He Ain't Heavy, He's My Ackhhh!

02 SEP 2004

A couple of months ago I took a drive down to Aqaba for a relaxing weekend on the Red Sea.  It was already dusk when I finally left work and began my journey.   On average, it takes about three hours to get from Amman to Jordan’s only port city.  The road is straight and in good condition.  Although it runs through the desert and I was going at night, I did not worry, for I had made the drive several times before without incident. 

Night descended upon the Hashemite Kingdom and I was an hour south of the capital when a warning message appeared on the dash of my Peugeot sedan.  “Danger!  Punctured Tire!”  My heart started racing.  Oh crap.  What was I going to do?  I was about to be stranded in the middle of the Jordanian desert.  There was no Arab Automobile Association to call, and even if there were, they wouldn’t speak English.  In Amman and Aqaba most folks speak my native tongue, but along this dark, desert highway, I was out of luck.  Now I knew why the embassy didn’t want us traveling at night.  Surely I was now at risk of being devoured by jackals or crushed by a stampede of camels or kidnapped by crazy Bedouins who would tie me up and sell me into white slavery. 

I was limping along in the right lane, white-knuckled hands clutching the wheel at 10 and 2, when, thank God, I spotted the lights of a cluster of buildings in the distance.  When I came upon them, I saw that one of the places had a stack of tires in front of it.  Miraculously I’d come across a tire repair shop.  Even more miraculously, they were still open. 

“Can you fix my tire?” I asked the man. 

“Hunh?!” he grunted in reply. 

“Do you have air?” I tried again. 

“Hunh?!”  No luck there either. 

I remembered how to say “do you have” in Arabic, but I didn’t know the word for air.  “Endeck air?” I asked. 

“Hunh?!” he grunted again, this time he stood and started towards me.  (“Oh boy,” I thought, “white slavery here I come.”) 

The only option left was to employ gestures and an onomatopoeia.  I lifted my right hand as if I were holding an air hose and asked, “Endeck psssst?” 

“Ah,” he replied, this time with a look of understanding, “Psssst!  Psssst!”  He copied my hand motion and I nodded my head in grateful agreement. 

My blood pressure decreased as my tire pressure increased.  I thanked the man (“shookran”) and moved on.  About 50 miles later, the warning light came on again, and I had to find another tire repair shop.  (It turns out there are plenty along the Desert Highway, something I’d never noticed before.)  Three more times that evening I played out the scene described above.  “Endeck pssst?  Endeck pssst?”

It was time for me to learn Arabic.

(It is worth noting that my fear of abduction was misplaced.  Every one of the men who filled my tire treated me kindly and not a single one would accept payment for their services.)

The next week, I started formal lessons with a tutor.  At first encounter, Arabic is impossible.  The letters are in no way like our alphabet and the sounds that are associated with some of them have no English counterpart.  This is especially true of the “kh” sound, which, when pronounced correctly, sounds like someone clearing a hairball out of their throat.  “Khaaa!  Khaaa!”  I feel I have to say excuse me and offer a tissue to the person in front of me every time I say it.

But, like with every new skill, practice brings familiarity.  I now know how to read and write most of the letters, though the meanings of the words they form still have me at a loss most of the time.  I practice with waiters and taxi drivers and people I meet standing in line.  It’s mostly small talk.  Hello.  How are you?  You’re not wearing a bomb are you?  That kind of thing.

I can now order breakfast and give directions to my hotel.  I understand when people ask me my name and where I live.  “Ana Jim.  Ana saakin fee Amman.”  (My name is Jim.  I live in Amman.)  I know the words for such things as airplane, banana, and fantastic; the last one being my favorite. “Moomtaz!”

The good thing about speaking a little Arabic is the smile it brings to the face of the person with whom I am interacting.  It is a sign of respect that I have taken the time to learn their language.  The problem with speaking a little Arabic is that they then speak a whole lot of Arabic back to me.  “Ana Jim.  Ana saakin fee Amman.”  To which they reply, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Khaaa! Khaaa! Khaaa!”  After wiping the phlegm off my face, I just stand there, like a camel in the headlights, wide-eyed and smiling stupidly.  “Moomtaz!” I reply, no matter what the occasion. 

I have a long way to go in my mastering this alien tongue, but I enjoy it.  Speaking even a bit of the language makes me feel less of a stranger in a strange land, and it opens up the doors to many new friendships.  If I ever get a flat tire again, I now know how to ask “Endeck al-hawwa?” to the guy at the repair shop.  But, just in case my pronunciation is off, I keep my “pssst” in reserve, and a spare in the trunk.