Disclaimer: This post is likely rife with spelling errors and potential misinterpretations on my part as I try to convey my very limited grasp of Arabic. For those of you who are far more well versed in the language than I, I beg your patience and assure you that improving my Arabic skills is back at the top of my 'to-do' lists.
Q. "So, how's your Arabic? "
A. "Oh, my, do I really have to publicly admit that after almost 7 years in this country, my grasp of the local language is barely enough to get me a glass of water?"
Q. "Is Arabic hard to learn?"
A. "I would definitely say so. Maybe it's just my age, or the lack of true social integration, but I'm finding this language extremely difficult to master. I speak 3 languages fluently, and can be considered functional in a fourth, yet Arabic continues to elude me. But if I really committed to it, I know I could learn enough to hold down a basic conversation. I've seen a number of other expats do so, and I'm quite ashamed to say I haven't tried hard enough."
Anyone who knows me knows I'm all about to-do lists, goals and objectives. I am "that girl" with the 5-year plan. The one who plans out the family's weekly meals and writes out her grocery list accordingly. I am "that girl" who came to Qatar with a very clear set of goals. At the top of that list was learning Arabic.
I am also "that girl" who does not hesitate to admit where she has failed (I do that a lot ... I'm pretty sure I've written about that before). So give me a moment to hang my head in shame and mutter inaudibly "laa atakallam al-'arabiya" ("I don't speak Arabic").
While by no means an excuse, I quickly learned that you do not have to know Arabic to get by in Qatar. English is widely spoken in shops, restaurants, and office environments. Movies are shown in English, with Arabic subtitles. News is broadcast in English on BBC and CNN. Traffic signs and billboards are displayed in both English and Arabic. Automated answering services ask you to press "1" for Arabic, "2" for English. Because fraternization usually brings together diverse nationalities, conversation in public settings and social gatherings usually tends to veer towards English.
While I have tried over the years to perfect my very basic grasp of the language, the hodge-podge of Arabic dialects created by this country's melting pot of nationalities makes it difficult to settle on common phrases that will be universally understood. I have found pronunciation to be the biggest challenge, and though I find I'm emulating my Michel Thomas Learn Arabic instructors without fault, I am often misunderstood or not understood at all when I actually try to fumble my way through an attempt at conversation.
This is in large part due to the fact that Michel Thomas instructors refer to Egyptian Arabic, which calls upon a greater English influence, in contrast to the Arabic spoken in Qatar, which is largely influenced by Urdu given the large Pakistani, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Indian populations in this State. The Urdu slant is totally foreign to me, and I struggle to recognize the sounds, let alone the words. I do however find myself latching on to bits and pieces of Arabic conversation when the interlocutors are Syrian or Lebanese. This is likely because of the French influence (or perhaps Arabic influence on French), meaning their conversation will be punctuated by words like "ascenseur" (French for lift), "toilette" (pronounced as per the French 'twalett') and "bantalon" (French for pants is 'pantalon').
There are a few standard Arabic phrases that naturally make their way into English in this part of the world, and that will creep into every expat in the Gulf's vocabulary by force of habit (kind of like the Spanish "que sera, sera", or the French "je ne sais quoi" that intersperse North American English).
-"Insha'Allah" (God willing)
is at the top of every expat's list. You will hear it every day, several dozen times a day. In answer to a question, it can mean everything from "yes" to "maybe" to "I hope so" to "I don't know" to "I'm not really willing to commit to a firm answer ... it may never get done." An example of its use in everyday conversation:
Me: "Will my paperwork be processed today?"
Me: "I really need it urgently. Can you give me a time?"
Me: "So I can pass by to pick it up at four?"
Me: "I need these documents if I want to stay in this country."
Me: "You understand I could face deportation if the processing is delayed?"
-"Mafi mushkila" (No problem)
is another common phrase. It can be used in much the same way as Insha'Allah, and could easily replace the latter term in the conversation above.
again, interchangeable with the clerk's responses above.
-"As-Salaam Alaikum" (Peace be upon you) /
-"Wa-Alaikum Salaam" (And upon you be peace)
This is the standard greeting in the Middle East. It is a formality that cannot be foregone, and I would argue that if an expat in this part of the world is to leave here mastering nothing else of Arabic, they should have this phrase down pat as a minimum. In meetings and gatherings, the "Wa-Alaikum Salaam" response if often uttered in unison to the person entering the room who has initiated the greeting with "As-Salaam Alaikum". I find the sing-song quality of it quite pleasant. It's not that different than primary students chiming in to say "Good morning, Mrs. Smith" to the teacher who has just greeted them upon entering the classroom.
Qatar actually has a quarterly publication called "Marhaba", a very useful guide about the country, the culture, do's and don'ts, where to eat, where to shop, what's going on around town, etc. It is a great little guide that serves to welcome newly arrived expats and keep veteran expats informed on the country's going ons. I walked around with a copy of that guide book in my handbag for months, and it really did help me feel welcome in this foreign land. Thanks to that guide, "Marhaba" is a term that I will never forget.
-"Habibi" (Beloved/My Love)
I love this term of endearment. I hear it all the time, but hesitate to use it for fear it would be misinterpreted as promiscuous or overly friendly. Men commonly use it when addressing one another, and I think it is what influences so many of my Arabic colleagues with a propensity to refer to me as "My Dear". (I may be wrong ...)
I've learned another few short phrases that have served me well over the last few years. Here are the few that I'm comfortable saying out loud. I'm not always immediately understood, but I try to put them to good use.
-"Ana Jaw'aana" (I'm hungry.)
I committed this one to memory by associating it to a girl's name (Anna Joanna). I try to use it sparingly, but I'm so pleased with my limited grasp of Arabic, and I'm often hungry, so it tends to slip out at least once a day.
-"Momken Maya" (May I have some water?)
Always good to know this one when living and traveling in the desert.
I am/My name is. (e.g. Ismi Gypsy)
Quick, Quick (Hurry)
How are you?
Then there are those terms that are very similar to English. They're great words to start with, because you will likely be understood even if you say them in English. And they're mostly food words, so you won't go hungry!
Pizza (the "p" is pronounced as a "b" in Arabic)
-"Doctor" (pronounced Doctoor, with a trilled 'r')
I know another handful of words and phrases that MIGHT help get me out of a bind, but nowhere near enough to hold down a conversation. I blame myself and my hesitation to put myself out there with my poor accent for not having a better handle on Arabic. Unfortunately, I've let my pride and my fear of being misunderstood limit my attempts at Arabic conversation. Now that I'm at a new workplace, I've asked my Arabic colleagues to teach me one new word or phrase a day, and they've agreed. I'm going to try to steal the remote from Smilin' Vic and Kiddo for at least an hour a week to watch a program in Arabic. I'm going to get back to listening to my Michel Thomas cd's. And hopefully one day in the future I'll be able to update this post with a little more pride in my achievements.