Speaking Arabic…the Desi Way


Photo by Syed Owais Ali

By Nayab Malik

Photo by Syed Owais Ali
Photo by Syed Owais Ali


Wallah! I’m telling you that’s what happened!”


“I don’t believe you. Khalas.”


One would think this was a conversation between two Arabic speaking individuals. Surprisingly though, non-Arabs around campus regularly use Arabic words and phrases when they speak.


Education City houses more than 50 nationalities and it seems like the different cultures have all worn off on each other. The strongest example of this is the Arab-Desi transfusion. For those of you who have not seen this curious phenomenon, I will explain: Education City students who come from South Asia (especially India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and speak either Hindi or Urdu are called “Desis,” while the term “Arab” includes anyone from the Middle Eastern and North African regions.


 The Arab-Desi blending is most noticeable in two areas: food and language.


 This is a common sight in the residence halls in EC: students wandering in search of karak, the hot, creamy and distinctively flavored beverage sold in almost every cafeteria in Qatar. This masala (spiced) tea has its origins in South Asia, where a similar drink is made with ginger and cardamom. Desis call it “chai,” which is the Hindi and Urdu word for tea. However, regardless of the presence of chai in Desi culture, one will inevitably find a Desi student in search of karak, not chai.


“I don’t think [karak] is a Qatari thing. It’s not the classic Arabic gahwa (traditional coffee). It’s a special kind of tea,” says Muhammad Siyab, a 21-year-old third year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.  He adds that it’s the perfect drink to have when he’s out with friends and has become part of his everyday routine.


In cafeterias around EC, you will also find students eating green salad or other meals with dollops of hummus and olive oil. It’s especially amusing to see students carrying plates piled high with all sorts of cuisine: rice and curry (Desi food), with falafel or toum (garlic sauce) on the side.


All it really takes is for you to sit down and listen to the people around you. You can hear the complex mixture of Arab-Desi culture in casual conversations. Almost every student around weaves common Arab phrases such as aadi (okay), haram (forbidden), yaani (like) and khalas (enough) into English, Hindi, or Urdu, depending on their nationality.


Yaani, I use khalas I lot in my daily dialogue!” says Sanjeet Sahni, an Indian freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. “I have so many Arab friends, I’ve been assimilated into the Arab culture. I use their phrases everyday.”


Speaking of language transfusions, it’s not just Desis who have picked up Arab culture. It works both ways.


“Urdu has become part of my everyday language. I use the word ‘yaar’ (friend) all the time. I learn these words from my Desi friends,” says Mounir Sheikh, a business administration major at CMU-Q.“As a Lebanese native, I’ve been raised with other Arabs. But since I’ve joined EC, I’ve met Desi people and have picked up their language,” he says.


So the next time you hear snippets of a conversation with Arab-Desi phrases, don’t be surprised. It’s likely you’re using some yourself.  Wallah, it’s quite interesting to see how these two cultures have mixed so smoothly.

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