A few years ago, I walked past a colleague whom I had worked with for 10 years. He was a gruff, straight-talking Yorkshireman, who had been in Dubai for the best part of 15 years. As we crossed paths, I said “Marhaba”, to which he responded, as only John could: “You wot?”
I froze in my steps, turned around, and repeated my salutation. He ever so sweetly responded: “No idea what you’re on about mate.” I couldn’t believe it. I berated him that I had said hello in Arabic, and that he had been in Dubai for 15 years. I tried to convince him that had I spent a 10th of that time on Mars, I could at least say hello in Martian.
“Never needed to learn it mate,” was his disingenuous response. He spent his life in a predictable triangle between the golf club, the company we worked at, and his house, where he never needed to interact with Arabs and definitely didn’t need to speak Arabic.
The most annoying response to any challenge on why an expatriate doesn’t bother to learn a word of our language is: “But you all speak such wonderful English.”
It’s true that we have adapted to the expatriates who have made the UAE their home – but that should be seen only as a great compliment to Emiratis. After all, the Prophet Mohammed had encouraged us to learn the languages of others. I have yet to meet an Emirati who speaks fewer than two languages. Even my 76-year-old mother went to the British Council in the 1970s and learnt how to read and write in English. She acknowledged that the world she had grown up in was changing and that she needed to communicate with the flood of expatriates coming to this country.
The other comment that you often hear from expatriates is how they never get to know any Emiratis. I believe that these issues are intertwined. Through learning a few words in our language, we would respect and embrace the effort, and that would lead to more interaction, and through that, a better understanding of our respective worlds.
The opposite is equally true. Choosing not to learn just a few words in Arabic is a clear message that the reason somebody has chosen to live here is for purely mercenary reasons. You cannot live somewhere for years, earning a living, educating your children, making mortgage payments back home and travelling the world, without acknowledging the debt you owe to the country and community that have made it possible.
I would like to challenge any non-Arabs reading this article to see if they can recall 10 Arabic words, and not just the usual habibi, inshallah, bukra etc. The accusation levelled at immigrants in Europe or the Americas is that they don’t try to integrate, and the primary example to support that argument is that the immigrants don’t try to learn the home language.
Our attachment to Arabic is enhanced because it is the language of the Quran and therefore a Holy language. Learning Arabic would be considered the ultimate respect you can show to our culture. The UAE celebrates the Arabic language and promotes it among both Arabs and non-Arabs, and there has never been a better opportunity to learn it.
The experience with John wasn’t representative of all expatriates. I have a French friend, Jerome, who invariably wears a kandura when we visit him at his home. Alex, my Indian-British-Cypriot Londoner friend, has learnt to read and write Arabic, and is able to hold a basic conversation after just one year. These are the expatriates I am proud to call friends. This weekend, I will be going to Jerome’s house for a barbecue. I am looking forward to seeing him in his kandura and hearing him say “Ahlan wa sahlan” as I enter his home.
Ammar Shams has a degree in economics and postgraduate degree in law, with a focus in Islamic law.
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