x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Arabic-speaking expatriates make the language their own, extracting certain Arabic words and making a new language out of it. Kind of like Arabish. And the culprits are Arabs themselves.

Mishan enta (because of you) is a phrase commonly used by Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis when Arabs ask for discounts. It suggests they would not normally give the discount, but “mishan enta”.

As I walked through the Madinat Zayed shopping mall, irritated by the heavy smell of popcorn enveloping my abaya, one of the shopkeepers – we call them all rafeeq, which means friend – at the kiosk called out to me.

“Eeeji, mama,” (Come, mama) he said in broken Arabic. I was dumbfounded that he would call a 20-something girl “mama”. But I knew he did not mean to insult me and took a quick look at his colourful accessories.

Rafeeq was trying to get me to buy anything. It was “Mama, shoof shoof, haza jadeed eeji, wajid jain” (“Mama, look at this, this is a new collection, very nice”).

I decided on a bracelet and asked: “Kam?” (How much?)

Rafeeq: “Dh70, mama.”

Me: “Sab’een wayed.” (Dh70 is too much.)

Rafeeq: “Mishan enta, ana ya’ati Dh40.” (Because you’re special, you can have it for Dh40.)

I wondered, upon hearing his broken Arabic, why does each nationality speak its own version of the language? I find that Arabic-speaking expatriates make the language their own, extracting certain Arabic words and making a new language out of it. Kind of like Arabish.

And the culprits, in my humble opinion, are Arabs themselves.

When my family was in a restaurant in Switzerland, a Bangladeshi man served us. After taking our orders, he turned to the next table to check on customers as they ate their meals. We noticed something peculiar (at least to us) about this guy. He could hold a fluent conversation in the local language without stuttering or mis-pronouncing words. I think the explanation is simple: Swiss people speak to all residents of Switzerland in the same way.They make no distinction or exception for immigrants.

Now, look at the non-Arabic speakers working in the UAE. How many can converse in Arabic? It is common to hear Arabs speaking in broken Arabic to them: ana fak’kr (I thought), ana kalam (I said), enta khabr (you said) and, a favourite, fi ma’loom (I do know). These are not proper phrases. This is unfair to the language and to those who are trying to learn and speak it.

Recently, the mother of one of my friends had a huge fight with their Ethiopian helper, Sakkina. The day after the argument, the family fired her. When she was asked why she did what she did, all she could say was: “Mama, grr grr grr” – Mama nags non-stop – and burst into tears. She couldn’t defend herself due to the language barrier and had no intermediary to clarify the situation.

Another problem is that Arab children use this broken Arabic thinking it is the right way to pronounce the words they hear from their nannies and drivers.

My family has started conversing with our house staff in the Emirati dialect. When they don’t get certain words or phrases, we explain how to pronounce them.

Imagine, if we started speaking to non-Arabs in the same dialect we use with our fellow citizens, we might lessen their burden. If an Arab can speak and pronounce English with an accent understandable to an English-speaker, then what would stop others from speaking our own Arabic fluently?

Nonetheless, mishan enta is my favourite broken Arabic phrase.

Asmaa Al Hameli co-writes the My Year at The National blog, where this piece was originally published