x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Ask Ali: On conversational manners and Emiratis celebrating birthdays

Ali Al Saloom answers your cultural questions.

Dear Ali: I've been told many times that Arabic is a beautiful language because people always use blessings when talking to others. I did notice, however, that people don't always say "please" or "thank you". I don't speak a lot of Arabic but I love to observe and don't often hear "shukran" or "min fadlak". Is this not considered rude in your culture? QB, Sharjah

Dear QB: I'm not biased when I say this, but indeed, the Arabic language is rich with blessings and the use of tasteful words. That said, "please" and "thank you" are not necessarily the kings of etiquette in the Arab world. But just because you don't hear these words in the certain context of the conversation doesn't mean we don't use them as part of our etiquette. It's just that we have something even better and much more powerful than "shukran" or "min fadlek", which means "if you please".

There are many other phrases that we use, and they replace those two words or even add to them. For example, "Allah Ykhaleek", which means "May God give you longevity", and "Allah yerda Alek", which means "May God be pleased with you" and "Jazak Allah Khair", which means "May God reward you".

Non-Arabic speakers assume it's simply enough to say "thank you" but we go the extra mile and give blessings for the favours people do for us. Of course, we do return the favour whenever needed, but our appreciation and politeness doesn't rely on "please" and "thank you". "Shukran jazeelan" and "min fadlak" are very classical dialect, which we rarely use in our spoken language, and since every Arab nation uses its own dialect when speaking, speakers adopted new words to replace these classical words. This is not to say that they never use the classical words but they mainly use their dialect terms more.

So my advice is to be assured we do use good manners but in different words and terms. Try using these phrases and you'll see how much they are appreciated.


Dear Ali: Do Emiratis celebrate their birthdays, and how important is that day in your culture? I've realised that many people don't know their parents' and siblings' birthdays, and aren't even sure of the year they were born. IV, Dubai

Dear IV: Some do and many don't. As you know Emiratis are Muslims, which means technically we don't celebrate birthdays, if taken from a religious point of view. But to wish someone a happy birthday is never taken in a bad way in Islam. The idea is that throwing a party to celebrate is a trivial way of commemorating the day you were born when it involves spending money that could, for example, be donated to charity. Also, frankly speaking, we are all too busy to remember everyone's birthday.

Every Emirati is different so you see some that do celebrate birthdays, but it's mainly for children and younger people. The last birthday cake I remember having in my house was from my mum when I was seven years old, and that was it. But some adults do receive surprise greetings cards and gifts and sometimes a cake at a cafe or restaurant from their siblings or colleagues but it's not something we plan for. For most families, if they do celebrate birthdays, it will be a simple cake and gathering of family members for a quick wish, a slice of cake and to reminisce about the old days.

But you are absolutely right, many of us don't put effort into our families' birthdays.


Language lesson

Arabic: El Bait Baitkom

English: My house is your house

This a typical phrase that I think we Arabs share with Mexicans when they say "Mi casa es su casa" . When you want to tell a guest not to feel shy, we say "El Bait Baitkom". It's a great thing to say when people want to hang out somewhere and your house is an option.