More than 30 years ago, a young immigrant made his long journey from Egypt, a very old country, to America, a very young country. It was a trip into the unknown, to a place I could only imagine from images in American movies or from the taste of a Coke bought on the streets of Egypt.
The trepidation, the excitement, the anticipation of the nuances in America, where everything is big and everyone is busy, enthralled me. I found myself looking around every time someone said “Have a nice day” — or looking up every time someone said “What’s up?”
But nothing was so culturally transforming as the day I stopped at the Lunds supermarket on Lake Street in south Minneapolis, across from my first apartment near Lake Calhoun (where I finally learned what it means to have a room of your own).
Entering the store was like entering heaven as described to Muslims — fruits and vegetables, milk and honey — although the only virgin to be found was in the olive oil. I was overwhelmed, not just by the amount and variety of foods before my eyes, but also that it was all within my reach — unlike at the stores back home in Egypt. No one was standing between me and my favorite food; I could have as much ice cream and candy as I wanted. Nobody would hand me my item while at the same time questioning my judgment or taste.
I may not be totally free here, but I’m a free shopper, and you can express your individuality through shopping.
Lunds was also a very welcoming place. You didn’t need to speak much English to get what you wanted. I especially admired the produce section, which speaks a universal language of its own, with its colorful rows of beautiful fruits and vegetables. Oranges, grapes, peaches, pomegranates, strawberries — all welcoming you. I spent lots of time looking at the colorful American cheese wrapped in its glossy plastic burqa, flirting with you but keeping its distance.
Walking through the soft-drink aisle, I found Coke cans wrapped in the red and white of an American flag. People may not be conversing with you, but brands are smiling and offering greetings.
I filled my shopping cart with all of my favorite foods. I even picked up a bunch of flowers to give them to the beautiful young clerk at the checkout counter. As she tried to put them in my bag, I told her that they were for her. She was confused but managed to say “thank you.”
I took my filled shopping bags and went home, wanting to be alone with all of this wonderful food. I unpacked the bags, removing my items one by one and carefully putting them away. Then, my first disappointment in America, my first cultural wake-up call.
I looked at the empty shopping bags, and I was so pleased to find “thank you” written on them in many languages. But much to my surprise, I noticed that there wasn’t a “thank you” in Arabic. I wondered why. This was more than 20 years before 9/11.
I took my bags back to the store and asked the manager there: “Why don’t you want to thank me in my own language?”
“We just don’t know how to write in Arabic,” he said. (This was of course before Google Translate.) So I took a piece of paper and wrote “thank you” in Arabic and left it there. I told him: “Shokran. Now you don’t just see it, you hear it.”
I forgot about this for a long time, but a few years later, to my surprise, I found “thank you” written in Arabic on all of their shopping bags. Recently, I found “Shokran” not on a bag but on the wall of the new Lunds & Byerly’s Kitchen in downtown Wayzata — and it is the only handwritten “thank you.”
Thank you, Lunds. Now you speak my language.
Ahmed Tharwat is a public speaker and hosts the Arab-American show “Belahdan” at 10:30 p.m. Mondays on Twin Cities Public Television. He blogs at www.ahmediatv.com.