The Pitfalls of Language
Chris Maser

     Years ago, while working in Egypt, I learned about the pitfalls of language--someone else's language, that is. Over the weeks and months I was in and out of Cairo, I got in the habit of eating at the Samiramis Hotel because the food was reasonable and I got good service. As a rule, I ate in the bar, where I got to know one of the waiters. Unable to pronounce his name, I simply call him "Joe." He, in turn, referred to me as "the crazy American," because I always had a triple shot of whiskey with breakfast--but that's another story.
     Our conversations consisted of a smattering of English, German, French, and Arabic, which was part of my pending problem. Each language is based on a different pattern of logic and, to the uninitiated, is seemingly rife with ever-shifting nuances of pronunciation.
     Well, it just so happens that I loved to dip my bread in the oily paste made from crushed sesame seeds, call "tahina" in Egypt. I did not, however, fully understand the nuances of Arabic pronunciations until, coming into Cairo after a month in the desert, I when to the Samiramis Hotel for supper.
     After relieving my salad of its extraneous cockroach parts, I summoned Joe and asked him for some "tahena" in which to dip my bread. (I have no idea how "tahena" is really spelled or, after all the intervening years, exactly how I pronounced it.) Nevertheless, Joe, in his turn, leaned over the counter, very close to me, and waggled a disapproving finger in my face, a customary gesture when someone did not agree with you.
     Having dealt with Joe over the moths, I said again, "Joe, I WANT some 'tahena' for my bread." And once again, Joe leaned over the counter and waggled his finger in my face.
     By this time, I was thoroughly peeved, which I conveyed by pounding my fist on the countertop as I spit out the words, "Damn it, Joe, I WANT some 'tahena' for my bread!!"
     "No, no, Monsieur," said Joe with a smile, 'tahina!' You want 'tahina.'"
     At this point, there erupted gales of choking laughter from the kitchen. And Joe himself was totally convulsed by mirth.
      "Oh, shit," I thought to myself, "what in the hell did I ask for?"
     As the laughter died to desperate gasps for air, Joe wiped the tears from his eyes and look at me--only to burst once more into shrieks of laughter, which caused another eruption in the kitchen.
      "Joe," I asked rather meekly, "if 'tahina' is what I want to dip my bread in, what did I ask for?"
     Struggling to keep a straight face, Joe looked at me and said, "Monsieur, you crazy American, you asked for an old, fat women for … for … for your bread"--only to once more dissolve into torrents of laughter.
     That is linguistic one mistake I never again made!

© chris maser 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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