Dubai: Born to an Emirati mother with a sub–continental influence and an American father of Italian descent, there is no better way to describe my multi–cultural identity than my enjoying a cup of Chai Karak as much as I savour a Cappuccino from Starbucks.
Chai Karak is a popular beverage in Dubai that originates from the sub-continent and overtime has interwoven itself into the fabric of Emirati society.
When I was a child, my mother would drop a tablespoon of Chai Karak into my cup of milk. As I grew up, the number of tablespoons grew until I too had my own full mug of tea to start the day.
I remember the first time I had a Cappuccino, an originally Italian coffee that is widely sold by popular coffee franchises around the world. I was nearly four years old and it was a chilly winter morning when my dad decided to hand me a Cappuccino instead of my usual winter beverage, hot chocolate.
Living in Dubai, where there are people of nearly 200 nationalities, exposed me to a wide universe of cultures which have defined everything from the languages I speak to the kind of personality I am.
My mother always said, “It is not who you’re born, but who you grow up to be that is the most important.” Being older now, this makes a lot more sense to me. However, growing up, children can be insecure. I remember constantly asking myself the questions: Who am I and what constitutes my identity?
I was around 11 years old when I was asked to carry the Emirati flag for an annual international festival at. As such, I was required to be in the front of the line. I showed up wearing a traditional dress and carried the flag. It was a great feeling.
In terms of languages, I was fluent in Arabic but primarily spoke English at home. Arabic was the foundation of my language learning journey. As a child I remember learning classical Arabic in school. As I grew older and went to secondary school, I couldn’t help but realise how cool the language was. After mastering classical Arabic, I wanted to learn the Emirati dialect. In doing this, I stumbled upon Hanan Al Fardan and Abdulla Al Kaabi’s book Spoken Emirati. I began to compare classical and Emirati Arabic and understood what a unique dialect it was.
My nanny, who has been with my family since I was two years old, hails from the Philippines. She has been a constant my entire life and I see her as more of a sister. So I chose to learn Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines that is very widely spoken in Dubai as there are some 679,000 Filipinos in the UAE. I had picked up words I heard my entire life but teaching myself the language via online vocabulary sites made me conversant in the language. It was great to be able to talk to my nanny in her native language and to see the world the way she saw it.
Filipinos have had a profound impact on my childhood. I am able to strike up a conversation with a Filipino, no matter where I go, and I find that a wonderful thing. I remember feeling an unfamiliar feeling when one of my two nannies I grew up with retired. She needed to rest and go back home to raise her grandchildren. However, it felt and still feels like a part of our family is gone.
These people in addition to my parents raised me and it is very emotional to think about how they took care of another family to provide for their own. For me, it was a gesture of respect to learn their language.
The western side
After studying Arabic, I decided to pursue Italian. My father who is from Boston has Italian roots, hence my surname. It was an interesting idea to learn Italian as this was the very first time I taught myself a language from scratch, outside the classroom. I was only 13 at the time, and was often told that I could speak any language quickly because I was young and my brain was like a sponge. One aspect of language learning that must be made clear is that languages can only be learnt, not taught.
I highly appreciate my American side. Growing up, my mother would take me to an “Americana” programme for kids at the American Consul General’s home every Sunday. There, I learnt about American influential figures such as Harriet Tubman and even received a letter of encouragement as a group from the then president Barack Obama who was also of mixed heritage.
Exposure to Urdu and Farsi
I also had an early exposure to Hindi. My grandparents and their generation were able to speak an array of languages and it was not uncommon to find someone fluent in English, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and Urdu. My grandparents, while Emirati nationals went to school in South Asia - my grandfather in Bombay and my grandmother in Karachi. For this reason, both of them were fluent in Hindi and Urdu and often watched classic Bollywood films. Among their favourites were Sholay and Bobby.
I also surprise those from South Asia with my ability to enjoy their native cuisine. I once joked that the order of the languages I learn will be based on how much I like their food, which I would recommend as motivation to many.
This inspired me to learn Urdu, as I already can read the Arabic script. I would encourage others to learn Hindi and Urdu as over a billion people speak the language.
Farsi too always interested me. Classical Arabic as put by the American polyglot Timothy Doner is like the “Latin of the Islamic world”. As a Middle Eastern Studies student, I do believe that apart from Arabic, Persian is one of the most important languages to know. Persian food is one of my favourite cuisnes.
We cook many different cuisines at home, the most popular being Indian, Arabic and Italian food.
Traditional clothes have also been special for me, especially during festivities like Eid. Growing up, I had the great fortune of being an avid traveler as I had family all over the world.
I would also consider myself a fan of sport. My dad and I often talk about and watch American football. I also played competitive football (soccer) growing up. My parents love to watch a good game of cricket too, after all they met at a cricket match.
As I look back on my experience, I realise how amazing it has been to grow up in multicultural Dubai. For me, it is impossible to be able to indetify with just one thing. I can speak multiple languages and enjoy a baseball game in the Red Sox stadium in Boston, just as much as I enjoy Machboos at an Emirati cultural centre where I have worked.
- The writer is an intern with Gulf News