Mbareck lay-ee-duh


            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 greeted.

            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 holidays.

            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.”

            Attendance last week fell off a little bit, as some students may have left town early to get to their homes to celebrate Tabaski.

            The teenage 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.