I grew up watching Arabic cartoons. The closest thing I got to the American ones was Tom & Jerry who let's be honest here didn't talk much. I think I found out who Bugs Bunny was when I was 11. Growing up, my parents spoke to us purely in Arabic and I always associated English newspapers with travelling. We still get only Arabic newspapers in our house and I really think I still prefer them over the English ones.
Over the last decade, I've found myself on countless occasions boasting that the UAE is the only country in the world where someone could move to, get a job, save enough money to start a business, become a multi-millionaire and never have to learn its language. Think about it; you can't do it in north or south America. Asia is definitely out of the question, Europe and Russia too. French and English are lingua francas in certain parts of Africa, but good luck getting through the red tape and the military pay line. And so I have come to speak English in Dubai. I spoke it so much more than Arabic. I spoke it to Indians, Iranians and the British. I spoke it to Arabs when referring to ‘modern' subjects such as technology and art. I finally found myself speaking it to fellow Emiratis too.
It is ironic that the thing that has made English the global language is the very thing that makes me miss speaking Arabic. That depth in subtlety, that breadth in connotation and the endless ways in which one can say the same thing but not quite. Arabic is a stream that is both calm and ravaging, you do not capture it but it captures you and in you flow. Like the Kandoora, Emirati men's national dress, Arabic can be formal, playful or a little more casually smart, as the situation requires it to be; and I'm only talking here about classical. If anyone isn't sure of what I mean, think of your news reader as a formal speaker, an endless list of wordsmiths as playful prosers and the BBC Arabic radio show hosts as smart casuals. If you don't speak Arabic yet, this alone should evoke enough curiosity in you to do so.
But Arabic is not only the language of poets in the desert and pearl divers at sea. Arabic is also an efficient language, almost every word can be said in less letters in Arabic than English or French (the two languages I have had interaction in) due to its powerful diacritics. Unfortunately, many Arabic speakers, hold the view that Arabic and all that is contemporary are mutually exclusive. I disagree, I think Arabic is a language of endless innovation that's nested in a throne of narrative that was incremental at times and exponential at others.
Yes, this is what this piece is about. I want you to learn Arabic. You don't have to but I want you to. You don't want to either but I want you to. My reasoning is simple, I love my language and I want you to understand why I do. I recognise that you'd learn German if you lived in Germany and I recognise that the same reason why Dubai's been such a great place to do business in was this lenient characteristic. But I'm here to tell you that Dubai's position as a business hub is sealed and that we, the Emiratis, aren't interested in double-digit growth.
As my friend and commentator, Sultan Al Qasimi, said to me last week: "We don't want hyper growth, we want moderate sustainable growth. Five per cent is very good". I am here to tell you that I want to speak more Arabic in my city. I am here to tell you I want you to hear more Arabic in my city. I am here to ask you to understand more Arabic in my city. I am here because I want to share my jokes with you. I cannot translate them and I don't want to forget them. Won't you learn it so we can laugh together in it?
You're most welcome
I know you've said you're willing and that I didn't invite you over. Well, I was busy with the boom and all its ‘zoom' and ‘vroom'. I am telling you now: come over for lunch, take classic Arabic classes and pick up my accent on the side. We can play cards and I'll tell you that we pronounce spade ‘sebeet' and hearts ‘haas' and then some.
Linguistic relativity is the idea that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of the varying cultural concepts in each language. Today, a more balanced view holds that language affects one to a certain extent but other universal factors affect cognitive process. And so what I'm trying to say is that I want you to pronounce Dubai as Dbay, the way we do. I want you not just to come to my house to enjoy my Harees and Threed but to learn how make it in your house and, when you go back home, make it for your friends and neighbours. I want your time here to be genuine. My doors were always open and even if they appeared closed, they were never locked.
A note to my Emirati brothers and sisters: Let us show them how beautiful our language, culture and all those things we want to preserve are so that next time we say Emirati culture and someone says: "what is that?", it's not just us who explain it but also the curious guests of our city who've experienced it first hand. If you're an Emirati or an expatriate who's willing to contribute to this grassroots movement of exchange, make a call out on twitter adding #uaexchange in your tweet.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati commentator on socio-economic and cultural affairs in the UAE.