Saturday, October 13, 2012

Learning AAAHHHrabic

The past weeks has been full of curses and blessings.
I came to Egypt not knowing a word of Arabic. I was originally studying Latin America and I prided myself on my Spanish speaking skills and ability to code switch in and out of Chiapanecan (a state in Mexico I had conducted research in) and US cultures. I naively thought Egypt would be relatively as easy as researching in Mexico. I never realized how foreign Arabic sounds to me. I try to strain my ears when speaking to my baowab (doorman), searching through the string of “ga’s” and “kha’s” for a single recognizable word. Midway through the week, I realized that my inability to communicate made me sulk on the balcony. A part of me felt like I made a terrible mistake coming to Cairo. For starters I don’t speak the language. My parents encouraged me- it would be just fine. That was why I was going to Cairo. I sometimes feel that I should have fought with them for Arabic classes over the summer! I would be able to smile and say Salaam on the street without flinching or scold the fruit seller who I know whispers dirty things to me in my ear as I pass by, but I can’t even understand him! I sit here deaf and dumb in my new world.  
I am really concerned about the language barrier. Perhaps it is my own ego but I gloat on my anthropological lens that had been finely tuned by a rich blend of theory classes peppered with colorful, insightful, and complex ethnographies. I guess academia didnt’t prepare me for misplaced syllables in my speech. My goal here in Cairo is to plug into the academic and artistic micro-cultures here in the city. I know that in intellectual circles, language will not be a barrier. But I want to refer to an Umm Khalthoum song and share this within the new circles I am in the process of connecting with. I also want to be able to greet my neighbors in proper Arabic. The language barrier may be frustrating but moments although sour at times, can be so wonderful.
My first day in Cairo I found the Dokki metro and made my way to Islamic Cairo only with the help of a map. I even haggled for hibiscus tea. I prided myself in finding my stride amongst the tides of traffic.          
When the tongue fails, my fingers do the talking. I was embarrassed by the very notion of people possibly getting frustrated with the clumsiness of my Arabic, but that is exactly why I am here. I should be humbled. Soon enough, insha’ Allah, the squiggly lines on street signs will read as ‘Tahrir Street’ or ‘NaHda Street’. Sometimes I envy my classmates as they are able to at least speak to their baowab as they pass by him. But I know that it is difficult for them too. My blessing is the suppression of my ego. I think this will make learning Arabic easier for me. Learning a language means being a child again. My schema is constantly stimulated by Arabic. Maybe because I am in survival mode, but I am starting to remember certain letter patterns while looking at street signs. I am trying to make connections between what I know and what I do not. Songs will help. Or that is what I am told. I know it is silly but making pneumonic devices will help. Singing will help. Giant ruled pages of notebook paper will help. I will learn as though I am in elementary school again. Although it makes me squirm, I will have to listen and sing-a-long with alphabet songs. Only now the songs are in Arabic with birds shaped like “miims” and alligators that like “ghayns”. Cue the music- it is time for Arabic class.

1 comment:

  1. you certainly have a way with words, albeit not Arabic ones, but I imagine you'll gleefully get there eventually. :)