When my father was younger, he said he would learn English. It is the language of the world, it is the future here.
He took us out of our school and enrolled us in another. Arabic, English, a little French, and this would let us be citizens of the world.
How was he to learn English as an adult man? There were no courses in the village, he could not read at a level to enter university. His one choice was to read over our shoulders and for us to teach him the words. He put a satellite dish on the roof and we only ever watched English shows night and day. He had the TV turned to children’s shows because they spoke slowly and he could understand.
Sometimes he stood by himself and I heard him saying over and over the words we had learnt that day. If he forgot them, he took out the paper from his pocket and he memorised them again.
He drove his taxi to town each day and he tried to find tourists who could help him practise his new words. Most of the time, he found locals who spoke Arabic or they only remembered a little French because of disuse. Their loss, they said, was a lesson to him. If you wish to learn a language, use it everyday or it is gone.
I used to imagine these people he met and wondered how he asked them if they knew English. Hello, where are you going, do you know English words?
So many days he returned and he practised his English on us. When we were older, we asked him for a separate TV so we could watch the shows the kids spoke about at school. We left him our books and he continued to practise on his own. One day the travellers will come and I will be able to speak to them in their tongue.
He grew up and we left to have families of our own. When we visited, he would try his words on us but we asked him to please stop. We had forgotten much of what we had once known. We said to him one day our children will go to school and you can practise with them. You will be older then and you won’t need the taxi and the TV as much.
He did not listen to us and even though there were no travellers, he left in his taxi at dawn and he did not return until very late. We asked him about travellers and what words he had learnt but he ignored us more and more. He would sit in the taxi and leave us to our mother and when we spoke to him through the window, he pretended he did not understand a single thing.
My mother tells us he listens to English radio and he only leaves the car to eat. He does not listen, he does not speak, he does not sleep in the bed, only the taxi.
We waited for him to leave the taxi and we called someone we knew and sold it off. We gave him the money but as we watched, he ripped it up and said something we could not understand.
Day and night now he does not leave the house. He listens to the radio, he watches the TV, he reads our books and writes out new words he has learnt. He teaches the young ones and he speaks to them daily. Everyone else, he shakes his head and tells them he does not understand.