Anaa ba3rif shway 3rabi

“I know a little Arabic”; a little as in barely enough to legitimize such a statement.

My PNW, small town upbringing meant Spanish was the main secondary language a school might offer. Larger school districts branched out into American Sign Language, German, Japanese, and French but even ten years post-graduation, I’m yet to hear of a high school making Arabic a language offering.  I’m pretty sure most major universities offer it though I couldn’t say conclusively if UO did while I was there for undergrad.  Yet I took a job in a Middle Eastern country where the primary languages are Arabic and French (and English though any distance from Beirut makes it less and less useful).  Hands down one of the more popular questions asked after I accepted the job, that is after folks made sure they’d heard me correctly and muttered something about safety, was if I would make it a point to learn Arabic.  “Yes,” was the answer, “at the very least enough to be polite.”

My mother has always valued language.  From a young age I was learning basic Spanish and friends would gawk when, in high school, my mom and I would have rudimentary conversations or give each other a hard time in Spanish.  Two years of language in both high school and undergrad were graduation requirements, and so I studied Spanish formally for a total of about five years.  Perhaps due to my mom’s influence, I’ve enjoyed the idea of learning other languages even if I haven’t always actively done so.  I took a year of German in undergrad, while also taking my final required year of Spanish (my exasperated German 101 professor very patiently dealt with Spanish-German translation errors and default Spanish responses to her German questions for the first few weeks of class) and studied ASL for a few terms so I could communicate more effectively with a housemate who was deaf.  I don’t claim fluency in any of those three languages, and none come close to the realities of Arabic.

Right to left orientation for reading and writing, a completely different formation pattern for letters, and sounds that I’m not even sure my throat and mouth can make, yet I want to learn it, as much as I can anyway.

I started with the “enough to be polite” concept.  It’s something I strongly believe in; if someone is going to travel, she needs to at least take the time to learn common greetings and pleasantries.  I can appreciate those who would say this isn’t enough, and I would agree, but it’s at least a start, and better than nothing.  Some of my more irate travel moments have been when other Americans pompously assume that those in other countries should know English so as not to inconvenience them, the traveler.  (I think those tend to be the same individuals who bitch and moan about immigrants and travelers to the US not knowing much English… Evidently they don’t look in mirrors too often…)  But enough to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you”, “good morning” and “good evening”, inquire about someone’s well being is, I think, a must.

In the pell mell busyness of last year, a once a week, somewhat informal, class offered by a Lebanese colleague laid enough groundwork to reach this goal, more or less (she seemed a little taken aback when I asked to be taught swear words but one too many times of students popping off with something inappropriate in Arabic thinking that made it okay or because they figured the ajnabii (foreigner) wouldn’t get it seemed to legitimize this request).  I still freeze up a bit when responding to the “how are you” question and have to really think about if I’m using the correct masculine/feminine notation but I’m finding I can pick up words in conversations, comprehending a bit more than I can actually speak myself.  My students, and a few colleagues, seem to find it amusing when I use phrases like “yalla” (hurry up) and “shuu” (what?) and when I answer with “la” and “aye” instead of “no” and “yea”, but then again I find it amusing too so at least we’re all laughing together.  As one colleague pointed out, working in the environment of English instruction, it is easy to not learn Arabic and get away with it, and at the same time, as observed by my brother-in-law, to live in Lebanon for several years and not learn it would be ridiculous.

I’ve been very appreciative of Lebanese friends and colleagues who are patient with my lack of understanding, and hope to eventually get to the point where maybe I can hold my own and the concessions won’t have to be made.  So with a sort of basic foundation in place, here’s to an added layer to this year - learning Arabic, removing the “shway”, getting to “anaa ba3rif 3rabi”.