Sunday, August 11, 2013

First-Person Outsider

An interesting observation of language and identity politics at work on my penultimate day in Jerusalem:

The clerk at the hotel desk was an Arab Jerusalemite, more or less my age. I asked him, in English, if he could book a "nesher," for me to the airport for Saturday afternoon, using the name of the company that provides the shared taxi service between Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport. He seemed confused about what I wanted, so I circumlocuted, still in English, until I made myself clear.

"Oh," he answered me. "You mean a nayshur. You said nesher. That's something else."

I don't have any Palestinian colloquial Arabic so I don't know what either of those words means in dialect; but he clearly wanted me to use the local Arabic pronunciation and not the Hebrew pronunciation of the word.

It was too early for him to book the taxi, so I tried again after my morning at the library. This time I spoke in Hebrew, because he had seemed confused about my initial request beyond the pronunciation of the name of the taxi company. He booked the taxi and was explaining to me that even though I had asked for one at 4, the company would be running pickups at 1 and 5; and every time he wanted to emphasize something, he would repeat what he had just said, still in Hebrew, but with this very fake affected American accent on top of it. (And I should add — I don't sound like an American when I speak Hebrew.)

The whole pair of encounters was just a completely fascinating scene from a city with a really complex set of relationships between language and identity.

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