Episode 19: Marseille

Here is an interesting short story about Zach’s memorable trip to Marseille, France and how his shirt captured the attention of some of the locals.

TRANSCRIPT

You can read the transcript below.

In the late spring of 2018 a melodrama I was filming would take me to the south of France to film for five days. Having filmed already in Shanghai, Fukuoka, Tokyo, and on a cruise ship for the same project over the course of 5 months I was excited for my first official trip to Europe.

However I was disappointed that my first trip to France would only be for 5 days. With so much to see, to eat, and do I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to receive a truly enriching cultural experience. How naive was I.

I flew into Marseille with a film crew of about 80 other people and met with the French production side who quickly took us by bus to the hotels we would be staying at. I had a posh residency hotel complete with jacuzzi, and espresso bar with a view that over looked the port, not too far from some very impressive historical and cultural land marks.

Despite feeling a bit jet lagged I threw on a random shirt I picked up in Cairo and made my way to (the cathedrals of Saint Marie majeure in Marseille) at around 8 am. Stained glass windows and domed ceilings provided the perfect echo chamber for a young woman’s impromptu performance of a hymnal. Though I myself am not Catholic, I found my self moved by the spirituality housed within this space. Leaving the cathedral, I decided to have a crepe and reflect over my experience while watching the waves of the Mediterranean lap the shore of France’s southern coast. 

With my belly full I made my way to the museum Mediterranean culture, but a very strange thing was happening. I was well aware that the French people are a bit standoffish, but nonetheless very proud of their culture and, language. But as I made my way through the promenade many people were smiling at me, some even waving. Some even exchanged friendly greetings at me. But not in French. In Arabic.

Grinning from ear to ear I was delighted to find the horror stories friends and fellow travelers (mostly French) told me of how rude the French are, were entirely untrue. Elated, however very curious as to why people where talking to me in Arabic it wasn’t until a group of lawyers out side of the museum stopped me to ask for a picture, it was then that I received Insite to this cultural phenomenon that I was privy too.

‘Well bro, your shirt says no worries.’
I look down and sure enough I was wearing one of my favorite shirts I picked up in Cairo. Written in white font over a read back drop was a very colloquial Egyptian phrase. Mish mushkele.
‘Well so it does. But still, is it that funny?’

‘No, it’s not funny, but so many of us came here and had to learn French, so it’s nice to see someone like you wearing something like this.

I was reminded of the many times I saw people wearing basket ball jerseys with popular American teams, and didn’t pay it a second thought. But there was one day in the houtongs of Beijing I saw a man in his forties wearing a Nebraska Huskers shirt. And I lost my mind. I had a million questions for the man who had clearly been to my home town. I immediately wanted to be friends, to hear his story, to hear what he thought of my hometown, of my culture.

The lawyers while three were from Tunisia one happened to be from Egypt, and the moment I began speaking to him in Egyptian colloquial Arabic he began laughing and clapping as if I was Bassam Yousef.   himself.

But that was not the end of my story with this shirt. I’ve told this to many friends, and they do not believe me that my Arabic got me so much further in Marseille than my French ever did.

Upon entering the museum the man at the door greeted me not with a typical, ‘bonjour missure, but instead he looked at me from head to toe, stopped at my face, hesitated and said, ‘Sabah ‘el fool.’ 
A greeting similar to Good after noon.
To which I responded.
‘Sabah ‘el nor.’
A response in form.

And the grizzled face of the mustached man was proved to be nothing more than a facade. A smile cracked spreading ear to ear, revealing the road map of where all the smiles he had lived before, and I was immediately embraced, and asked 1,000 questions of who I was, and what had brought me there. But more importantly why I had this simple shirt.

It was as if I was wearing a Huskers Jersey in the houtongs of Beijing. But it was more than that, a friend later explained to me that many Arabs feel unwelcome living in Marseille, and a thus feel as if they are forced to hide their culture to assimilate. But here I was, visually quite American displaying their culture, in Crimson and white saying to the world, ‘no worries.’

In the course of our conversation I had learned he too was from Egypt, and I told him how nice my time in Cairo was, and how nice the people of Marseille are, but also how I had no idea there was such a large Arab population in Marseille. He looks at me, smiles and says, well this is the Mediterranean after all. He hugged me once again insisted I call him uncle escorted me into the museum and insisted on paying for my ticket.

And here at this museum you can learn all about us. We exchanged contact information and said goodbye. Upon parting he thanked me for brightening his day. But it was I who should have thanked him for welcoming me so warmly into his culture, and reminding me that my experiences learning Arabic in Cairo will flow with me, far beyond the reaches of the Nile.

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