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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

"No Araba"

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • The languages spoken in Qatar (including communicating in English)

  • My experience with Arabic (and a few buzz words)

  • Having to deal with the metric system and military time

  • America’s relationship with language


These were some notes another student took about my artwork. It's beautiful in itself, isn't it? The power of script and language.

“Araba” is more or less how you pronounce “Arabic” in Arabic. It’s spelled like this: عربى

That said, the official language of Qatar is Arabic, but here’s the thing: 90% of the country is expatriate and most of these expats come from South & Southeast Asian countries. This means languages like Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Tagalog are the native tongues of most of the population, not Arabic. However, those aren’t necessarily the languages you hear most often. Your first thought may be, You probably don’t hear these languages because expats probably adapt and learn Arabic, similar to what we expect immigrants in the U.S. to do when it comes to English, but in reality it’s uncommon for expats to learn Arabic. Instead, most of them—and Qatari nationals too—speak English as their second language.

See, English has quickly become the global lingua franca, like a worldwide common tongue (compare it to the way Akkadian was used around the ancient “Near East” . . . if that helps clarify at all). Also, keep in mind a few things:

  • Much of the West speaks English and the West feeds a lot of the media that gets accessed worldwide. That’s part of the reason why a lot of non-English speakers say they learned English from watching TV.

  • Much of the West colonized places and imposed their language, and one of those languages was English.

  • A lot of the education in Qatar is taught in English, so many of the people who grow up here learn to speak English through school while speaking another one at home.

All this meant that it was rare for me to go somewhere around Qatar and be in a space where no one could understand my English. In short, language wasn’t a problem for me at all; in fact, I wasn’t even going to write this post because it didn’t occur to me that English-speaking people, especially Americans, could be worried about language barriers in the country.

However, since I’m here, I’ll just list a few things to flesh out the post. Sound cool? Let’s get to it.

Arabic dialects

Just like English, Arabic has different dialects—and just like English—Arabic speakers of one dialect can have a hard time understanding other dialects. For example, Egyptian Arabic is slightly different than Sudanese Arabic, which is slightly different than Moroccan Arabic, which is slightly different than Arabic in the Gulf States (including Qatar). Compare it to American English vs. Irish English vs. England English vs. Australian English.

For the most part, these different Arabic dialects are as a result of colonization from Arab and European civilizations over the centuries. Interestingly, every Arabic speaker I met in Qatar—no matter where they were from—always said they had the hardest time understanding Moroccan Arabic because it’s a mix of Arabic, French, and a variety of indigenous languages.

My mini struggles with Arabic

Even though most everyone spoke English, there was naturally still some Arabic tossed around and it naturally threw me off a bit:

  • Sometimes I’d get confused because there were words for some objects or ideas that only existed in Arabic. For example, my first weeks in Doha I remember not quite understanding what someone meant when they’d say something like “Meet me at the majlis.” I thought they were referring to the big yellow room in the lobby of VCUQ, similar to the way we’d say “Meet me at the compass” at VCU (which refers to the intersection between the library, cafeteria, and academic buildings). However, I later learned that “majlis” referred to the wide, low, lounging sofa beneath the canopy tent. And even later, I learned that “majlis” also referred to the lounging location (similar to a French salon) and that it’s even used to describe government administration groups. Here’s a simple Wikipedia article, you’ll see what I mean.

  • Sometimes people tended to toss simple Arabic phrases or words into their English, even if they themselves didn’t speak Arabic otherwise. Words like yanni, habibi, yallah, mashallah, khallas, wallah, inshallah, and sa popped up all the time.

  • Yanni – “like”, in the way you use “like” when explaining something to someone. In English we’d say, “It’s a big blue truck with thick wheels, it’s like Optimus Prime in Transformers.” In Qatar you might hear, “It’s a big blue truck with thick wheels—yanni—like Optimus Prime in Transformers.”

  • Habibi – “My dear” or “my love”. I usually heard it when referring to very cute children . . . it was also the name of the oryx sculpture in the InterContinental hotel.

  • Yallah – “Come on” or “hurry up”. Sometimes it’s used playfully, sometimes it’s used in impatience.

  • Mashallah – Technically this means “God has willed it”, but it’s used to compliment something that’s beautiful. Sometimes it’s literally beautiful, like an attractive person, sometimes it’s a beautiful concept, like the idea of being in love, and sometimes it’s the beauty to be found in an accomplishment, sort of like a slightly more heartfelt “congratulations”.

  • Khallas – It means, “To finish”, but what it really means is “Stop it”, “It’s over”, and “I’m done with it” . . . like when you want someone to leave you alone or when you want a conversation to be over.

  • Wallah – “I swear to God”, like “Wallah, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.” It’s used for anything, from telling an exciting story to expressing frustration with an assignment.

  • Inshallah – It technically means, “If God wills it”, but socially it’s more like saying “hopefully”. . . or it’s the thing you say when don’t want to directly say “No.” For example, “Inshallah we’ll have this project done before the end of next week.” Or if someone asks if you’ll be at the party tonight, you may respond “Inshallah!” which is a way of saying “Hopefully I’ll be able to make it, but really I have no intention on coming.”

  • Sa – I’m not even sure if this one is spelled right, but I do know it means “right?”. In English, we may say, “The essay is due tomorrow, right?” but in Qatar I’d hear, “The essay is due tomorrow, sa?” This word really used to throw me off, though, because the first few times people used it, they’d say, “This is the correct brush, sa?” and in my head I’d be like, Saw what? Saw… the brush? Did I see it? What?

  • Sometimes I just couldn’t find the right word. On one hand, a student told me that there were twenty different words for “fork” in Arabic (depending on what dialect you were speaking). On the flip side, though, the Arabic words for “dove” and “pigeon”, for example, are the same word (and even though they are technically the same animal, in American English we understand the words to refer to two different birdies). This made for some interesting surprises, like that the tower covered in white doves I saw at Katara was actually called the “Pigeon Tower”. This also made for some frustrations, like when I kept typing “Qatar water jug sculpture” into Google and couldn’t get any results; come to find out, the word “jug” is primarily a North American term (with origins from Britain, of course).

You see that sculpture in the background? That’s what I was trying to Google. I had seen it on a postage stamp and really wanted to find it in real life, but in order to catch an Uber to this location, I needed to know where it was located (and in order to know where it was located, I needed to know what I was called). Turns out the best way to search for it was “Qatar water pot fountain”.

Being surrounded by another language, and I don’t mean Arabic

Like I’ve said, English speakers were everywhere in Qatar, so I didn’t have a huge problem there. What I did have some issues with, though, were with things like the metric system, reading dates, and military time. I couldn’t read the speed limits in kilometers per hour, I didn’t know what two kilograms of potatoes meant at the grocery store, on sign-in sheets I didn’t know whether it was 13 o’clock or 15 o’clock, when asking for fabric at the souq I didn’t know if 3 meters was enough for a scarf, when ordering water at a restaurant I had no idea how to visualize a .5 liters of water for the table, and I couldn’t figure out whether my juice would expire on October 3, 2018 (10/03/2018) or if it had already expired on March 10, 2018 (03/10/2018).

It was anxiety inducing because it was a handicap, one that always came up when I was in very public places (like grocery stores or restaurants or university lobbies). It was like I was good to go when it came to communicating in the linguistic lingua franca, but not the mathematical and temporal one. The U.S. just does things differently when it comes to that sort of thing and we don’t place much emphasis on learning how to do it in any other way.

That said, can we talk about America for a second?

America and language

A street sign in Qatar, in Arabic and English.

Even though America’s thing is still “we’re a melting pot”, we have a habit of only encouraging people to learn, speak, and comprehend one language: English. Further still, it’s assumed that if your native tongue isn’t English, your next steps should be to learn English, otherwise, how are we going to understand you? Of course, the amount of non-English languages speckled around the country (on things like signs, menus, and products) can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, but generally speaking, America is awkwardly unaccommodating to people who don’t speak English.

One could argue that because the U.S. is a melting pot, we simply have to choose one language—a common tongue—that everyone should learn to speak. However, I feel like Qatar is its own kind of melting pot too and they offer nearly everything in at least two languages, English and Arabic. Further still, it’s uncommon for people in Qatar to be met with that aggressive “Speak English!” (or any equivalent “Speak Arabic!”) sort of commentary we hear a lot in the States targeted toward immigrants (or anyone who’s multilingual but doesn’t look “American”).

That said, the U.S. doesn’t make much effort to pursue other languages; much of the American experience with bilingualism is limited to “Peligroso” wet floor signs in grocery stores and those 4 years of language courses you have to take in middle/high school (which typically only offer French or Spanish). Then, if we zoom out and look at the world scene, there are a lot of countries full of citizens that speak more than one language. What I mean is that America is way behind when it comes to language (and there are a list of interconnected reasons for that). Go Google it when you have a chance.

In conclusion

Even though I had an easy enough time when it came to communicating, I still had moments of anxiety, confusion, and feelings of inadequacies. The metric system, military time, random Arabic tossed around, or even being in a group conversation and suddenly having everyone switch to Arabic (leaving me to stay silent and stare at babies, dogs, or my phone) was hard to deal with sometimes. Despite these moments though, I appreciated being surrounded in the new linguistic environment Qatar provided. It’s one of the branches on the “widen your perspective by travelling the world” tree and sometimes that kind of growth comes with growing pains.


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