Perfect English

     I’ve written before of my flailing attempts to learn a bit of Arabic so I can chat with the Syrian clerks who run the cash registers at my neighborhood stores.
     I’ve pretty much mastered marhaba: hello – shlonak: how you doing? – Mli’ach: fine – and shukran: thanks.
     Last time I went in I asked Sam to remind me of the last thing he’d taught me – a three-word phrase for something I couldn’t remember in English either.
     Sam is a friendly guy. But this time he shook his head about a quarter of an inch to each side, then rolled his eyes toward the other customer in the shop and toward his boss, sitting in a chair in the corner.
     The boss eventually went outside for a smoke with the customer, and Sam leaned over the counter and said, “Hey, man, you can’t be talking Arabic to me anymore.”
     I said, and I quote: “What?”
     Sam looked toward the door.
     “A customer heard me talking Arabic with another friend and complained to the boss. I guess the guy thought we were talking about him. So I’m not supposed to talk Arabic anymore.”
     I said – and you can quote me on this – “What?”
     “The boss doesn’t even speak it anymore,” Sam said. “He’s been here for seven years.”
     He looked out the door again, where the boss and the other customer were talking and gesticulating.
     “You can talk it with me,” Sam said. “But not when there’s other customers around. Or the boss.”
     “Cheez,” I said. “So apart from that, shlonak?”
     “Mlyah,” Sam said. “Means the same, like mli’ach. But you have to say it fast.”
     “Mlyah,” I said.
     “Right. Perfect.”
     “Well,” I said, buying a lottery ticket that would not win me $400 million, “shukran.
     Sam said something, but the boss came in, so I don’t know what it was.
     On the way home I stopped at a vegetable market two blocks from my house. I waited in line as the young, pretty cashier lamented to an older man, in perfect Spanish, that she had never learned to speak Spanish.
     I’m a snoop, by nature and trade, and butted in.
     “Excuse me,” I said in Spanish. “I couldn’t help but hear you say you can’t speak Spanish. But you’re speaking perfect Spanish.”
     “No,” she said in English. “I wish my father had taught it to me so I could speak Spanish.”
     I addressed the older man in Spanish. “Sounds like she’s speaking Spanish to me,” I said.
     The three of us then carried on a conversation about language, in two languages. To be polite, once in a while they would say a sentence in English for me. To be polite, I pretended I didn’t know the Spanish word for eggplant, though I know perfectly well what it is – verengena.
     I told the young woman and the old man about the conversation I had just had with my Syrian friend. The three of us agreed, in two languages, that it’s ugly for people to resent people who speak a language the ugly person can’t understand.
     “God don’t like ugly,” the woman said. In perfect English.

%d bloggers like this: