October 26, 2009 | Arabic

Arabic at the Drugstore

One of my favorite neighborhood drugstores is full of Arabic speakers. Who knew?

A few days ago I joined Facebook. I don’t know what came over me, but after years of recalcitrance, I did it on a whim while in the office. I was pleased to see that it has Arabic script along the bottom of the home page.

Facebook Is Global: Select Your Language!

I was highly productive today, meaning I did a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t want to do, like respond to e-mail, send letters, deposit checks, etc. Practical things. I still had time to walk the six-mile loop in Central Park. While out there I did Pimsleur lessons 19 through 22 (Level III), and did quite well, as is usually the case when I am walking as opposed to sitting on my behind.

On the way home, I stopped by Joseph’s Pharmacy on 72nd Street. I shop there a lot. Amid the mascara, shampoo, etc., they have a strangely robust toy section.

Anyway, tonight I discovered that at least five or six people there, including the owner, speak Arabic. I practiced. I think they’re all or mostly Egyptian. A few of the young Arabic-speaking guys working there seemed amazed that I was learning it. I saw one craning his neck—with curiosity?—as I talked to an Arabic-speaking employee named Sam. Another one kind of giggled, I think in amazement, though maybe something else, when I said something in Arabic. A third seemed embarrassedly pleased, or maybe just shy.

What was going on? Were they happy I was learning it? Were they just surprised to be addressed in Arabic by an American woman? Was I unintentionally saying something really bizarre? I was perplexed.

I told Sam, “If I had known so many people here spoke Arabic, I would have been here every day buying something so I could practice.” He said they’d be glad to help.

As usual, I got a lot of questions about my choice of Arabic dialect. He asked me in Arabic what my name was (Egyptian Arabic, that is), and I couldn’t understand him. But when I asked what he had said, and he told me in English, I was able to repeat his question in Levantine Arabic, which he then understood, and I gave him the answer, also in Levantine Arabic.

“Ismi Ellen,” I said. (My name is Ellen.)

An employee standing next to him, also an Arabic speaker, looked startled and kind of jumped. Or so it seemed to me.

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