On my first
trip to Japan, in 1982, I sat on the plane and tried
to memorize some key sentences from the Japan Air Lines phrase book. One of
them that struck me as a good one to know had to do with telling parents that
their children were very cute.
At the time
of this trip, though, I had had no formal instruction in Japanese. So as I
sat there and continually repeated Kodomo wa totemo kawai desu, I had
no knowledge of Japanese grammar and, therefore, was clueless as to which
word referred to “child,” which one was “cute,” which was “your.” In due time,
though, I was able to try out my newfound knowledge, and rejoiced in the delight
of parents who understood perfectly what I was saying! Then they would tell
me how well I spoke Japanese. (If only they knew!)
This last week,
with my limited knowledge of Hassaniya, I found that the same principle holds
true with having learned to say Mbareck lay-ee-duh. It’s the greeting
that people use to wish each other a good Tabaski feast. And even though I
am not sure of what I am saying – don’t have the grammar, am sketchy on the
pronunciation, and am totally lacking and understanding of the religious and
cultural contexts – I do know that it got a positive reaction from people
I have found
that the difference between celebrating a holiday at home and here has largely
to do with the missing context. At home, for example, mention Thanksgiving
and any adult can draw upon a lifetime of memories that give the day its multifaceted
meaning: going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house as a child, Thanksgiving art
projects in school, shopping, preparing, traveling long or short distances,
the first Thanksgiving since a loved one died, the first one as being part
of a new couple. All over the United States, it is a nationally recognized and understood event, with
all its cultural components that may or may not include a formal dinner, a
football game, extended family, a worship service, and a long weekend.
But any holiday
as celebrated in a new country is missing its context for any newcomer. When
I heard that Tabaski was coming, I knew that it will be a day off, that there
will be feasts, and that I would be welcome to visit the homes of any families
I knew so that I could share a festive meal. But two Tabaskis are not much
of a history or storehouse of memories when compared to fifty-seven Thanksgivings.
I guess Mamadou
the Tailor just wanted to be sure I would come, so he called me early in the
week to invite me to visit his family for Tabaski. I showed up early in the
afternoon. There were relatively few guests at the house during the day –
something that Saidou noticed. He commented that he really enjoys having a
lot of people come to the house, as they had for his wedding or for other
By the time
I left, about 4:30 in the afternoon, I had stayed the
longest of anyone who had shown up. That didn’t stop Mamadou and the others
from complaining that I was leaving too early, though. I asked them if they
thought that sharing was important, and they told me yes, they did. So I told
them that the time had come to share me with other people, as I had other
houses to visit so that I could greet people and wish them Mbareck lay-ee-duh.
That did the trick, as they realized that it was an important day for
meeting and greeting.
The next day,
I paid a visit to the home of Salif and his family, who are relatives of Ibrahima
and Julie in San Francisco.
I hadn’t seen them since just before my trip to Mali.
Since I lost Salif’s phone number along with my phone, I hadn’t called and
they didn’t know I was coming. I stayed about an hour and then moved along.
During the entire
week leading up to the holiday, the skies had been overcast, as it had been
most of the previous month. Thursday, the sun broke through and has been shining
all day every day since.
My English Conversation
Club class at the Nouakchott English Center began again last week. (I had not taught it during the quarter
that included Ramadan because it takes place from 5:00 to 7:00
PM, which is not a
good time to be teaching to students who have been fasting all day!)
So far, there
are eleven students who have signed up for the class, seven of whom have been
in previous classes I have taught there. My new material is from Chicken
Soup for the Traveler’s Soul, a collection that offers lots of pieces
written by people dealing with issues about multicultural visits and experiences.
Our first reading
was a one-pager by Maya Angelou, writing about the importance of respect for
and awareness of other people’s languages. It gave the students plenty to
talk about during the session. Discussion was dominated by the seven students
who had been in the class before. I think they felt comfortable in the setting,
and they were good role models for the new enrollees.
At ISERI, Bedine
has moved his desk from a private office into the computer lab, making the
lab his office now. I asked him if it meant that students will now be able
to come in and use the computers more frequently, so that they can review
what they have learned in their English lesson. He said, “Not yet.”
week fell off a little bit, as some students may have left town early to get
to their homes to celebrate Tabaski.
son of the director of ISERI came in to use one of the computers while the
women’s class was in the lab. An adult male who came with him catered to his
needs, leaving to fetch him a notebook and pen when he needed it. I asked
Bedine who that was working with him. The answer: “His driver.”
Having the four
back-to-back classes is not much of a problem for me because I am not very
busy during the sessions. Most of the students who have questions express
them in Arabic to Bedine. It makes me a bit superfluous in the lab, except
for the odd times when I can help people with their pronunciation. It looks
like this is what needs to be done, though, so I am here to do it.