Language was always going to be my biggest problem here on this Desert adventure. Though lots of people speak Spanish (the colonial language of Western Sahara) the language everyone speaks is Hassaniya, a particular Arabic dialect of which I knew a total of about three words before my arrival six weeks ago.
It always takes me a little while to get comfortable speaking in Spanish after time away from using it every day. As most people who speak more than one language will tell you, you need to wait until you get that ‘click’: when you stop translating in your head and it just starts to flow. And the dreams start coming in Spanish. And then the sleep talking.
The time it normally takes me to get that click back is between one and two weeks but that’s when I’m in an environment totally immersed in the language, with words seeping into my brain through osmosis in the street, the shops, from car radios, the television, reading newspapers and billboards etc… And slowly I can start unlocking that filing cabinet at the back of my brain where I’ve stored all those words I learnt in my degree and on my year abroad.
But here, I’m the instigator of the Spanish conversations. With the exception of the ubiquitous “hola”s I get in the street from all the children, men shouting from cars and the adults I pass in the street. It’s the first time in my life I’ve been mistaken for a Spaniard, by the way. Normally the paleness and the blondeness give me away, followed closely by my Spanglish accent. But in these parts, foreign is usually Spanish.
Only a handful of the Saharawis I have met have more vocabulary in Spanish than me and lots of people speak a version of Spanish which means we’re forever misunderstanding one another as our collective mistakes get us confused. Some of their mistakes have become an integrated part of the Spanish they use though (let’s think of it like the “how am you?” of the English dialect of my home region). So, I’m the one unlocking the filing cabinet all by myself and I’ve had to sit down to do some vocab collecting from the internet on a number of occasions. Oh, the shame!
But now we’re six weeks in and I have finally clicked back into speaking (very simply) in my second tongue, I realise it’s not about whether I understand the language people are using to talk to me but the meaning of their words: there is so much that doesn’t translate to my way of thinking, to my experiences of the world and so many things that we just seem to understand the totally opposite way round. And there isn’t language enough in the world to explain to people that what they’re saying just isn’t the way I know things to be true. And people can look at me a little blankly when I say: that’s not how it is where I am from.
Like when I say that I have a sore throat and my family insist that a drink of coke mixed with milk and additional sugar will do the trick and I tell them that both my Doctor and my Dentist would tell me that would kill me, rot my teeth and make my sore throat worse. And when I suggest washing your mouth out with salt water to soothe a toothache (unsurprisingly, it’s a common problem) and they look at me like I have suggested taking all their teeth out as a remedy. As a consequence I’ve learnt the word ‘gundi’ (spelling: writer’s own) which seems to be all forms of ill health and seems to be caused by everything I would think good for you. No amount of internet-researched vocabulary is going to get us to understand each other on these points.
My granny has always said that she thinks all the wars in the world have been caused by problems with translation. The things people believe their religious texts to say when they have been translated from oral histories to written scriptures, when they have been translated from one language to another to another. When diplomacy has to be conducted through translators. And so much meaning can be lost in that translation, for so much of a language is in tone, style of format, delivery and the historical interpretations of words and their evolution. So if it can cause war, misunderstandings regarding personal healthcare advice are definitely on the line.
As always, you have to learn the cultural practices that are part of language. I spent a whole meeting with a group of women who were communicating with me through a translator thinking they were totally angry at me and thinking to themselves “who is this young upstart?” This was based on the expressionless and what I would consider slightly moody demeanour I seemed to read from their faces and body language. But this went against every positive thing that was coming out of my translator’s mouth to the point where I thought he was just telling me what I wanted to hear from the women or that he hadn’t learnt any negative constructions of sentences in English. Lots of aspects of body language are far from being universal and I need to start reading differently here.
In other news, I’m told I’m beautiful (“zwayna”) all the time. This is of course very kind and quite a new experience to be feeling that everyone considers me ‘exotic’ (particularly when I have been looking my worst). But they think I’m very rude when my British self-deprecation shrugs it off and laughs with an additional, “yeah, yeah, yeah”. I did, however, find it hard not to be offended when someone said to me “You’re so beautiful, but why don’t you wear more make-up?”. This was due to the fact I had not painted my eyebrows and added whitening foundation to my face during the wedding getting ready ritual the night before. I just said I’d forgotten to bring any with me. I couldn’t find any way to tell her that such a question was in no way a compliment where I am from.
When I’d also been asked “do you know how to put make-up on?” by a woman who had wanted me to do hers for her that night, and replied “only the way I like to put it on” and had received a blank-faced response, I could see the understanding that we might have different ways of doing this one thing hadn’t quite registered.
We also have some hilarious conversations where either one of us uses the wrong word in Spanish. Someone asked me if I was “cansada” (tired) when they wanted to ask if I was “casada” (married) and my reply was: “Yes, of that question”. Yet another blank-faced response.
So, it’s time to move onto the pleases and the thank-yous. How angry it makes us Brits that no one in the world is even fractionally as polite as we are?! I’ve found it hard to bite my tongue as I feel ‘commanded’ to do things most of the time. (Spanish is a much more commanding language and I imagine Arabic to be so as well). I don’t actually know the word for ‘please’ in Hassaniya yet as I haven’t heard anyone use it! I think most people believe me to be ludicrous for how much I “shokran” for everything and I certainly don’t hear it from anyone in return.
But what’s the thing I learnt most quickly in Hassaniya? “Che ga let?” (“What did she say?”) and “gouli” (Tell her/Say…). So you can see what’s been happening in our house. And we are more and more starting to understand each other, despite our opposite worldviews. You get to a place where you know you’re different and you see things differently but where you can let it go and laugh it off.
So now, wish me luck for how I’m going to write a programme on gender equality and tackling gendered language and social stereotypes for primary and secondary aged children, with which I have recently been tasked. Through translation. I may not start a war, but we’re in for a bumpy ride of misunderstandings.
All spellings are my own.