More than 30 years ago, a young immigrant made his long journey from Egypt, a very old country to America, a very new country, a trip to the unknown, a trip to a place that I only could imagine from images reflected in American movies, or from a taste of a Coke bottle in the street of Egypt. The trepidation, the excitement, the anticipation of the nuances in America, where everything is big and everyone is busy, intrigued 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 intriguing and culturally transforming as when I stopped at the Lunds’ supermarket at Hennepin & Lake Street in south Minneapolis, across from my first apartment by Lake Calhoun, where I finally learned what it means to have a “room of your own.” At Lund’s Supermarket, entering the store is like entering heaven as described to Muslims, fruit and vegetables, milk and honey—but with the only virgin to be found in the olive oil.
I was overwhelmed not just by the amount and the variety of foods available before my eyes, but also that it was all within my reach, and unlike the stores back home in Egypt I used to go to. No one was standing between me and my favorite food, so I could just have as much ice cream and candy as I wanted. Nobody would hand me my item along with questioning my judgment or taste.
I may not be totally free but I’m a free shopper, and you can do anything and express your individuality through shopping. Along with it allure, Lund’s supermarket was a very welcoming place and you don’t need to speak too much English to get what you wanted. I especially admired the produce section, which speaks a universal language of its own, with aisles of colorful rows of beautiful fruits and vegetables: oranges, grapes, peaches, pomegranates and strawberries, all looking and welcoming you. I spent lots of time looking at the colorful American cheese wrapped in its glossy plastic burka, flirting with you but keeping its distance as I passed by. Walking through the soft drink aisle, wrapped in the red and white of Coke cans like an American flag, I filled my shopping cart will all my favorite foods. People may not be conversing with you, but brands are smiling and talking to you. I even picked up a bunch of flowers to give them to the beautiful junior clerk at the checkout counter, and as she tried to put them in my bag, I told her they were for her. She was confused but said thank you. I took my filled shopping bags and went home, wanting to be alone with all this wonderful food. I unpacked the bag, picking out my food one by one and carefully putting them away.
Then my first cultural wake up call. I looked at the shopping bags, and I was so pleased to find “thank you” written in many languages on them, but much to my surprise, I noticed that there wasn’t a thank you in Arabic, which made me wonder why. This was over 20 years before 9/11. I took my bags back to the store, which was their headquarters. “Why don’t you want to thank me in my language,” I asked the General Manger there. “We just don’t know how to write in Arabic,” (that was before Google translator.) So, I took a piece of paper, and wrote “شكرا”, which is thank you in Arabic, and left it there, and told him “Shokran.” Now you don’t just see it, but you hear it.” I forgot about this for a long time but a few years late, to my surprise,
I found the word thank you in Arabic written on all their shopping bags. Recently, I found the same “Shokran” not on a bag but on the wall of the newest. Recently, I found the same “Shokran” not on a bag but on the wall of the newest Lunds and Byerly’s Kitchen in downtown Wayzata …and it is the only handwritten thank you. — Thank you Lunds. Now you speak my language..
Ahmed Tharwat/ Host of the Arab American TV show BelAhdan / TPT
MN Public TV.