A while back, during one of our travels, we spent some brief time on a Jeep tour in the mountainous area of the United Arab Emirates, which also took us into a remote area of Oman. Our driver/guide was very familiar with the area as he had been giving tours in that area for more than 25 years. As a result, he knew many of the people who lived in the area and had a good plan of where to take us for photos.
He knew that I was particularly interested in unique architecture and photo opportunities (he had already taken me off the “beaten path” to get some great shots of some old metal gates – which you can see on the site).
After a few hours of bouncing through the rocky desert mountains, he took us onto a nice paved asphalt road with a clean yellow stripe down the center. While I have to admit, my back and various other typically unused muscles that go to work when you are bouncing in a Jeep were relieved for the break, I still felt a bit of presumptive disappointment that what we would see on a road like this would only be ordinary.
So, imagine my surprise when the nicely paved road rounded a gentle curve and ended… into the side wall of a building. Well, a small, simple mosque to be exact. We got out for a few minutes to look around (and take some photos of course). He told us he was friends with the family and they had built the little mosque for themselves at the end of the road. We were free to look around and take as many pictures as we wanted as he went through a small doorway in a smooth plastered wall to say hello to the family. As we looked around, a curious little boy his equally curious sister and an even more curious goat came out to look at us. The little boy and his sister appeared to be about 4 and 6 respectively (no idea how old the goat was).
We smiled and waved to the two children, who giggled, smiled shyly in response and slowly backed around the corner of the doorway with that universal childlike body language that can express both curiosity and cautiousness at the same time.
The goat on the other hand was not shy at all and trotted up to us, his mouth in a perpetual chewing motion. The expectant look on his face appeared to be his only expression. We had nothing on us to give him so we showed him our empty hands and continued to walk around.
After about fifteen minutes our guide came out and asked us if we were ready to go. We said we were and we climbed back into the jeep. A few minutes down the road, the way we had come, our guide slowed and asked if we wanted to go back and meet the people who lived there and visit with them. We immediately felt a mixture of wanting to and not wanting to intrude on them. He said it was no problem, that they liked visitors and insisted that we return. As her turned around, we hesitantly agreed.
Upon our return, we got out of the Jeep and decided to leave our cameras in the vehicle (it just didn’t feel right.) We followed our guide through the narrow doorway in the wall that the children had been observing us from. Within minutes, we were greeted by members of the family with smiles, hospitality, and food and drink. The mother held out a large tray of sliced melon, smiled, nodded and greeted us in Arabic. We smiled back, thanked her and took a piece of melon. Fresh, plump dates and hot aromatic Arabic coffee followed, all of which we accepted by returning their smiles with our own and “thank you”s confident that even though we did not share a common language, smiles and nods of gratitude were universal.
Our host family gestured for us to sit, and we sat on a low wall around a planter in the courtyard. After a few moments the shy children must have decided that us being on the inside of the wall made us okay now and they came quickly over to us, stood about three feet from us, and beamed with some of the warmest, most genuine smiles I have ever seen. (I am not sure where the goat was at this point. He was probably nibbling on the tire or bumper of the Jeep. )
After just a brief moment of grinning at us, the little girl must have realized that we were speaking English, and started counting. At first it felt a bit random, especially when she switched to letters in English. We soon realized that she was reciting her ABCs and 123s and was pausing for feedback from us. Once we clued in to what she was doing, we gave her our undivided attention. She recited her ABCs half way through and stopped. We smiled larger, and nodded, saying, “Yes, that is very good!” She responded with a giggle, clapping of her hands, and a little hop of excitement. Next, we were treated with her performance of 1 through 10. Our affirmation of her work was again greeted by her with even more joyous, well-earned self satisfaction.
Our guide explained that even out here, in the rural, fairly remote areas of Oman, the children learn English in schools. As I turned back to the little girl who was excitedly repeating her performance over and over with absolute glee, I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful thing human communication is on any level, but here, far from any city, people were making an effort to learn a language that was native to me and not at all to them, so that one day we might be able to communicate more effectively.
I will probably never see that family or that little girl ever again, but her unbounded enthusiasm to learn one of the most complicated, exasperating, contradictory languages in the world, and her pride in sharing what little she knew of it, touched me…
I wish her, and all of us who seek to connect to others through a common language (any language!), all the support in the World.