Doctor Dog

2013-10-02 14.00.56

So a suspicion of mine was confirmed today. In Arabic, my title is Doctor Dog.

I had the notion a week or so ago, while flipping through my edition of Spoken Arabic of Cairo, looking up words as they occurred to me. Dog is kalb (Arabic letters above), and since (1) vowels are different in Arabic and (2) my family has always pronounced “Kolb” with a short “o,” “dog” may very well be the most sensible way to render my name.

I wanted to make sure, so I asked my tutor about this at the end of today’s Arabic class. I showed her how I’d written my name in Latin and Arabic letters, asked if it was correct, and if this was indeed the word for dog. Her face fell. My tutor is an incredibly polite and proper middle-aged lady, and I could see her wrestling with how to tell her employer that his name might now be a pejorative.

“Um, yes, you might write your last name that way, but I would suggest you use the long ‘a,’ alif. I think it would be more…accurate.”

“But I pronounce it with a short vowel. Am I Doctor Dog to my students?”

A pained smile, “Um. Perhaps, but yanni, there are many very expensive dogs here in Zamalek!”

[Quick language note: Yanni, meaning roughly “I mean,” is a common filler or hesitation word, especially for Egyptians speaking English. It’s the equivalent of the American “y’know,” or “like.”]

I’m OK with being Doctor Dog. I think it captures something about my place in Egypt. While my wife and I have been treated with nothing but hospitality and patience since we arrived, and we are embedded in the liberal, anglophone, cosmopolitan environments of Zamalek and AUC, there’s a strangeness to us that never quite goes away. I see it when we walk our dog down the street. People are generally polite, and some want to pet her. They ask “Husky?” as that seems to be one breed Egyptians have heard of. But most are wary. I’ve seen women jump out of our way, fathers pull children closer, people give us looks like we have a rat on a leash. While some Egyptians keep dogs, and you see “very expensive” purebreds on the sidewalk in our neighborhood, most people still consider the animals unclean, even dangerous.

I don’t get that kind of treatment, but I know I’m still foreign, a curiosity who gets looks, questions, and exclamations of “Welcome to Egypt!” on the street. It’s been difficult for me to reconcile the warm reception I’ve received with some of the stories I hear. Xenophobia has swelled since the July 3 coup, with some very ugly consequences. My students told me about a PSA the Army put out the last time they were in charge, in late 2011. It showed a group of young Egyptians talking politics in a cafe when an inquisitive, blond-haired, blue-eyed man asks to join them. The ad ended with a stern warning not to disparage the country in front of foreigners (who might be spies!). My students roll their eyes at this ham-handedness, but many Egyptians don’t.

“It’s different for you,” said one of my students. “Americans don’t have to adjust when they go abroad because everyone already knows America. There are little Americas everywhere. When we go abroad, we have to explain ourselves.”

“And we have to explain a lot,” said another student. “An American once asked me if we can drive cars on sand. She thought we rode camels everywhere.”

It’s true. Americans (especially white, male, professional Americans like me) don’t often have to explain themselves. The empire has long ago paved the way for its citizens, so I can move across the globe and be confident that there will be a little America for me to slide into, complete with English-speakers, wifi access, and fast food outlets. It makes it easy to stay in a bubble, and that’s what I did during our first weeks here. Arriving in the wake of the Raba’a massacre and the state of emergency, it was soothing to stay in the apartment, keep up with friends online, and keep Egypt at bay while I prepared my syllabi.

It’s a form of privilege, no doubt, and an unfair one. The injustice of it all is thrown into relief by the refugees with whom my wife works. Most of them come from sub-Saharan Africa, struggle with finding work and housing, face pervasive discrimination, and often have no or tenuous legal status. Still, I’m grateful for the bubble. It’s good to have a choice of worlds, to have the shelter of the familiar and the freedom to experience the new and strange. It’s a form of hospitality–the right to keep one foot in your old home while engaging with the new–that should be extended to more of the strangers in our world, not just the lucky ones like me.

Learning Arabic is helping. I can actually have (very limited) conversations with people on the street, and they generally appreciate the effort. I’m a strange beast, probably harmless, but weird and shaggy and unfamiliar with the local customs. Eager and friendly, but clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing yet.

Sabah ilkheer. Ana ismi Doktoor Kalb. 

I think the name fits.

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