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.

About Dawn Quarles

Dawn Quarles is a high school political science and American history teacher who moonlights as a blogger and writer. She lives on Pensacola Beach, Florida.

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One Response to “Language Barrier”

  1. Thomas Moore says:

    I know it’s not funny but a similar incident happened to me in Corpus Christi, Texas Holiday Inn. I was attending a seminar there and had ordered room service. I opened my door to put my dinner dishes out. Yea! You get the picture. Despair as you hear the door shut behind you and you are standing in the hallway in your boxer shorts. I must have startled those folks who got off the elevator but I calmly asked them to call the front desk and send someone up. I tried to make small talk with several couples who passed me in the hallway as I non-nonchalantly waited an eternity on the desk employee to arrive with that bemused smirk on his face. I just thank God I wasn’t in my birthday suit. Love you sweetheart!

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