Another latte for the American

Farah El-Akkad, Tuesday 5 Jul 2022

Farah El-Akkad meets Peter Falatyn, the American who wrote a book in Egyptian Arabic

Latte for the American

Peter Falatyn came to Egypt on a mission to learn Arabic, but ended up writing a book in amiyya, or Egyptian colloquial. He chose the title Another Latte for the American as it seemed to encapsulate some of the experiences he’d had learning the language.

The idea came from his mischievous attempts to order a latte in various coffee shops around Egypt and particularly in Alexandria, where he has lived since 2017. The way he pronounced the word was not understood by most waiters. “Latte” in Egypt usually sounds more like lataih, but because he said it in American English Falatyn had a hard time being understood.

Growing up between New York City and California, Falatyn has always been intrigued by foreign languages and had learnt some standard Arabic as a student in the US. Working as an engineer, he spent several years travelling between the US, Europe and Russia, becoming a fluent Russian and French speaker.

 “I have always liked languages that open up a region,” Falatyn said, commenting on Russian that “although it is spoken in Russia, it goes all the way from Belarus to all the former Soviet countries such as Azerbaijan.” Having spent some time around Europe and Asia, he realised that he knew little about the Middle East and the Arab world and so decided to visit.

Before deciding to live in Egypt, Falatyn visited Lebanon. “I thought maybe I would live there and learn Arabic, but I found that everyone spoke English or French. Even taxi drivers were speaking English to me, so there was no way I was going to learn Arabic there,” he said.

When deciding where to go in Egypt, he also had some other preconceived ideas to dispose of. “I thought Alexandria would be like an old Greek village, but then I found it was an enormous city, like Cairo with a coastline,” he explained.

“In California, I lived near the water, so it was sort of familiar to me, and I decided to stay there,” he said. For someone over 50, “learning a new language is not the same as when you are in your twenties or thirties. I wanted to prove that I could learn a difficult language like Arabic,” he added.

In the introduction to his book, Falatyn recalls when he was a new resident of Alexandria and wanted to take an Uber from San Stefano to Mahatet Al-Raml in Downtown. The driver did not understand English. When Falatyn tried to explain his destination in standard Arabic, or fusha, based on his knowledge of the language at the time, it ended badly. “I tried and tried, and my voice got louder and louder, and ended up shouting at the poor driver, ‘why can’t you understand me’,” Falatyn writes.

This was his second shock concerning Alexandria, after thinking it was a village with some boats on the Mediterranean coast and not the big city he found. “I was very frustrated and realised after being there for a week that I was in Egypt and wanted to connect with Egyptians. One of the stories in the book is about personal values and is called Tawasol (Connection), which is one of my personal values. I was not connecting with my little bit of fusha, and I wanted to connect with Egyptians,” he says, explaining that this motivated him to learn amiyya.

Starting his Arabic-learning journey at the Ahlan School, an Alexandria-based educational centre teaching Arabic to foreigners, he moved to another school, also in Alexandria, where he met his teacher Lubna Al-Hawari, whom he considers one of the main people who inspired him to write a book in Arabic.

Calling himself a difficult student because he did not follow the standard or traditional way of learning Arabic, he found an appreciative teacher in Al-Hawari. Falatyn was a unique student who did not like to follow routine, she said. “When a teacher sees a student who is eager to learn in a non-traditional way, or has a different vision, it is the teacher’s duty to bring out and support this potential,” she added.

Al-Hawari decided to teach Falatyn Arabic using an open-minded approach, one which was more about writing daily memoirs and simple day-to-day activities such as going shopping or having coffee in his own words. “I saw that he wanted to engage with society and wanted his learning experience to be reflected in his daily life and not just to learn words or converse without having an actual relation to everyday activities,” she said. Falatyn was happy with this new method, as it involved writing, which he already liked. Learning vocabulary and writing about his daily encounters were useful ways of learning colloquial Arabic.

“I was a very difficult Arabic student,” Falatyn said. “I did not want to study by the book. Instead, I wanted to connect quickly with people, so I avoided textbooks for my first year. Lubna had a very clever idea. She said, ‘you are going to write a yawmiyat’ [diary]. I thought it was a wonderful idea – that way I could focus on vocabulary that would be mufeed fi hayati [useful to my life],” he said.

With a lot to observe around Alexandria, Falatyn progressed in both speaking and writing. Al-Hawari said that Falatyn would narrate what he saw to her, and they would add more vocabulary to her lessons. Soon enough, his progress in writing was exceptional. She considers one of his stories to be a turning point.

“One of his stories, logha wa tagroba [language and experience], was quite different from the others. When I read it, I saw a strong human side to it. It was heartfelt,” she said. “I published it on my Facebook account and asked my own professor’s opinion about it. The feedback was amazing, and I thought it was time that Peter wrote a book.”

Moreover, after the book was published, it gave her a lot of further insight. “The book is now a reference and definitely part of my curriculum for new students who want to learn colloquial Arabic. I am also encouraging Peter to continue writing and hope there will be a second part of the book,” she said.

The 21 stories in the book appear in the same order Falatyn wrote them for his lessons and are all based on real encounters he had in Egypt.

“My first three stories are rather boring in my opinion. They are like a tourist who is still discovering. I also tried to keep to the level of expression I had at the time,” he said. Later, his Arabic expression improved, and the stories are more about his “observations about society.”

The book is a series of moments that Egyptians or residents of Alexandria may not always pay attention to. But the feelings, details, and observations that Falatyn puts into words present a special human experience that gives the reader a deep sense of belonging, as if he or she were actually accompanying him. When asked about his favourite story, he replies “Al-Deif” (The Visitor), number 16 in his book.

“In the summer of 2019, I had an upsetting, yet deeply moving, experience in a restaurant on Fouad Street in Alexandria. I don’t want to make a big drama out of it, but it greatly influenced my thinking about what it means to be a guest in Egypt,” he said.

“I was having dinner with two friends, a couple, and as usual they were arguing about something trivial. The more they bickered, back and forth, the more my mood soured. You see, I’d witnessed this behaviour from them many times prior to this night. As a result, my attention wandered from this couple to the noise in the restaurant, and in particular, to two young children who were screaming and running among the various tables, as is usual in Egypt, without any oversight from their parents. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I got up from my chair and went to speak to the manager to complain about the children. I saw he wasn’t going to do anything to correct them, so I went to the parents to confront them directly.

“Now it was my turn to argue, this time with the children’s father. Our discussion was brief, but quite pointed and intense, and frankly my behaviour was deplorable. I could not seem to control myself. The last thing the father said to me, in perfect English, was, ‘you have forgotten you’re a guest in Egypt.’ And I… well, I just stood there... stunned. I silently returned to my table, finished my dinner, and left with my friends for a cafe next door. In the cafe, I managed to calm myself a little, while at the same time thinking of how poorly and shamefully I’d behaved just a few minutes earlier.

“After a quarter of an hour, I left my friends to return to the restaurant, hoping to find the man I’d just argued with and ask him for his forgiveness. Fortunately, I found him right away and he left the small group at his table to chat privately with me for a few minutes. I immediately apologised to him, and this time our talk was pleasant and friendly. It seems we parted as friends. When I left the restaurant, this time my mood was light, but his words, ‘You have forgotten you’re a guest in Egypt,’ stayed with me. Why? Because they were true. Indeed, I had forgotten that I’m a guest in Egypt. I’d forgotten this on purpose! I’d forgotten this because I strongly dislike being treated like a guest, in Egypt or in any other country. Treating someone as if he is a guest, in my opinion, is fake and artificial.

“It’s just not natural! Treating someone as a guest makes me uncomfortable: its basis is to separate people from each other. One person who treats another as his guest sends the message: ‘I’m at home, and you are a stranger. I differentiate you from me. There is a gap, a space between us. We are fundamentally different.’ What nonsense! It became clear to me that this goes directly against my most important and basic personal value: connection. And for that reason, I always try to treat other people as people, not as guests.

“In New York City, there is a beautiful, informal, unwritten rule that I heard of many years ago, and I love it: if you live in New York for more than 10 years, you have the right to call yourself a New Yorker. How sweet! You can call yourself a New Yorker regardless of your nationality or accent or appearance or roots. After my sobering experience in the restaurant on Fouad Street, I abruptly realised a simple truth that greatly depressed me. Because of my nationality and appearance and accent, Egyptians will always treat me like a guest, even if I live here for the next 100 years.

“I told all of this to Lubna in class, and she tried to encourage me, telling me that I should tell Egyptians that I’m at home here, I’m really not a guest. Her idea was nice, but I didn’t find much comfort in it. My words and my appearance and my accent up against 5,000 years of Egyptian history and tradition? Lord, help me! But then my friend Ola shared a story with me about [the traditional character] Mulla Nasreddin and Tamerlane, and it cheered me a little. The story goes like this: ‘Once upon a time, Tamerlane gave Nasreddin a basket of peaches and asked him to put it in his house. So Nasreddin took it away. Later, after Tamerlane returned home, he couldn’t find the peaches, so he asked Nasreddin where he had put the basket. Nasreddin asked Tamerlane to follow him and took him to the cemetery, saying, ‘See here the basket of peaches. You asked me to take it to your house. You won’t remain in this world forever. Your fame and your palace will one day disappear. This is your eternal home.’

“This story comforted me with its deep meaning: our time on earth is limited, so we are all in fact guests. And if we’re all guests, isn’t it logical and correct that we should treat each other as people, not guests? Dear Egyptian readers, do you agree? If yes, I hope that in the future you will greet me with a simple ‘Hello’ and not with what I hear nearly every day: ‘Welcome in Egypt! Have a nice time!’” (From “Al-Deif” in Another Latte for the American).

Not sure of how long he was going to stay in Egypt, Falatyn wanted to become fluent in Egypt’s mother tongue. In Russia and France, it had taken him about a year to become a fluent speaker, but in Egypt he found one year was not even close to what was required, so he decided to stay longer.

“After a year-and-a-half in Egypt, I became a very good friend with a Russian woman and an Egyptian friend. They met and got married because I introduced them to each other. One year after that I got an apartment in Ibrahimia in Alexandria. I think that is when I said, well now I am living here. It is like I am a long-term tourist, but I would say this is my home now. I am here typically 10 months a year,” Falatyn said.

“I am pleased that a distinguished researcher, professor Lubna Al-Hawari, presently completing her PhD thesis, told me about this laudable traveller and writer, Mr Peter, the author of this charming book, captivating in its simplicity and enchantment,” writes Mohamed Zakaria Enani, Al-Hawari’s professor at Alexandria University, in his introduction to Falatyn’s book.

“Mr Peter came from afar to spend a period of time in Alexandria and to offer his experience of two lives through his lively, intelligent vision that is rare in its truth and beauty. We are not seeing a traditional tourist, but instead we see through him his insights into life, people, streets, customs and traditions. Free of any pretence, he depicts life through writing sessions in cafes, and it is amazing that the writing here is in the Arabic language – alive, honest, polished, and deriving its beauty from usage that is neither formal nor colloquial.

“I would call it ‘Peter-ish’. It reminds me of what Taha Hussein presented in his book The Future of Culture in Egypt, where he touches on Egyptian reality from all angles of awareness and observation.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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