Cigarettes, sparkling water and cultural insensitivity
I entered a market in Berkeley to the sound of an older couple bickering in Arabic. An old fat lady in a muumuu shot me a quick glance and then continued berating her husband who was standing behind the deli counter.
It looked like a few things had changed since the last time I had entered the market. The shelves were nearly bare and the beverage cooler was in complete disorder. New owners, I thought to myself, and a chaotic transition. There were a few new items, all with Arabic script on the labels.
The old owners ran an American market with a Middle Eastern deli. The new owners seemed to be trying the opposite, a Middle Eastern market with an American deli. I thought they would likely fail.
Cal students who frequented the market were more likely to buy macaroni and cheese and ramen than a liter of lemon juice and a kilo of dry garbanzo beans or bulgur wheat. Gone from the deli counter were homemade hummus and tabouleh and in their place was all that Boar’s Head had to offer.
I grabbed a bottle of sparkling water and went to the counter to ask for a pack of cigarettes. The old fat lady, who I assumed correctly to be Lebanese, slowly made her way to the checkout counter. She reminded me of my Situ Didi, my great grandmother, mostly for the muumuu, the slow waddle and the smell—a mixture of convalescence and cooked kibbeh.
“Let me see your ID,” she said after I asked for the pack. I handed it to her she scrutinized it from behind a pair of dollar-store reading glasses. No she wasn’t like my Situ at all; she didn’t smile, was 100 pounds too heavy and didn’t fart with every stride.
“Rahaim, is this you?” she asked with suspicion. I said yes, it was my name.
“It’s an Arab name?” I again answered her in the affirmative. She looked at me some more.
“Can I just have the pack of cigarettes?”
“Yes, of course. Rahaim,” she said pensively. “Are you a Jew?”
An AC Transit bus pulled up in front of the market. It had a loose belt or something, for it let out an annoying cyclical whine.
“What is that?!” asked the lady with a look of surprise.
“It’s the bus.”
“Oh, it sounds like the jungle.”
“Yes, like the jungle in Africa. You know where people are in trees and have no clothes. Big lips and ears,” she said while tugging on her ear lobes. “You know, they swing in trees like monkeys.”
“Ayayayayyayayayay!” she hollered from behind the counter. “You know they do that because they don’t have any phones.”
“Wow. You have to be careful about saying things like that. That’s pretty offensive,” I said.
But I was also thinking she had it all mixed up. The loose belt on the bus still unloading passengers outside the market sounded more like an Arab wedding.
“I know, it’s not good to say, but I can say it to you. You have a good name,” she said and then began to giggle like a child. “Ayayayayayayayay,” she hollered again.
“No, no. It’s not like that. It’s like this: ulululululululululululululu!”
At that, her husband yelled something in Arabic from behind the deli counter. The old fat lady screamed something back.
“What?” she said looking at me in a serious manner.
“Yeah, you know, like an Arab wedding,” at that she gave me a look of the self-righteous indignation that is all-to-common in the Bay Area.
“You can’t even do it right. Tell me, does your family do that at weddings? Have you ever been to a real Arab wedding?”
“No and no,” I said as the bus pulled away and ululating belt grew faint in the distance.
“Because my family came to America before the fall of the Ottoman Turks. All I got is a last name that serves as some sort of genealogical souvenir and a love of raw beef mixed with bulgur wheat, cinnamon, allspice and finely diced onions.”
“You like kibbeh nayyeh?” she said starting to smile again.
“Good. My daughter-in-law does not let my grandchildren eat it. It makes me very sad.”
She handed me a pack of cigarettes and I handed her money. Transaction over. Finally the weird interaction was coming to an end.
“Ok habib Rahaim, you seem like a good boy, but careful, you can be very offensive.”