One of my favorite things to do in the Middle East was to wander around with my husband (except he wasn't my husband then) and find people to talk to. We talked with a muezzin in Nazareth, beggars outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, spice sellers in Cairo, and more.
I love to learn new language because it opens up a new world of people to talk to. You don't have to know a lot of a language to start opening those doors. One of my favorite travel stories goes something like this (from Vikram's Seth From Heaven Lake- the story is told much better in the book):
The author, a man from India, was traveling through Xinjiang Province in China, a Uyghur area. Uyghur is written in the Arabic script, as is Urdu which is closely related to Hindi. He stops to buy a cap from an Uyghur shopkeeper and they are able to communicate in Chinese through the shopkeeper's grandson who learned Chinese at school. The shopkeeper doesn't quite believe or understand that the man is from India till he (the man) writes "Hindustan" in Arabic script. The shopkeeper's face light up when he reads the writing. He then proceeds to make the cap stronger by reinforcing the seams, for no extra charge. The man from India leaves with a salaamu alaykum.
We have had experiences like this here, but not as often as in the Middle East since we're busy with children and work. But today we went to Osh Bazaar to pick up a tushuk and passed by a shoe repair section. My husband stopped to have his shoes reglued and we started chatting with the repairman and another customer. We started off in Russian, then the other customer turned out to know a bit of English, about as much English as we know Russian. Since he is from Osh, he knew some Uzbek, so we traded our Uzbek phrases back and forth. A couple of teenagers walked by and someone mentioned Arabic, so we started speaking Arabic to the teenagers. We finished off the conversation with my husband reciting the first sura of the Qur'an. As always, we are proclaimed to be Muslim at that point even though we assure them that we are not (we're not trying to be deceptive here). The shoe repairman refused any payment and sent us on our way with his hand over his heart.
15 June 2012
Something to Love in Kyrgyzstan a Day: A Common Language
This is from February of 2006: