Everything in its time is sweet.
In America, in the era of the War on Terror, Arabic has taken on a certain air of menace and danger. There’s a jihad, a holy war, going on, the newspapers report. In clips from the front lines of conflict, insurgents bellow, “Allahu akbar!” from behind grenade launchers. Hijabs are symbols of extremism or tools of misogynist oppression, depending on which television pundit is talking. Fatwas are synonymous with death sentences. Al-Qaeda has become a generic term for Islamic terrorists of any kind.
But from daily life in Egypt, where I first studied Arabic, I gleaned entirely different meanings for these same words. A jihad is that extra effort you put in to achieve a personal goal. People exclaim “Allahu akbar!” in the same way I say “Oh. My. God!” Women wear hijabs as cute accessories that pull an outfit together. Fatwas are doled out by radio and TV personalities, combining entertainment and advice much as Judge Judy and Oprah do in America.
Al-Qaeda, though? Fair enough. That word has always struck terror in me, not for its literal meaning, “the foundation,” but because its plural is the term for grammar.
This is a book about the Middle East, but it is not about holy wars or death sentences or oppression. Instead, it is about the Arabic language and how it’s used every day: to tell stories, sing songs, and discuss personal troubles, aspirations, friendships, and fashion choices. It is about Arabic for its own beautiful sake, and as a key to a culture and the three hundred million people who speak the language.
Few Americans have a clear image of daily life in the Arab world, which means they have no baseline against which to compare the latest shocking newspaper headlines. Without a sense of what’s normal (the news is, by definition, the abnormal), all the riots, car bombs, and civil wars easily expand to fill the imagination. This book attempts to show what’s not normally covered in the media, the familiar settings — shoe shops, parking lots, chicken restaurants, living rooms — that exist in even the most foreign-seeming countries.
This is also a book about how I learned Arabic, or tried to, in my travels around the Arab world. At age thirty-nine, in pursuit of some kind of fluency, I embarked on a series of trips to Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and the United Arabic Emirates. If this were a story about French or Italian, I wouldn’t have to explain further. European languages frequently inspire lifelong romances, and people decamp to Tuscany or Provence without a second thought. With Arabic, it’s not so simple.
In fact, you could say that with Arabic and me, it’s complicated. We go way back, to the early 1990s, when the language was an obscure field in America, considered about as useful as Old Norse. (An acquaintance assumed she had misheard, and that I studied aerobics, because that made more sense.) I took it up as a college freshman, bent on reinvention. Arabic was interesting, I reasoned, and would make me seem interesting too.
Arabic wasn’t my first foreign language — I had high school French and a bit of Spanish — but it was the first I used in a foreign land. When I went to Egypt to study for the summer, at age twenty, I marveled at how I could utter a seemingly random collection of sounds to a waiter, and presto, there appeared a glass of fresh strawberry juice, garnished with a sprig of mint. I felt like a magician. In the classroom, Arabic had been hypothetical; in Cairo, it worked.
The marvel of that summer drove me for years of classes in America. But by the time I returned to Cairo, for a full year of advanced Arabic, I was burned out. I don’t think it’s making excuses to mention that Arabic is hard. As a professor once told me, Arabic takes seven years to learn and a lifetime to master. Arabic grammar is a complex web of if-then statements. The vocabulary is deep enough to drown in — the word for dictionary originally meant sea.
Most confounding of all is that there is not one Arabic, but many. Written Arabic is relatively consistent across five million square miles, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. Spoken Arabic, by contrast, takes dozens of forms, in twenty-five countries in Africa and Asia. For seven years, I studied primarily the written language. I could parse a poem composed in the sixth century, but barely chit-chat with my landlord in Cairo. When I left school, I had a master’s degree, yet I had felt fluent only a few times.
After school, I moved to New York City. At first, I maintained a little connection to my studies — as a tourist, I visited Lebanon, Syria, and Morocco. But soon I built a career as a travel writer to other destinations; I got married and bought a house. Those years of Arabic, I thought, were an unfortunate diversion, a false start on adulthood.
Yet the language continued to rattle around in my brain. I noticed it everywhere my work took me. In New Mexico, the irrigation ditches are called acequias, from as-saqiyah, the waterwheel. At a flamenco show in Spain, the audience cries “Ojalá!” (Allah!) I lectured my friends on the Arabic etymology of English words: “‘Algebra,’ sure, everyone knows that — but did you know ‘sugar,’ and ‘coffee,’ and ‘alcohol’?”
In 2007, after nine years away from Egypt, I went back, to update a guidebook. I was surprised to find my Arabic not as rusty as I’d expected, despite so much neglect. I enjoyed speaking Arabic. I even missed it a little.
Here is where I should mention that I am sometimes overly optimistic, or a bit greedy, or just delusional. My father, at age seventy-six, often jokes that he’s still looking for a musical instrument that he can play without having to practice. I have the same hopeful attitude toward languages. I have tried a bit of Persian, a year of Dutch, a week of Thai; I dip into Spanish every few years. I imagine that if I could find the one language that clicks in every way — the right teacher, the right culture, the right mix of fascinating quirks and charming yet logical idioms — I might finally be fluent in something.
Yes, Arabic is monumentally difficult, but my return to Egypt reminded me that the language is full of the quirks and idioms I loved. I wanted to plunge back into Arabic, to rekindle the thrill I’d felt on my first trip to Cairo at the age of twenty. The key was to find the right circumstances.
When I started investigating classes in the Middle East, my husband, who had known me in graduate school, was skeptical. “Are you sure you want to study Arabic again?” he said. “You were so miserable then.”
Things would be different this time, I told him. I would focus on spoken Arabic, not on the written version and all its grammatical complications. I would interact with people, not books. Classes had improved since the 1990s, when only about five thousand students were studying Arabic in the United States. Some of my professors in those years had taught Arabic as if it were a dead language, reading the text aloud, line by line, then translating to English and analyzing the grammar. Now thirty-five thousand students were enrolled in Arabic classes, and they had more dynamic teachers, jazzie...