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Interview with El-hadj Bah

Bah, El-hadj
Marini, Paul
Date of Interview: 
Overcoming Obstacles; Relationships with People and Places; Cultural Identification; Tolerance and Respect
El-hadj Bah tells stories about his home in Guinea, West Africa and how he acquired the languages he speaks, including French. He used his knowledge of French to help appease a disgruntled customer when he worked on a tour boat.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Paul Martini interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
PM (Paul Martini): OK. I'm here with ah El-hadj Bah, ah, he's a native of Kamsar, Guinea, and, um, El-hadj, and, um you're a student at CPCC and you are also a, um, full-time mechanic, right?
EB (El-hadj Bah): Sure.
PM: And, uh, what's the name of the company you are working for?
EB: Uh, it's called, um, Triple A Cooper.
PM: Triple A Cooper?
EB: Uh, yeah.
EB: The trucking company.
PM: Trucking company? That's off Harris right? Harris and 77?
EB: Yeah.
PM: OK. Any you, you, um, you've been at CPCC for two and a half years and you are, um, you're an exchange student but you want to stay here indefinitely in Charlotte, basically, right?
EB: Yes.
PM: Good deal. OK. And you're going to tell us a story, basically, that, ah, this is actually something that happened to you, um, when you were, um, I guess it wasn't too long ago how old were you when you were hiking again?
EB: Oh, I was about 19.
PM: About 19, so really it was only about maybe three or four years ago, I guess, right?
EB: Three years ago.
PM: Three years ago. And this happened in your, ah, near your home in Kam, Kamsar, is that right?
EB: Yeah, yeah.
PM: OK. And just before we get started, just, ah, if you could, tell me a little about your language background because you, um, obviously you're speaking English now, but you also have, um, a background in, um, French, but even before French you have your native, um--
EB: African languages, yeah, which is, uh, I speak Pulaar, which is Foula, come from the Peulhs and also Soussou, which is Soso in the dictionary.
PM: Um-hum
EB: And, uh, Pulaar is spoken by 11 million people.
PM: Um-hum.
EB: And Soussou is a less spoken language, it's spoken about, by about, ah, maybe five million people.
EB: Or less.
PM: Yeah I, I think my, ah, professor probably would have heard some of these, although I haven't, but I'm sure there's a lot of different languages.
EB: Well, Pulaar, Pulaar is very known throughout the West Africans' origins.
PM: OK. Good. And then you probably learned those first, and then French at school, and then probably English after French, right, or did you learn English before French?
EB: Uh, I learned, I learned French first then in school it's kind of funny, ah, since my mom is of a French background we speak French in, at home, and in school I learned, I learned Foula from my father's family, which are Foular, and I learned Soussou in school, which is kind of the, ah, main language in Guinea, or the main, ah, ah, dialect in Guinea.
PM: Uh, OK, and then you learned English when you arrived in America. You, ah, were working on a, ah, restaurant, it was like a ship and you learned to by starting out there. That's, did you learn any English before that or was that--?
EB: Ah, no I never spoke English before that. Um basically, in July 1997, I, uh, my English was very poor and I was very limited to, "How are you? How old are you? What do you want to eat," and, uh, I came in America in a special programs, which required me to work, find me, you know, the school finds me a job in a, uh, in a different facility. I had to choose, and I choose to work in a restaurant, so it was a cruise boat on the Potomac in Washington, and, ah, it was a four diamond cruise kind of, and I had to work there and it really helped me out, ah, a lot with my, ah, my English.
PM: OK. So you're on the, um, you're working on the ship in, ah, Washington, DC, right?
EB: Yeah, near DC.
PM: And you want to tell us a story about some, ah, when you first started working there you had some interesting customers come in, right?
EB: Oh yeah, we had, um, very interesting customers which are from what one may call a high class kind of rich people.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: And, um, everything started at, by my, ah, by my interview. I had to go to an interview and when I got there I had a very beautiful lady in front of me who was from, um, Poland, or one of the eastern part of Europe, and, uh, she had a pretty accent, and she was also pretty, matter of fact, and, ah, she kind of, you know, give me a first interview and asked me what I knew about wine, and, uh, and some food and stuff like that. And I told her my mom was, you know, kind of from France and my father is from Guinea, and in Guinea we have, you know, a very different kind of food, you know, ah, spicy food and stuff like that, and we have a very wide variety of food. And, um, and it's funny. She asked me, you know, to give me an example of the wine and describe it and, as you know, Paul, I, I'm not, I don't drink alcohol. I don't know much about it, even though at home, sometimes my mom, you know, around the table they drink wine when they eat food, or whatever. And she asked me to describe the wine and, um, as an example, I told her, talked about the bourbon. Well, when I said bourbon I saw the look in her face and I like, "Whoa, wine!" Well I meant bordeaux, but I said bourbon because [laughter] that's, you know, I had, you know, when you go for an interview and you have a stress, and--
PM: Right.
EB: That, [laughter] I was nervous and it was the only idea in my head was bourbon and I don't know where I take that from, and I said bourbon and she go, and she said, "OK, describe the bourbon," and I remember seeing the people in my country kind of describing the red wine and I knew bourbonwas a red kind of heavy, and I could describe a bordeaux, but I didn't know a bourbon.
PM: So you said bourbon.
EB: I said bourbon, which is not, ah, which I know is in apéritif, a very dry drink. A liquor which is not a wine and ah, ah--
PM: [Laughter]
EB: Ah, right there I didn't know what I was saying anyway. I told her well, um, she asked me to describe it since I know I was not sure. I cannot tour around the world, you know, use my excuse, "Me, I do not speak English very well." So I'm not really able to explain what I'm talking about kind of means, and made some, you know, voice with my tongue that, that kind of show a taste, and she, um, and I tell her, I think she, ah, tell me something and I replied to her and she said, "No you said that," or whatever, and after that I went home all proud I said, "Wow," you know, "I think I'm gonna get this job." That was my friend Jack, who was from France and knows better about wine and stuff like that, and um--
PM: [Laughter]
EB: He asked me how was my interview I said, "Well great. I think I'm going to get the job." I was with him. Actually we both had the interview. Told me well and I said, "Yeah you know I been describe a wine and I describe a bourbon," and I, uh, was with two of my roommates. Everyone kept laughing, and from that day on, I know it wasn't, I know that bourbon wasn't alcohol. I mean wasn't, I mean was not wine but a liquor, and two days after I was called, and I was hired to go through a training before the, ah, summer session. And, ah, eh, the training was kind of hard, you know, I was kind of, uh, embarrassed because they were having jokes and having fun, you know, and I, I about two or three hours a day of training and, you know, we had a manager talking there maybe two hours, and maybe I understand only three percent of what he is saying, but I wanted that job and I didn't want to be a busboy. I wanted to be a back server, and I never had served a table before, but I went through the training and, and, ( ) and everything, and lucky as a ( ) they hired me as a back server. And a, talking about one of the customers one day, I was walking and we had three deck, you know, in the boat was divided into three decks, and I was on the front deck. And I was working there on a table, but in the middle of the cruise I was called by my manager, kind of an emergency, and I came into the galley. "Yeah what's going on?" And Tom look at me and I see in his face he was kind of mad and uneasy and I told him what's going on in, and he told me, "Well Omar, you speak French don't you?" and I said, "Yeah, it's kind of my first language." He said, "OK. Go up there and, um, I'm going to switch you tables, I'm going to switch your tables because you have a French people back there who are giving us a hard lie, I mean hard time." When I got there, there was a two couple of French people kind of they were old maybe of not old but - -
PM: 50s?
EB: In their 50s maybe 55, 60. And, um, I'm not quite sure, but they looked more like people from the theatre, perhaps, who were going to remain in Washington and who decided to go on a cruise, and those people, oh my God, when I got there and weeks, weeks before I, you know everybody asked me, "Wow, you speak French? French people are great," and everything and I told them I do not personally like French people too much, even though I may, I, you know, have French blood, I don't personally like them too much.
PM: Right.
EB: And then, though, everyone was, ah, I mean they were against what I was saying. Anyway, everybody thinks the French people are really great, and many people think, a matter of fact, me, work that in America. And those guys were so, so rude.
PM: Even to you.
EB: Even to me. And when I got there, I asked them in French, "How can I help you?" For them, for me they're going to say, "Wow, at least one who speaks French." He didn't care, they care less. Ah, they tell me, ah, the food is disgusting.
PM: Ah, how much after you had been hired was this.
EB: It was, ah, maybe--
PM: Couple months, couple weeks?
EB: A month, a month. Four weeks. Later, yeah.
PM: This is like your chance to prove yourself to management, right?
EB: Yeah. It was it was my chance, but I didn't have much chances anyway against these people. I mean it's like, you know, French people are so hard, and when they are rich it's like impossible, you know, and, ah, anyway, ah, I was there and I brought the dessert on the table. The guy was, he had a key line, really a key lime, and he tried it and he told me in French, "It is disgusting. It's only colors."
PM: [Laughter]
EB: And you have to remember this guy paid three hundred dollar, may, for himself of one hundred twenty dollar by person to eat in the boat, and they had maybe drank three very expensive wines, and it was one hundred fifty of for wines and we talked. Anyway, I kind of managed through the cruise, and at one point, he asked me, "Hey, doesn't this boat stop anywhere in between here and where we are going to because we want to get out of this boat," and it's funny because this is, this is one of the most beautiful boats I have ever seen and they have a live disco band playing. They are playing jazz and then beinbi blues slow while you are eating and it becomes like disco-tech and people are having fun. Although my French brothers were not having fun maybe they don't know how to dance and they don't know how they say it in America the jam? You know they are not jamming.
PM: Right.
EB: Ah, anyway it was really, really very hard experience and my manager was so disturbed that when I went back to pull out the check from the computer for 150 dollar for the drinks, he said, "Omar give that to me," and tear it up in front of me a send me to tell that that we are very sorry for the food and, uh, we give them the drinks for free kind of to apologize to them and, uh, that's I went and I did that but, uh--
PM: So what did you tell them? It was a couple, right? A guy and a girl?
EB: Right it was four people. And one of them was quite funny. The other one was ah he's a skinny old guy with kind of white hair and half bald and, um, it was as, ah, he wasn't a nice looking person looks like he was coming right from a cartoon or something you know and, uh, ah, it was in the other one was very impressed. He said, "Well we are sorry for what happened, but it's not our fault, and we thank you anyway. We, ah, kind of had a good time and, but I, uh." ( ) He didn't have any good time he didn't want to, or whatever. But, ah, after that, believe me, the crew, the crewmembers of the boat had a different opinion of the French people.
PM: OK, thanks a lot El-hadj. [Long pause]
EB: ( ) Closing and, uh, going I think I'm going the right way I got the wave and my life is much better and, um, still working on my English and, uh--
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: Trying to finish school maybe try to get, find a job in a Charlotte and, uh, have many kids, a lot of money and, uh--
PM: ( ).
EB: Yeah.
PM: That's awesome. OK, thanks El-hadj.
[Long pause] EB: ( ) Price anyway. I mean people are not, you know, summer and like to go outside but, uh, we don't have them go outside because then, you know, it's a very formal dinner then you have to move everything outside. It's very fast paced and, uh, break some glasses on your way out, uh, it's like to trip some people and, uh, when you are the server there are some people who don't like to keep the food, uh, to bring the plate to the table. So what happens is you have numbers on each table and if the guys are outside the real ( ) gets lost on the boat and you don't want to have that happen. So, uh, sometimes the plates are so hot you have to take them outside and you cannot put anything on it because you have so much ( ) but have with, you have hands, and, uh, believe me you don't want to be walking around the boat looking for the guys outside. So what we try to do is to have them out for, um, for a dessert. But, uh, I met very interesting people ( ) was pretty interesting.
PM: So it was an interesting experience.
EB: Oh it was a very good experience.
PM: So how did you learn most of your English? Just talking to customers or talking to co-workers or what was the best way?
EB: Yeah, it's funny. I was, uh, I used to talk to, uh, customers. These guys were very, very courteous and very, very nice because I cannot believe, uh, I ( ), you know, ( ) trying to understand what I'm saying. Even now some people have trouble trying to understand what I'm saying. But, oh yeah, I used to make mistakes like, uh, "I'm going to be take care of you this evening," and they never said anything. It was pretty nice and I had a good time, it was pretty, pretty nice.
PM: How about like, uh, when you were between customers you would talk to some of the other, uh, work staff on some--
EB: Uh, yeah, absolutely the, the waiters I worked with, um, we, I had someone from South Africa. It was a blonde guy and everyone was surprised to see an African blonde anyway.
PM: [Laughter]
EB: But he was a nice guy.
PM: Like Dennis Rodman or a white blonde guy. [Laughter]
EB: Like, uh, yeah, blue eyes.
PM: [Laughter] Not a Dennis Rodman?
EB: No, no, no [Laughter] we are not ( ). Fortunately for us we don't have them for a long time but he, no, was a really Caucasian man. He was a pretty nice guy.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: And, uh, some people watching the boat was really, you know, kind of very large like strong big muscles in the galley downstairs.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: Goalie, galley whatever the galley, I think, I think.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: Uh, we had some of homosexuals working aboard.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: That was my first time to meet any, uh, any homosexuals, you know, because in my country, that's not, I mean, uh, I doubt, I doubt, uh, the country has none. Of course, we, I mean, we do have some, perhaps. It's not something open, it's taboo so, uh, but in America, I saw this guy talking at first I really, "Whoa," you know.
PM: Sure.
EB: Pretty bizarre, but, uh, we had people on the boat who went to jail before, who me hard time. I had a very, very hard time aboard because, whichever reason, uh, um, people aboard were not, they were not kind of people who go to school, they don't go to school really on that boat, you know. The kind of bad boys and they can a job working on that boat, but most of them were kind of bad boys and me coming every time from school with my books they kind of making fun of me.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: I even know the sad story of a work before us and went crazy the young fellow was from South America.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: Uh, he kind of liked philosophy and unfortunately for a minute he would be talking Socrates to the guys and they making fun of him and stuff like that. Germans drove him crazy, he had to quit. Sometimes some people would get into a fight and jump guns and whatever. I have someone cursing at me and calling me to go outside to meet him, which I didn't, of course. I did not, I kind of looked for the biggest guy on the boat and say, "Hey, I don't want to fight," tried to bluff out and get to the men's room quick and leave. But, uh, it was pretty tough they used to steal my stuff, uh, used to call me "Frenchie" actually.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: Yeah I'm pretty, uh, pretty, uh, it's hard for someone to be, be my boss because I don't like to be bossed around all the time.
PM: Nobody does really.
EB: Yeah but a, you know, it's so if I think my boss is wrong, I'll tell you are wrong. Usually when you come in to work, they see you as new even when the people are the same level as you try to direct you around because they figure you don't know better. I get this boat and never served before. You don't know that, of course, but since I'm new everybody thinks ( ) is going to do the job and, uh, I had a boxer, I think he was from Columbia, Georgia. He was a boxer.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: Everybody was kind of scared of him and I almost, you know, I'm not crazy to fight with him, you know. I love my teeth. I don't want to lose them.
PM: Was he the one who that tried, told you to step outside?
EB: No, no, no. Whoa! Fortunately for me if he [Laughter] ask me to step out, really, like that, it would be my last day at the job. I would not come back the next morning. [Laughter] But, uh, no, no. That was a, the guy was shorter than I am, but, uh, he looked really mean. He went to jail once and--
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: I knew he had, uh, sort of a knife, gun, whatever. And, um, we, the problem is not that I was really scared to go out and fight him, but, uh, my situation didn't allow me to do that. And for me, that would mean uh--
PM: Getting into big trouble.
EB: Exactly. //Exactly. //
PM: //Just starting off. //
EB: I did very high-risk being, you know, I did, I was 19. I was 19 years old. I like fighting, you know. It's just sometime you don't have a choice. You have to, you know, be smart, which I, which I did. But, after while on the boat, I had a reputation of, you know, of power, whatever. I didn't really care because I think everyone who thought like that were, didn't have enough in your head and people, you know, some people used to go to school like me. Go to school like me and pretty nice people love me, as you the last time I met the manager, the manager at Jillian's. This guy had seen me because I work for about four, five months, six months before I came to Charlotte and, um--
PM: Was he surprised to see you?
EB: Believe me, this guy is the general manager he doesn't, he doesn't step, doesn't step in the boat all the time. I mean, uh, he's the, the big boss, like the director. He's not always on the boat, he comes by time to time.
PM: Uh-huh.
EB: And, you know how the number of workers he see, going from the server, to the back server, to busboy, to the ( ), to the barman, to the, uh--
PM: Right. After several months. ( )
EB: He has the boat crew, the security, the staff, that amount he had. He has all those people under his wing, should I say, and he's in Jillian's and he recognizes me after two years.
PM: That's surprising.
EB: Yes, you know, I guess I did a good job. People like me over there and that was pretty nice because I kind of barely recognized him. I kind of stopped and looked at him, and, you know, he recognized me, which is really, really nice for me. And, uh, it was very good experience. It was pretty, pretty interesting. I kind of got scared sometimes, but, uh, it was pretty nice.
PM: Good for you. Well I guess that we're winding up on the time we'll go ahead and stop it now.
EB: Thank you.
PM: Thank you.