View from our balcony. Mercure Hotel, Dubai.
I never realised how much I depended on the Latin alphabet to access a foreign language. When I first arrived in Dubai, I was totally lost. Not only could I not figure out the letters – you also have to contend with the fact that the words run from right to left.
The other problem is the sounds. To my Western ear it sounds as if someone is praying every time I hear Arabic. My only reference point of the language up to now has been the cry of the Muezzin calling people to prayer in Cape Town and again in Istanbul. Here in Dubai you hear the call to prayer five times a day, the first just before sunrise and the last call at about nine at night. It’s also piped over the loudspeakers in shopping centres; Mall of the Emirates or Dubai Mall which I frequent. At first I found it very curious that people would ignore the call and continue shopping – in and out of Chanel or Dior – while someone was urging them to pray.
I should have tried a bit harder to say a few basic words in Arabic before I arrived in Dubai. The only word I memorised beforehand was shukraan; thanks. But after almost two months I haven’t used it once. It’s not as if I haven’t found anyone to thank – I say thanks dozens of times a day. The issue is that the people I thank are very seldom Arabic speakers. This is the most diverse place I’ve ever encountered. At any given time there are more than about ten different nationalities in the train carriage around me – and that’s only those I can identify by looks. I read yesterday that, on average, there are 50 different nationalities represented on a single Emirates flight.
To be able to say shukraan one needs to identify an Arabic speaker. This you can do by looking at the clothes. The Emirati men wear white robes with head scarves, secured by a black band. The women wear black abayas (what a burkah is called in this neck of the woods). They only represent 20% of the people in Dubai. The other 80% are foreigners. I haven’t said thank you to one Emirati man. They always walk into a lift first and never give way to a woman – so no thanks for that! Neither have I encountered any Emiratis working in the services industry. The people behind tills are mostly Asian, those cleaning the hotel rooms are often Indian or Pakistani, the taxi driver could be from Iran, the swimming pool attendant comes from Ghana and the girl who works in the gym is most probably Russian.
I know I should have tried harder with Arabic beforehand, but did not quite get around to it; in the same way I didn’t learn basic Spanish before I walked the Camino four years ago. At the time I regretted not being able to say more than a few Spanish words. The only ones I knew I learnt from my parents’ vinyl records with titles such as Archie’s Party – words like adios amigo, or cuando, cuando, cuando.
So, I’ve been trying to utter a few Arabic words, but my tongue just won’t do it. I also try to remember Arabic words I come across, but it seems as if my memory fails me every time.
A few days ago I was sitting on the balcony of our hotel apartment, having my morning coffee with Duan, my husband. We sit there every morning in complete companionable silence, each contemplating the day ahead without sharing a word. The reason for our silence is not because we’ve finally run out of things to say to each other after 35 years together. We gave up talking after the first morning because there’s no way the other person would hear a word, even if we tried. Our balcony overlooks the 12 lanes of the very busy Sheikh Zayed Highway and added to that, the metro rail runs alongside it. Even at 6:30 in the morning the din of traffic makes any conversation impossible.
So, there I was sitting, rolling around some Arabic words in my mouth like a smooth little pebble. Round and round, until I opened my mouth and, as if by magic, I spoke Arabic. Transcribed into the Latin alphabet, it sounded about like this:
El alboa butu glat. El mahagma cordimahea, el ghalizoe pisjharea. So, what did I say? Sadly, not anything too profound. “Doors closing. The next station is Business Bay.”