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Sign Language Unites Muslim Pilgrims

Published: 23/10/2012 12:18:29 PM GMT
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MAKKAH - Overcoming linguistic challenges, millions of foreign pilgrims coming annually to the holy lands to perform hajj have developed special means of communication, using nods, smiles, hand gestures and even drawings.

“We call this special means of communication the 'language of the Haram' (Grand Mosque),” Ali Abdullah, a Sudanese shopkeeper living in Makkah, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).“I deal with Asian pilgrims using sign language,” he said.

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“I can deal better with Nigerians and other Africans who can usually speak English, but Asians have their own languages which I can't understand.”

Working in Makkah over the past five years, Abdullah tries to improve his communication skills to deal with his customers.

He sometimes uses a pen and a paper to draw the item his customers are looking for, while trying to memorize the words they use for the drawing.

“We depend on body language and signs and even on drawings in some cases,” Abdullah said.

“I try to memorize it in case someone asks for the same thing in future,” he says with a grin.

But the situation is quite different for his colleague Rasheed Ali, from Burma.

“I speak 10 languages. I learned them all from working here for 17 years,” he says proudly.

Majed al-Qulaisi, a Saudi merchant, also managed to learn Turkish, Malaysian and some Russian over two to three years.

But with Africans, he still communicates using sign language.

“Sometimes they don't understand what I'm saying. I could say something which a pilgrim would interpret as an insult, get cross with me and walk out of the shop.”

Selling rosaries made from precious stones for about 11 years, Qulaisi's job has become easier as he now knows beforehand what stones every pilgrim is looking for depending on their country of origin.

“Southeast Asians usually look for pearls, coral, and wooden rosaries,” he said.

“Africans prefer long rosaries while Turks look for smaller ones with 33 beads” instead of the standard 99, representing the various names of God.

Saudi Efforts

Some foreign pilgrims, meanwhile, attempt to learn some Arabic during their short stay for hajj.

“I have learned a few Arabic words to help me communicate with people here. I can say 'shukran' which means thank you and 'sabr' which means patience,” said a US pilgrim of Nigerian origin.

“In the United States we say restrooms, but here they understand toilets, so I do my best to use the words I figure they can understand.”

Saudi authorities, seeking to make hajj easier for pilgrims, have taken several measures to help overcome the linguistic challenges.

As pilgrims pour into the country through the hajj terminal in Jeddah airport, they are met by officials from the ministry of hajj, many of whom are capable of giving directions and advice in different languages.

Authorities have also arranged millions of booklets, films, copies of the Noble Qur'an and tapes in various languages to be handed out to pilgrims arriving from abroad.

Media outlets provide basic information in 32 different languages.

A hotline, the Mnask service, has also been set up to respond to the questions of pilgrims in Arabic, English, French, Urdu, Indonesian, Turkish, Bengali and Hausa.

Saudi authorities have also launched a free smart phone application that provides a simple explanation on hajj rituals in four languages -- English, Arabic, Indonesian, and Urdu.

Some 700 translators have also been hired to guide the pilgrims in Makkah and the second holy city Madinah.

The majority of pilgrims have already arrived in Saudi Arabia for hajj, due to start on October 24.

Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, consists of several rituals, which are meant to symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith, and to commemorate the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family.Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can financially afford the trip must perform hajj at least once in a lifetime.

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