Trying to practice my Arabic today, but the locals just keep laughing at me...
At a little sandwich kiosk, I am mentally preparing myself to place an order for a tuna sandwich, complete with greetings, pleases and thank yous. I'm concentrating so hard that I let way too many people barge ahead of me, and when I do finally try to make myself heard with some garbled version of what I am meant to be saying I am more or less ignored.
A Sudanese colleague shakes his head and takes pity on me. "What do you want? I will order for you."
He barks something that sounds suspiciously like "tuna sandwich" to the guy behind the counter, so I tell him I am perfectly capable of ordering in English by myself.
"Well, in this case the words happen to be the same as in English. But you still wouldn't know how to order the right way," he grins. Shrugging his shoulders at my reproachful glare he laughs, "Fine, try yourself if you want! Order another one for me."
My suggestion of "etnein (two) sandwich" provokes hysterics among the group. "You don't have to say TWO. You just say sandwich-ein, that's the plural."
I refuse to be outsmarted. "But what if I want three? That's a plural too! How will he know I want two and not three?"
More looks of condescension and snorts of laughter. "Well then of course you say, sandwich-at. That's the plural for something you want three of."
No, no, I am not happy with this. "But what if I want four? Or five?"
"Well, then you use the plural for things that you want more than three of. Except of course if you want more than ten. In that case, you just go back to the singular."
"Are you shitting me? Do you think this is funny?"
They howl with laughter at my outrage, and I soon discover no one is trying to do anything but tell me the truth. That's really how it works in Arabic. "I'll get it right tomorrow, just wait and see," I mutter into the tuna sandwich and let them snicker away. Not sure yet who I'm really trying to convince - is it me or them?
Tags: sudan, darfur, NGO, aid worker, Arabic