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Originally published Sunday, December 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Travel essay

Transcending differences in Egypt

Sara Glerum of Lake Forest Park finds that although the language and culture are different in Egypt, some things are universal.

Special to The Seattle Times

During our stay in Cairo earlier this year, Egypt won the 2008 Africa Soccer Cup in a match against Cameroon. All the shops in our Cairo hotel closed during the game. Through the shop windows my husband, Jay, and I could see small groups of men — store owners and clerks — huddled around TVs that had been set up for this occasion.

Shortly after 9 p.m., a stereophonic shout erupted throughout the hotel lobby. Even though we didn't understand Arabic, we understood its meaning; Egypt had scored the first, and what would become the winning, goal.

Within a few minutes the match was over, and what looked like every able-bodied male citizen of Cairo fled to the streets to celebrate. More than one Egyptian man, racing for the lobby, yelled to us in broken English to stay in the hotel — we could get trampled in the jubilation.

We watched from our hotel balcony for more than two hours and listened to incessant horn honking and ecstatic yelling. It was thrilling, even from 10 stories up. We knew we were witnessing an occasion of fierce national pride.

Before that night, we had found that not all Egyptians are crazy about Americans. Occasionally we caught a glimmer of a hostile look that made us look away quickly. Maintaining eye contact could have become confrontational, so we pretended not to notice. But excitement over a national championship is a contagious leveler.

The day after the soccer victory, Jay seized the opportunity to congratulate Egyptian men he encountered — vendors, guards, restroom attendants. "Great soccer match! Congratulations!" he would say, whereupon even the most dour face would light up.

"You watched? You American? Great country!" One compliment elicited another in return, and that would be followed by more smiles.

Jay began to realize his mustache was also an ambassador. Although most American men are clean-shaven, a great many Egyptian men are mustachioed. At nearly every monument and museum we visited, some man — a tourist policeman or ticket taker — would grinningly point to his own mustache while staring at Jay's.

Thanks to the simplicity of the gesture — a finger drawn across the underside of a nose, accompanied by the affirming smile — lack of Arabic did not prevent him from understanding the comment. Several men were particularly impressed that his mustache was gray. "You old?" they asked him, smiling.

"Nam (yes)," Jay answered, grinning back, enjoying what might be the only approval of the aging process he's ever received. Smiles all around.

If soccer congratulations or mustache admiration didn't break the ice, I too, had a tactic — a simple greeting spoken in my broken Arabic. When I said "sabah al-khair" (good morning) or "masaa al-khair" (good evening) delivered with as much guttural roll for the 'kh' as I could muster, a delighted smile erupted on the face of a shopkeeper or member of the housekeeping staff. Maybe it was because my accent was laughable, but I want to believe it was my attempt to stand on common ground that brought the smile.

I'm going to need help from books, pictures, and maps to remember all the monuments and antiquities I saw in the land of Egypt. But remembering the people of Egypt will only require three memories: a serendipitous championship, a "knowing look" at a mustache, and the homemade Arabic flashcards I studied before we left home. As simplistic as it might seem, I'd like to think that those little things changed a few Egyptian minds about Americans.

Sara Glerum lives in Lake Forest Park.

The Travel Essay, written by readers about an adventure or insight, runs Sunday in The Seattle Times and online at seattletimes.com. Essays, which are unpaid, must be no longer than 600 words and will be edited for content and length. E-mail to travel@seattletimes.com or send to Travel, The Essay, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Because of the volume of submissions, individual replies are not always possible.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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