Fitting in, gratefully

  • Article by: AHMED THARWAT
  • Updated: June 4, 2014 - 6:48 PM

As an immigrant, I found a land of milk and honey in a Minneapolis grocery, and sparked an exercise in inclusivity.

hide

Calligraphy of the Arabic word “Shokran,” which means “thank you.”

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.

 

  • related content

  • Calligraphy of the Arabic word “Shokran,” which means “thank you.”

  • Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune Wednesday, July 20, 2005 -- Minneapolis, Minn. -- Most of the fresh vegtables at the Wedge Co-op on Lyndale Ave, Minneapolis are organic and local produce is favored.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

  • about opinion

  • The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.

  • Submit a letter or commentary
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should Roger Goodell lose his job as NFL commissioner over Rice case?

Weekly Question
 
Close