Thursday, March 14, 2013

How to practice Arabic when everyone speaks English

Thanks to my beautiful, totally-not-coerced models Lisa and Ashley
To be honest, sometimes practicing Arabic can be embarrassing, frustrating, and feel totally futile. I often wonder, as I'm surrounded by Omanis speaking perfect English, if I'll ever have linguistic ability above the level of a 5 year old. But if I ever want to stop embarrassing myself with my Arabic, I need to start embarrassing myself with my Arabic more often--that's what this post is about. 

1. Greet people with a Salam Alaykum

Seeing that you're a foreigner, most Omanis will automatically speak to you in English, and it's so easy to go along with it. But returning a "How are You?" with "7umdililah, kayf 7alik?" shows the other person that you want to make the effort, opening the door to a bi-lingual conversation.

2. Practice with shopkeepers
It's much easier to talk to people who are impressed that you know any Arabic at all, so that even though your words are stunted, laboriously produced, and poorly formed, at least they find it cute that you're trying. An uncrowded stall in Muttrah or local coffeeshop are good places to strike up a conversation. But be careful that the person you're chatting with actually speaks Arabic (dishdashas are a good indicator)---one of the funniest scenes I ever saw in Muttrah was caused by a British tourist, wearing a one of those hilarious sexist-joke T-shirts and what looked like the European conception of a "Turban" wrapped around his head. It was around the time that a cruise ship had dropped anchor and unleashed its inhabitants on the old souq. He lumbered into the shop and began speaking loud, formal Arabic at the Bangladeshi store owner--a sad case of assuming brown person = Arabic speaker. Don't be this guy. 

3. Practice with taxi drivers
Oman is one of the few countries in the world where taxi drivers are nations--it's actually a law here. Car rides are good opportunities for low-pressure conversations; it's not too hard to say "I need to go here, take the next right, go straight" etc, and you can always get a driver talking about their family or how much they hate their job. Girls here won't have much opportunity for contact with taxi drivers because the official word is that "taxis are dangerous," but I've had some very entertaining conversations with Talal and Sayid, the highly emotional drivers who take us to after-school classes. 

4. Practice with kids
It's way less intimidating to carry on a conversation with a six year old than with a sixteen year old. Your vocabularies are much closer in scope, and kids are much more accustomed to communicating through pointing. That being said, kinder-gardeners have no qualms about mocking hilarious American accents, but if you're really internalizing criticism from humans who still eat their own boogers, you probably need to reevaluate your life. 

5. Read subtitles
Reading TV subtitles can make even the most boring parade of B-movie romcoms on MBC entertaining. The Arabic they use is very formal, so most of it makes no sense as a translation of casual conversations. Through subtitles I've learned the exclamation "Taban leka!" and other, equally useful phrases. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Muscat Festival(s)

I recently had the opportunity to go to the Muscat Festival--think state fair with more culture and less sand art. Actually, it was two different fairs, one with my host family that focused on Omani heritage and cultural events, and one with the YES and some Omani girls that was more of the fried-food-and-spinning-rides variety. Also firework displays that happened randomly, spectacularly, and without warning.
At the festival in Al Amerat, there was a mini "village" set up with traditional Omani crafts. Sellers lined the way with everything from tassels to woven baskets. 
There was also an international village area, where artists from all over the world were selling and demonstrating their respective crafts. As I walked around the sizable square of vendors, I kept track where I was in the world by how aggressive the sellers were. As I moved from the Middle East towards Europe, I went from being physically pulled to look at some Moroccan shoes (And yeah, I ended up buying a $15 pair that are worth maaaybe half that. The justification for this is that I had a long, Arabic conversation with the seller, and got to learn a bit of Moroccan.) to being coolly ignored by the guy selling Uzbek chess sets.
Egyptian metalworker
Sudanese Potter
French stained-glass artist
Iranian weaver
Thai silk-spinner
One of my favorite spots was the Palestinian area, where this guy was making blown-glass sculptures. I was completely mesmerized watching him delicately shape molten glass for twenty minutes, and so was the small crowd  that formed as he worked. 
 Right across from him was this table, with passages from the Qur'an and nativity scenes displayed intermixed; and I thought it made an interesting statement about how this Palestinian shopkeeper viewed the relationship between these two religions. I don't think I would have ever seen a display like this in America, we're much more comfortable with religions neatly segregated, playing into the media's Us vs. Them narrative. Just some food for thought. 
About a week later I went to the Naseem Park festival with Lisa, Claire and a big group of Omani girls. They're all in a program called Access, also sponsored by the State Dept, an ESL program that's run by Amideast in classes all over Oman. It was really fun to hang out with them and to help them practice their English while we practiced our Arabic. 
The three Americans decided to go as Omanis, or at least attempt to. Even in full abayas and lahafs, our terrible accents and pasty skin give us away pretty quickly, but I think we did manage to make quite a few people quite confused.

Naseem reminded me the most of the County fair, with rides that looked like they could break down at any second and a cornucopia of blinking lights. I only have a few pictures since technically cameras weren't allwoed, so I had to be super sneaky .