Just a Smile

by Tim Miller
Houston, Texas, USA

Just a Smile

I was an American living in Cairo, Egypt, in 1986 — back when Libya’s Mu’ammar Qadhafi issued his “line of death” warning to Americans in the region, and the Egyptian military police rioted and burned down the Holiday Inn near the pyramids.

In spite of the turmoil, whenever I went out after work, I would walk the streets among the Egyptians. Everywhere I went, however, it seemed the people were frowning and staring at me with a dark look. Maybe they knew I was an American, and therefore “better off” than they were. My own stoic expression didn’t help matters.

One evening, I was walking along a dimly-lit sidewalk lined with men, men who looked just as you might see on the street in America. Concentrating on looking stoic, I tripped on a crack and slammed onto the sidewalk. As I started to get up, I was immediately surrounded by several men. I admit my first thought was they were going to take my wallet. But as I reached for my pocket, I realized they were just lifting me up to set me back on my feet. They were brushing me off, straightening my clothes and asking me if I was hurt.

I told them I was fine. But as I smiled at everyone to thank them, I suddenly noticed they were all smiling back. In fact, as I turned to see the other men, women, and children along the sidewalk, I noticed they, too, were smiling and asking if I was OK. After a minute, I thanked everyone again, smiled again, and continued on my way.

But now, something was different. Everywhere I went, I noticed that people were smiling. In fact, I couldn’t find that dark look anywhere. For the first time, I felt as if I was no longer in a foreign land, but rather among friends, among people that were just… people. I suddenly felt at home even though I was 8,000 miles from my own family.

That night, the Egyptians showed me what humanity is about. In spite of the political and economic climate of their country, they refused to judge me because I was an American. Their reaching out to me with helping hands and smiles made me realize that maybe they were “better off” than I was. That night, I learned that a smile is an important gesture in our universal language. A simple act of kindness transcended cultural and language barriers — as I was being helped up, everyone was asking me in Arabic if I was OK. Somehow I knew what they were asking and was able to answer them all and assure them I was all right even though I didn’t understand or speak a word of Arabic.

Today, I am so thankful for that brief moment in time when a simple smile broke through a language barrier, when an Arab and an American understood each other, and when I came away a changed man.

Originally published as HeroicStories #85 on Nov 16, 1999
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 1.

3 thoughts on “Just a Smile”

  1. As an Adult Education practitioner, I believe that life offers many “Learning Moments”. I am so glad that you saw this one and took advantage of it.

  2. Historically, Egyptians have considered themselves as distinct from ‘Arabs’ and even at present rarely do they make that identification in casual contexts; il-‘arab [the Arabs] as used by Egyptians refers mainly to the inhabitants of the Gulf states…


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