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On reading Arabic in the New York subway

Last week, I invited some friends over for dinner, and I thought I’d make them the fish with saffron that my dear friend Nadia Benabid taught me. So I took the subway to Citarella on B’way and 75th to buy some fresh red snapper. On the way back, I got out a book that I had just borrowed from the library earlier that day.

The book was a thick one—actually three Arabic books bound together. They were all by a Saudi historian called al-Jaser حمد الجاسر, and dealt with the history of Najd in the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula. I was not really interested in Saudi history. Rather, I was looking for a certain word and its particular orthography.

For the past six months, I’ve been working on the history of hisba in Islam (simply put, it is the duty of commanding right and forbidding wrong in Islamic religious thought), and got intrigued by the origins of the Saudi mutawi‘, the moral policeman. It was a peculiar footnote in Michael Cook’s 700-odd page book on that principle that drew my attention to this. I had always thought that mutawi‘ is a corruption of mutatawi, i.e. volunteer, as described by the famous political thinker Mawardi and by which he meant the private, as opposed to the official, person who practices hisba. But then Cook made me think that the word may have a different origin with a different vocalization. And his source for this was al-Jasir’s book that I now had in my lap.

So here I was on the no. 1 local train with 2 big red snappers whose faint smell I could start detecting wafting from the plastic bag, and three thick books bound together in one volume dealing with 19th century Saudi history. And I am busy skimming the entire tome in the very faint hope that I would find the page (or was it a footnote?) that Cook was referring to.

Then in the 86th St station this man gets in with a younger woman trailing him. He sits right next to me on the right. I am busy flipping through the pages and he, I had the distinct feeling, was busy sneaking into what I was reading. There was something about him that immediately drew me back to my childhood and the small neighborhood mosque next to my home in Roda Island in Cairo. It took me a split of a second to realize it was his misk: the pungent amber-perfume that Islamists are fond of using.
I could see from the corner of my eye that he had a faint beard, although whether it was Salafi or Ikhwani, I could not determine. He had a Sukarno-looking hat that had some glittery embroidery.

“So you’re reading about Saudi history?” he asked in English.

“Yes, I am looking for a particular word,” I answered in Arabic.

“Oh, you’re Egyptian!” he answered back, recognizing my accent. “So why is an Egyptian man reading about Saudi history on a New York subway, I wonder?”

I thought it would be a tedious task explaining to him that I am actually not interested in Saudi history but was looking for the vocalization, via orthography, of a particular word whose location I simply lack. So I simply said that I am just looking for a particular word.

“I bet you are looking for what Muhammad Ali had done to the Wahhabis.”

This is getting too interesting, I thought, but I really have no time to get into a political discussion with a complete stranger about the significance of the destruction of the first Saudi state at the hands of the Egyptians. Or about Wahhabism in the New York subway, for that matter.

“You know he abducted their leader and had him beheaded in Istanbul,” he said with some unease, I thought.

Again, I said nothing. Just a polite smile.

“So what are you doing here?” he said. “Just passing through,” I said.

“Have you voted?” he asked. “No, I couldn’t,” I replied vaguely.

“Tense times in Egypt. Terrible things. I am really enraged. That’s why I am determined to go back and cast my ballot,” he insisted.

“Stay clear of this minefield,” I told myself. All I could do was to keep my smile and make sure that the fish bag between by feet is kept tightly closed.

“Are you heading back home soon?” “I don’t know. Have difficulty finding a ticket,” I lied.

“Well, at least you will have escaped the terrible weather of last week. You see, my wife, who was visiting our daughter here who is studying at Harvard (and he pointed to the young woman who had been trailing him) got stranded for 15 hours between different airports before she finally managed to catch the Egyptair flight back to Cairo.”

“Phew,” I thought. “The weather! A perfectly safe and neutral topic of conversation.” We then spent two or three minutes comparing notes on the Polar Vortex.

“You know, I witnessed the 1984 blizzard,” he added. “Back then I was living on Staten Island. And I remember being caught completely unprepared by the storm. I had nothing but cotton pants, sneakers and cotton socks. And I remember getting off the ferry and walking all the way to my home with the snow waist deep. The trip that would normally take 20 minutes took me four hours that day. And I was freezing to death. But you know what saved me?”

“God? Your mother’s prayers? The good will of fellow passengers?” I just didn’t know how I was supposed to answer.

“It was the two bottles of vodka that I had just bought. My roommates and I were having a party that night, and that was my contribution. Of course they never saw a drop of it as I gulped them on my way home to keep warm. That is how I am still here talking to you.”

It is then that I suddenly saw that he had kohl on his eyes and a small golden earring in his right ear. His hat now looked like a rapper’s hat, his beard a Trotskyite goatee.

I turned my full body to him to talk to him about the upcoming referendum, but the smell of fish had become clearly noticeable and we had already reached my stop.

“Nice talking to you,” he said when I stood up.

“Very nice talking to you,” I said as I firmly shook his hand.

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