Adib Malas looked like he’d been speaking in public for years. He was funny and comfortable before an audience of a couple of dozen Nelsonites, many old enough to be his grandparents. His English was nearly perfect. Not bad for a 19-year-old Syrian who first encountered western culture only a year and a half ago.
The Selkirk College student was teaching basic Arabic to some Nelson residents who belong to three different groups hoping to bring refugees to town. The three 90-minute sessions ran last week at the Nelson United Church.
“The lessons are fun but humbling,” said class member Lindsay Robertson. “Adib is very engaging. He is a natural teacher. Everyone was involved, but not intimidated.”
Malas has taught a few Arabic lessons before, in Castlegar. The main difficulty, he says, is that Arabic has consonant sounds that are completely foreign to European languages.
”We have no ability to make those sounds,” said Robertson.
Malas appeared to enjoy interacting with his students. He said he’s grateful to the group, and surprised by their commitment.
“I love it,” he said. “And it is amazing that people so far from a crisis are responding with such great care to a huge problem.”
Robertson said the training, which amounts to three 90-minute sessions, is largely symbolic.
“We can show them that we care with a ‘hello’ in Arabic,” she said.
But it’s also practical. If the hosts can learn only a few practical words, that will help. And she said Malas’ training sessions are not just about language, but include personal stories and cultural advice.
“He told us that the [local] men will have to talk to the [refugee] men, and the women to the women,” Robertson said. “He said they might have trouble crossing gender lines. He was saying this to a group of ‘liberal, progressive’ people and I could just feel us all checking our cultural biases and expectations.”
Talking with the Star later, Malas confirmed this and said if a man talks to a woman, he likely won’t look directly at her, nor she at him.
“If you are a [western] female and you start a conversation with a male, it is not disrespectful in the Syrian culture to look away. It is customary to do so, because males are not supposed to touch females or look at them. The same applies to females if they are looking away or hiding behind doors, that is customary. It is not disrespectful in any sense.”
Malas was born in Syria and spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia. He’s in the rural pre-medicine program at Selkirk.
Asked what was the most challenging adjustment to Canadian society, considering the very repressive social norms in Saudi Arabia, he replied “There was a huge cultural shock when I came here. I came from Saudi Arabia which is more segregated than Syria and had to adjust from a place where you are seeing zero skin of females. It was less pronounced for me than for other people because I had a lot of access to the Internet and media.
“But I had to learn how to be casual around women, how to live in a society that is not male-dominated, and to understand that males and females are equal. I feel like I have done this. I enjoyed being in a class taught by Linda Harwood in Selkirk College where she focuses on subjects related to feminism and that has been very helpful for me.”
So here he is, embedded in western culture, joking with his male and female students about their mangling of Arabic consonant sounds, laughing at them and with them.
“We all feel lucky to have spent time with this very interesting young man,” said Robertson. “It’s been an honour for us.”