By Philip Hall
Conversing about camel's milk may not be the most useful Arabic to learn, but learning the language can open up the Arab world to Europeans.
Thursday 17 October 2013
Once, in Princess Gardens, we were in a hurry to get home. I saw a side gate and walked towards it. “It'll be closed,” said Teresa, my wife, “Let's try anyway.”
Outside, on either side, sat two young people who began to stare at us as we approached. When we were about ten yards away one of them blurted: “It's closed mate.”
“Let's go,” said Teresa.
“No, perhaps it's open,” I insisted.
We walked the last ten yards, the teenagers staring all the time. I pushed the gate and it opened – Snap! The attention of the two watchers broke and we walked through. Every day, we face invisible barriers. Something stops us from opening a gate. We don't ask for help when we really need it. We don't ask someone charming for a coffee date. We don't apply for a job we are probably well suited for.
Some invisible barriers are much bigger than that. Some are huge. For example, after you consider the facts, you might conclude that it is deeply irrational for European governments not to promote the teaching of Arabic in European schools. The numbers speak for themselves: the Arab world has over 400 million inhabitants, some 300 million people speak Arabic as their native tongue, and many millions more speak it as a second language. Moreover, there are many native Arabic speakers in European countries. For example, Arabic is the mother tongue of nearly a million people in France, not to mention all the second and third-generation North Africans there who speak at least a little of the language.
Before coming to work in the Middle East, I had a short conversation with my recruiter. He was British and had worked in the Gulf for 35 years. There was a prosperous, flushed look to him. He was on the point of retirement. “Your Arabic must be fantastic.” I probed.
“No”, he said proudly, “I haven't learned a word of it.”
This puzzled me. What was going on here? And why was this man so proud of his failure to learn Arabic? The accumulated prejudices of a thousand years seem to be blocking the path to language learning, and consequently blocking the path to mutual understanding between the northern and southern halves of the Mediterranean: two parts of a whole, shared culture.
But nowadays, who believes in historical determinism? I certainly do not. Do you? Who believes that what has happened in the past is the single decider of what will happen in the future? Why not choose our own future? Why not choose to overcome prejudice and do so by learning Arabic?
Government policy-makers can take the rational step towards funding and promoting the learning of Arabic in every school in Europe. As an individual, you can make this choice. Together, we can break through invisible historical social, cultural and political force fields by being practical and rational.
I am following my own advice; I am now learning Arabic. Our teacher is proficient in teaching primary school children, but we are middle-aged men. She is teaching us to ask for information, to talk about our families and describe what they do, to talk about what's in our houses, and to say what we want when we go to restaurants. “Peteer,” she says, a little like a Palestinian Joyce Grenfell. “Did you do your homework?”
Peter says ,“No,” in a small voice, “I was too busy working”. His grizzled face looks down in embarrassment. “Oh Peter!” she exclaims, “We must do our homework.”
Secretly, however, my classmates and I are learning the poems of Adel Darwish, as sung by Marcel Khalifa. We are watching Palestinian cultural programmes, Egyptian soap operas and listening to Lebanese pop songs. I have even had my first conversation in Arabic. It was with Yemenis and it went like this:
“Do you have any camel's milk?”
“Oh yes, I do, it is over there.”
“I love camel's milk.”
“Yes it is very nice but the milk is much healthier fresh from the camel's udder.”
“Yes, but not if the camel is ill.”
“Can I get fresh camel's milk here?”
“No, you have to go to any small town in the desert. It's easy to find camel's milk there.”
“ Well, I will be sure to do so. Thank you for your advice.”
Clearly, if I can converse about camel's milk with a man from Yemen, the doors of the Arab world have now swung wide open for me.