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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Allah is a mouse?!"

Being an immigrant to any new culture means having nearly limitless opportunities to humiliate oneself.  The cultural and linguistic land-mines that await the newcomer are so numerous as to force the newbie to constantly choose between the following options:

1. Stay close to home and only interact with folks from the 'old country'... a strategy that pretty much eliminates the risk of public humiliation... but also reduces to approximately 'zero' the number of learning opportunities.

~or~

2.  Venture out into the countryside and 'go native' as frequently as possible... a strategy that pretty much guarantees a slow acculturation, as well as a fair number of embarrassing stories with which to regale friends. 

What follows is an example of the latter.

Shortly after we moved to Israel, Zahava found herself at Rami Levi, a popular supermarket chain in Jerusalem.  As supermarkets go, Rami Levi is a cross between the extensive inventory of the gleaming American-style mega-stores, and the 'everyman' earthiness of an old-time, open air shuk.

While Zahava was navigating the nearly empty aisles... using a combination of intuition and knowledge to identity the mysterious contents behind the inscrutable Hebrew packaging... her cell phone rang.  On the other end was a friend (another Anglo) who, knowing Zahava was at the store, asked if she could pick up a couple of mouse traps while she was there.  Zahava quickly agreed... hung up the phone... and added the traps to her shopping list.

However, within seconds of closing the connection, Zahava realized that she didn't know the Hebrew words for either 'mouse' nor 'trap'... a serious potential impediment to locating one.

When she tried to call the woman who had made the request for mouse traps (so she could ask her how to ask for them in Hebrew), she watched in horror as her cell phone beeped its 'low battery' swan-song and died in her hands.  No amount of pleading or shaking would bring the phone back to life, so Zahava began wandering the aisles in search of an English speaker.

The thing is, there are very few English speakers in Rami Levy on a typical weekday morning.  By eavesdropping on various conversations Zahava discovered that the few shoppers in the store were a mish-mash of Israelis, Russian immigrants and Arabs. 

So, with no alternative and no prospect of help, Zahava scratched the mousetraps off her list and went on with her shopping.

Yeah right!   If you believe that, you don't know the first thing about my wife.  You see, when it comes to personal challenges, my lovely wife has a personal tolerance for shame just slightly higher than door-to-door salesmen and street mimes.  If Zahava wants something, she will ask anyone... and submit herself to just about any humiliation... rather than admit defeat.

Once the old 'ask an Anglo' option had been eliminated, Zahava marched up to the first stock-boy she could find and threw herself at the problem:

Zahava: "Slichah Adoni... Atah yechol la'azor li?" [translation: Excuse me sir/mister, can you help me?]

Teen-aged Arab stock-boy: [with a shocked expression on his face at having just been called sir/mister]:  Ken [translation: yes]

Zahava: [continuing in broken Hebrew, but I'll spare you the agony of transliteration and just write from here on in English] "I'm trying to find something, but I don't know how it's called.  It's about this big [holds her two hands about 6 inches apart with thumbs and middle fingers extended towards one another in the approximate dimensions of a mousetrap], and is used against [she didn't yet know the Hebrew words for 'trap',  'catch' or 'grab'] little animals.  These animals are about this big [again, fingers were used to indicate size], they have little ears like this [she pantomimed mickey mouse ears], little teeth [she pantomimed an anthropomorphic rendition of mouse teeth by tucking her lower lip behind her upper teeth and making little sucking noises], they make little 'eek eek' sounds, and women don't like to have them in their houses."

After a few moments of standing in rapt amazement at the improv being played out before him, the stock-boy suddenly realized that this lunatic American woman was looking for a mouse trap, so he led her over to the housewares section. 

Once there, though, the language barrier once again imposed itself:

Teen-aged Arab stock-boy: [reaching for one of several types of traps] Are you looking for a 'Malkodet Achbar' [mouse trap]?

Zahava: [with a huge sense of relief sweeping away any vestige of her sense of self-respect] "Yes!  But how did you say it again?"

Teen-aged Arab stock boy: [puffed up at having been elevated to the level of Hebrew teacher] 'Malkodet' [indicating the entire device with a wave of his hand] 'Achbar' [pointing to the picture of the mouse on the trap's label].

Zahava: [who is nothing if not a quick study, immediately set about practicing her new phrase]: Malkodet [pointing to the trap] Achbar [pointing to the picture of the mouse], Malkodet Achbar, Malkodet Achbar, Malkodet Achbar...

The teen-aged stock-boy nodded enthusiastically along with the deranged-American woman's new mantra, and when she had finished saying it a few dozen times loudly enough for people in the neighboring aisles to hear, he helpfully said it one last time himself: "Malkodet achbar!" 

But something about the way the young Arab had pronounced it caught Zahava's ear, and her Ulpan-trained instincts immediately set about trying to make a linguistic connection that, quite simply, wasn't there:

Zahava:  "Wait... 'Malkodet Achbar'... like 'Allah Achbar'?  [long pause] Does that mean that Allah is a mouse?

It still isn't clear to me after having heard this story from Zahava several dozen times whether the look of shock on the stock-boy's face was due to having had his religious sensibilities offended, or if he was more concerned about Zahava's shouted question perhaps sparking a mini-Intifada amongst the store's Arab patrons and employees.  Whatever the case, without dragging Allah into the discussion, he quickly shushed her and explained in a rushed whisper that "No... 'Achbar' [with the 'ch sound scraped deep in the back of his throat] meant mouse.  Akbar [with the 'k' sound coming percussively from the roof of his mouth] , was... something completely different."

When Zahava got home from having nearly started a holy war (not that there wasn't already one raging back then in 2003), she related the mousetrap story to a few friends over a nice meal.  Of course, any such story is bound to bring forth other similarly embarrassing immigrant tales, and someone dutifully offered one about a new immigrant who went into the local hardware store looking for a fly swatter and unflinchingly offered the following request in pidgin Hebrew:

"I'm looking for something to [pantomimes a fly buzzing around] zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZzzzzzzzZZZZZ [pantomimes swatting the fly] whap... whap... WHAP!"

Several more similar stories were told, and as the tears of laughter were dabbed away with tissues and hands, one of the women asked Zahava, "But wasn't that humiliating for you?  I mean, why would you subject yourself to that?"

To which Zahava shrugged and offered, "I don't know... I figure I'll probably never have to face any of those people again.  And at the end of the day, I added two new words to my vocabulary that I will absolutely, positively NEVER forget!"

You can't argue with that kind of logic.  But still... every time I think about this story I have to giggle.

'Allah is a mouse', indeed.

215

Posted by David Bogner on May 15, 2007 | Permalink

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» achbar from Balashon - Hebrew Language Detective
Last month, Treppenwitz, one of my daily reads and a fellow resident of Efrat, wrote a very funny post about how his wife Zahava thought that the word akbar in the Arabic phrase "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") meant "mouse" (like the Hebrew achbar &#... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 5, 2007 11:12:41 PM

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Fabulous story! We all have these, you know!! No avoiding it. In the weeks prior to Christmas, school sports groups or bands raise money in norway by selling something called a Nek door to door. It is pretty much a bunch of wheat tied up with a red ribbon.
A poor little 12-13 year old boy had the misfortune of coming to my house the first year I lived here. I was stressed with pre-Christmas preparations and it looked to me like materials for a craft project I would never have time to complete. So, in my so-so norwegian I said, "sorry, I just don't have the time to do anything with it". The boy gave me a look suggesting that I needed professional help and went on to the next house.
I told this to my husband that evening and he fell into fits of hysterical laughter. Apparently, you just take the bundle and put it in a tree in your yard so the birds can pick at it. And sure enough, every house had one that year but us...

They didn't even try to sell one to us for another 3 years... I was mortified...

Posted by: nrg | May 15, 2007 1:09:24 PM

That was a great story!

But I wonder if it was an inspiration for this story:

http://www.jta.org/cgi-bin/iowa/breaking/101783.html

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | May 15, 2007 3:38:26 PM

Shortly after arriving to Israel (before I met my wife - PLS NOTE!) a young Israeli Bat Sherut came to our kibbutz. Working together she practiced her high school English and I my ulpan Hebrew. Shortly after the six week work-visit ended I received a letter from painstakingly written in very clearly translated English in viting me to visit her family for a Shabbat.

What caught my attention was the section ... "having spoken to my entire family, my father, my mother and my brothers and they all agree they would like to hospitalize you". Needless to say I could just envision an entire family wanting to teach a lesson to the fellow who was chasing their little girl. I never went.

Later I learned that the classic Hebrew for "to extend hospitality" - le'eshpez, is used in Modern Hebrew to mean hospitalize!

Posted by: Yoel Ben-Avraham | May 15, 2007 3:39:35 PM

Oh, boy, I am stealing this idea for a post! (chutzpah being another thing picked up in Israel by osmosis)(don't worry, I'll give you credit!)

Posted by: westbankmama | May 15, 2007 6:09:25 PM

Hi David AKA Trep,

Thanks for the great post that cheered up my name.

It sure makes me glad that I speak Russian so I can get by in Israel... LOL

My Hebrew is poor too. I, of course, have plenty of stories of goobers that I have made in several languages including Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, and English... let alone Hebrew and Yiddish! I once swapped some German and Yiddish and accidently propositioned a woman who ended up liking me immensely... she still teases me abut it...

Lots of love and laughs to you and the family!

Shalom,
Maksim-Smelchak.

Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak | May 15, 2007 6:51:38 PM

ha! how wonderful.
and I certainly hope you have better luck catching your achbar than I have.

Posted by: weese | May 15, 2007 6:55:29 PM

Teehee...any other stories you'd care to share?

Posted by: tnspr569 | May 15, 2007 7:28:20 PM

Hi.
I've had some Hebrew medical mishaps in the past....

If you want to make a dehydrated patient laugh.. tell them you need to give them IV nozelet ( nasal discharge) instead of nozlim ( fluids)

or get angry when the MADA team yells at you to bring the Chamtzan ( oxygen) and call back Ani lo Kamtzan! (cheapskate)

Posted by: David | May 15, 2007 8:36:57 PM

OMG. I am dying. That is wonderful, and I love your wife! (I'm a mom too, it's ok.)

I did some fabulous goobers when I lived in Hungary in the mid-90s. I have very good pronunciation thanks to my Hungarian emigrant father, but my grammar and vocabulary were, shall we say, poor. So Hungarians just thought I was, you know, disturbed when I said wacky things. Like eliding a vowel I shouldn't have elided and earnestly explaining to the checkout lady at the library (in what sounded like perfectly fluent Hungarian) not, "This is my own book," but "This is my cheese." I'm still amazed she didn't call someone in a white coat.

Posted by: uberimma | May 16, 2007 12:02:46 AM

I can relate to your story, the only difference is that unlike Zahava, I would have gone home without the mousetrap.

David S.

Posted by: David S. | May 16, 2007 12:18:46 AM

Allah is indeed a mouse and his name is Farfur. You can watch him on children's TV in Gaza every Friday.

Posted by: peter | May 16, 2007 2:35:09 AM

Allah Achbar - is that from Aladin?

For some reason I'm hearing a tune from the movie with those words in it.

Posted by: jaime | May 16, 2007 5:45:20 AM

I LOVE all these stories! I don't have one involving language (although I'm sure they happened) but my family was stationed in Turkey when I was eleven years old. A pack of stray dogs made themselves at home in front of our apartment and one day when we walked into the town to buy food at the local bazaar (no supermarkets there!), a couple of the dogs followed us without us knowing.

When we got to the town center and were being treated to some vanilla ice cream cones, the dogs came up and looked at us pathetically. My mom allowed me to drop my cone to the sidewalk so the dog could have it and the townspeople just gawked at the crazy American kid feeding the dogs.

Even worse, my mom hailed probably the only taxi in this village and I was crying because I didn't want to leave the dogs behind. I was worried they'd get lost. So, we asked the taxi driver if we could bring the two dogs in the car with us. He grinned and thought it was the craziest idea, but he said yes.

Crazy American dog lovers!

Posted by: Tracey | May 16, 2007 8:34:05 AM

Uh-huh, we humiliate ourselves at fairly regular intervals. Fortunately we both have a sense of humor and don't take ourselves too seriously. BTW, if any of you are sports afficiondos, the word for "jock" or "cup" as it is variously called is actually "magen beitzim," a phrase that still makes me giggle when recalling the pantomines we had to go through to get that particular object without knowing the Hebrew for it......

Posted by: aliyah06 | May 16, 2007 8:55:35 PM

OK - you just reminded me of a story.
I attended a yeshiva in Jerusalem that was about 99% American, the other 1% consisting of Canadians, one Brit, and a couple of Australians. As a group, our Hebrew skills were basically nil.
Around the same time, Operation Solomon was getting into full swing. The country was being inundated by new Ethiopian immigrants, so most Israelis (commendably) were making great efforts to show that they were not racists.
Anyway, back to the yeshiva. My friend was going back to the States soon. Due to many hours in the study hall (or so he claimed), he was pale as a ghost; so he booked a week at a seaside hotel for the express purpose of getting a tan. "How do you say 'suntan' in Hebrew?" he asked me. "I want to call the hotel to find out if their guests are getting a good tan." I admitted my ignorance, so he took matters into his own hands. He called the hotel and blurted out, "Hayesh shchorim bamalon?" This was followed by about twenty seconds of furious shouting on the other end of the line, followed by a click. "Idiot!" I said. "You just asked the guy if there were any black people in the hotel!"

Posted by: psachya | May 17, 2007 4:33:17 AM

When I was living in Spain, the man behind the deli counter used to make animal noises to indicate to me what the cold cuts were, since of course the words you learn in school spanish for animals are for the *live* ones. Also, when looking for cleaning products, I used to unscrew the lids and sniff to figure out what was ammonia and what was bleach. Then there was the time I went to a clinic with stomach flu . . .

Posted by: AnnieD | May 17, 2007 6:17:17 AM

Psachya, your comment reminded me of a story about a jewish family who visited Japan.

The guy telling the story was describing his family and said that his sister was really spoiled. He then went on to describe what had happen at their Tokyo hotel. As the family was walking outside, his sister who was ahead of him, stopped at the door and waited until her brother opened it. He refused. The father, without realizing what was going on, opened the door, allowed her to go first and continued through. She then look at her brother and gave him a smug look of satisfaction.

Her brother was so annoyed at her and how spoil she was, without even thinking about it, he started to yell "You JAP, your are such a JAP".

Needless to say, his mother was horrified and quickly hushed him up.

Posted by: jaime | May 17, 2007 7:52:34 AM

My wife grew up speaking Hebrew in her home... but of the Biblical variety. That means beged layla, not pajamas, etc.

When she got to Israel, she went to the Kotel, then stopped at the bagel place at the top of the steps. She asked for a plain bagel... a "k'ach pashut". The man looked at her strangely and responded "hem lo ba'im p'shutim". After a couple of minutes of confusion, he asked "ma at rotzah?!" She responded "bagel!" He said, "Ahhh, bagel... at yodaat ma zeh k'ach?" 'Lo...?' "Zeh ben zonah!"

She called her father and said "I'm never speaking Hebrew in this country again!!"

:D

Posted by: Ezzie | May 17, 2007 5:01:43 PM

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