I know you have all been waiting for a story about my first language blunder. First, I must give you a quick bit of background:
Today, we are going to learn about dogs in Islam (“Islam” is the proper way to refer to the religion practiced by Muslims. You can also say “Muslim culture”. Never say “Muslimism”). There are no dogs in Saudi Arabia. Though the Qu’ran (holy book containing the words of the Prophet Muhammed…kinda like the bible, but not really) emphasizes kindness to all animals, dogs are considered “dirty” in Muslim culture. Touching a dog voids “wudu” or the washing of one’s self with water prior to each of the 5 daily prayers (salah).
Since I have started working on the ward, I have immersed myself in learning the Arabic language. Throughout my day, I write down all the new words I learn, and every night, I practice what I have learned that day. I am proud to say that I can now ask any Arab if they have moved their bowels today, yesterday, or the day before yesterday, whether they have had any diarrhea, whether or not they are constipated, and if they would like any medication to assist in whatever dysfunctional bowel pattern they may be experiencing. Unfortunately this wealth of knowledge does not transfer well to communication with general public (e.g. at shopping malls, with cab drivers, etc). I should also make clear that while I can get a basic point across, I generally speak either in very short sentences with devastatingly poor grammar, or in single words punctuated with animated gesticulations to get my point across (the latter method was not always well received before I learned all my bowel-related Arabic).
Last week, my proud new word was “kolb” which means “heart”. The “K” sound in Arabic is quite soft, and to a Westerner’s ears can almost be mistaken for a “G”. That day, I was happily doing my morning assessments in my patients’ rooms, and when it came time to use my newly acquired vocabulary, I would point at their chest and say “kolb?” as in “can I listen to your heart?”. By the third patient (though I was telling myself that it was a cultural thing that I was no doubt misinterpreting), I could not shake the feeling that I was getting a little bit of hostility. It wasn’t until later on that day when I was practicing my Arabic with one of my Lebanese co-workers that I realized my embarrassing blunder. Apparently, I had been pronouncing my “K” sound TOO softly, and it was coming out as a fairly audible “G”. While “kolb” means “heart”, unfortunately “golb” means “dog”…in case there was any doubt as to whom I was referring when I uttered the insult, I must remind you that I was pointing at my patients’ chest while saying it. As an aside, I also found out later that pointing at someone in any capacity in the Muslim culture is also insulting. Penalty box for the Canuck, eh?
Next we are going to have a quick lesson about Ramadan. Ramadan is an annual month long dawn to dusk fast, the purpose being religious cleansing, learning sacrifice, self restraint, and humility. Eating and drinking is permitted from dusk to dawn only. There is increased time for prayer, and the general feel of life in Riyadh is even more conservative than usual. Mobs of Mutawa (religious police) are on every street corner forcing even Western women to cover up completely, and there are serious consequences for interactions between single men and women. Though foreigners are not expected to fast, we are expected to respect it, and we cannot eat or drink in public.
I will now mischievously report to you that 9 days into the holy month of Ramadan, I have ended my 2-month “fast”. Bike fast, that is. I had not been on a road bike since my mildly demoralizing experience July 18th at the Tour de Gastown. I was actually quite happy to be off the bike for the first month, but the feeling quickly abated and I have been dying to get out ever since I found out about the bike club in Riyadh. I have ordered myself a brand new bike (a Trek Madone 4.7 WSD for those of you who care) from Bahrain, and I have a loaner bike for the month of September from my Irish friend who is back home getting married (thanks, Em!).