Saturday, September 24, 2005

language jollies

I am here to learn Arabic, among other things. At this stage, having been here just about a month, that is what I have spent most of my time doing: hours in class and hours outside of class every day, with 1-day weekends so far. So much studying that I have visited hardly any of the touristy sites in the city, and I've only left ash-Sham once. (ash-Sham is Damascus' common name.) This is okay with me though: the theory is that the sooner I become competent (and then fluent) in the language, the more valuable the rest of my time here will be. I also imagine that the value I will get out of those touristy sites then will be even greater than I would now. I am not at any university program, but instead studying with a private teacher named Hussein. This guy is an amazing character: he's got a rare theory about the Arabic language, a rare program that (supposedly) successfully teach foreigners Arabic, and a personality that is all his own.

For the uninitiated, here's a simplified rundown of Arabic's identity crisis: is the true language the spoken dialects that every Arab learns as a child and speaks every day, or is it the written Arabic of newspapers and television news that unites all the countries of the Arab world? Hussein's take on all this is of a "unified Arabic" that identifies the connections, similarities, and differences between the spoken dialects, modern written, and classical Arabic. A pretty cool idea, I think. Despite his talk of "unity," however, Hussein's true favor definitely lies with spoken Arabic as the most vibrant and interesting part of the language. I don't know if I quite agree with him, but I am willing to roll with his opinion for the moment, in order to learn this language.

At this point, therefore, I am only studying the spoken – not reading newspapers, texts, or anything besides signs in shops. The theory is that I'm learning as an Arab does (roughly): first the spoken, then the written. We'll see how it goes. It will definitely take some extra work to keep the differences between the two separated in my brain, but worth it, I believe, since both seem so important to understanding this culture. You can't have one without with other. The first few weeks were a course made up of 30-some chapters that Hussein has written; each chapter is a dialogue based on some everyday situation: meeting people, taking a taxi, or buying shoes and the like. That was all well and good, but now I have hit upon the real gem of his program: "Yawmiyyaat `Aa'iliyye." This is a Damascus radio drama that Hussein has transcribed after recording it from the radio. (Legal? who cares, I'm learning it.) The title means "Family Diary" and the two characters are Abd ur-Rahmaan and Hadiyye, a husband and wife team. The introductory song that the two of them sing at the beginning of every episode gives a pretty good feel of this. Here is my rough translation. I love the goofy music that accompanies it, though since I hear it 20 times a day, I imagine I'll soon be tired of it.

Hadiyye: Where are you Abd ur-Rahmaan?
Abd ur-Rahmaan: Who is calling me?
H: I'm your wife, can't you hear?
A: What does this wife of mine want with me?
H: The radio station called me, … I got up and picked up the receiver…
A: What did they say?
H: They want us to present for them a play.
A: What should we talk about in it?
H: About our daily life!
[Musical interlude with voice-over: "Family Diary"]
A: Who wants to write it?
H: Abd ul-Kariim Ismaa'iil
A: Who wants to direct it?
H: The director is Marwan Qanuu`
A: And who wants to act in it? … Tell me and don't be embarrassed…
H: Wafaa' bint il-Muusallii and `Asaam ibn al-`Abaji
A: You really escaped from my saddlebag!!

Quite a rich text, eh? As we see from the first couple of lines, these two are always arguing and making fun of each other – it's genuinely very funny. Also at the end we see an idiom – and the episodes are full of proverbs, polite expressions, idioms, and religious expressions. This particular idiom (the one about the saddlebag) means "you are cleverer than me," the source of it being: if a bird you caught escapes from your saddlebag, it is cleverer than you. I suppose this could be referring to the fact that as Hadiyye says the names of the actors she is actually talking about "herself" or the "person depicting herself" – clever in a "meta" sense, perhaps? I don't know. A deeper part of me suspects that this particular idiom is in there for a more practical reason: "my saddlebag" and "embarrassed" both rhyme with "`Abaji."

The episodes themselves really are just about daily life. Hadiyye and `Aboody (her pet name for him) discuss taking out the trash, buying meat, quitting smoking, and who's going to make the coffee. The actors are great – just hearing their voices, even before I understand, is hilarious. As I said before, it's filled with slang, proverbs, idioms – language at it's realest. Hussein is very good at explaining these things, as well as pointing out which elements are particular to the Damascus dialect, which to the whole region, and which to written as well as spoken Arabic. I really love listening to these plays and working on understanding and repeating them.

So, am I learning anything? Yes, I think, but sometimes it's hard to see that here in the thick of it. The good news is that almost every day, I hear people on the street using some word or idiom that I learned that very day. My comprehension is definitely many times better than it was 4 weeks ago. Speaking is more of a mixed bag. I still often mumble and stumble over even the simplest interactions (buying bread maybe) that I have done almost every day here. My pronunciation has improved, since sometimes people assume from it that I'm fluent. I walk into a shop, say my prepared line ("Hi, I'm looking for the shampoo.") and then I have to stumble and mumble after they answer me in a full-speed sentence that I have not understood a lick
of. Despite the daily frustrations, however, there have been some breakthrough moments, such as a really nice conversation I had with a taxi driver last week, all in Arabic.

All in all, it seems, the situation is good. I like this language a lot, and I'm enjoying myself with these lessons. I'm aiming to keep my nose to the grindstone and study hard so that I can really master it as soon as possible, insha'allah.


Anonymous Arielle said...

Wow Richie. Sounds like you're having a truly educational experience. Your analysis of the language was like a paragraph from a thesis . . . hmmm . . . I'm glad you're alive and well and even prospering. I miss you muchly but can't wait to read more of your perspectives.

5:01 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

Richard, I am reading your posts at the suggestion of Gabe and Theresa. Arabic language has always seemed way too difficult to me even tho I have known several Americans who mastered it enough to teach at the college level. I visited Damascus in 1975, for 3 days! I think I would like to visit there again; who knows? I wish you well in your endeavors.

7:42 PM  
Anonymous Colby said...

Rich! I recently learned of this amazing blog that you have put up for us poor saps in the states to peruse. Thank you very much for it. I look forward to reading the rest of it. It's very exciting for me! It makes me glad to hear your voice, even if only in writing. I hope that you are well and that we will talk again soon.

10:05 AM  

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