Up Against the Nile

By Audrey Bellis

Growing up in an inner racial/inner faith household, I can honestly say that there aren’t many situations I feel uncomfortable in. In fact, I’m a little bit chameleon like. When I’m with my Mom’s side of the family (Mexican/Catholic), my Spanish is excellent, I keep up with telenovelas (soap operas in Spanish), and I can sing the latest music & all the classics too. I blend in, even if I have a non Mexican name like Audrey. I can go to mass with the family- I can pray in English & Spanish, and I completed my sacraments as a Catholic. I am even an advisory board member for Catholic Charities Los Angeles, the San Pedro region.

On my Dad’s side (Italian/Jewish) of the family, I still blend in. I have a Hebrew name from being named in the synagogue as a child (Peninah Shoshanah), my accent is spot on, I think lox on anything is God’s gift to breakfast, and my latkes (according to my Dad) are the best in this world (thanks to the fact that I add zucchini and jalapenos to them) and I can kvetch like no other. While I consider myself more Catholic than Jewish, I still keep a fusion household: i.e ChristmaKkuh or HannuMas, EastOver etc…

So clearly growing up this way, I can blend fairly easily into anything. I grew up with all kinds of different foods, accents and traditions. Then I met a boy (a man really) on a mellow weekend buying a car. He was a salesman and what can I say… he sold me. I loved his persistence and the impressive amount of chest hair.

He was Egyptian. This did not faze me in any way, nor did it bother him. I remember when he took me to meet his mom for the first time- it was an ambush. On our 3rd date (no joke- it was that early on) he told me he just wanted to run into the house and grab a jacket for the evening and wouldn’t I come in? I unsuspectingly walked into the living room and met his mom and sister (OMG!! Ambush: meet the mom?!?!). He then abandoned me with them for a while so I could be “examined on a closer basis”, and he could hide out looking for a “jacket”.)

His mother scoped me out and in her accented husky voice the following played out:

His mom: “You are very beautiful Ubrey (yes she always mispronounced my name and called me Ubrey), Your eyes are very pretty. With your eyebrows you could almost be Greek”

Me: “Thank you” (Heart swelling thinking I was being approved of)

His mom: “Plgh (spitting sound) we do not like Greek, we are Egyptian. Don’t vory, it is only your eyes, everything else looks diverrrent”

Me: “oh” (Awkward pause) “well…. I’m Mexican” His mom: “Even worse” Cr@p!

I couldn’t wait to get out of there. What was she saying? Slap on a burqa and only show my eyes so I could blend in? (Ok, so that wasn’t what she was saying, but I was so caught off guard by being told I was pretty when you covered half my face that she might as well have said that).

Oh well.

She didn’t have to like me, he liked me- that’s what mattered. Then it dawned on me that he lived with his mother, and my spunk kicked in. Was I going to encounter this every time I came over?? Turns out I really didn’t have to, she warmed to me fairly quickly, but while she warmed to me, it wasn’t like we were bff’s.

No, she still insisted on speaking in Arabic when I was around with no hope of an English translation by anyone (and often elevated tones with fleeting glances in my direction), and feeding me mystery foods that I would never learn to cook, and quietly gag and force down as if to show her: “bring it!”

So, I realized early on in the relationship that Arabic was going to be a tool for survival- it would tell me who was talking smack, and make fitting in happen a lot sooner. So I learned. And my boy friend taught me as we progressed in our state of lovey/dovey bickering.

He mostly taught me things I couldn’t use in front of his mom although I didn’t realize that and used several phrases inappropriately that raised some eyebrows. For example: I once tried to say “shwarma” (which is like the Middle Eastern version of a taco) in a restaurant while I was ordering and instead of lamb shwarma, I said “sharmuta” which is basically “whore or slut”. “Hi, I’d like my lamb whore  please? FML

Or the time I got ridiculously drunk and told him a whole series of (graphic) inappropriate things.  In Arabic. (And in a car full of his cousins- FML part 2).

Or how about the time meant to say “rest your head on my chest” and instead I used the word for breasts (awkward…) in front of his mom & aunt?

Yeah… I screwed up plenty of times. But I learned and when I messed up, my Habibi (my love) was always there to smile and whisper in my ear the correct word, phrase, or pronunciation.

After 3 years of dating, 2 of which we lived together and a broken engagement, we parted ways. I look back on those years together fondly and often smile when little things remind me of the early part of our relationship. He taught me Arabic, he took me to smoke hookah for the first time, he taught me how to smoke and select cigars, how to enjoy a good scotch, and he helped me blend in to a family, a language, and a culture that wasn’t initially very accepting.

In the years that have passed, I never would have imagined I’d use my Arabic as much as I do on a daily basis but I do. In fact I use it every day. As a children’s special occasion boutique owner and new designer, I use it to haggle with textile vendors (who ALL speak Arabic better than English). I use it every day when I walk to my showroom and pass the men’s suit row in Downtown Los Angeles (because all the owners seem to hang out in front of their shops sipping tiny cups of coffee and flirting shamelessly with me); I use it when I order lunch from my favorite kabob place.  And when I entertain or close a big account, I celebrate with hookah and belly dancers. In fact, I use my Arabic on a daily basis more often than my Spanish- to the point that even my mom has noticed my Spanish skills deteriorating.

And while I learn new words every day, it continues to be an asset to my daily life. So thanks to my habibi- wherever he is these days, for bringing such a rich language and culture to me and for how it helps me continue to grow.


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