x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

No local language

Part of the UAE's appeal is its diversity. When welcoming other cultures, however, the country should also remember its own

All that Ibrahim wanted to do was buy his sister a pair of black stockings. He stood for a few minutes staring at the baffling selection in front of him. There were some that help tighten, and others that flatten, and then there were those with funky prints. "Please, help," Ibrahim said, looking in desperation at the nearest sales assistant.

That is when it got interesting. Ibrahim, an Emirati from Fujairah, is not fluent in English and the sales assistant, from the Philippines, was not fluent in Arabic. "Sister want this," he said as he made the motion of putting on the stockings and pointed to his black shirt. The assistant, whose badge identified her as Fiona, pointed to the selection of stockings next to him and said: "The stockings are here, sir."

For the next few minutes, Ibrahim struggled to ask Fiona's assistance in picking out black, knitted lace stockings, the kind with the "big holes" pattern, for a woman 175 cms in height. Ibrahim's sister is also a "little" overweight, and he tried to explain that by gesturing with his hands. That is when I intervened and just picked out a pair for him that would fit his sister. "Thank you," Ibrahim politely told Fiona, and she said thank you back. With that ordeal over, we headed to a nearby restaurant with a fancy French name for lunch.

The waiter gave us the menus, smiled and left. "Hmmm, I just want something with chicken," said Ibrahim. I, as a vegetarian, usually just look for the (V) alongside the names of dishes and choose that way. But this menu was thick and overwhelming, and I admit I could not be bothered to read through it myself. The menu was in English and French. Something that really annoyed Ibrahim. "Why am I forced to read English in the UAE?" he muttered as he browsed through.

"What is this?" he asked, pointing to an item on the menu. I didn't know either. Some meat dish I guessed. The Indian waiter came back and asked us for our order. I chose a green salad, and Ibrahim said he wanted "something good with chicken". The waiter politely listed the many dishes and Ibrahim just shrugged and said: "Whatever you think is good." The waiter mentioned something with a French name. "OK," Ibrahim said, not really knowing what he was ordering.

The food looked good when it arrived, so Ibrahim tried to make small talk with the waiter, but both were forced to use broken English. The gist of the conversation was that Ibrahim wanted to get married ? as did the waiter. "Marriage is nice," they both kept saying. With that settled, we turned our attention to our fellow diners as we ate. In the booth next to us, an older Emirati couple seemed to be struggling with the menu. The man was asking the waiter to just recommend something "simple" to eat. And a few tables away, a group of young Emirati men were chatting in English, their conversation regularly punctuated with "Yo" and "No way".

"The young Emiratis speak better English than Arabic," remarked Ibrahim, who is 30 and a police officer. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, he looked just like most of the other customers in the restaurant, but his lack of fluency in English bothered him. "If you were lucky and studied abroad, your English is good, but if you stayed here, I guess you speak like me," he said. "I feel like I can't move forward in life unless my English is really good."

His brother was lucky, he said, and got a scholarship to the UK. Now he is studying management at a British college. "My brother will be able to move up in life, and I will be stuck at this level," said Ibrahim, regretfully. Sitting back and listening to the buzz around us, I could not hear any other Emirati voice in the restaurant. Apart from Ibrahim, the older couple and the group of young Emiratis, the restaurant was packed with westerners and other Arabs. You could hear English, American, Lebanese, Palestinian and many different Arabic accents, as well as Tagalog and Urdu. But no Emirati.

In walked a group of young Arab women, and at least two of them smiled at Ibrahim. He is good-looking, well groomed and over six feet tall. "I guess sometimes the spoken language is not that important Ibrahim?" I said, winking. Ibrahim, too busy with his chicken to understand what I was referring to, looked puzzled. "What are you talking about?" he asked. "Nothing," I smiled. rghazal@thenational.ae