x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The Ali Story: Lessons in language

I have come to realise that speaking another language adds more value to a person's communication skills and bargaining techniques than anything else.

The first time I was introduced to tribal dynamics here was when I was 10. It was not intentional - but growing up in Bani Yas meant that the lifestyle was tribal. You have your family members, your cousins, friends - some whom happen to be relatives - and others share your last name. In a way, all these give you a social status. If someone did something wrong, it would reflect badly on the family. It is a collective society.

Preparing for the new school year always brought excitement. Mum would take us to little shops and souqs to buy stationery. We would always wonder if we would stay locally, or make the 30-minute journey in to Abu Dhabi city. But then the moment of excitement of going to town would be mixed with a moment of fear - fear of embarrassment.

The embarrassment when I was a young boy was of finding either of my parents speaking any language other than Arabic - be it Hindi, Malbari, Urdu, Farsi, English or anything. I do not know why, but it is likely due to that environment I grew up in.

My parents are Arabs but their parents mixed with people from different places such as Iran and India through travelling and trade relations. A lot of people here went through the same thing. Emiratis in the UAE at a certain stage had to speak another language to communicate with others.

One day when I was 10, my father was going to drop us at the old souq in Abu Dhabi, where today the Central Market lies. As my mother walked with my sister, I would stay close by. One vendor who sold every item for two riyals, he would shout continuously "two riyal, two riyal", in a rhythm that made it sound as one word. It was equivalent to two dirhams - enough for a coke, chocolate or ice cream.

It would shock me to see my sister spending two dirhams on a single hair clip when she could buy so many other things. Seeing little robotic animals on the street would amaze me, while I would stop and observe my surroundings, I would always stay close to my mum. This is what my mum aimed to do. We were well-behaved, naughty at times, but not uncontrollable. But as we shopped, I noticed my mum speaking to the Indians in Urdu and to the Iranians in Farsi. That was when the fear kicked in.

As soon as she did, I started to look around to make sure no other Emirati could hear her. I was scared they would assume she was not an Arab. In Bani Yas, if someone's mum was not Emirati, not Arabic and not Bedouin, they would be seen as not pure Arabs, which was at that time and still today in some people's point of view less appreciated. I'm proud to say such a tribalistic thought is fading away in our culture.

But my father would come to me and say it was great we spoke more than one language. I disagreed. So when my mum started to speak it, I would tell her to stop. Her glare was enough to shush me. Giving up, I would just step away, sometimes leaving the store altogether.

Day after day, it became a much bigger problem. I would complain to my dad and mum, but they never listened. Then one day I wanted a Dh300 game from the souq. I asked my mum for the money, but she said she would go with me instead. So we went, and my mum spoke to the man in Farsi. I never took notice where the man was from before.

She told the man it was my birthday and she wanted to buy me a gift. After 20 minutes I had six games instead of one, for a little over Dh100. Just because she spoke the same language, we got this bargain.

We got back into the car with Dad, and she said: "Do you see what happens when Mama and Baba speak these languages?" It started to play in my head, but I was still not convinced. It happened over and over again until my mind was changed.

I have come to realise that speaking another language adds more value to a person's communication skills and bargaining techniques than anything else. Today, I am so proud and grateful for every word I know in any language, because knowing a language means you know a culture, and you are able to appreciate differences and similarities.

This is one of the lessons I learnt from going to the souq, and now even if people assume that my mum is Persian while she speaks to vendors, I simply do not care.

I am proud of all my Emirati friends, whether their mums speak Sudanese, Egyptian, Persian, Indian, or anything else. I am glad that I can admit I had been shallow and I could distance myself from the racist or tribalistic view prevalent in my society.

Today I see my former self in some children trying to hide their mum's roots. When I do, I try to make them proud of their mums' roots and tell them how unique it makes them. If we are able to reach that level of respect, while appreciating people's different backgrounds, we would really be elevated and live in harmony. After all, we are all Emiratis.