Kuwait City, Kuwait
I live in Kuwait, and I study Arabic. I don’t take formal language lessons in a classroom. I take informal lessons at the barber shop.
Hair salons in the Middle East are called hair saloons. I don’t know where the extra ‘O’ came from. Maybe it’s because they’re the Arab equivalent of the corner bar. They’re more than just barber shops; they’re little social clubs. Everybody sips tea and talks while they wait for a haircut, and they hang out for a long time after they’re done. Some of the customers don’t even get their hair cut; they just stop in for a chat.
None of the barbers at my saloon speak English. The older guy – I guess he’s the owner – speaks Arabic. The other barber is a Turk who speaks Arabic and Turkish. They used to have an Egyptian who spoke a little English, but he went home last year. So I always practice my Arabic when I’m in the saloon. The barbers and their customers are really nice people, and they all want to teach me the language. I forget most of it, but I always walk out with at least a few new words.
I went in for a cut last week. The older Arab barber was the only guy in the shop. He was finishing up a plate of shwarma and watching TV. I said, “Salaam Alakam,” and shook his hand. He smiled and said, “Wa Alakam Salaam. Shlonik?” He gestured toward the chair. I thought, shlonik? What does shlonik mean? I had heard it before, but I couldn’t remember where.
He didn’t have any tea, so he bought me a Pepsi. “Shlonik?” he asked again. I just smiled and thanked him for the drink. Shlonik, shlonik, what the hell is shlonik? Then I remembered where I’d heard it-it was here, in the saloon, about a month ago. The Turkish guy had started to cut my hair and said, “Shlonik? Same-same?” And I had said yes, and he had given me my usual cut. That’s what shlonik meant: same.
I ran my hand through my hair and said, “Na’am, shlonik.” The barber looked a little confused, but he didn’t reply. He finished his lunch and stood up and asked again, “Shlonik?” I said again, “Na’am, tamaam. Shlonik, menfadlik.” He got a pair of scissors and a comb. He laughed to himself and said, “Shlonik.” I switched to English, “Yes, please. Shlonik. Same-same.”
Halfway through the cut an English-speaking Kuwaiti came in. We all said hello, and the barber said something in Arabic. He laughed at me and said, “Shlonik.” The Kuwaiti laughed as well and asked me, “Do you know shlonik?”
I said, “Yeah, it means ‘same-same’, right?”
He got a kick out of that. He translated for the barber, and the barber laughed so hard he had to stop cutting. The Kuwaiti said, “No, shlonik means ‘How are you’.”
I said, “I thought ‘How are you’ is ‘Keefalak’.”
He replied, “Yes, yes. Keefalak, shlonik, same-same.”
“Now you’re really confusing me.”
“Keefalak is Arabic for ‘how are you,’ but in the Gulf we say ‘shlonik.’ It’s a Gulf dialect, like when people in Texas say ‘howdy.’”
We all cracked up. I replayed the (translated) conversation in my head.
“Hi, how are you?”
“How are you?”
“You want a Pepsi?”
“Yes. Thank you. Pepsi good.”
“How are you?”
“Yes, yes, ok.”
“Ready for a haircut?”
“How are you?”
“Yeah, yeah, ok. How are you, please.”
Another customer walked in. Before anybody could say anything, I jumped out of the barber’s seat and yelled, “Shlonik!” The customer said in English, “Um…fine. How are you?” The Kuwaiti laughed. The barber patted me on the back. This is how I learn Arabic at the saloon.