A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

imagining a big bottle of water

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 28, 2009

Generally speaking, I prefer not to be a spectacle. In public, I like it best when people look at me once, decide that I am of no particular interest, and move on to look at other things.

But sometimes a little spectacle is a worthwhile price to pay for a great outing – as when my aunt and I go out with some of her Doha friends.

The morning after I arrived in Doha, we went to the beautifully restored Souk al Wakif for breakfast with Umm M and three of her daughters. I hadn’t seen any of the Umms in four years, and it was a delight to reconnect.

Our outing was a delight for everyone in the souk that morning as well. To the untrained eye, we don’t look like a group that should belong together. Some of the Umms wear niqab; some wear abayas with headscarves. I dress in the Gulf in what might be best described as “bohemian music teacher” style: long swoopy skirt, long-sleeved shirt, and hair left to its own messy devices. The khala wears tea-length linen or cotton dresses. As a group, we look like a live-action staging of Sesame Street‘s “One of these things is not like the other” series.

We know this, and we accept that together we are indeed spectacular. (The six of us think that the stares are kind of a hoot, actually.)

After gracing the souk with our collective presence, and providing its merchants and shoppers with ample topics for morning chats, we entered one of the nicer restaurants and sat down for a heart-healthy breakfast of hummus and falafel.

Our waiter, a young Levantine man with beautiful eyes, did his best to act nonchalant, and to cope with the fact that each item ordered prompted extensive discussion among the five of us, in a mixture of Arabic and English. And this is where things got tricky.

Umm M had been doing most of the ordering – in Arabic. But when he asked whether we wanted anything to drink, our ordering was derailed by the need to count and recount the number of women who wanted tea. I love tea, but only with milk, so I wanted to be sure that we had water as well.

Ou 2aninat mai2 kabireh, please, I said.

It didn’t seem like a difficult request. After all, I was the person nearest to him, I was speaking clearly, and I wasn’t whispering.

I’m sorry? the waiter said, looking at me as if I had just broken into Japanese.

Sigh. I’ve mentioned my troubles with the Arabic word for “water” before – but the problem was one of having a culturally awkward pronunciation (Syrian rather than Lebanese), not one of having an incomprehensible pronunciation. And “large bottle of water” is a phrase that I have said at least one thousand times – so I didn’t think that I had mucked it up too badly.

I tried again, in English, with Umm M backing me up in Arabic.

When the waiter left, she burst out laughing.

Did you see, IntlXpatr? she asked my aunt. The waiter looked at her and couldn’t imagine that she was speaking Arabic – so he didn’t understand her.

Thank you, I said. I was beginning to wonder whether I had really lost my Arabic.

I haven’t lost it, but I did forget how jarring it is for people when I speak – a total face and language disconnect. In Beirut I used to find that people were much more willing to take me as an Arabic-speaker when I kept my sunglasses on.

So: lesson learned. The next time we have breakfast with the Umms, I’m going to add to our collective spectacle by wearing a pair of massive sunglasses inside the restaurant :).


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2 Responses to “imagining a big bottle of water”

  1. intlxpatr said

    LLLOOOLLLL! The fact that you are stunningly beautiful is another factor when these guys just stare at you in stupefication!

  2. qussa said

    Oh, so, SO recongnizable! The total and utter amazement when something in correct Lebanese Arabic leaves my mouth… no sign of having understood, just a silent stare… then a ‘what?’… trying again…. (and then me looking around at my friends who all smile and nod to confirm that what I had said was indeed correct). Maybe I should try the sunglasses. But then again, I’m blonde, so I might need a veil as well. Sigh…

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