x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Arabic conversation challenges after 20 years away from the Middle East

Returning to Abu Dhabi after spending two decades away from the Middle East results in language difficulties, particularly in everyday conversation.

Greetings kind folks, what's up? It is my sincere delight that you are peeping my words. My desire is for you to sincerely dig it.

OK, before you flip the page or reach for the aspirin, let me explain.

It seems that after 20 years living away from the Middle East I have returned to Abu Dhabi with an Arabic tongue that befuddles the elderly, puzzles shopkeepers and has made me the favourite punch line among my family members.

"Say it again!" my cousin laughed last week while we were having lunch.

"This eggplant salad is attractive," I replied sternly and to my dismay she clapped her hands and laughed again.

Seeing my face redden, my cousin sat me down and explained my predicament. Thankfully, my problem is not that I can't speak the language. Instead, it lies in the choice of words I use to express myself.

It seems that when I speak formally, my Arabic is clear and understood.

However when it comes to everyday, colloquial, conversation, my lumbering use of adjectives leaves my Arabic sounding like this column's opening paragraph. This is because my conversational Arabic is apparently a frenzied mix of Egyptian, Lebanese and Khaleeji dialects, sometimes all in one sentence.

I have no problem interviewing a government official but make a real meal out of ordinary dinner conversations. It is also the natural byproduct of an Arabic satellite television diet of Middle Eastern news channels and dramas.

It certainly puts me in a difficult position.

It seems the only way I am able to navigate UAE's Arabic social circles is by speaking formally.

However this neutering of my expression will render me an absolute bore in such affairs and would no doubt result in the drying up of all future invitations. On the other hand, if I decide to be myself then it will not be long before I opt out from these events as nobody likes being misunderstood, let alone laughed at.

Perhaps worse is that this dilemma dashes my family's hopes that my Middle Eastern jaunt will fast-track my marriage prospects, as any future Arabic speaking Mrs Saeed would have to be content with a Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde.

"Oh, my husband is fine," she would bravely tell her friends. "When he speaks English he uses the most beautiful language to express how he loves me. But whenever he resorts to Arabic the only thing he can manage is how much he tolerates me!"

At least when it comes to the written word I have no fear of being misunderstood. I have editors to make sure of that.