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January is a month of anniversaries for me. My father celebrated, or rather tolerated, his 76th birthday on the 15th of the month, the same day we rented our house in Ras Al Khaimah just one year ago. If my parents had not divorced, they would have been married for 55 years on 17th January 2014 (yes – he married just 2 days after his 21st birthday). The 24th of January (ie, tomorrow) will be our 7th wedding anniversary which means I have now lived in the United Arab Emirates for 7 years too. Tempus fugit – time flies. It’s so very, very true.

Seven years in the UAE and I still can’t speak Arabic. Why?

The Arabic Alphabet

The Arabic Alphabet

The fact of the matter is, I’ve been lazy. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai I didn’t need to speak the native language because all business, social, and other affairs are conducted in English. I guess that’s why the two major cities here are such easy places for Western ex-pats to settle. Ras Al Khaimah is different though. Here in the Northern Emirates, the percentage of Emirati and other Arab inhabitants is far greater than in either Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Time and again I’ve encountered Indian, Phillipino, Pakistani, Nepalese, Indonesian, and other Asian workers in Ras Al Khaimah who do not speak any English yet are getting by and holding down jobs because they can speak Arabic, and thus, can work for local businesses and families. In Dubai, these workers would be unemployable without having decent English.

Now I need Arabic too. I must discipline myself and try to manage 15 minutes or so per day to increase the basic knowledge I have of the Arabic alphabet and broaden my extremely limited vocabulary. I have no excuses whatsoever – I’m married to a native Arabic speaker, my 5 year-old daughter is bi-lingual, and I’m blessed to be living in a city where daily practice is freely available. Add to that the fact that Arabic has now overtaken French (my only other language) in importance to the UK and it’s a no-brainer. The British Council recently published a report listing the top 10 languages according to their perceived value in boosting “prosperity, security and influence in the world in the years ahead.” They are (in order of importance):

1. Spanish
2. Arabic
3. French
4. Mandarin Chinese
5. German
6. Portuguese
7. Italian
8. Russian
9. Turkish
10. Japanese

One of the startling statistics from the report is that 75% of the British public are unable to hold a conversation in any of the top 10 languages. The proportion drops to 1% for Arabic. In the very near future it is likely that an increase in Arabic language classes will be noted in Secondary Schools and Universities in the UK. At the moment, Arabic is only offered at secondary level in 4% of schools, often as an extra-curricular subject.

This is all very interesting, but the biggest motivation for me to dust off the ‘Learning Arabic’ books and CDs on my bookshelves is the fact that I have become like Samuel Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner* at my daughter’s school. In order to ask for necessary info about school trips, pay for extra-curricular activities, complain about them letting her leave and get on a school bus home instead of waiting to go to gymnastics (yes it happened); I have to seek out the English-speaking nurse or one of the English teachers. Too often, I find myself grasping whoever it is by the wrist, or not letting go of her handshake until I’m satisfied they know why I’m there. It’s frustrating and a tad embarrassing for me, and I’m quite sure a pain in the neck for the charming nurse, whose heart must sink when she sees me coming.

Ancient Mariner engraving by Gustave Doré

Ancient Mariner engraving by Gustave Doré

Still, it’s nowhere near as cringe-worthy as the time I sat for 20 minutes with the wrong woman in a maternity ward in Abu Dhabi. The new mother was our Egyptian neighbour whom I’d never met and despite the fact that my husband ‘delivered’ me to the right hospital room, greeted her husband and handed over our gift, I sat ‘chatting’ with her friend who spoke no English and was holding the baby while the actual mother took a shower. When the friend indicated the private room’s bathroom a couple of times, I just used hand gestures and pigeon Arabic to say ‘No thank you. I’m okay.’ After a long, uncomfortable silence (you can only say ‘Mubarak’/congratulations and ‘Jameela’/beautiful so many times) I excused myself and left. Of course my husband thought it was hilarious when his friend called as we were driving home and all was revealed. The whole sorry episode could have been avoided if I’d made the time to learn some basic Arabic.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but Insha’Allah/God willing, 2014 will be the year my blushes are spared and I can stop playing the Ancient Mariner. Now where is that ‘Learn Arabic in 3 Months‘ book I bought in 2007?

*The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was originally published by Samuel T Coleridge in 1798. It tells the story of an old mariner, haunted by killing an albatross thus bringing disaster to his ship and all on board. The mariner is cursed, compelled to wander the earth telling his story to anyone he can force to listen to him. The text in it’s 1834 version can be found here. “I fear thee, ancient Mariner.” begins Part 4 (IV).