We are in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in San Jose, California, early 2004. A dark-skinned and gray-haired man in traditional Sunni garb and a long black beard walks up to a college-age Nordic-looking female clerk. He speaks in broken English with a heavy accent, his words all strung together without parsing or stress, "Excusemesiryescanyoutellmewhatis 'harrowed'?" (He calls her "sir" because he learned this entire phrase by rote from a phrase book and didn't learn, along with the phrase, the grammatical concept of gender differentiation in forms of address. Why he throws a "yes" in the middle of the phrase is a mystery. Your guess is as good as mine.)
"I'm sorry, I didn't understand."
"Whatis 'harrowed'?" He points to the word in a Farmer's Almanac. (He pronounces the word with three syllables, "har row wed.")
"Um, let me get my manager. He'll be right here." She calls the manager over the intercom. As the manager approaches, the girl walks over to him to explain the situation. She whispers, "That guy in that outfit there is ranting about something and pointing to a Farmer's Almanac. I can't understand what he's saying."
"You're shitting me!"
"No, I'm not." She looks perplexed. "Why?"
"The FBI has just issued an alert to all law-enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for terrorists with almanacs, they may be planning something."
She squeaks in terror then covers her mouth, politely rendering the obligatory shibboleth of her age, race, class, and gender: "Oh my...God ." Then, "Do you think that's him?"
"I don't know, but we can't take any chances." He puts his hairy arm on her creamy white uncovered shoulder. "We can't afford to take any chances. I'll be right back."
She returns to the counter and stands again across from the Arab man.
He laughs nervously. "Excusemesirnowyoutellmewhatis 'harrowed'?"
"Now I tell you what?" she asks.
A light bulb explodes above her head. She screams. "Ahhhh. Help."
The security guard comes over. He walks behind the counter. He puts his hairy arm on her creamy white uncovered shoulder. "Are you O.K.?" She starts crying. The security guard puts his arm around her more. The customers are sighing and looking at their watches.
"Something is " she starts. "Something is happening."
The security guard pries further, "What is it? What is happening?"
She looks up from her hands. Her face is red. She stares in disbelief at the stubborn ignorance of the security guard. It's his job to get to the bottom of things, after all, not hers; she just took this job so she could make a little extra money and put something on her resume, and help people, of course, help people. "I don't know."
"O.K., honey, don't scream. Just tell me what happened."
"This man here." She points rudely. "I can't understand what he's saying."
"O.K. Now we're getting somewhere. Now what happened to the light bulb? Did somebody break it?"
"I don't know." She is calming down. "I think it just exploded. The glass is all over the floor." She seems to be noticing the actual chain of cause and effect for the first time.
The security guard still has his arm on the girl. He squares off at the customer with the Almanac and, in a gruff, accusatory voice, demands, "May I help you, sir?"
"IamverysorryI don't know" He doesn't want to appear rude by asking such a trivial question in the midst of what seems to be a personal crisis, but he doesn't have the words in English to excuse himself, so he just repeats, "IamverysorryI don't know."
"Sir," the guard asks quite loudly and emphatically, his words parsed clearly, "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"
Believing it's not worth the trouble anymore, the man raises his hand in a culturally non-specific gesture as if to say, "Sorry to have bothered you but I don't know how to say 'Sorry to have bothered you' in English and everything I am saying seems to aggravate things more so I think I'll just leave." He turns around to go back to the bookshelf where he got the book.
Three police cars pull up outside the entrance, their sirens flashing. On their way in the door a woman spills coffee on her baby in order to make way for them.
Yep, you guessed it: "FREEZE! DROP THE FUCKING ALMANAC, SCUM!!!"
Luckily, the word "Almanac" is of Mid-Eastern origin and so he understands that they must be talking to him and he knows what he must do. The context and the comprehension of a single word together (and also his awareness of his threatening skin color and appearance) enable him to comprehend the entire phrase. He drops the Almanac. An officer rushes over to scoop it up. The other officers knock the man to the ground. Because the man is elderly and is wearing traditional garb, he stumbles as they take him down, but the officers turn him over, like a turtle, on to his stomach and cuff him.
"Ijustwantonlytoknowwhatis 'har row wed'."
"I can't understand you, your lips are moving but ain't nothing coming out. You wanna try that again?" Strangely enough, this is the precise real-world impetus that enables the man to acquire a critical piece of linguistic competence: parsing. In other words, in a perfect caricature of Social Darwinist adaptation, the man learns how to parse his otherwise quite comprehensible English, because he has to parse it. From this point on in the man's life, he will parse his words and his English will be understood.
"I just wanted only to know what is 'har row wed'."
"Whaddya mean, 'What is "har row wed"?'?"
The girl bounces up to the scene. "Oh, God, what is going on here. Why is this happening to me, why, why, why!!!" An officer puts his hairy arm on her creamy white shoulder. "Listen closely, now, sweetheart. Everything is going to be O.K. What I'm gonna need you to do for me is to get you to go back around behind the counter. (He accompanies her a few steps in that direction as if to get her started.) Can you do that for me?" The customers are standing in line, tapping their feet and looking at their watches.
After calming the girl down, the officer returns to the scene where the man clad in a white robe lies on his belly and stares at the carpet in front of a bookshelf labeled "Reference."
"Is he an American?" the captain asks one of the policemen.
"I don't think so, sir."
The captain looks down at him, "Wheryou from, Buck?"
"I from Bahrain."
"Hmmmm, Bahrain. Where is that?"
You can imagine the rest. The man tells the police if they give him an Almanac he can show them where Bahrain is. Of course, when he asks for the Almanac, San Jose's finest give the smart-ass just what he deserves: a kick in the neck. And of course, a man comes over claiming to be a doctor. "I'm a doctor, I'm a doctor, etc., etc." Turns out he is not a medical doctor, but has a PhD. in cultural anthropology. He mediates between the two parties and, after about 45 minutes of intense questioning in the Barnes and Noble break room, it turns out all the poor guy wanted was to know the meaning of the word, "harrow" because he had come across the following old proverb while browsing through the Farmer's Almanac: "The father says to the boy, 'when you've harrowed and plowed as much as I have, you'll understand a thing or two about the world." Once the cultural anthropologist explains the meaning of the word and the proverb as well as the sexual innuendo in the proverb, they all have a good laugh. The Arab man says it reminds him of a proverb in his own language involving sheep and goats. When he tries to translate, no one laughs but him. His parsing is O.K., but no one, not even the doctor, or "doc" as they now all affectionately call him, understands what part of it is supposed to be funny. The captain rescues the embarrassing moment by telling everyone of a joke involving sheep and goats that his Irish uncle used to tell him. Everyone laughs except the Arab man. The Arab man rots today in a cell with no legal representation and no hopes for ever being charged with a crime let alone being released.
And the customers are still standing there exhaling, looking at their watches and dreaming of placing their hairy arms on the clerk's creamy white shoulder.
Copyright 2004 West-Art, Prometheus 92/2004