Originally posted Mar. 7th
For some reason, I start out with the premise that I can learn Arabic just by hanging out with the Saudi boys on campus. It’s not that hard- they say everything with their hands and their eyebrows. Or at least, it’s not that hard until I realize that several minutes have gone by and I haven’t understood anything. Ali can switch between Arabic and English pretty handily. Yossef cannot. I often say things slower and louder, as if I am visiting Saudi Arabia as a tourist.
Do not let Yossef fool you, though. He knows more English than he lets on. Apparently, English words make a lot more sense when there’s a lot of Arabic around it. For instance, Yossef does not know the words “dog” or “sandwich.” But get him on the phone and all of the sudden, he knows things like “double major.”
I kidded him today that we should just switch to Arabic. I said, “salaam alaikum.” He said “Akbar.” I said, “you have now reached the end of my Arabic.” Everyone laughed except Yossef, who looked on quizzically. When it was translated for him, he nearly fell off a park bench.
These boys are one of the best parts of my day. The fact that they accept me for who I am and just let me hang out with them is a miracle. I don’t know that they realize I am a gay person (hell, I’m not even sure if they know I’m female), and I’m not going to tell them. It might ruin what we have… and what we have is a dorky white female trying to learn about their culture because I’ve watched “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”
Yossef and I have more in common than the rest of the boys, which is sad because I don’t know how to talk to him. In Saudi, he works in the king’s palace as tech support, which Ali told me because Yossef wanted to know where I worked as well. These friendships are easy and unencumbered, because I’m not really part of the crew. I’m the lady that knows English. Yossef says that it’s fun to practice. It will be more fun for me when I don’t have to have Ali translate because Yossef’s verb agreement is upside down and backwards.
I call them “boys” even though they are married or betrothed. This is because there is a school on campus called “Pacific International Academy,” which is a preparatory school before college to give them a leg up on language. They’re young, almost painfully so to be so encumbered with life- the balance between their lives in Saudi and their lives in Portland is difficult. Salim’s mother doesn’t drive, and he takes her everywhere. More than once I have heard Salim talking her off the ceiling because she is losing her mind over her baby being so far away and unable to take her to the market. I told him to watch the video “Why Saudi Women Shouldn’t Drive” to make him feel better. He responded by pulling out his phone, looking up the video, and snorting Mountain Dew through his nose and across the room.
They are also mischievous in their own right. The first time I met Yossef, I told him that I liked his shoes. Ali translated that into “she likes the way your wife dresses you.” Then it was my turn for soda to come out of my nose.
Being with them is a mind worm. I wonder what will happen to them when they leave PIA. I wonder if they will stay here long enough to finish a degree. I wonder if Salim’s mother will chill out long enough to let her baby fly, because he is so attached to her that there is no way he won’t go back *eventually.* I worry that they’re getting enough out of school to really make a difference in their English… not because *I* want them to learn it, but because it’s so important to them.
So that’s what goes through my mind as the lunch sun beats down on us and Yossef is leaning in the grass, singing ancient Arabic tunes to a drum beat no one else hears.