As of this morning, I have completed my first module of Arabic (only twenty three to go!). So I thought that this might be an appropriate time to write a little of what I’m doing here.
My course is for a rather vague mixture of Arabic called Modern Standard. Though this is mostly fus’ha, or classical Arabic (as one will find on the news channels, in books, newspapers, or any religious or educative context), it is also partly a’mir, or Egyptian colloquial Arabic (as one will find on many entertainment programmes, or spoken on the street). They have a partly shared vocabulary, but they pronounce certain letters differently, and the grammar is also slightly different. I attend school for five days a week, of which three are fus’ha and two are a’mir, with different teachers. The vocabulary is really the sticking point in all this: at the start of the module, I was being given around 60 words a day to memorise for fus’ha, and another 30 or so for a’mir. Of course, they all sound Arabic, so of those that I did learn (I confess to not managing them all…) I was constantly mixing them up, and using the wrong ones in the wrong classes. This doesn’t particularly matter when one is using fus’ha vocabulary in an a’mir context – most people will understand fus’ha, even if they don’t speak it. It matters much more when using an a’mir word in a fus’ha context: though Egyptian a’mir is useful, due to the dominance of Egyptian satellite channels across the region, it is not spoken outside Egypt (every country has their own a’mir, and some have several).
I’ve done pretty well with my teachers. My fus’ha teacher (E, one daughter, age five, whose homework seems very similar to mine!) is very good, and quite demanding in what work she wants me to do, but friendly too. My a’mir teacher (N) is also good, and has a degree in linguistics, which is quite helpful for learning the sounds of the letters. They do as much of the lessons as they can in Arabic. At the moment, ‘as much as they can’ is frankly very little, though it has increased marginally over the past month. They have their peculiar characteristics in teaching too. There are certain words that prove very difficult to remember (with no apparent logic in which words they are), and I stumble frequently when I reach them. E’s response is generally something along the lines of “you haven’t forgotten this again! I will kill you!”. This can sometimes be quite menacing… N, on the other hand, doesn’t change her demeanour at all, but simply makes me repeat the word over, and over, and over, and over. It remains to be seen whether my death will be by irate teacher, or sheer boredom.
So, enough of the lessons themselves: time for a story.
I should start by stating that my teachers, when they express a view at all, tend to be quite moderate and careful not to offend: one of the things that makes what I’m about to recount worthy of note. The other is that this story covers two separate conversations, with different teachers, on different days, which led to them both expressing very similar views. The first conversation was with N. We’d finished a lesson, and she was asking me whether I had yet visited the Library of Alexandria (a very impressive building, with approximately the same selection of books as your average village library). She told me that when I did I should be sure to visit the Anwar Sadat exhibition, which included such things as the blood-stained clothes that he was wearing when he was assassinated (indeed, there is nothing I like more than to see a blood-stained shirt…). I asked her what she thought of Sadat, to which she was initially evasive: “Well, some people think he is a hero, and the people that assassinated him were traitors, and some people think that he was a traitor, because of the Treaty [with Israel], and the people that assassinated him were heroes”. I pressed her. “Well I think at least he was a leader, whether you agree with what he did or not. Mubarak wasn’t a leader, he was just a thief.” I asked her whether she agreed with what Sadat did. There was a long hesitation, then: “I’m going to tell you what I really think. They say [I’m not sure who ‘they are…] that we shouldn’t talk about politics with foreigners, but I want you to know what we really think. Israel is our enemy. Israel will always be our enemy, and I hate them”. She responded by asking me what I thought; I made some non-committal answer about having Israeli friends, but understanding that there were injustices on both sides. As non-committal answers go, it was clear from her face that I had fallen far short of the mark! She felt she needed to explain further: “The thing is, Muslims believe that one of the signs of the last days is a big war between Muslims and Jews, and the Muslims will win. So they must always be our enemies: how could we make peace with them? But”, she smiled wryly, “if the Muslims will win, at least we know that the last days are a long way off!” I did some asking around: it seems that this ‘sign’ comes from the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet, and other early Islamic leaders). The person I asked said that whether this particular saying was genuinely from the Prophet was a contentious issue. It is, however, hard to tell if I was just being told what it was thought I wanted to hear…
The second conversation was the next day, with E. We were looking at a map in the textbook, naming countries (this is the kind of exciting thing that learning Arabic can bring you!). Israel is almost always labelled Falestine on Arab maps; on this map, however, it was labelled Izreel-Falestine (the textbook is American). E made a disapproving noise when I read this. I looked at her questioningly. “This is usually a good textbook, but I don’t like using it because of this.” She paused. I asked her what she thought of the whole issue. “I hate them as my enemy. I hate the country, not the people.” Another pause. “No, I hate the people and the country. My friends tell me I should be generous in my thoughts, and I should not hate the people, but I cannot help it. I hate them, and what they do.” My impression is that this is a pretty common feeling.
It may be worth noting that in history lessons all children here are taught of Israeli aggression since Israel’s foundation – and incidentally, they’re taught of the great Egyptian victory liberating the Sinai in the Yom Kippur War, with no mention of how that war ended. For those who worry about the limited breadth of history that is taught in British schools, be thankful that things aren’t generally taught that never happened.
I was going to write about the excitements of getting my visa, but I fear that to add that to an already long post would try your patience. Maybe next time!