I like to think I know my way around a weight room. No, I was never a ‘good’ athlete who ‘won’ competitions, but I was D-1 varsity for a brief second. I’ve dabbled in the athlete culture, albeit from the sitting position in a hot tub on the pool deck of the Ivy League’s worst swim team. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into twice-ish weekly, 20-minute lift sessions in the weight room, where the swim team was scheduled to lift with the football team, the hockey team, or both. Every session, one of our female divers would struggle to bench press the bar directly next to a juggernaut maxing out his squat at 450 pounds. As 30 onlookers would chant, “Get it up, get it up, pussy,” I would casually do box jumps in the corner and avoid eye contact. The point is that I have seen some phenomenal masculinity performances, yet I have never seen a gym quite like the one I joined in Egypt.
The sports club a block away from my apartment features some of Egypt’s most intimidatingly gigantic superhumans. Just going in, I’m a little rattled. Almost all the weights are in kilograms, which means the size of the dumbbells I’m bicep curling in the mirror are less than half of what I expect it to be. So, I compensate by doing what any ex-athlete in my position would do. I wear my U.S. passport around my neck, my faux lax pinney with the Dartmouth crest on the front, and a bandana that screams, “I know my way around a frat party, bra.” Then, I make a big point of rapping along to the Lil’ Wayne song that they coincidentally started playing when I entered. Just as Weezy asks, “What’s a goon to a goblin,” I stare around the gym, daring anyone to get on my level. After that, I stand awkwardly next to the weight benches and pray that someone will ask me to spot them so I can make a gym friend and be noticed.
In the U.S., some guys like to pretend they’re at the gym for reasons other than getting huge. They’re ‘training’ for a ‘half-marathon’ or some bull like that. The bone-crushing body-builders here are under no such pretenses. The only activity they love more than abusing steroids and lifting inappropriately heavy weights with terrible form is pressuring others to abuse steroids and lift inappropriately heavy weights with terrible form. There’s a lot of primping, strutting, chest-grabbing, ass-smacking, mirror-posturing, and face-contorting during this process. Also, in Egypt, men typically greet each other by kissing on the cheek. If, however, you just finished your fifteenth set of chest flies and are covered in sweat, you end up air kissing both sides of your friend’s face, a move that is as delicate as it is destabilizing to American ideas of gender. Unfortunately, my cheeks and the air around them remain un-kissed. Sigh.
Most recently, I heard one man address his friend as “Kabir,” the Arabic adjective for “big.” “No,” I thought to myself. “This is too good to be true.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard someone say, “At first, learning exotic-language-X was hard, but then I picked it right up!” Yeah, this is not a thing. No native speaker is constantly three steps ahead of you, dropping linguistic breadcrumbs for you to perchance upon. Most of the time, you hear a phrase, infer its meaning, pat yourself on the back for your brilliance, and then use it and immediately offend everyone around you. Since you learned said phrase from only one conversation, you have no idea what the appropriate social context is, if the people speaking were being sarcastic, or what the word’s connotations may be.
The past two days, I’ve addressed two different iron-pumping Egyptians as “Kabir.” Based on their genial responses, I’ve inferred that I’m experiencing one of three possible scenarios, listed in order from most to least probable. The first is that I misheard the original conversation, neither Egyptian understood me, and they’re smiling out of social courtesy. The second is that this is a fairly common expression, or it’s at least common among this friend group, and my similar social position allows me to use it, albeit awkwardly. The third is that this is a code word among Egypt’s sub-culture, and I’m about to experience a whole new side of Cairo. Whatever the case may be, I look forward to abusing this phrase in the future as I clean and jerk well over a thousand kilos.