March 28: Talking the Talk

In a startling departure from tradition, most of this email is not about things going wrong. Therefore, I’d like to begin with a quick postscript to the SunTrust idiocy, just so those of you who view me as your own personal Book of Job won’t feel let down.

In what I initially believed was a stroke of luck, I received an email survey from SunTrust the other day, inviting me to let them know how I felt about my recent interaction with them through their secure message center. As you may recall, I had quite strong feelings regarding this, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to share these with SunTrust directly. So I clicked on their radio buttons, expressing my displeasure with circles loitering near the bottom of the scale, and filled in the comment box with a short but pointed diatribe, detailing my issues and outlining how I felt the bank could improve its service. I clicked “Submit,” and found myself at a screen with the SunTrust logo and a variety of SQL form submission errors.

“Error: cannot write to file,” it said, and “invalid variable in field.” “Invalid submission,” it added, and “overflow.” Down at the bottom was a cheery note reading, “Thank you for your comments! Your input has been saved.” Yes, I’m just sure it has. SunTrust: official bank of wooden nickels.

Anyway, despite my wranglings with the institution holding all of my money, I’ve been out and about a fair bit since arriving in Kuwait. However, I haven’t really done anything that I feel is distinctly Kuwaiti. Nothing I’ve sought out has really struck me as unique to this country, or even to this region. The only thing so far that I can really say  couldn’t have seen anywhere else is the climate. The dust storm yesterday that turned the entire day dark orange is an excellent example of the sort of weather I just don’t see back home. I remarked several times that it looked like we were on Mars. I tried not to make that particular comment more than once to any one person, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling. You remember those first pictures that the Mars rovers sent back, with a bleak sandy landscape under a red sky, with the sun a tiny actinic point far up above? It looked just like that, only with buildings. Which, for the record, is about the only thing that could have made the Mars rover pictures cooler.

A large part of the problem I’m having in finding local color is that most of the population isn’t local, and those who are want to be citizens of the world. I still haven’t spoken more than a few words of Arabic to a native speaker, which is at least in part due to the fact that most of them would rather speak French or English. The other day at a gas station, I was making small talk with the attendant, a guy who was the very picture of a modern young Arab sheik—white robe, white head covering, mirrored sunglasses, laid-back attitude.

“Good afternoon,” he said to me, in thickly-accented English.

“Good afternoon,” I said. “You know, the only Arabic greeting I know is ‘a salaam aleikom.’ How do you say ‘good afternoon’ in Arabic?”

“Screw ‘a salaam aleikom.’ ‘Good afternoon’ is better.” He paused, and I considered the two copies of myself looking back from his mirrored sunglasses. “I’m from America. You?”

I grinned. “Also from America.”

He raised one hand slightly, as if to say, “Well, there you go.”

Even if I did find someone interested in speaking Arabic to me, though, I’d be in a bit of trouble unless they were immensely curious about subjects like the various places in the house where a mouse was. In that sort of conversation, I could hold my own quite well. “Laysa hunaaka faar taht al-sareer,” I could say confidently, gesturing to the bedroom, then to the kitchen. “Hunaaka firaan fee al-furn, wal-thallaja.”

I wouldn’t actually say “firaan,” though, because I wouldn’t remember that “mouse” had an irregular plural. I’d probably say “faaraat,” the equivalent of “the mouses.” This is something of an intentional choice on my part. The part of my book on basic Arabic that introduced plurals reads, in essence: “Arabic words are pluralized by adding -aat to the end. This is true for everything which doesn’t take an irregular plural. Unfortunately, the list of words taking irregular plurals is not merely extensive, but includes almost every word you’ve learned so far.”

My vocabulary at the moment consists of perhaps fifty nouns, half a dozen prepositions, and some useful words like “yes,” “no,” and “there is.” I’m working on some adjectives, but I haven’t learned any action verbs yet, which puts me slightly behind my parents’ dog in being able to comprehend a language I can’t speak. So, when faced with the proposition of doubling the number of words I had to remember without actually expanding my vocabulary at all, I chose instead the path of sounding ridiculous by saying “the mans” and “the mouses” for a while.

I think it’s a good call, as I was almost certainly going to forget that the plural of pen, “qalam,” was “aqlaam,” while the plural of window, “shubbaak,” was “shabaabeek.” I envisioned myself getting them tangled, asking someone for their qalmaameek, only to discover that that was a marriage proposition or something. Far safer, I felt, to simply tack -aat onto everything until I got a handle on the language.

My book suggests that there are rules governing some of the irregular plurals, which the authors have chosen not to share with me in this volume. Presumably, this is so that I will be forced to buy more books from them. The text is peppered with hints that there is much more knowledge just out of my grasp. “Later, patterns will emerge that will help you, but we’re keeping this knowledge secret for now,” it says, regarding the plurals. In another section, it taunts, “The verb ‘to be’ is not generally used—in the present tense. Good luck talking about something that’s already happened, sucker!” These quotes are from memory, so it’s possible I’ve amplified them a bit.

Most of the grammar seems fairly straightforward, which convinces me that there’s much more they’re not telling me. “The” is the only article; just tack an “al” onto the front and you’re good to go. As a side note, this makes reading road signs at highway speed a bit challenging. I’m still a bit slow at reading the Arabic, which means that when I’m tearing down the freeway, I don’t always have time to read the whole word to figure out where I am. I’ll get the first few letters, the first two of which invariably turn out to be “al.” You’d think I would learn to skip ahead two letters, but you would be, at least thus far, mistaken. My driving monologue contains a lot of, “All right, where am I? ‘alree’—shoot. ‘The Ree’ something. That’s helpful.”

“The” also marks the difference between an adjectival phrase and a full sentence. If you’re saying “the big mouse,” it’s “al-faar al-kabeer.” if you leave off the second “al,” the meaning becomes “the mouse is big.” This appeals to me, although I think it’s mainly because I can delude myself into thinking that I’m using full sentences just by tacking together two words. I’ll take my victories where I can get them.

I haven’t mastered the various possessive endings yet, mainly because every time I read the list all at once, I feel like I’m going through the stages of choking. “Ee, ak/ik, uh, haa, naa, kum, hum.” The last two are the gasping breaths taken after the Heimlich has been administered. Although this is an amusing visual, it’s not terribly helpful as a mnemonic, as I just imagine random sounds. I should be able to make this work though; the only mnemonic that’s stuck with me lately is “Mickey Killed Goofy For A Bodily Organ,” so clearly the morbidity appeals to me. That’s related to stars, though, and thus is somewhat out of place in the current discussion.

As you may have noticed from the above list, there’s a different pronunciation for the “your” ending depending on whether you’re talking to a man or a woman. I keep idly wondering what happens if you use the wrong one—do you have to apologize? If I walk into a room, see a rodent and ask, “Hal haatha faarak kabeer?”, then turn around to find out that the room’s occupant is a woman, will she be offended? I hope not, because I don’t know how to say “I’m sorry.” The best I could do is say, “Anti indik faaraat fee ghurthik!”—”You have mouses in your room!”—in an offended tone of voice, and hope to sidetrack her into apologizing for the vermin. If it worked, I might even learn how to say “I’m sorry,” although I’d likely end up saying it with a feminine ending.

This is similar to my plan for learning how to say “you’re welcome,” actually, and will probably work out about as well. Basically, the way it goes is, I say “shokran” to people, and listen for what they say back, on the assumption that that will be “you’re welcome.” So far, no one’s said anything back, which means either that my pronunciation is way off, or that it’s culturally acceptable to ignore people when they say “thank you.” I’m scrupulously avoiding doing anything that might be construed as helpful until I figure out which of these two it is. After all, if no one has a reason to thank me, I can’t give offense with an inappropriate response. There’s a flaw in this plan, of course, but if anyone points it out to me, I’ll just thank them and hear what they have to say in return.

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