Language Barrier

The MOST panicked I’ve ever been in my life was when I pulled my one-year old baby out of a swimming pool.

The SECOND MOST panicked I’ve ever been in my life was when I locked my two year old toddler in the car, in the middle of July.

The THIRD MOST panicked I’ve ever been was last night.

Let me tell you this story.

I was making spaghetti in my little apartment in Zamalek. Younes and I live on the 12th floor, with our bird. Younes was working, the bird was out and about around the apartment, and the spaghetti was almost ready. I was home alone in a thin, short bathrobe, and no bra. The trash needed to be taken out and thrown in the bin across the hallway. You see where this is going. The bird was out of her cage so I couldn’t leave the front door all the way open, but I didn’t close it all the way either because that would have required digging for my keys.

I should’ve taken the damn keys.

The draft of the hallway slammed the door shut, which would’ve been no problem, except that Younes had the only spare, I was quite indecent, and I still had the gas stove on…and we were on the 12th floor of a high rise with zero fire extinguishers that I am aware of…did I mention that?

I banged on my neighbor’s door.

Let me tell you about her. She is a retired 1950’s Lebanese singing superstar. Think the Loretta Lynn of the Middle East. For the purposes of this story, I will indeed call her Loretta. She is now a total recluse, and keeps very much to herself. The only time I know she is even home is when I hear her decapitating the bawabs (doormen) over late deliveries, crooked plants, and howling cats. She can be terrifying, and I hear her slaying her dragons outside my door on a near daily basis. I do know her, we have met several times. She once told Younes, “The Moon lives next door to me.” I am the Moon, apparently, and I think she meant it as a compliment, but who can ever know? Anyway, she is very different with the bawabs than she is with me. It makes me sad for those poor servants, but such is the life of a former superstar who is obviously quite used to ordering people around. Here’s the ironic part. She once knocked on my door to tell me not to leave my exterior light on because it could cause a fire.

I knocked and knocked on her door. She has her regular door, plus an iron gate outside of that, plus a safe door (like a bank safe) on the far outside.  Yes. Three doors. Because, like I said, she keeps to herself. I banged harder. Then I pounded like an insane person trying to be freed from captivity, until I finally heard locks (multiple) unlatching on the other side. I heard her voice from inside finally asking, in Arabic, who I was. “DAWN!” I said. Silence. Then more Arabic, but no doors opening. “IT’S DAWN!” I said again, louder, but it was just more Arabic and no unlatching of locks at all, still.





I screamed all the emergency Tarzan words I knew, and the doors finally flew open.

She did not have her hair scarves on, and her hair was as wild as mine, and she was wearing face cream and pajamas.  What a pair we were.

Then I began my game of charades.

Phone (thumb and finger phone to ear). Wifi. Internet (air typing). Cooking (turning on the imaginary oven). Stirring. Whoosh (fake explosion noises). FIRE!! (hands going wildly up and down) Door is locked (twists imaginary doorknob repeatedly). Keys (dangle imaginary keys). Help! (prayer hands). Phone Call! (repeat thumb and finger to ear). She finally understood.

She turned and hustled into her apartment and I followed close behind. She brought me a Motorola T9 phone from thirty years ago and thrust it towards me and said “MOBILE!” In her other hand was the iPhone 10 and she shoved that one at me too and said “WIFI!” I grabbed the iPhone. My plan was to call Younes, who I was sure was somewhere nearby and could come home quickly.

My fingers froze in mid-air. Her keypad was all in Arabic. Of course.

I could not even decipher enough of the script to find the ‘translate’ button, so I just started punching search boxes. WhatsApp people search…nothing. I found Facebook on Safari and thought I could use Messenger to call Younes, but couldn’t even find myself in a search, since me and Loretta clearly don’t have any mutual friends. I couldn’t remember anything… not phone numbers, not names, and I could not even remember the names of the bawabs downstairs, who needed to be notified immediately about what was going on. The spaghetti, which was already done when I got locked out, had been cooking for an additional 5-10 minutes by now.

I remembered that one of the bawabs had Younes’ phone number, so I gave up on the iPhone altogether and begin the charades of having Loretta summon the doormen. She caught on to that quickly and you should have seen her launch into action. One of them picked up when she called and she breathed dragon’s breath into that phone. It was the angry Arabic of sultans and conquerors: fiercely mean and SO. SO loud. Bawab #1, Ahmed, walked off the elevator less than 60 seconds later, eyes wide and terrified. As he approached, she shoved me into her apartment and parked me and my near nakedness in the back corner of her kitchen, to preserve my respectability in the presence of men who were not my husband, my father or my brother.

This is Egypt, after all.

Ahmed did not have Younes’ number, so I tried to tell him that I needed him to get Bawab #2, Mahmoud, to call Younes instead. I was yelling instructions from the kitchen, Loretta was yelling them into the hallway at Ahmed, and then he yelled them back at her and then she yelled them back at me, and the chain went back-and-forth as such several times. Ahmed finally said he understood, and quickly dialed a number. He handed the phone to Loretta, who brought it to me in the kitchen where I was still hiding my indecency, and I began to explain the situation once again to the person I thought was Mahmoud, the bawab. I noticed immediately that his English was remarkably improved from what I remembered. We continued talking for another minute when he said to me, “I can be there in an hour.” But see, doormen never, ever leave the building, so I knew immediately that something was wrong. I said, “Who am I talking to???!!!!” and the man on the other end said, “This is Ahmed, your neighbor from the 10th floor.” Who was an hour away.

I exited the kitchen, bathrobe flying, handed the phone back to Loretta and proceeded straight towards Ahmed the bawab in my bathrobe, enunciating clearly the words “MR. MOHAMED! MR. MOHAMED!” ….which is what they all call Younes.

AHHHHHHHHH OK. OK. OK. Meshy Meshy!” (Meshy is ‘OK’, in Arabic).

The spaghetti had been cooking on the gas stove for easily fifteen minutes by now.

Loretta gently returned me to the kitchen once more. I was pacing and sweating by now. I picked up the iPhone – again – and punched more useless buttons, but made no progress. My hands were uncontrollably shaking by then. A minute felt like ten. Two minutes felt like an hour. I imagined my 12-story building with no fire extinguishers going up in flames. People would lose everything they owned. My bird would burn to death. It would be on CNN. I looked out the window and thought about shimmying across the air conditioning units to my apartment, like Spiderman, but I would have certainly dropped 12 stories to my own death. I pushed the tears away and tried to keep myself in emotional lockdown. Another minute passed. I told Loretta it was time to call the fire trucks. (Again, the charades…I made hysterical siren sounds and twirled my fingers). She nodded her understanding just as Ahmed again brought me the phone. It was Younes. Thank God. Twenty minutes had passed.

….Only he wasn’t very nearby with a key, and unless he was actually coming up the elevator at that exact moment, which he wasn’t, he wasn’t nearby enough for it to matter.

And this is where I lost. my. shit.

I started bawling. I said to Loretta, “CALL THE FIRE TRUCKS NOW!” I started praying and pacing, and praying, and praying. Out loud. When Loretta noticed this, she got stiff as a board, scared, and turned and walked straight to my doorway, and started chanting. Then the bawab produced a prayer mat out of nowhere and threw it down right there in the hallway in front of my door, and he did the complete series…the whole Muslim prayer transition … from standing to kneeling, chanting and reciting the Quran, over and over and over again, up and down, up and down, while Loretta prayed and chanted and did I’m not worthy hands in the direction of my doorway. I was in a literal JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL trance a few feet away, watching this spectacle, but still tucked away back in the kitchen talking to the Lord. It was Sunday church, y’all, all around.

Then I smelled the smoke.

I came running from Loretta’s apartment and began kicking at the door. Nothing budged. I yelled at Ahmed to bust the door down. (he was hypnotized, certainly, by both his praying and by the spectacle of the half-naked American woman’s very looooong white legs karate kicking her front door in her tiny bathrobe) Ahmed jumped to attention and his sweet little round eyes (that matched his very large, round body) were in full alert mode…we were all at max adrenaline at that point… and he mustered the strength of a linebacker and went straight through that door on the first try.

Door repair, with Ahmed and his prayer mat.

The apartment was filled with smoke and all indications were that in another minute, there would have been an active fire in my kitchen. I could not believe there wasn’t one already, because I had been outside of my apartment for going on a half hour. And there was not a fire extinguisher anywhere on the 12th floor of that high rise apartment building. The possibilities of what could have happened were endless. And it would have been all my fault.

I turned the gas burners off, and removed the food from the stovetop. I checked on Cersei, who was fine. I opened the windows and said “Thank you, Lord” to myself about a dozen times. Then I went to find Loretta and Ahmed, who were still standing in the hallway, stunned.

Shukraan,” I said again and again and again. Thank you. I brought them both inside and showed them the charred pans, and they helped me air out the smoke. Someone called Younes to let him know, and Ahmed from the 10th floor was notified as well.  I put on some proper clothes and hugged Ahmed the bawab, who was repulsed by this gesture, of course, but he would never be unkind to me. Indeed, he will never look at me the same, either. Loretta had changed her clothes as well by then, and had put on her hair scarf. Finally, we were all back to our proper selves. But as Loretta stood next to me, I hugged her and got emotional as the relief set in. She hugged me back with both arms, and then pointed to the sky. God.

Indeed. We call Him by different names, but He answers to them all. God was in that hallway last night and we all got Him there, together. We were all speaking the same language, for once.


Note: In Cairo, you can get a lock repairman to come at 9:30 at night and install a new lock and repair a door (or at least, Younes can), and it only costs $31.00.

Love Bird

In the most un-me kind of way, I bought two lovebirds back in the fall. I am not a bird person, but my tiny apartment on the 12th floor of a building in the middle of Cairo, with no grass anywhere, did not lend itself to the dog I preferred. The tropical fruit-colored brother/sister pair of mini parrots came into my life on the heels of my six-month Games of Thrones binger, so they were appropriately named Jamie and Cersei. They were born together and lived (incestuously inseparable but also in love) for their entire year of life in a tiny cage in a dimly lit and dirty pet store in downtown Cairo. If I had any reservations about having birds, and I did, they left me completely as I contemplated the much better life I would be able to give them simply by bringing them into my home. Read more

ALD, Excerpts From the Diary of Sarah Logan Kenney

Note: Sarah Logan Kenney was the daughter of Elsie, Anna Clayton Logan’s second-born daughter.


My father was not well so we decided to move to Pensacola. Being a lawyer, he planned to work with Tom (Kennedy) in the land business. My grandmother died in 1924 and left Mama a little money. She used it to buy a Model T Ford in 1925. I was taught to drive so that I could drive the family to Pensacola. I was 13 years old at the time. We made the trip safely and moved into a cottage Aunt Sadie owned next to her place on Scenic Highway…My father died suddenly in the Spring of 26–our life changed! Read more

ALD, The Accumulation of Horrors That Was 1893

John and Gertie came in from Idaho. They spent a part of their time with us and a part with the Tuckers in Lexington. This was the last time we saw John. He went back to Idaho and died January 15th. He requested that he be buried in our lot in Salem. He died bravely as a Christian. How I thank God for that blessing. Gertrude’s mother went to Idaho and returned with Gertie and was at our house at the funeral. They had a fearful trip, delayed by a snow storm. Gertie went to Lexington to live with her parents. She was and is devoted to John. Her parents are dead now and she had a home in Winchester, Virginia. Read more

ALD, My Children Grew, and History Repeated

There is a great deal I can write but I am old and get tired. Things went on as usual. My sister Jeannie had five children., I had four, and George three. On October 27th my son Philip Clayton was born. A friend said he was the prettiest baby he had ever seen. Sadie, I thing*, was just as pretty but all my children were. And although they had all the diseases known to children went safely through all, with no trained nurse and no hospital. Beside the ordinary diseases my father and mother had frequent attacks of jaundice and rheumatism. I nursed them too. Read more

ALD, Beautiful Children Followed

When Mollie began to talk she gave everyboyd* names. She was confused as my father called my mother “Sarah” and the rest of us called her Mama. She puzzled her brain and evolved the name Mama Sarah. Then for her father, she gave the name Daddy Bob, for me Annie Ma, coupling the two names. Then one day she said to my father, “Papa what is your name. He said James, and then with a very satisfied air she said “Papa James.” Read more

ALD, I Married Robert

I enjoyed my cousin’s many West Point stories. He loved to tell of his experiences there to the day of his death. He was placed in charge of camps at Lynchburg to train soldiers and afterwards was at Fort Donalson with General Floyd, and was there when it was captured. He escaped as the prisoners were brough* over the Mississippi River, was a fine swimmer, and though shot at several times escaped and stayed in the bushes for three days without food. He finally found friends, returned to the army and was in command of a regiment. He fought in many battles. In the Battle of Winchester he was promoted for gallantry. He had two horses killed from under him but he was not wounded. He wrote me a full history of his was* record but that, and all my valuable papers, letters, pictures, books, manuscripts were destroyed in the Atlanta fire. Read more

ALD, My Little School

Oh, that was a trying year. I arranged with Roanoke College that John and Joe go there and Dr. Bittle and Dr. Davis sent me their daughters in exchange. We worked very hard. My dear mother at home, Jeanie and I at school. We taught all day until 4 p.m. and gave music lessons in the afternoon. This year I took boys and my father assisted with them. My mother had three young men for meals, Henry Fairfax, Fairfax Irving and a Mr. Snowden. She had a cook. Servants were reasonable then in price, so she had time to sew and see to things, but our life was very hard. Read more

ALD, Seven Episcopalians

As I said previously we decided to leave the beloved home, my father, mother, and children to go to Ashland, the boys, Jim and Joe to go to Randolph Macon college, Edith, Mercer and Nellie to go to a private school. Strother was only five years old, George rented the farm, John went to teach with Mr. Dabney, Jeanie and I to go to Salem to teach. We were to meet at Dungeness and decide again what was best to do. So with sad yet glad hearts we started to make our fortunes. I had no money. My cousin loaned me some on my pioneer trip to Salem. My friend Rev. G.W. Prime rented the house in Ashland. If we failed in Salem we were to go to Ashland. I had no southern friend that (had) a penny more than I did, so being obliged to fulfil my engagement I went to Richmond to see my father’s commissioner and found him out of town. What to do then. I must have expressed my feelings, for Mr. Cardaza’s partner said, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Read more

ALD, The General Came Calling

This summer we had crowds for weeks and passersby, once for three weeks a regiment, all that was left off Colonel Stevensons Kentucky regiment. Our very great friend Major John Reeve was in this command. We had the horses and servants to feed and were glad to do it. Our friends were completely nonplussed. They could not go home. An old cousin, Dr. James from Lancaster, Virginia stopped by to see us and stayed several months. He came to Petersburg in search of his son, who was wounded at the Battle of the Crater and he could hear nothing. He could not find him at Petersburg, so came to us. Poor man, he asked anxiously of every passing soldier they could tell him of his son. After many weeks he had the news that he had died of his wound. There was no communication and nobody had any money, so he stayed on until finally my father let him have the money, $40, with which he bought a horse and left for home. We were sorry to see him go. He was my father’s first cousin, a clever mn*, highly educated, and an old fashioned Virginia gentleman. We met him afterwards in Salem where we both lived and our families were very intimate. Read more