Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Foot-in-mouth disease

I wish that my language bloomers were confined to just derja, but I have made a few in French too.  Once my daughter forgot a copybook that I knew she needed for school so I raced up to the primary school and knocked on the gate, and when the security guard opened up I told him I needed to give it to my daughter, so he very kindly let this mad Irish woman in, but then as I didn’t know where her class was, I asked him where it was, except…… I didn’t say the word, ‘classe’, instead I asked him where her bedroom was!  And then there was the time when my youngest daughter didn’t want to come to a social function because she knew all the old ladies (and some younger ones too) would be asking about her as a prospective wife for some eligible bachelor in their family.  I told her in French that if anyone asked I would just tell them that she was too young.  She looked at me and said, ‘Mum, I’m too young…. not too yellow!’ ‘Jeune’, ‘jaune’, what’s in a word…. a whole world it seems, as she didn’t come with me anyway.

I remember when my now 15 year old son was only about 5 or 6, he heard me asking for directions, after which he said, ‘Mum, please just speak French…. don’t try and speak derja.’  Now that he and his siblings all have a few years of French classes behind them, it’s more a case of ‘Mum, please…. just don’t talk….at all!’ Only Allah alone knows the mistakes I’ve made that I don’t know about….. I try very hard not to think about them as there is only so much shuddering one can do without looking like you're in the throes of an epileptic seizure. 

And, even if you are like my husband and speak derja, classical Arabic, French and English you can still speak a Khalota – I heard him on the phone once saying ‘Parce que je suis busy bezef’.  Another time I heard him say to my son, ‘Mat disappear-ish’, (don’t disappear!) and I thought to myself, I think I could get a grip if that’s all I need to do!

I absolutely dread it when any lady comes up to me in the market or a shop or anywhere and starts rabbiting away in derja and, when I say in the one phrase of perfect Arabic that I have learnt, ‘Sorry, but I don’t speak Arabic’, I have to endure the funny looks at me, up and down, while they walk away shaking their heads with an expression on their face as if to say ‘we’re on to a right one here’.  Well… I suppose… if someone said in English to me… ‘I don’t speak English’ I’d have the same look on my face. 

Despite the fact that I seem to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease I have had some successes, and even fairly recently brought a friend, who can’t speak either derja or French, out shopping.  We managed fine Alhamdulilah even if it was a bit of a case of the blind leading the blind.  My problem (apart from the major one of basic language skills of course), is confidence.  I went to the market once and thought to myself, how hard can it be to ask for a kilo of tomatoes, so I did.  To which the seller asked me a question in return.  My first instinct was to panic ‘Oh my God, he’s talking back to me… what do I say now?  How am I going to get myself out of this one?’  Then I calmed down and realized that all he was asking me was whether I wanted salad ones or cooking ones (all sold together here in Algeria), so I said I wanted the salad ones, primarily because I could say the word for salad easily, but happily coincidentally they were the ones I wanted anyway.

I know that I have to, somehow, get to grips with this local language, and ignore all the voices in my head that tell me I’m too thick (actually those particular ones are not in my head…), I’m too old, I don’t have time, even if I learn it I still won’t understand everyone in this massive country, etc. etc.    A few years ago I met the elderly grandmother of a friend of my daughter who told me how she had come to Algiers from the countryside many years previously when she was a young married woman, and only speaking Kabyle. She had to learn derja and find her way round and buy the groceries herself, and I thought to myself, ‘I never would have known that I would have so much in common with this woman’.  I just have to get on with it… get a notebook (the last one was tiny and ended up gathering dust in a corner somewhere) and start writing down phrases I need to learn and start asking how to say this and how to say that, and make more of an effort…ANY effort would be more.  I feel that I miss out on so much, even if at some social functions it’s a blessing in disguise – in the past I have asked my daughter to translate for me, and she has pleaded with me ‘oh Mum please don’t ask me to repeat it… it was SO boring having to listen to it in the first place!’ I love asking my mother-in-law about her life and her past and how things were when she was young, but I can’t do it unless there is someone around to translate.  I have also met quite a few Algerian women that I found fascinating and wished so much that I could communicate with them, there is so much I could learn from them, and one in particular who is very knowledgeable in her deen (religion), who is also very kind and easy going, and every time I see her I wish so much that I was fluent in derja or, in her case even Arabic.

I don’t know if you can ever really be a part of a people until you speak their language, and although I don’t know if I will ever be fluent, I do very much want to pay tribute in some part to this wonderful country, and the least I can do is learn its language, if only I could stop putting my foot in it. 
Road to Tipasa

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