Thursday, 28 November 2013

Learning Arabic (al arabeyha العربية)


al arabeyha


I have been learning classical Arabic for just over a year now. It took a while to get my head around the basics, especially as I signed up for a course taught in French, but I think it's all slowly but surely starting to sink in. Reading a sentence back-to-front no longer fazes me and I can conjugate verbs, which, in Arabic, feels slightly like being able to perform magic. 

People often ask me why I'm learning Arabic, and my first answer is always because I can. The Université Populaire du Canton de Geneve offer lessons run by volunteer staff for two semesters each year. The courses are affordable, I have space in my life for it and I've found the lessons fun and engaging so far.

I do have my reasons for learning, though, and it's been great to lay them down here. 


As I grow older and gain more experience, I realize how hard it is to reach once more that childlike state of wonder. Travelling to new places does the trick, and little can compete with the magic of making new friends and falling in love, but learning a new script and language has had a very different effect. 

First baffler: there is a brand new alphabet to learn and each character in that alphabet has to be presented according to the part of the word it occurs in - the beginning, middle or end. The writer must change the character accordingly, often transforming a squiggly, rounded, unique character into a single vertical line with a number of dots. 

Second baffler: I can often read it and pronounce a word long before I know what it means.

I was in Istanbul earlier this year with my sister, Rosie, and to my surprise, I could pronounce some of the words written on the entrance to the prayer hall of the Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque. I read them aloud, knowing the sounds the words made but had no idea what they meant. It was a strange feeling of wonder, there beneath the silver-blue minarets; of knowing there is still so much to know and learn.

As the great poet Omar Khayyam once said:

'let your head remain like a cup: when it is emptied, it can be filled again.'

Rosie at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul. 2013.


Arabic grammar dictates the many different respects we can pay one another, in prefix or suffix form. We all have our inbuilt codes of conduct and respect which, when ignored, can rile us and cause upset. I have 'vous' and 'tu' in French down to a tee, but Arabic has a whole different system. It's always interesting learning new respect systems. In all languages, paying attention to who we're talking to, what they might be sensitive to, what respects we can pay them, can help us to choose our words carefully. This can only lead to better communication.


The conflict in Syria kick-started my plans to learn Arabic in October, 2012. I think often of friends I have over in Damascus who I met just years ago in a time of relative peace and stability. It has been heartbreaking to watch the devastation of Syria, a country that showed me so much warmth, kindness and hospitality when I was there.

Souk Light. Damascus Bazaar, Syria. 2008. 

I'd arrived in Damascus after a long, hot day of crossing the Sheikh Hussein border from Israel into Jordan, catching a bus up to the border with Syria. The towel in my bag was still wet from a swim in the Sea of Gallilea. That first day in Damascus, a city I had always wanted to see, I met a seventeen year old boy who called himself Zo. We started chatting and Zo told me he was a student at the university in the city. He offered to show me around town the next day, despite it being the first day of the festival of Eid, the Islamic fasting period. That evening, Zo and his sister Haiv took me on a walk through the souks of the city, eating mastik ice cream and visiting coffee houses. We sipped hot, rich Arabic coffee whilst listening to hakawati storytellers weave their tales. I couldn't understand them, but I enjoyed watching the men around me laugh like children.

Hakawati Storyteller, Damascus. 2008.

On the first night of Eid, Zo invited me to his grandmother's house to share the long anticipated sunset feast. The whole family had gathered and we enjoyed a delicious spread of Syrian dishes. It was magical. In the baking heat of the August sun, whilst fasting for Ramadan, Zo insisted on taking me around mosques and markets, showing me his city.

I have felt at a loss as to how to help Zo, Haiv and their family during this hard time, but learning Arabic is part of my contribution, to reassure Haiv and Zo that their language is worth learning and their story is worth hearing. Their hospitality had a deep effect on me. Syria has not been forgotten, and when it is possible to return, I want to go back, to talk to them about the last few years in their own language. I would like to hear their stories, see their grandmother again, and, inshallah, understand a few words of the hakawati tales when they are told again in the coffee houses. 



At the Festival du Film et Forum Internationale pour les Droits Humain (FIFDH) in Geneva earlier this year there was a debate called Syrie: un peuple qui sent abandone in which Carla Del Ponte from the UN's Commission of Enquiry on Syria, Fadwa Suleiman, a Syrian actress-turned-activist, and Dr. Tawfik Chamaa discussed whether or not Syria had been abandoned by the West. The debate did not last long, and Del Ponte resorted to jokes about Obama. Dr. Tawfik explained his work, how he set up e-doctoring appointments, Skyping patients from his exile in Geneva. He said many exiled Syrian doctors in his position were doing the same. When someone in the audience asked what we could do to help, as individuals, there in Geneva, Dr. Tawfik asked that when we went home that night and went to bed we should feel outrage. This has stayed with me for a long time. After a night of films about government troops targeting hospitals and armed groups committing atrocities across Syria, how could we feel anything else? However, despite Dr. Tawfik's words, I still found his work so inspiring, and hope one day to write to him and ask to interview him about it all. 

Where does the Arabic fit into this story? Well, I believe there are lots of great stories like this, of people helping from afar, of not losing hope, and if my Arabic (or French, inshallah) ever reaches a level that's useful, I'd like to find those stories.



I love the films of Lebanese filmmaker, Nadine Labaki. She's made two films now, 'Caramel', and 'Where Do We Go From Here'. Both are beautiful in their own ways and paint funny, tragic and colourful portraits of Lebanon. Listen here to Khaled Mouzanar's Succar Ya Banat, a song from 'Caramel' about love being carried on the wind amidst traffic jams - above the sounds of shoes, of feet on the ground, of lips kissing hands.


Stars of the Pliades cluster, found in the constellation of Taurus

When I first visited the Middle East in 2007 with my friend, Helen, we were taken in by a family in the northern town of Ajlun, Jordan. We met a man called Ahmed Drweesh in his shop and he invited us to his home. There, his family welcomed us with open arms. They cooked food for us, shared their time with us, let us stay for three days, and asked us to return when we had seen the rest of Jordan. We went to Ahmed's parents' farm to pick fresh grapes, nuts, and apples. The family decided to give us Arabic names to distinguish between our shared name of Helen. We thought this was very funny given that in their family alone there were three versions of the name Mohammed. I was named ثريا thuriya, which they told me at the time meant 'the stars'. A Lebanese friend this summer told me it means 'the milky way', and my own study of Arabic revealed that it is actually the name for the cluster of stars visible within the constellation of Taurus, my astrological sign. Spooky. Sadly, Helen 1 has forgotten her name. I'll dive back into my journal and find it again soon. 

Helen 1 and Helen 2 at Prayers Time with "Happy". Ajlun, Jordan. 2007.

After visiting Petra in the south and making an amazing detour across the sapphire-blue Gulf of Aqaba to Egypt, we returned to the Drweeshes to spend one more night with them.



One year later, I returned to Ajlun, unannounced, en route to Israel from India. I found Ahmed sat in the chair in the window of his shop, as he had been on the very first day we met, as though he had been waiting for me to come back. We shook hands like old friends and I enjoyed the great hospitality of the Drweeshes once more. I ate delicious mansaf, received a record breaking five kisses on the cheeks from various relatives (the number of kisses is dependent on the affection the kisser deems the kissee worthy of), turned down a few more marriage proposals, and met Dima, a sweet newlywed neighbour who quickly became a friend.

Ahmed's parents at their farm north of Ajlun, Jordan. 2007.



I will never forget looking up at the stars one night, perhaps even thuriya, from Dima's rooftop, too hot to sleep inside, so warm and safe in a country that looked nothing like my own. Perhaps it was there in Jordan that I truly learnt the meaning of hospitality: that it can be given and received wherever we travel to. It is, in a sense, a gift of home we can give to one another, cooking meals and sharing our spaces. If I can learn enough Arabic to go back to Jordan one day, thank my friends and ask for their news in their own language, I'll be a very happy human being.

1 comment:

  1. It's great to hear there are many courses in Arabic language are available. It helps Muslims learn Quran which results in rewards for the people who create these courses. For those who wants to learn Arabic / Quran but don't have time, I would like to suggest Noorani Qaida - Quran Tajweed App that help you understand Tajweed Rules.