Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Joseph Epstein once quipped that he felt that the amount of celebrity that he had was just about right. He was surprised to find that he was somewhat famous and lucky that hardly anyone knew about it.
Anyone who has travelled in places where outsiders are rare will tell you that being a foreigner has something in common with Epstein’s feelings. Just by being foreign gives you a certain amount of celebrity. My friend Jen is the one who pointed this out to me while in Indonesia. There are people to carry your bags, people to drive you from place to place, people who want to try out their English or French, people who want to touch you, who point and stare and whisper and wave. I think of this because of two things that happened today.
In the first, I was being introduced to a group of women who were eating separately from the men. I was ushered in and conversation ceased. They hurriedly made a place for me to sit and brought me tea – not in the glasses that they were using but in a cup with a handle. And then we sat there and looked at each other. No one spoke English. My Arabic is still wanting…to put it mildly. Every now and again someone would make an effort and say something completely incomprehensible to me and I would smile and shake my head in a vague way. Then, I would do the same in return and there was laughing all around. I mostly was thinking about ways to leave. They were probably wishing I would so that they could get back to their conversation and gossip about me. ‘Look, quick, over there. Isn’t that so and so? What’s she doing here? She looks older in real life! Can you believe what she’s wearing?’
In the second, I decided to go for a bike ride - which is the same compulsion that, I suppose, compels Brittany Spears to don a disguise and stroll down Madison Avenue. There is some deep seeded desire in us all to do normal things no matter who we are or how much people will stare and while we try to make it look effortless and natural it comes off as contrived and false to anyone else. And, while I’m loathe to admit it, I like having someone carry my bags and drive me around but I get tired of people picking me out when I try to do something routine. So, deciding to go for a bike ride was ill-advised for the following reasons:
a) women don’t ride bikes here – the flowing robe kind of puts a damper on that
b) I’m white
c) I underestimate how fascinating this will be to the town’s children
I don’t know what I was thinking but the term ‘kawaje’ has been imprinted on the back of my skull. It was the riotous and instant cry of every child who could walk in Garsilla when I peddled by…and it spread like wildfire. ‘Kawaje! Kawaje!’ they yelled at me hoping that I would stop. ‘Kawaje! Kawaje!’ they yelled to their brothers and sisters and neighbors and friends who came running. Soon, I was being followed, yelled at, hounded by a small mob of paparazzi that would do Brittney Spears proud.
Finally, I stopped and shook all their hands and had broken little conversations over and over that went something like this,
‘What is your name?’
‘My name is Kelsey. What is your name?’
‘Fine, thank you. Good evening.’
‘Good morning. What is your name?’
‘Salaam Malekom [hello]
‘A laykum a selam [hello in return]
‘Shwey, shwey.’ [A little bit]
‘Wahid, Etnayne, Telairte.’ [1,2,3…]
Having reached the end of their English and my Arabic. I shook all their hands again and rode off, trailing kids who continued to chant, ‘Kawaje! Kawaje!’ and cling to the back of the bike. And, I guess that’s the problem with being famous. You have to take both sides of the coin. Even insignificant celebrity comes at a price.