Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

Sam Marrero: Mastering Arabic on the Streets of Cairo


Sam enjoys the view from the Ibn Touloun Mosque.

November 24, 2009

Sam Marrero (MAIPS '10) received a Critical Language Scholarship to study Arabic at the American Research Center in Egypt last summer. He spent hours in the classroom learning formal Arabic and Egyptian dialect. He practiced his language skills every chance he could, even when buying pencils and erasers:

I haven’t told this story yet because I don’t think you would believe me.

One day in Amia (Egyptian dialect) class, we were practicing school supplies vocabulary and role-playing a possible interaction between the buyer and seller of such items. The 15-minute break came and, wouldn’t you know it, I needed some school supplies. Just a few pencils, erasers, a sharpener, and paperclips.

There is a stationary shop across the street from the main campus entrance, so I darted there to try my hand at some new phrases. I entered the shop, and there is no apparent shopkeeper on hand. Great. Well…I was in a hurry, so I bark some new amia (colloquial) phrases I just learned:

“fayn al-baiih?” (Where is the shopkeeper?) “ana muhtag allaam arrisaas wa mumkin istikaa bardu” (I need some pencils and maybe an eraser).

I catch the attention of an elderly woman making copies. And then some young Egyptian students - looking as confused as I was - immediately turned to me and offered me their money as if to suggest that my tone and pronunciation hid the fact that I was a foreign student. Actually, they thought I was the shopkeeper.

I took the money as a joke and then began handing out the items the students asked for. A folder here, some blue pens there. Before long it became clear that I didn’t know where most items were. Still, this did not deter the delight of the old women, the wife of the shopkeeper, as I eventually learned.

The shopkeeper, Muhammed, was relaxing upstairs and taking in the scene, laughing and definitely enjoying the break offered by my impromptu services. They offered me a job, in jest I’m sure, but urged me to stick around. I couldn’t. I had to get back to class. So far I haven’t been anywhere else to buy school supplies. What can I say? That store has great service.

Thanks to a Boren Fellowship, Sam will return to Cairo after graduation to research the social effects of Egypt's trade liberalization policy. He also hopes to perfect his Arabic so that everyone thinks he’s the real shopkeeper.

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