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From the Editor's Desk: Expat Diaries
June 20, 2019 | 9:45 AM
by Charles Lavery
 
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Hello? ... Hello? ... Yes, hello? ... Hello? ... Yes, tell me ... Hello?”

Every expat living in Oman has had this conversation, over the phone. It doesn’t matter who is on the other end; this is the way it always starts. When I hear the first “hello”, my heart sinks to my boots and all I want to say is ‘goodbye’.

I even tried starting with Salam Allahkum but that only resulted in a pause as they processed this greeting, decided that I wasn’t an Arabic speaker, and pressed on with the “hello” standard.

A time and motion study into my fielding of these calls — of which there have been many — would result in a damning report of several hundred man-hours lost to verbal ping-pong over the course of a year.



Speaking Scottish-English doesn’t help. In fact, it simply adds another layer of anguish to the already brimming pit of despair. Home delivery drivers, please accept my deepest apologies. Two hungry toddlers and the food delayed by 30 minutes does not a happy Scotsman make...and then the phone rings, and it begins again.

“Hello...?”



My wife has taken to leaping off the couch and violently wrenching the phone from my grasp, as she somehow manages to be understood, and converses in a language alien to my ear, even though it is still English.

“Hello, boss. Yes, tell me?” starts a conversation that ends in the driver arriving within minutes with the much awaited food. It’s even still hot. Her directions include such terms as “come right side” and “inside road” and “straight straight”...and my mind boggles in confusion. I have even tried to adopt this approach, but when I start the

conversation with, “Hello, boss, yes, tell me”, the same deathly silence fills my ear from the other side and, after what is in reality a few ticks of the clock but feels like a lifetime lost in space, I hear it again: “hello?”

Aaaaaaaarrrrrgggghhhh.

One poor chap called my cellphone no less than six times on the trot, as I was trying to shower and get dressed, and only stopped the Lionel Ritchie refrain when I threatened him with letters, rather than actual words. “R.O.P.!” I bellowed down the phone. He didn’t call back.

In no way do I say that the fault lies with the people on the other end of the phone. I believe the fault lies entirely at my door. Monolinguistic and Scottish to boot, I am a product of white, lazy, colonial attitudes towards language. I was taught Italian at school. Italian!

I suppose I could respond to these calls with ‘buon giorno’ or ‘ciao bella’ but I suspect nothing ‘bueno’ would come of it.

Most expats here can speak two or three languages. It is only the‘white’ expats who rely on, indeed insist upon, English. I am trying to learn Arabic. My wife thinks Malayalam might be better.

Everyone else speaks to each other, with little or no issue. Omanis can switch from Arabic to Hindi, Malayalam, you name it. Most expats can too. Just not white expats, and certainly not too many Scottish expats. There are some honourable exceptions to this rule.

One young Englishman I know can speak Omani Arabic so perfectly that Omanis are actually wowed by him when he speaks. He has a huge social media following and most of them are Omanis. In the main, though, the Arabic employed by white expats stops after hello and thanks. Omanis, ever accommodating, will effortlessly switch to English, just to save our blushes. I should really try to save theirs[email protected]

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