Mother Tongue

I just got back from some late night shopping at a souk here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.   As usual, my husband and I spoke in Urdu to the stallholders (because most of them come from a South Asian country).  We were stood at a cheap and colourful market stall brimming with bags, belts, and other accessories. A young dark-skinned guy with pleasant manners was serving us, and looked distinctly Bangladeshi.”Where are you from?” I asked in Urdu.”Bangladesh,” he answered, careful not to make any eye contact whilst passing me a handbag.

“I’m Bangladeshi too!” I said in my Sylheti dialect.

His face lit up.

He looked at us, back and forth, and spoke with a huge smile.  “I’ve been working on this stall for six years and you’re the first Bangladeshi woman I’ve met as a customer!”

Feeling an instant connection with someone doesn’t happen very often but when it does, as it did tonight, it feels amazing!  I felt as though I’d inherited another brother; I wanted to hug him.

We chatted in our differing dialects of Bengali, and in-between, I translated for my Pakistani husband.

My new Bengali brother said it felt good to be speaking in his own language and insisted on giving me a gift.  I put the pair of earrings I was holding in my hand back on the stand.  I politely declined his kind offer. He carried on insisting. Finally, he placed a hair clamp and some scrunchies in my bag for free.

“Sister, come again if you need anything,” he said as we began to walk away.  I almost cried leaving him there.

A lot of immigrant workers, especially those doing menial jobs here, often live in cramped conditions, are expected to work long hours and are refrained from going on leave to their respective countries for long periods. I’m guessing he hasn’t been able to visit his family in Bangladesh in the six years he mentioned.

It’s times like this that I appreciate being able to talk in my mother tongue. Connecting with people, heart to heart, through the language we share is priceless.

© Rabia Bashir 2013

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