Friday, January 31, 2014

Tea and Arabic

Hospitality Tea with Mary Anne at Fanar
March 2013
 
I'd passed her desk three times - as I skipped from administrative offices, to the bathroom, to class, to offices.  Hurry, hurry, rush, rush.  "Salaam alaykum!" I said.  Peace be with you.
 
"Wo alaykum salaam," she said.  And with you, peace.  She was covered from head to toe with a dark veil over her face.  She held out a hand as if to say, Stop, wait.
 
I am fluent in Arabic - as long as dialogue is limited to:
Hi.  How are you?  I am good.  How do you say (English word)?  Where are you from?  Where is the bathroom?  Do you have it in red/black?  How much?  That's expensive!  I'm married.  My husband works (here/there/Heart of Doha).  I love you/him/her/them/it.  Yes/no/maybe.  Wow, that's a lot of cars/traffic!
 
I can also say:
  • "where" in Qatari, Egyptian and classical Arabic (wayn-fayn-ayna?)
  • please/thank you/excuse me/I don't understand
  • no problem/whatever

I can greet a man or a woman in Qatari dialect (Shlonich?  Shlonak?).  And, while I don't always remember the exact, proper response, I am ready to reply "things are good" (the only acceptable answer to "how are you?") in a variety of ways: bikheer/tammam/alhumduilallah/kwayiss.
 
Of course, my fluency is enhanced when the person I'm talking to: a) confines conversation to words I already understand; b) doesn't speak Arabic; c) doesn't respond.
 
"The Arabic language is beautiful and easy."
- Fanar Arabic book, level three, pg. 45
 
But that's just the spoken language.  Written Arabic is another thing altogether.
 
Subject, predicate, noun, verb, object - these are concepts that translate into English (sort of).  Rufa', mansoob, majroor, majzoom, moodahf wo moodahf ilee - these ideas are harder to reconcile with my current knowledge-on-tap.  Plus, in Arabic, there are words that change depending upon where they appear in the sentence (ma'raab) and those than keep the same form (mabnee) "no matter what."  There are singular, plural and dual tenses for - literally, it seems - everything; male and female adjective endings and those circle and dash-like symbols that appear above and below words.
 
Yeah, those little marks mean something.  Sometimes they mean everything.
 
Qatar's national language is Arabic but given the distorted expat to homeboy/girl ratio, English is more widely spoken.  This means that studying Arabic in Qatar today is much like attempting to learn Arabic in, say, New York, Kansas City or Sweden.
 
I speak Arabic for approximately two hours, twice a week.  In my class - which is conducted in Arabic.  And at Fanar - where kind ladies from a variety of places pause in the midst of their busy workday to wait patiently for the puddle in my head to form and output something response-worthy.  Every now and then I get it right.  But most days these wise, wonderful, patient women earn extra points toward heavenly rewards thanks to two hours, twice a week of, well…me.
 
Um.
 
The woman grasped my hand, pulled me close.  She flipped the veil over the back of her head.  "Anti heloo," she said.  You're sweet.  She smiled.  "But you must relax, slow down, sit."  She patted the chair beside her.  "Drink tea.  The language, it will come."
 
To pause the clock for tea while there are questions to ask, books to read, places to go, things to do, language to learn?  This is a lesson too: in patience, tolerance, culture, understanding…and, it seems, Arabic.
 
You must feel the language.
- Arabic teacher

Post a Comment