هل تتكلم العربية؟

In The Art of Travel Spring 2017, 2. Languages, Abu Dhabi by Raven

Over my first couple weeks in Abu Dhabi, the common question I answer again and again – whether asked by full time NYU AD students, faculty, or even locals – has been why Abu Dhabi? Other students, in particular have been very curious about this decision, as they know how many location options (typically around 13 total) we are given for study away semesters. Naturally, I’ve become accustomed to rattling off the recited laundry list of reasons: I’d never been outside the Western World, I didn’t want to be traipsing around Europe with thousands of other white girls (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I was intrigued by the “rising power” aspect of the Emirates, I was interested in the Peace Studies courses offered here, and I wanted to further my exposure to the Arabic language. My ultimate reason, however, has been consistently met with laughter. “You’re in the wrong place for that,” my new friends and colleagues tease.

What they’re referring to, of course, is the highly expansive quality of the English language in the international community. As a result of neoimperialism, politico-economic domination, and the “global leadership” of the United States and Britain since the turn of the 20th century, it is really unnecessary to speak a language other than English in booming urban areas like Abu Dhabi. And on our isolated island campus, despite the various nationalities of the student body, you’d be hard-pressed to find students that aren’t some degree of fluent in the English language. Venturing into the city, all street signs are printed in both English and Arabic. Many chain brands have local store fronts, with huge flashy signs that attempt to translate IKEA, Holiday Inn, Cinnabon, Five Guys, and Dior into phonetic Arabic. And many taxi drivers don’t speak Arabic at all, communicating in a combination of English and Hindi.

Put simply, the UAE is an incredibly easy place to visit speaking English alone. That’s indisputable. However, I don’t want the city I’m living in to accommodate me. That feels removed, elitist, and frankly lazy. Language and culture are intrinsically linked. Thus, to choose not to engage with one, is to subsequently lose engagement with both. Rather, I have made attempts – albeit limited by my crippled vocabulary – to interact with the culture and the region at a deeper level. In day trips into the city, or up to Dubai, this means fumbling to read the Arabic side of menus and order in the language, conversing with waiters, shopkeepers, and families on the street. In my Muslim Popular Culture course, this means learning about the connection between the arts and social movements throughout the region, struggling to understand (or more realistically, pick up a few words from) film and music in various dialects of Arabic, Urdu, and occasionally Turkish or Kurdish.

So maybe NYU Abu Dhabi is not the best place to immerse myself fully in a language. But I would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to gain a linguistic education here. Language is more than grammar and an alphabet; it is the means by which we consider the world around us and the communities we engage with. It seeps into each aspect of daily life. It dictates customary interactions with various members of society and thus connotes interpersonal dynamics and concepts of tradition and respect. It expresses association between ideas that the English speaker may not consider. (The Arabic root k-t-b can be found in the words for library, book, office, subscription, and to write.) It conveys the framework for religiosity and values. It sets the precedent for behavior and preconceived notions. Language dances with culture, and to forego one is to abandon its partner. Being at the intimate crossroads of its performance is overwhelmingly thrilling; it reveals just how little I know about anything, and just how much there is to learn.

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  • Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque: Raven