When the Gulf War broke out in 1991, Nasser Isleem was an undergraduate student in West Virginia. While in America, Isleem felt that the war had created political tension and a lack of awareness about the Arab world, so as the president of his school’s international student association, he started teaching Arabic within his community.
Isleem taught Arabic to faculty, community members, and interested students from different backgrounds and age groups. He wanted to share more about his roots in the Middle East.
“I feel the need to reach out and build bridges,” said Isleem, now a senior lecturer of Arabic at NYU Abu Dhabi and author of Arabic language learning materials.
Born in Gaza, Isleem was exposed mainly to Egyptian dialects of Arabic through the media and was only introduced to Gulf dialects playing soccer in the US. Listening to his teammates speak Gulf region Arabic piqued his curiosity.
Emirati Dialect Rich in History
“Language is one of the main pillars of this beautiful culture,” Isleem said. “Without it is like losing a limb. It’s an important part of the entire culture.”
In fact, Emirati dialect can help shed some light on the UAE’s past, he added. Some words have been adapted from British, African, and Indian traders.
No Textbooks for Expats
Isleem’s idea to compile a book about the Emirati dialect came about through casual conversations with NYU Abu Dhabi workmates about the lack of textbooks for non-Arab speakers.
After months of research, and with the help of colleague Ayesha Al Hashemi, who was then a coordinator for Arabic culture at NYUAD, a textbook for Emirati dialect, Ramsah, was born.
A Collection of Daily Conversations
Through classroom and personal interactions at community events in the UAE, Isleem picks out commonly used expressions that he observes from daily conversations.
“I always try to listen and pick up the most common expressions,” Isleem added. He believes words used frequently in daily Emirati conversations are essential words for learners to know.
His second book on Emirati dialect, Yalla Narmis, contains more than 2,000 common Emirati words introducing beginners to how the language is spoken in everyday contexts. The book explores linguistic and cultural aspects of Emirati culture.
We need to make the Emirati dialect as a living language, given the fact that English is becoming more popular with the younger Emirati generation.
Besides writing books, Isleem also spearheads a unique three-week course called Colloquial Arabic: Emirati Dialect. This January Term course takes place in Al Ain where students pledge to converse only in Arabic for the three weeks.
Isleem hopes his work will spark more efforts to preserve the Emirati dialect especially in the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. “We still have work to do to preserve this beautiful culture and tradition.”