Monday, May 08, 2006
So, while I was in Egypt last year my roommates and I walked to school every day through downtown Alexandria. On our way, we passed a park, where every morning without fail the Egyptian gardener greeted us.
Greetings are a big deal in Egypt. The standard morning greeting in Egypt is "sabah ilxiir," or "good morning." It is then standard for the other person to respond with "sabah innur," or "morning of light." The two participants then, if time and mood oblige, engage in a friendly battle of greetings. The aim is to think up good things--jasmine flowers, the sun, cream; anything pretty and, preferably, white will do--and wish the other person a morning full of them.
This old man tried to do this with us every single morning we passed, and most mornings we failed miserably. Our vocabulary just wasn't that good, after all, and we couldn't get much further than "light" or, at best, "jasmine." He would typically chuckle at our ineptitude and wave us on our merry way.
One morning, though, I bested him, completely unexpectedly.
"Good morning," he called.
"Morning of light!" I responded.
"Morning of roses!"
"Morning of jasmine!"
"Morning of cream!" He was grinning, sure that this would be his triumph. He was almost right: I was at a loss for words, but, determined to say something, I said the first freely-associated phrase I could think of:
"Morning of Mister Cream!" I countered. For those who don't speak Arabic, "Mister Cream," or "sa'eed ishta," is the slangy Egyptian colloquial Arabic word for "hippopotamus." (The Modern Standard Arabic term, as one would expect, translates literally to "river horse.")
Yes, that's right: I wished him a morning full of happy hippos, and he reacted just like you might think: his mouth hung open in pure confusion for a few minutes, and then started to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. He nearly sprayed himself with the hose he was holding, and then he actually had to sit down, he was laughing so hard.
I won that one for sure. Every morning thereafter, he watched for my approach with a twinkle in his eye, and skipped through all the standard ceremony to greet me with a cheery, "Morning of the hippopotamus!"