’d learned in my family. We’d never really had it to give or withhold.

And, sure, I like money. More is better than less. But more important, it meant that Amira had accepted me. I was indeed family, she was saying.

The nurse picked up a notebook and read off some data. Her dark hijab accentuated her large black eyes. The doctor nodded and made a comment to Mike.

I would never know what they were saying. Still, I was there with her. In the circle. I put a hand on Amira’s bony forehead and smoothed back her hair. I was there.

* * *

Cary Barbor is a writer, editor, and radio producer whose work has been featured on NPR and WNYC and in such publications as New York, Salonand Teen Vogue. She interviews writers on her podcast Books & Authors, and is at work on a novel.

Editor: Sari Botton