How to say Jellyfish in Arabic

Any traveler to a foreign land has experienced the trials and frustrations that come with conducting oneself in unknown language. Recently I was in Paris, where I passed my first few days in conversation wearily. It had been over eight years since I’d spoken French with any consistency, and any competency with the language I’d ever possessed had faded drastically. My vocabulary was surprisingly fresh, but my sentence structure, grammar, and ear for hearing were all terribly weak.

A friend’s cousin picked me up at the apartment where I was staying. Despite greeting me in English I responded to Mathilde in French, believing the best way to regain any confidence was through perseverance. On the drive across town I attempted to engage Mathlide in conversation. Remembering that my friend had told me she had a son, I asked his name. Paul, she said. And how old is Paul, I asked, to which she replied, Il a douze ans, which means, He’s twelve years old.

The key word here is douze, which, when spoken quickly by a native Parisian in a car with the windows down while traveling at high speeds in a noisy city sounded an awful lot like deux, which in French means two and is what I heard Mathilde say. Oblivious to this misunderstanding and with surging confidence I subsequently asked what I believed to be a very reasonable question: Est-ce-qu’il parle encore?, Is your (two year old son Paul) speaking yet? There was a tremendously long pause. Mathilde cocked her head forward and looked at me sideways. Finally, in a bewildered yet strangely assertive voice, she said, Mais oui! Il a douze ans! Of course he’s talking – he’s twelve years old! To which I could only reply with a breezy and humiliated, Ah bon!

My travels of late have landed me in the North African country of Tunisia. The everyday language here is Arabic, a tongue which, despite my best efforts and intentions prior to departing, I have little capacity for. I’m continually baffled by its expressiveness: one moment the language is mellifluous and flowing like a soft river, the next as grating and harsh in its gutturality as bad German. I have succeeded in picking up some traveler’s basics—Hello, how are you? Thank you very much. Go piss off!—but mostly get through the day speaking French, which, as a former colony, is Tunisia’s second-language.

I was staying with my girlfriend at her uncle’s house in a very small town located near the Mediterranean. The family was very welcoming to us both, making us feel as if their home was truly ours. One afternoon we went to the beach with her uncle and one of his friends. There we found the perfect antidote to the 100-degree plus temperatures: sweeping golden sands giving way to cool turquoise waters, the beach nearly empty, the water ideal: cool enough to be soothing and warm enough to stay in for hours. We floated loosely in the water, splashing each other, the four of us contentedly chatting in French. I learned the Arabic word for wave, moojh-ha, as well as how to modify it to say “big wave,” moojh-ha ki-bira, and was pleased with my linguistic progression for the day.

Khemais and his friend returned to shore, where they settled under the shade cast by a small lean-to. The two of us stayed in the water for a few more minutes, grinning and marveling at our good fortune until we decided to join them. Wading in, at the point where the water descended below waist level, I felt a scorching pain between my legs at the exact point where one’s not supposed to experience scorching pains.

It almost goes without saying that pain inflicted on one’s genitals is unwelcome, to put the case mildly. Getting stung on one’s penis by a jellyfish—which is what I was quickly becoming convinced had just occurred—is no exception to such a rule. I felt an intense, unremitting burning, as if a scalding ember were being held against my skin. Do not pass lightly by that image, because it certainly didn’t pass me in such a manner. I cursed loudly and turned away to unzip my shorts and examine things. If you’ve ever seen the skin surrounding the male genitals, especially those that have been soaking in the ocean for over an hour, you’ll know they’re not the most unruffled canvas for revealing imperfections. Any animal that could fit in between my thighs and my shorts must surely be small, and its incisions equally so. Though I was unable to find a discernible sting – the whole area was a wrinkled, flaccid mess –I didn’t need visual proof to confirm the searing pain I continued to experience.

My girlfriend came up behind me and noticed my shorts halfway open, though my wincing expression quickly revealed that this was not suggestive flirtatiousness. I think I just got stung by a jellyfish, I said. Where, she asked. With a wobbling, outstretched finger I lowered my gaze: there. Her eyes widened as she followed my finger’s aim. There? You mean, There there? I nodded, and she gave me one of the most commiserating looks I’ve ever received from a woman, which, while reassuring me of her true character, did nothing to relieve the pain.

At this point, having ascertained the problem, my mind began to whirl for a solution. Though no beach bum I’ve had enough experience to know of two options. The first is vinegar, which I’ve sprayed upon stung legs in Mexico and has always provided quick relief. A container of vinegar being noticeably absent from the beach bag we’d packed, my mind progressed to the second solution. I’d never actually tried this, but the captain of a boat I once worked on had assured me that instant relief from such stings can be found in human urine. I remember pressing him on the matter, presuming he was joking, but he insisted that there are proteins in human pee that will anesthetize the sting left by a jellyfish.

My partner offered no solutions, and so I explained to her the human urine option. Once it left my lips and registered in her brain, we both stopped and looked at one another for some time. Had the sting perhaps occurred on my ankle, her salving me with her urine might have proved awkward but acceptable, the sort of ain’t-life-strange tale one recollects to friends later. But given that I was now asking if she’d be willing to pee on my penis, the situation gained an air of foreboding gravitas.

Our entire relationship up to that point passed before our collective eyes, and I think we both saw it careening towards a cavernous precipice from which we’d likely never return. I spat on my hand and rubbed saliva across myself, hoping that perhaps would lessen the pain. Sadly this achieved little, and instead of simply holding a burning penis in hand, I now held a burning penis slathered in spit.

There was a small area of woods behind the beach where the act could be accomplished. We would have to notify uncle and friend of our stepping away from the beach so they wouldn’t be concerned by our absence. I envisioned her uncle, his curiosity piqued by our disappearance, wandering back into the woods shortly thereafter only to come upon the following scene: me upon my back, shorts at my ankles with my white ass buried in sand while his niece, pant-less, straddled over me. In case the reader has forgotten, it’s worth emphasizing that we were in an Arab state where such behavior is immeasurably beyond the limits of the acceptable. In my mind I saw us trying to reassure this corpulent and by now very angry Arab man of our irreproachability. “No, no, it’s not what you think! We’re not doing that! She’s just peeing on my penis. It’s perfectly innocent!”

She suggested we ask her uncle, who had been coming to this beach for years, if he had any ideas that might mitigate the pain. I subsequently envisioned the same setting in the woods, only in this version it was uncle peeing upon me, and I waved off the idea with a shake of the head.

Slowly the initial shock wore off my mind returned to me. I took stock of the situation and decided to walk back into the woods alone, where I would pee into my hands and splash the urine back upon myself. While I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of micturating on myself, the pain was unrelenting and I needed to do something, however disgusting. I took a deep breath and walked towards the woods.

Generally speaking, I have a bladder the size of a Dixie cup. On a 40-minute cross-town trip I might need to stop twice to use the bathroom. However, when I needed them most, my water-works failed me. There is a context for this: it was the month of Ramadan, and though not fully observant we were attempting to be respectful of tradition, so neither of us had consumed much throughout the day. Nothing having gone in provided little to come out, and so I waited, shorts unzipped, burning phallus in hand, trying to will my body to find reserves to expel. I was reminded of my earliest experiences in junior-high locker-rooms, when having to pee in front of a group of peers would render me incapable. I summoned every energy I could imagine and eventually a small trickle came forth, hot on my palms and deep yellow in color. I cupped the liquid and splashed it back upon myself, rubbing it into my skin like lotion. The best thing I can say to this admission is that relief came quickly and was substantial.

I returned to the ocean and splashed myself clean as possible, filtering water between my shorts and rubbing my hands with sand. As I was standing there her uncle, who in the interim had been out swimming, stopped on his way back to shore. “Don’t go out too far,” he said, “I saw a couple meduse when I was out deep.” I didn’t know what a meduse was, so I asked him to explain. He fumbled about, searching for words and using his hands to gesture. But how does one explain an animal that’s a fish but not, with a shifting, almost non-existent body, long tentacles dragging behind it, and full of a painful sting. His explanation, given completely in French, was lost on me until the last word, which I immediately understood.

I began to realize that I knew all too well what he was trying to define. To demonstrate my understanding I thought of explaining what had just occurred, but decided against such action: it was one thing to be known around this small town as the American, quite another to be forever remembered as jellyfish-dick. Instead I feigned surprise, “Oh, I didn’t realize there were jellyfish in these waters.” He nodded, and almost as an afterthought I asked, “And how do you say that in Arabic?”

The moral of this story, potential travelers of the future, can be condensed to two nuggets of wisdom. The first is that should you ever find yourself on the unfortunate end of a jellyfish sting, human urine will actually alleviate the pain you’re experiencing. The other thing to keep in mind, should you ever be swimming with a group of Arabic-speakers, is that when you hear someone say the word Hohr-reck-ah, it’s probably best to head towards shore.

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