Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Phone etiquette

I have already noticed hundreds of differences in the way people interact with each other here to the culture I'm used to, and none has been more in-your-face than mobile phone etiquette. A simple request for directions from a police officer or chatting to a stranger on a train platform are the sort of instances so far that have led to an exchange of phone numbers. In fact, if I had an Egyptian pound for every briefly-met Mohammed now in my phone, I could probably pay off my hotel.

There is no doubt that the taking of my number and later phoning it is a gesture of hospitality, manifested for example in unwarranted concern that my train has arrived safely at its destination. But it was quite overwhelming at first. Recently, I woke up a few dark hours before the dawn prayer to my mobile shuffling its way across the bedside table, and six missed calls from a number that I barely recognised. I sat bolt upright and answered the phone.

Me: What's wrong?!
Mohammed: Hello my friend! How are you?
Me: I'm fine. What's wrong?!
Mohammed: I'm just fine, thanks be to God! What's your news?

And it didn't even occur, at least to him, that there might be better times to chat than the dead of night. Even at more reasonable hours, incessant phone calls turn out to be nothing more than a series of pleasantries inquiring about your health, your location, and then those of your family. The conversation is brought to end by asking the collocutor whether they need anything, although none of these questions seems to be taken literally. No-one wants to know what your news actually is; rather, they just require a standard answer confirming that everything is fine, thanks be to God.

انت فين؟ inta fēn where are you?
ايه الاخبار؟ ēh ilaxbār how are things?
عايز حاجة؟ ʕāyiz ḥāga do you need anything?

There seems to be no way out of exchanging your number, by the way, unless you're a very elaborate liar. The use of a fake number will be foiled as soon as it's dialled it in your presence. Likewise, having taken someone's number (for subsequent deletion), you will be expected to give someone a missed call. Nevertheless, the whole process has produced some good vocabulary, especially the term for a missed call, which would make the Arabic purists, the defenders against foreign loanwords, shudder with horror.

مكالمة مست mukalma mist missed call
اتّصل ittasal to get in touch (بـ with)
كلّم kallam to phone (هـ s.o.)
ضرب تيليفون ḍarab tilifūn to give (لـ s.o.) a call
رنّ rann to ring (لـ s.o.)

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