Dubai: Twenty-two-year old Mohammad Yunous from Afghanistan has been working at his brother’s fabric shop at the Deira Souq for eight years. A class 9 dropout, Yonous is a nimble salesman who speaks eight languages.
“We get a lot of customers from Moscow. So apart from Pashto, Dari, Urdu, English and Arabic, which I knew before I came to Dubai in 2011, I also picked up Russian. I would carefully observe my clients and first picked up basic sentences in Russian that helped me haggle about the price. In a few years, I was very comfortable. Later, I picked up Spanish, Mexican Spanish and Italian as well. The customers are very comfortable when we speak their language and many are pleasantly surprised.”
If you are planning to have a slice of authentic Arab open-air shopping experience, visiting the quaint old Deira Spice Souq across the Dubai Creek in Al Ras District is a must. Walking through the narrow by-lanes of the souq feast on the rainbow sights of traditional spices — indigo, sulphur, saffron — dried flower petals and intricately embroidered shawls and satin fabrics on display. More importantly, tune into the sounds of the souq and it will surprise you to hear a multilingual cacophony.
The young Asian traders from the spice souq, though mostly educated up to high school have been resourceful enough to pick up the languages of the world. The souq at peak time is buzzing with a cosmopolitan ethos where traders easily slip from Mandarin and Tagalog to German, Spanish, Italian and Russian. What’s more, the young boys have honed the art of translation to perfection as they have picked up different dialects of Spanish spoken in Latin American countries and Spain, or German spoken in Austria and Switzerland as opposed to pure German accent.
It is fascinating to watch this live multilingual experiment as young salesmen have fine-tuned an important sales pitch of being one with the client, giving him a totally relaxed shopping experience, speaking in his native language. Competitions is keen in the market as so many stock the same spices. But when a salesman shouts “Ni Hao Yao Zanghongua ma” in chaste mandarin (Hello, do you want some saffron) or “Por Favor pegue o’melhor indigo acqui” in fluent Portuguese (please get the best indigo here), the customers whose native tongue it is, are naturally attracted to that shop. The salesmen have perfected the art of wooing their customers through the lingua route and are winning hearts.
Trading pashmina and silk in Russian and Italian
“It is not only sound salesmanship to boost the sales of my shop but the right way to win hearts and loyal customers as we have so many visiting year after year for shawls and fabric. I love my job as it gets me the entire world at my doorstep and I love to switch from one language to another. It is said when you can haggle and bargain in the native language of the customer it appeals to his emotional self and he or she is compelled to make that transaction just because hearing one’s own language from a complete stranger strikes a chord,” said Yunous, who is taking time to learn Russian in great detail in the evening after he finishes his day.
A ‘linguist’ par excellence
Malik Ehsan Ul Haq, 24, from Rawalpindi, has completed his undergraduate in Arts from Pakistan part-time, as he works as a spice salesman at an Iranian shop at Al Ras at the tender age of 20. With his graduation degree in sales and marketing he could have chosen to move to another job. But Haq loves what he is doing and is passionate about his language skills. He has taught himself more than 14 languages. He speaks fluent Portuguese, German (all dialects), Italian, Spanish, English, Mandarin, Sindhi, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, Dari and French.
“I am passionate about learning and picking up a new language is very exciting to me. In the beginning I would take down many words in a notebook, look these up on Google Translate and painstakingly construe sentences. Slowly I realised many words were common to languages with a Latin origin. I was able to make that connection and began speaking these fluently,” says Haq, who can hold forth for half an hour in any of the European languages and even Mandarin. “My study is deeper than just conversational and that has attracted my customers who are pleasantly surprised when I speak their language,” said Haq, who often gets repeat customers.
Walking deeper into the heart of the souq one finds similar spice shops lined up and manned by Asian salesmen, mostly from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
From Kashmir with love
Anil Sharoom, 25, from Kotli in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, came to Dubai three years ago. But in this short span, the high school pass out picked up as many as four additional languages. “I knew Hindi, English, Urdu, and Kashmiri already when I came here. At the souq, I made efforts to learn French, Spanish, Arabic and Farsi too. It gives me great pride to speak to my French and Spanish clients in their language. They enjoy haggling in their language. Sometimes they bargain only so that they can hear me speak their language as they find it very delightful,” said Sharoom.
Another ‘linguist’ in the making
20-year old Mohammad Yunous from Rawalpindi came to work in the Deira Spice Souq last year. But he was quick enough to pick up the nuances of Italian, German and Spanish that he comfortably converses in along with his knowledge of Urdu, Hindi, Pashto, English and Farsi.
“Knowing at least five languages is almost mandatory if you want to be a good salesman. Our clients who are fascinated by the exotic spices are usually European so in addition to English one must know Italian, Spanish, French and German. One gets multiple benefits, For instance, Spanish is spoken in Spain as well as in Latin American countries, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil and Portugal, German in Austria, Germany and Switzerland and French is spoken in Middle East, Africa, France and Canada. So with additional knowledge of three or four languages a salesman can virtually get to converse with most of the clients coming in from the West. I am also trying to pick up some Asian languages such as Mandarin and Tagalog,” said Yunous.