Learning Arabic over the last weeks has been a humbling, revealing and joyous experience. I have spent far too much time traveling the world with so little knowledge of local languages that Judy and I decided we would do are best to learn this aesthetically beautiful language. Though I have not been able to learn or remember much thus far, the experience has been edifying, and has served as a window on to so much more than the Arabic language.
Judy and I are taking two two-hour classes each week at Al Diwan, one of the language schools where DukeEngage students study when they are here in the summer. Its newly opened Maadi branch is a four minute walk from our apartment. The branch manager Mo’men is teaching us, and his support and enthusiasm buoys me when my aging brain can’t remember the word or pronunciation that I have learned for the 25th time. His warm welcome, the tea with mint from the garden and the family atmosphere that pervades Al Diwan has made this part of our week most welcome, despite my overwhelming feelings of incompetence. For our first class Mo’men invited us to share bread, cucumbers, tomatoes and mesh (old cheese) with him, introduced us to his wife Shu Shu who also teaches at Al Diwan, and beamed about his sons, one of whom is studying Engineering at Cairo University. Last week Judy and I joined all of the Al Diwan students for koshary in the courtyard of the school, and last week, upon learning that we liked hollowa (hallava) he summoned his colleague Omar to buy some for us which we shared while learning how to read and write. Al Diwan has become a place of comfort, where we learn not just about language but about prayer and revolution and family and friends.
The New faculty orientation at AUC provided us with about 4 hours of basic language instruction, where we learned some survival words and phrases. All of the instruction was phonetic transliteration, so though we were exposed to new and unfamiliar sounds, we were not exposed to the Arabic alphabet. When Judy and I were deciding what to study and how to study it and where to study it, our major predicament was whether or not we should learn the Arabic alphabet or simply learn words and phrases. (Also, one can study classic Arabic or Egyptian Arabic, we are doing the latter). I am glad we took much of the advice that we got from friends and colleagues here and that we are studying the alphabet, for though I will probably never be able to read or write, the alphabet and broader structure of the language has for me served as a window on Egypt, an unveiling if you will of the very form and structure of this place. Letter by letter and word by word, what once appeared to be utterly incomprehensible is now just slightly discernible.
I am familiar with Hebrew so have the experience of reading from right to left, but it is good to be reminded of this here. So it does remind me of Hebrew as do some of the letters and words. This linkage is important to remember as we also see and observe and sometimes experience the continued schism between the Arab world and Israel. The direction we read in here is an important reminder of similarities amidst the differences. Also like Hebrew, vowels are not often used and are placed above and below consonants. Many letters connect to other letters, and to add to my confusion, take a different form depending on whether they appear at the beginning, middle or end of a word. And so though knowing this has not really helped me to read per se, it has allowed me to look at what previously looked like beautiful scribble and to be able to discern discrete letters, words and logic.
And that in so many ways mirrors my experience and what I have learned during our six weeks in Cairo. Whether it is the traffic without lanes, the various forms and colors of the hagib, or the cacophony of the emerging political (dis) order, there is indeed a logic and form. It’s just not my logic and form, nor one that I know. And that lesson is the most important of all.