Learning a language, making a friend

Nicole James | Arabian Peninsula

“You speak Arabic better than my grandmother,” Khadija* told Lisa* during a spontaneous afternoon visit. It wasn’t the first time Lisa, a long-term worker in the Arabian Peninsula (AP) had received a compliment on her communication abilities.

Many workers in the AP have discovered open doors for ministry in an English-speaking context, but Lisa* said learning language was top priority for her from the beginning when she moved to the Middle East. “I didn’t want to live here without knowing Arabic,” she explained. “A lot of times you’re treated as a tourist until you say two words of Arabic, then their interest completely changes.”

Lisa also didn’t want to live in an Arab country without spending time with locals.

Diving in

When Lisa arrived in the AP, she moved in with a host family during the first five months of her language school. “That opened a lot of doors to meet people, to have new contacts, to see how they appreciate if you try their language,” she said.

The experience was challenging, she recalled, but it helped her learn Arabic and it connected her, indirectly, to Marwa*, one of her closest local friends.

One evening, Lisa accompanied her host family to another home in the community. That night Marwa hadn’t talked at all. “She was the daughter-in-law living in the house…She was just bringing tea,” Lisa remembered. “My Arabic was non-existent, but I felt so drawn to her.”

Later, Lisa returned to visit the family again, this time, connecting with Marwa. “It was like two magnets,” she described. Marwa using her limited English to say she wanted to be friends, Lisa reciprocating in simple Arabic. From then on the family knew her visits there were meant for Marwa.

Doing life

Because the AP adheres to gender-specific social interactions, all of Lisa’s friends in her host country are women. In her home country, most of her contacts and peers had been men. “I was never really the girly girl hanging out with girls,” she noted. “I am still positively surprised that God gives me enough interest and things to talk about to make [friendships with women] work even though they are very girly.”

Finding “real friendships,” Lisa said, where workers can discuss what’s happening in their lives, “turns out to be quite rewarding.” However, it takes time for two cultures to come together, as she discovered with Marwa and other women. “I feel there’s a lot of grace for us living here. And also grace for the local people because they cope with us and still want to be friends with us.”

After several years of friendship, Marwa visited Lisa in her home country. She saw the daily programme Lisa arranged so that she and her husband could maximise their trip. Now, when Lisa visits her, she tries to similarly arrange the time. “For her, it’s total stress to plan two things in a day,” Lisa described. Yet she appreciated the effort Marwa continued to make after experiencing another culture. “She didn’t want to be just a polite host because I keep coming back; she really wanted to be friends in a way that was productive to both of us,” Lisa said.

Digging deep

In the five years Lisa has been on the field, she’s seen how her increased Arabic skills allowed deeper communication with her friends. “They actually tell me things that I think they would not be able to say in English. We talk about things that are challenging me on an Arabic level, but otherwise, they might keep it on simpler subjects because they would not be able to say what they really feel,” she explained.

On home visits, Lisa can understand the family’s conversations with each other and pick up on the mood inside the house. “Of course, reading the Bible doesn’t speak to a person as much in a second language as in their heart language,” she added. “I think a lot of things wouldn’t have had as much impact if I had shared it in English.”

Building on their growing friendship, Marwa asked Lisa to accompany her to the hospital for the birth of her daughter—an invitation invoking a local tradition where a female family member must be present when a new baby is born. “That was a turning point in our friendship, holding the baby in the first five minutes. That opened a whole [new] level of intimacy,” Lisa recalled. “Even now, she makes sure that everyone knows that I’m very closely related to her daughter…She really wants me to speak into her life and into her daughter’s life.”

When one of Lisa’s friends from home visited her in the AP, the two women visited Marwa together. “How is it to be friends with Lisa?” the friend asked.

“Everything changed when I met Lisa,” Marwa replied.

Today, wherever Lisa is, she and Marwa stay in constant contact, via phone calls, texts, and at least twice-a-week visits. “We talk very open spiritually, and she knows there’s a decision to be made,” Lisa stated. “I really pray that something is happening [spiritually] with her, not just to improve her daily routine.”

Pray that Marwa would come to know Jesus through Lisa’s friendship and example. Pray for workers in the AP to learn Arabic and connect with their friends at the heart level.

*Name changed

Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.


Published: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Credit: Nicole James
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