He points to my slightly filled water glass and says "push." I look to where he is pointing and return a questioning look. It is Ramadan. He is Muslim and hasn't had anything to eat or drink since before sunrise. I don't want to drink in front of him. My glass is in my office and I have been careful not to drink around my Muslim co-workers, but in this dry air-conditioning and outside hot/humid weather I can't make it through the day without generous amounts of water.
He is insistent, this driver/custodian of ours. Ahmed is Syrian, about my age, and until recently spoke no English. "Push" is a close enough word. I understand that he wants me to finish my water so he can clean my glass. I say "one minute" and make a shooing gesture with my hand. He leaves and I push my water and take the glass to him. The gesture, while it might seem disrespectful in some settings, is not meant to be, nor received as such. We are often reduced to clear sign language.
Our conversations are very limited and usually result in some stage of frustration: his or mine. The Arabic classes I took at the beginning of my assignment here are of little help in our interactions. My age (and admittedly short-timers attitude) renders my memory pretty much useless for learning Arabic, short of the short list of typical greetings, popular menu items and a few miscellaneous words.
Each day on my fifteen minute ride to and from work we exchange pleasantries and stumble through a few minutes of disjointed "conversation" before I put us both out of our mysery and go to checking work through my iPhone. He gets very enthusiastic when we talk about his home country, Syria, where he has offered to take me in a year’s time when "all to be OK." Right now there is artillery fire in his city but he is sure in a year’s time it will be safe enough for visitors like me. I don't think I will try it. He is the only brother of six sisters, all of whom he helps support from his meager salary here. One morning he was talking on his cell phone with his mother in Syria. I could hear gunfire in the background. I say "that is scary." He says "yes. We have many." Something is lost in the translation.
He likes to talk about his shisha, the water pipe for flavored tobaccos that is popular in the gulf countries. Only he "drinks shisha" and asks if I do to. Smoke is a verb he hasn't learned yet. So I admit to a fondness for drinking shisha and he is all over that. We have a long conversation about drinking shisha, only part of which I understood. I think he makes his own apple flavored mix. I think he has seven shisha pipes at home in Syria, one he keeps in the car for trips to the mountains.
We have had a few misqueues where a request for car pickup or meeting place was misunderstood. He also will never tell me if he thinks he is more than 15 minutes away from where I need to be picked up. When he says "fifteen minutes, miss Jennifer" I have to ask him where he really is so I can decide if I will take a cab instead. I learned this the hard way. Fifteen minutes is often a half hour or 45 minutes unless it really is 15 minutes.
He has started to play an English speaking radio station from Dubai in the car when I am in it, rather than the Arabic news and music that he has on when I am not in. I appreciate this gesture and try to communicate that it is not necessary but he is generous to a fault along these lines. Sometimes the music is very foulmouthed rap with lyrics that make even me uncomfortable. I am embarrassed to think that he thinks this is what I listen to until I remember that he has no idea what images the words in the "music" conjure up. He happily taps along to "I Like My Mouth Down There" as I wince at the implications. I have heard some shocking music piped through the malls in this country where men and women are separated and covered up. Music I wouldn't want in my home back home is blasted over the loud speakers of the department stores. In my prudish middle-age I am shocked to know that these songs exist, let alone are played in public in this conservative corner of the world. I hope that this is not the English that he will pick up on in his quest to learn our language. Though "push" would probably work to translate this as well. Though different gestures required.