Mother Tongue

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 stall holders since most of them come from a South Asian country.  A young guy with pleasant manners and a slim build serving us at a particular stall looked distinctly Bangladeshi.”Where are you from?” I asked in Urdu.”Bangladesh,” he answered, careful not to make any eye contact whilst showing me a handbag.

“I’m Bangladeshi too!” I said in Bengali.

His face lit up.

He looked at us both as he 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 or comfortable with a person 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 Bengali in between me translating to 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.  When I heard this, I put the pair of earrings I was holding in my hand back on the stand because I knew he wouldn’t take money for them.  I politely declined his offer of a gift, as is expected in our culture.  He carried on insisting, as is expected in our culture and placed a hair clamp and some scrunchies in my bag for free.

“Sister, come again if you need anything” he said as we left.  I almost cried.

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

It’s times like this that I really appreciate connecting with people who speak my mother tongue.

© Rabia Bashir 2013

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