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English and Arabic

One of the joys of travelling abroad is communicating. English is truly a worldwide trading language, that works in my favour as I don't usually have to go too far to find someone who can translate if I get stuck. Arabs who speak English like to try it out on me and there are vide variences of proficiency. I have picked up some Arabic spoken words and phrases. This always goes down well with the locals, it shows I am making an effort.

In writing it gets interesting. The Arabic text is currently beyond me although I have sussed out the numbers as they have a correspondence to our numbers - it is a decimal system here, just the symbols differ. 

1 = 1,   2 = backwards 7,   3 = backwards 7 with a squiggle,   4 = backwards 3,   5 = 0,   6 = 7,   7 = V,   8 = upside down V,   9 = 9,   0 = dot.  Lots of red herrings there. 07.V = 5607.

As in English, there is great importance in how words are spoken as that can affect the meanings. Just think of our "Yes". A short sharp "Yes", is a complete affirmation. A long drawn out "Yeessssss?" can mean anything from "Can I help you?" to "I am not sure." The Scots "Aye" is another. A short "aye" means yes. "Aye, right" means no (a rare example of a double positive meaning a negative!), and a carefully spoken "aye" can mean every stage between these two.

In Arabic there is a wonderful word "Inshallah". Literally translated it means "With the grace of God". The Saudis use this word liberally in their speech, usually as an indicator of how likely it is that things will happen. Examples:

  • Will you be at work tomorrow? Yes, Inshallah (Yes, I fully intend to be there)
  • What time does your shop open? 10 O'clock, Inshallah (Around 10 am)
  • Will my dry cleaning be ready on Tuesday? Yes, Inshallah (Maybe yes, maybe no)
  • How long a drive is it from here to Qassim? Not far, Inshallah (I haven’t a clue)
  • Where is the food I ordered? It is coming, Inshallah (the chef is on a cigarette break)

Saudis don't like to lose face, to the extent they might tell a deliberate lie rather than reveal a situation that exposes their shortcomings. They may justify this by inserting Inshallah into the statement which has the effect of absolving them from blame when the inevitable happens. So you will have the following situation: Will your railway be fully operational by next April? "Yes, Inshallah". Everyone knows there is no chance the railway will be operational - the infrastructure will not be complete, the rolling stock might be delivered by then but won't have been accepted, the depot(s) might not be functional, the bespoke unique signalling system is still in development, and the process of obtaining an operating certificate is months behind where it should be. But nobody, especially contractors, wants to the one that blinks first. So Inshallahs are invoked at every opportunity. I mean this as illustrating a point, no resemblance to any actual railway is intended. Ahem.

The written English here is fascinating. Like any foreign country, when they have a grasp of English and get a little bit wrong, it can be amusing. A bit like your average fruit'n'veg stall in England, really. Bean's, pea's and egg's. A favourite was the sign outside the hotel dining room when I was staying in central Riyadh: "PoTaTo LeiK's SouP". Nice try. Down the road from the hotel was a Pakistani restaurant which offered the following types of chicken: Furnace, Blindfolded, Compressed, Precarious, Own Basket and Applied. Rather than subject the poor birds to further bizarre deaths I chose a vegetarian option.

Then there are the trade names that are (presumably) translated straight out of Arabic into English and sign-written as such. They don't always have the intended effect. I haven't had the courage to try a Fatburger, or indeed a SmashBurger. I didn't feel tempted to buy footwear from the chain called "Athlete's Foot" (at least they got the apostrophe right!). I was tempted to look in a Fish Show Room, and yes it was a fish wholesalers. And looking for a meal one night in Dammam, I went into a place called The American Kitchen...and came out straight away as it sold over-size refrigerators.

And then there is stuff that is straight to the point. This road sign for instance. "Crossing the Red Signal Leads to Death or Prison" doesn't pull punches. Refreshing, we should have that.

There was a temporary environmental exhibition on in Kuwait when I was there: "Your Planet Needs You - until 2016/9/17". So now we know when the end of the world will be.

The hairdressing salon in my compound offers an interesting range of treatments. Some I have heard of, others I have not. What for example is "Spa Foot"? Can you get medicine for it?  At the other end of the body you can have "Paraffin Face" or indeed "Crank the face of". Their advertised "bread shave" looks interesting, but I prefer to go to the Turkey Barber in town. 


Next week sees the Islamic festival of Eid Al Fitr, the first day of Shawaal, the month following Ramadan, It is celebrated by giving to charity and the end of daytime fasting. For my work, it means two days public holiday, and as everything and everywhere will be closed, I will be having a short break away, to somewhere very interesting. More about that next time.





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