Sunday, November 12, 2006

For a little over a month, I’ve been learning Arabic twice a week through a university tutor. I thought I was just going to be learning to get by – some daily phrases that would help me barter and say hello and carry on a basic conversation. But no! We will learn to write before we can learn to speak! Then you can sound out words, even if you have no idea what they mean! I looked at the traditional alphabet that first day of tutoring and knew there was no hope. A little over a month later, I have made it through 70 pages of my study book and have just learned my first Arabic verb. My ambition to be speaking sentences by December has been doused by reality. I am truly humbled by the difficulty of this language. I feel like a baby, barely literate, being coddled by the nice women in the Arabic department who hold my hands and sugar me up when I am assigned to say something simple to them at the end of my lesson.

Many of the words are gendered. The words go from right to left. The possessive form is as difficult for English speakers as articles are for those learning English. The letters look different depending upon where they appear in the word, and some of them can connect to letters from the right but will not connect with letters coming after. When I make the mistake of trying to connect these letters, my tutor sternly says, “I told you! No link!” He is a stern man who answers his cell phone when I am sounding out words. The impromptu “No link!” has become part of our household lexicon.

I am humbled when my tutor shakes his head and says, “You didn’t study!” after I have spent hours the night before trying to understand my homework. But it is true that I can read now. It takes me twenty minutes to read a sentence, but I can read!

Since I am usually in Zamalek or at the university, I am around people who will answer in English even if I try to speak to them in Arabic. When we went to Bahariya, Samir was the only one we knew who could speak passable English. We also met a little girl who was very good with English. Other than that, with no alternatives, I found myself understanding and speaking more than I actually thought I had retained. Immersion. Of course.

There was one other man in Bawiti who knew enough English to draw a tourist crowd. Bayoumi was the owner of the Popular Restaurant, located across the street from our hotel. The restaurant consists of a latticed area holding the kitchen and one dining table in a building that looks like a cheery machinery shed. Outside are two long tables with colorful plastic chairs. The town of Bawiti is quite dusty, but the tables were impressively clean. The restaurant cooks a set meal a day. You get a pile of bread and several dishes – noodle soup, pickled lemons (an acquired taste) and olives, rice with vermicelli, stewed beans, potatoes, stewed peppers, eggplant, chicken, etc. The Popular Restaurant is also one of the only places in town that serves beer – Sakkara Gold for LE 15. We ate at the restaurant on our first night, and I managed to tell Bayoumi in Arabic that I was a vegetarian. His response gave me enough courage to keep trying out the language.

Everyone in town gravitated past this spot, where Bayoumi held court, drinking Bedouin tea, smooching children, and shouting to everyone he knew. He immediately made friends with J and greeted us loudly each morning when we came outside. He would say, “You come here for dinner? Hotel food no good!” One day as we came back from a walk around town, he sprang from behind a parked truck trying to scare us. Another day, when we had stopped in for a drink, he walked by and smacked us both on the foreheads. When I later asked Samir what the slap on the forehead meant, he said, “It’s OK,” his refrain, so I still don’t know if that old man was being affectionate or really just thought he could get away with smacking a couple of Americans on the head.

Every time Bayoumi saw us, he would yell, “Bush! No good!” and proceed to make a spurty noise to accompany a vigorous thumbs-down. Then he would say, “Americans! Good!” One night he and James ran through a lengthy list of American presidents, and Bayoumi gave his spurt or his thumbs-up. Kennedy! Good! James then listed off the Egyptian presidents he knew, and Bayoumi had nothing but praise. Later, Bayoumi leaned over to me and said secretively, “The American dollar. Very good.” Bayoumi’s photo is below. What you don’t see is that he is holding my hand, and it is very cute.

I have strayed from the main topic, but when I think of Bayoumi I think of the language – he had command over enough English and I had command over enough Arabic for us to have a good time, for us to avoid sitting uncomfortably in silence.

Now I have become addicted to learning Arabic, despite my slow learning curve. I am starting to hear words separated out when people speak around me. Signs and conversations are no longer indecipherable blurs but threads peppered with understandable notions.

I’ll close with a story about getting lost in Cairo this morning. You see, I had to have a blood test and other stuff to get my work visa, and today I was wandering about looking for the lab that turned out to be in a nameless building and in a clinic that made me yearn for the sealed buckets of needles in doctor’s offices at home and for the flawless blood-taking ability of Sonita, a nurse who works with my mom. But I walked right past this clinic without seeing it, just a few blocks from the university, and stepped into another realm. Donkeys, and men smoking sheesha, and more completely covered women.

As I walked by what seemed to be a school, I looked over to an alcove which opened onto a courtyard. Several men were standing around, as usual. When they spotted me, they shouted welcome and ran out to get me and brought me into the courtyard. Clearly, I had looked lost. One of them said, “I can understand you!” in English and then when I started to speak he said he could only speak French but he would take me to the man who spoke English. The man who spoke English looked like a promising fellow, with spectacles and a newspaper, but he too could not understand what I was saying about finding a lab. All of the men were speaking and jostling, and for a moment I remembered the stories about women getting harassed after Ramadan by herds of men. After all, they had brought me in this strange space, and the last woman I had seen was at least a block away. But, seriously, they were wearing old man trousers, and I never felt freaked out. Anyway, suddenly I spoke some Arabic to them, and a little more, and a little more. Each time I said something in Arabic, they cheered. I have never been to a country where attempting to learn the language is so highly praised at the slightest word. Turns out it did me no good because they only understood that I wanted to go to the university and not the university lab. Guy Who Speaks French jauntily put out his arm for me to take and led me toward the university, right back where I had started.

I’ll leave you with a photo from my workbook. You can see my freakish writing next to the neat printed Arabic.


Anonymous said...

Good story! can`t wait for more tales! Your mom tried to make a comment and it would`t take. Your adventure is taking me to places I have only dreamed of. If I only had a camel named Clyde! Remember the song! Later!

Mandy said...

Test comment.

kron said...

That photo is adorable. I loved this whole story, and reverberated sympathetically. Learning other languages is so disempowering; you're stripped of everything you once assumed about yourself. Doubly so if you're a writer.

Yul said...

Bayoumi reminds me of Jeff Probst, and how he would make faces and gestures behind people's back at tribal council. Thumbs up, Ozzy! Thumbs down, the love of Candice and Adam.

Mom said...

Seems like a lot of hard work - but you seem to enjoy what you are doing. Thanks for keeping us informed. Love (J's Mom)

Anonymous said...

Your ma is in awe!

Ginger said...

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sari said...

Happy Holidays, you two! What are your plans for Thanksgiving?

mandy said...

Interestingly enough, the university has a Thanksgiving break, presumably for the large amount of American faculty. We are going to write for Thanksgiving! And go out to eat at an Egyptian restaurant we've been hearing about. No tofurkey, alas.