Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Cairo Survival Pack

Coming up to the end of my first month here, I’d like to make an observation on the language. I’ve concluded that to make it by in this city, the aspiring Arabic speaker need only have mastery of three words. They are words that the Egyptians use often, and one would be wise to adopt these words as his or her own. Let me introduce you to those words now in case you ever find yourself in Cairo or anywhere in Egypt for that matter.

Shwayya shwayya: Transliterated, of course, from the Arabic this word means so-so. How’s your Arabic? “Shwaya shwaya.” The beauty of this word is in its modesty, and also in the fact that it appears to be the one word people assume a westerner will know. Getting into a cab, the driver will respond to my modest Arabic with a barrage of Arabic far beyond my level of comprehension. After he catches the bewildered look on my face, the driver will invariably say, “Shwaya shwaya!” and then have a good laugh. I’ve picked up on that as best I can and I preempt people all over the city with “Shwaya shwaya,” meaning I only understand you so-so. After that people slow down, and speak very deliberately in Arabic I’m more likely to understand.

Kwayyiss: This word is used as the path of least resistance. It means “okay” or “good” or “fine.” If ever I don’t feel like getting a headache over the language barrier, I just say “Kwayyiss.” For example, I was just ordering some food over the telephone. The man had a very difficult time understanding what I wanted. When he thought he had it, he let fly with a slew of Arabic I didn’t have a clue about. Tired and unwilling to expend energy on this, I just said “Kwayyiss” a few times and hung up. We’ll see what strange dish walks through the door in about twenty minutes. “Kwayyiss” is a high risk word, but it is good for those who don’t have the fight in them. I have definitely used “Kwayyiss” in taxis too and ended up not quite where I wanted….

Yanni: No, not the famous musician, this is without a doubt the most common and, yes, my favorite word in the Arabic language. It literally means “It means,” but it is used by Egyptians the same way we over use “like.” I think, however, that “Yanni” is more accepted than “like” which is frowned up by adults. It was a big relief to find out what “Yanni” meant in colloquial because I could never understand why people kept telling me “It means…. It means.” But using Yanni is an art the mastery of which comes only with time. The beauty of the word is that if you have it on instant recall, you can start saying it when you’re struggling to come up with the right words, and it will buy you time. For example, “I’m from America. I’m a student here in Cairo. I’m meeting friends at a…. Yanni, Yanni, Yaaaaannnnni, restaurant tonight.” The key is finding out how far you can stretch it without looking like an idiot. As of this writing, I can Yanni myself to about twenty seconds, plenty of time to remember the Arabic word I need.

So that about does it. Remember these three words, and you’ll never go wrong.

By the way, my food just got here: salad and burger, just as I ordered. Kwayyiss has paid off once again!

1 comment:

Tiffany said...

Let's see if I can do this correctly, Theo! Thanks. Or maybe I really mean, "kwayyiss!"