Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Well, When I Was On Mount Sinai...Speaking FLuent Arabic...

I minored in Arabic in college. Recently I've had people ask me why I took Arabic, and my reasons all come out sounding a little flat. "Because I felt I should." Well, that's basically it. I'm not interested in the modern middle east. I'm not. I hate the political situation (I do not hate Arabs. On the contrary, I love Arabs, just like I love all races of Men. And Women. I do not hate Jews, either. I do not approve of Israel's political policies, but that is another boring political blog for another Thora.)

I did a study abroad in Egypt (which, if I ever got in gear for writing more of mine and Avram's love story, I would finally get to). Before I went I had an interview with the director of the Program. In it, he asked me what I was planning to do with Arabic. I gave my pat, academic answer; "I would like to go to Graduate School for Library Science, and work in a University Library in the Near Eastern Section/Religion Section." Which I did plan to do - if I didn't get married first. Of course, by this point I had lined up men (two is a line, right?) ready to marry me, so I was only planning to do this if a freak accident obliterated Germany and Provo before I managed to graduate. Then, for whatever reason, I segued into my real desire, "What I really want to do is marry someone who works somewhat in the field, and be associated with the Near East, and Semitic Languages, without actually having my own career and graduate degrees."

And I did. I married Avram. And he has studied Hebrew since before we met. Let me tell you a story. (Ha! Like you could stop me!) When we were first married, Avram and I were window washers at the now obsolete Deseret Towers at BYU. All day long we washed the windows, from one cheesy, over-decorated EFY room to the next. On really exciting weeks we got sports camps rooms as well. We also hung a belaying rope from the roof, and then had harnesses that we hooked ourselves up to, and hung out the window to wash them. Sadly, we did not actually rappel down the sides of the building. But we did hang our head and arms over the side of an eight story building every few hours, unattached to anything, as we hooked up the ropes. Our Motto was, "Probably, you won't die."

As we were window washing one day, about two and a half months into our marriage, and two months into this job, and two weeks into knowing that I was pregnant, and two paragraphs into this story, Avram began speaking in Hebrew to me. He did this a lot. He liked to practice his modern Hebrew, and I had taken two years of modern, and so we would speak little meaningless conversations together to keep limber. This day, being pregnant, I burst into angry tears. How could Avram cavalierly speak Hebrew to me! I wanted to speak Arabic! I had no one to speak Arabic to, and I was losing my ability to speak, and speaking Hebrew just reminded me of this fact!

Avram was immediately concerned, and stopped speaking Hebrew. But I did not stop crying. I could not stop crying. I cried for a half an hour straight. And then we went home early. All because I could not speak in Arabic to him (and because I was early pregnant, and irrational).

As of Two Days ago, my little then-pregnant self can rest at ease. Avram and I have begun speaking in Arabic with each other. Sure, Avram only knows three verbs, and they're all in Fosha, the formal Arabic, and most of the scattered Arabic I know is in Egyptian Aamiya, or dialect. But we manage to banter back and forth for upwards of twenty minutes this way. Avram is taking Intensive Arabic this summer - a whole year's worth of language, in eight short weeks. And since I've returned home from my vacation, I can finally begin practicing with him. We had to buy him a new book, because there is a little story via DVD about Maha and Khalad, and the old book did not come with the DVDs (you had to watch then on a special site, and in class), and the new edition does (plus they're re-filmed, and all modern.)

Finally, yesterday I threw away my old book, realizing that it was truly obsolete since Avram had had to buy the new edition. Fast forward ten hours. Avram and I are speaking Arabic in the living room, and I am attempting to explain to him that I have no way of keeping up with his class everyday, because he has his book, and is gone at class all day. Avram tells me, in halting Arabic, that I have my book. No, I do not have my book, I threw my book away.

Well, it turns out that the new and old editions are basically exactly the same (except those pesky DVDs), and so I could just use my own book. The one I threw away. Into the nasty kitchen garbage. Luckily, although the garbage was full, I am lazy, and had not taken it out. So Avram went and dug out my book, and voila! I have my own book. That smells like a combination of Onions and Watermelon, and has a suspicious wet spot on the back.

So now I really can study Arabic with him. And now I know why I took Arabic. Or maybe not why, because I do not think that life is always reducible down to small and specific causes and reasons, but rather I feel better about having spent so much time in Arabic, only to have let so much of it lapse since I graduated from college. And lapse it has. I am continuously amazed at how little Fosha I remember. The reason I struggled in ancient studies, is it turns out is that I like to learn a foreign language to communicate with people, to connect with them. It's hard to connect with dead people and dusty documents. So my Egyptian Aamiya outpaced my Fosha from the time I arrived in Egypt. And now, because Avram's teacher is Moroccan, and has a dislike to Egyptian Aamiya, and because Avram's program here does not teach any Aamiya really, I am attempting to re-learn Fosha.

It's almost like I've never learned Arabic at all, except I already know the alphabet, and instinctively know much of the grammar, although I've forgotten much , and I only need to hear a vocabulary once to learn it. One of my favorite phrases is, "Ana Ghadbana," or, "I'm stupid." But I am happy to be relearning it, as bad as my Arabic is, then to let it further slip into lingual oblivion in my mind. And I know that Arabic is not an easy language - it is one of the hardest languages that an English speaker can learn (underneath the tier of languages like Chinese, of course). So it's not surprising that even with a minor and with living abroad I never became fluent. But I still hate losing what I did have. And not just vaguely knowing I've lost it, but actually trying to communicate in it, and utterly failing.

In this same spirit, Avram last night decided we needed to restart reading the Hebrew bible every day together as well. That also went poorly, although oddly, because I took less of it than I ever took of Arabic, I have retained my biblical Hebrew better. Probably because it is such a simple language.

And I am living the dream that I described to my Study Abroad Director - married to someone involved in the Near East without having to be an Academic myself. And I really, really love it. Ill Hum d'lillah! (Praise God!)

* The Title comes from a joke my rommates in Egypt and I had. Whenever we wanted to sound pretentious, in a long, high tone drawn out accent we would say, "When I was on Mount Sinai..." And then fill in the sentence with even more pretention. Because of course, we had been on Mount Sinai (or what Helen, St. Constantine's Mother thought was Mount Sinai, at least.). Ahem. And I realize writing a post about exotic languages, etc, could sound a little pretentious.


  1. How I hate losing languages! I remember my shock a few years ago when I met a Russian couple on a plane, and after acing 3 years of college Russian, all I could say was "Hello. How are you? I am fine." I have now reached the point where I have lost more languages than I currently can speak, and am actually losing two more, while actively studying them! This does not bode well.

  2. My husband and I both have the same second language but I'm to embarrassed to speak it in front of him. I should get over that...

  3. Well, when *I* was on Mount Sinai....

    tee hee hee. Good times, good times. I still use my tourist knives from Egypt to decorate my apartment. It keeps the Jinn away. ;-)

  4. Every Sunday School comment should begin with "When I was on Mount Sinai . . ."

  5. Never be ashamed of improving your mind, and especially never be ashamed of largely using your mind in your stewardship as a wife and mother. I got all kinds of grief for "just" using my education for my family, but it has been greatly to my children's and my husband's advantage that I did.

  6. When I was on Mount Sinai with you...I would have wished for such a happy ending/new beginning to your Arabic story:)

  7. I don't know if you'll see a comment on a post back this far, but I loved this whole post. (I still remember how to say "Please don't smoke, I'm pregnant" in whatever brand of Arabic they speak in Amman, but I think I'd like to learn more some day.)