April 17, 2006

Feeling like a foreigner at the local McDonalds!

It’s probably hard being an Arabic-speaking Saudi when you walk into any food outlet here (in Saudi) where you feel the need to speak another language in order to munch on a meal of your choice*; if it wasn’t for the -obviously essential- business sense of the owners who literally programs their (decreasingly non-Saudi) staff to speak the essential restaurant’n’trade Arabic!

A typical dialogue at a local burger chain (Herfy) would go something like: (sorry English readers; no fun translating accents)

Cashier : “سلام اليكم سير تفدل”
Customer : “عطني واحد سوبر هرفي”
Cashier : “لهم (لحم) ولا دجاج”
Customer : “لحم”
Cashier : “وجبه ولا سانداوتش سير”
Customer : “لا وجبه”
Cashier : “كم نفر (شخص)؟”
Customer : “نفرين”
Cashier : “سوبر سيز؟”
Customer : “سوبر”
Cashier : “كمسه (خمسه) اشريين (وعشرين) ريال سير”

English literacy in Saudi is ridiculously low despite it being in the official curriculum and part of most university pathways.

back when I used to be a kid studying at sixth grade, the grade at which the official curriculum used to introduce the –oh myyy- English language, we received the official text book that taught us pre-school or KG English, having obviously covered our ABCs long back –at private schools-; English classes were a doddle ever since…

Back to the subject, it would definitely sound awkward having to speak a foreign language when ordering food in your own country, it remind me of the stupidity of some restaurants in Amman where they choose to present their menu in English exclusively that even the waiter mimic his knowledge of it because in truth he was merely taught to pronounce the items when pointed at by the customer... possibly a futile attempt to reflect hollow exquisiteness!

However, programming a pleasant Filipino fellow or a humble South-east Asian worker to speak only what is necessary to receive an order, reiterating the price along with some nice gestures -without understanding its use & meanings- is rather insulting in terms of dehumanizing the cashier or the order-handler into a machine that only registers certain terms & phrases that’s necessary for the transaction! Good luck explaining that you want no Mayo in your burger with that sort of Arabic or even start a Good-day-sir-the-weather-is-nice small-talk.

I usually go with the flow under the benefit-of-doubt premise that the cashier is trying his best to speak my language to make it easier for me to order, yet one discover that even when this imposed essential-Arabic fails to serve it’s purpose, the reluctance to switch to proper English (assumingly we both understand) is rather high, because he was programmed to speak the way that gets the business going with the bulk of the customers!

I can safely assume the same situation reoccurring in a place like Dubai but at a larger scale, however Dubai is already a cosmopolitan place with locals only accounting for a ridicule 20% of it’s total population! Regardless if this state of affair is good or bad, the fact of the matter is that English becomes essential for communication at all levels, to the point at which the use of Arabic becomes enforced or regulated by the government to "preserve” some indigenous “Arabic” feel for the place, like permiting only bilingual billboards & so forth!

Back to Saudi, Methinks until the whole of the foreign work force is replaced with locals (a good thing), they should invest in teaching the workforce proper Arabic from basics and upwards, this will have immense impact on the way business is done in Saudi, as well as it’s cultural impact by exposing millions of expats to a culture they’re alienated from and inherently oblivious about!

Contemporary Saudi has failed culturally to be of any influence on a big chunk of its population despite a deeply routed Islamic & Arabic heritage that was spinning the world only few centuries ago! In fact, most x-Saudi expats typically desist their Saudi experience, which is rather a sorry state as many wrongfully -but understandably- associate what they have experienced in Saudi with all that is Islam or Arabic…

Back home in Jordan, except for some odd “Mafi Proplem” & "Maype" encounters and the ridiculous English-only menus at many Ammani restaurants (I call for a boycott), we can still order our meals in Arabic, but try receiving a gift in Arabic on radio and you’ll be the laugh of town for a while… Alas! (Read N@simjo’s beautiful take here)

* Original observation was made by my thoughtful friend Jafar!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

a bit ironic that you write in English about encouraging Arabic :S