Tag Archives: broken Arabic

You’re not from these parts are you

One of these things is not like the other

Brace yourselves. This might shock some of you.

I am not fluent in Arabic. It’s unbelievable, I know, and after 4 years of studying it no less. Moreover, I do not believe I will ever be “fluent” in Arabic. Though in the far future I may be able to consume the Arabic language perfectly through the mediums of reading and listening, I am completely certain that my language production will remain quite obviously non-native.

I dream of future self like this:

Native Arabic Speaker: “Hey you down for getting a bite to eat after we ditch this joint”

Me: “I think that a nice plan but first of all it is necessary for me to go to the house and get my knapsack since I have left her there.”

Despite my language short comings, I can still speak Arabic better than most infants, toddlers, and other foreigners. Therefore, I feel my Arabic studies cast in a particularly ironic light when someone, perhaps a toy shop employee, sees me, surmises that I am not Egyptian and instantly becomes mute, believing he cannot say one word to me unless he says it in English, a language in which he never progressed past “Welcome in Egypt.” He quickly determines that his only other option for communicating with me is through a complicated series of sounds, hand motions, and facial expressions that would be much simplified through the miracle of speech, which he has already ruled out.

Should I begin this mode of vocal communication by speaking in Arabic, the result is usually confusion, surprise, and then disbelief, sometimes with a swift return to hand motions and one word sentences. In the most depressing of cases, the person will not recognize that I’m speaking Arabic (albeit poorly) and will ask someone passing by if they speak English, and I’m standing there like an idiot thinking about my past four years of Arabic study, realizing it’s all led to this point of me being unable to find out where the spices are at the grocery store.

Here’s another example:

Man who comes to check the gas meter knocks on the door. I answer it. He notices I’m probably foreign, tipped off by the American flag I drape around myself at home. I’m speaking in Arabic, he’s speaking in English.

Me: Good morning.

Him: Good morning. (motions to his notebook) Gas.

Me: Please come in.

Him: (motioning with questioning signals, asking where the meter is)

Me: It’s in the kitchen.

Him: (goes into the kitchen, checks the meter, emerges) Eight pound.

Me: (I pay him and he gets ready to go) Goodbye

Him: Bye Bye

Of course, there are plenty of circumstances when I have wonderful conversations with people who are delighted to know that I can speak their mother tongue despite the fact they are slightly baffled that anyone would learn Arabic, saying

“Why? Why do you learn Arabic?” (I often ask myself the same question after every disaster similar to the spice search.)

But occasionally you meet a person who simply will not believe someone of my appearance could speak scribbly. Encountering this disbelief  is just another one of the joys of learning Arabic.

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34 ways to express cowardice when confronted with a difficult test

The end of the summer portion of the CASA program is near and we are currently in what might be called finals week. Normally, final tests have some relation to the material presented throughout the course of study, measuring the cumulative progress of the pupil. In the case of the tests of Professor Harb, however, the test has no purpose aside from inspiring fear and hopelessness among her students. Let the incontinent student beware:  you might need a fresh pair of pants after glancing through the exercises on the test and realizing no amount of studying would have saved you from the ensuing humiliation.

In other words, Professor Harb’s test was difficult. After finishing the 2 hr and 15 minute long affair, I rose from my seat and limped to her desk to turn in the test, my left foot having fallen asleep while my brain was being crushed by the Arabic language. Cackling at my pain, she says, “What, you can’t even walk?” I whimper, “The test was hard….” She gets up from her chair, walks around the side of the desk, slaps me across the face, and says, “Shame on you. The test was not hard.” I made up that last portion, but she might as well have slapped me. With the one exception of the entrance exam for CASA itself, this was the hardest Arabic test that I have faced in my life, but it is over now and there is nothing left to do in Prof. Harb’s class except for doodle and drool during the 2 hours I have with her tomorrow.

But in all honesty, Prof. Harb is great and she’s probably one of the best professors in the program and I’m happy to be in her class because I learn things and she loves teaching. She considers us her children and I consider her a non-hostile life form, so it’s not like I’m unhappy in the class. But the test was hard, so here are possible routes of action I thought for the future (read: fall) when faced with a similarly difficult test.

1. Stealthily climb out the window and down the side of the building.

2. Jump out the window and end it all.

3. Jump out the window and onto the pergola 20 meters from the side of the building. Climb down the pergola to safety.

4. Hide behind a curtain.

5. Hide under your desk.

6. Hide under someone else’s desk.

7. Hide under professor’s desk.

8. Go to the bathroom for the entire class period.

9. Hide behind the projection screen and hope she doesn’t see your feet.

10. Camouflage yourself by putting the wastebasket on your head.

11. Plead insanity.

12. Plead stupidity.

13. Sit for a while and try to take the test, then pretend to realize you’re from a different class and don’t belong amongst the test takers.

14. Pretend you’re someone else and only look like the student who was supposed to take the test.

15. Kill the professor.

16. Kill the other students, then the professor.

17. Kill yourself, then the other students, then the professor.

18. Close your eyes and hope it all goes away.

19. Close your eyes, lift your hands towards heaven, and offer the test as a sacrifice to God, pleading for Him to consume it with an all consuming fire.

20. Set the test on fire yourself, claim your classmate did it, then run out of the room screaming.

21. Make a paper airplane out of the test and then set it on fire.

22. Eat the test instead of taking it, claiming to have misunderstood the exercise.

23. Return the test to the teacher with a spit mark on it saying you found it insultingly simple.

24. Report the test as an incident of abuse.

25. Report the test as an act of terrorism that inspired fear in the heart of an American.

26. Use the test as a diary to talk about your feelings and hope that’s good enough.

27. Explain that you never actually learned how to read.

28. Hide the test and say you lost it. Repeat as needed.

29. Sprinkle soil and grass seeds on the test, moisten with water, plant in the earth and watch it grow the answers. Harvest answers and turn in the test.

30. Vomit on the test. Repeat as needed.

31. Say you appreciate the offer but you really couldn’t take a test today. Make sure you’re sincere.

32. Claim a religious reason: Arabic tests are considered an abomination on the 20th of every month according to Leviticus.

33. Try bargaining with the test; talk it down from its level of difficulty.

34. Stir up philosophical questioning amongst the students, aiming for a mass walkout: “What’s the point of all this anyways? In a few billion years when the sun blows up and the earth becomes a potato chip, who will care how we did on a stupid Arabic test?

35. Take an aspirin and then take the test. Obtain a tissue for the ensuing nosebleed. Schedule an MRI to make sure everything is still okay up there afterwards.

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Sit-in or sit down?

Politically minded people/ people who are mildly aware of their surroundings would note that there has been some

The Arabic actually read's "Emily's Jam"

activity going on in Tahrir square. The protests that began yesterday in earnest continue in the form of a sit-in, thus all traffic through the square is completely blocked off and identity cards are required to get through. The political future of Egypt is still very much in flux and it would do well for stakeholders as well as those concerned to pay close attention.

While a sit-in does have its benefits, there is also another option, a nobler option one might say: the sit down, as in sitting down at a café and drinking coffee/sheesha for hours on end (the verb in Arabic is the same). I choose this option, and undertook both activities this very night to the great surprise of no one. I and “the gang” headed to “our” favorite spot, a spot I would even call my “jam,” also known as Boursa since it is an outspreading of open air cafes in the closed off streets of the financial market and the word Boursa means stock exchange in Arabic (I think).

At Boursa, over games of backgammon and dominoes, we discussed topics ranging from American politics to American movies, with varying degrees of success. When discussing the election of 2004, we hit a stumbling block when trying to explain the Electoral College, which remains somewhat of a mystery even in America. American films were a bit easier, though I and friend were proven to be ignorant of many films our country has birthed.

On the way home in a taxi, the driver explained to me that he had to go around Tahrir square and take a different bridge to Doqqi. Not understanding what he said except for the word “bridge” and “Tahrir” and thinking he was asking me which way I wanted to go I said “Whatever you like…whichever is easier,” and then he said, “No, Tahrir Square is closed off. No one can get through.” And again I replied, “I don’t care which way you go…at your ease.” By then we were passing a street that enters Tahrir and I could see it was completely blocked off by cars and there was a big white tent in the middle. As he turned away from the square towards the different bridge I finally realized what was going on as he said, “There is a sit in…the square is completely closed.” And I replied, “Oh….well I guess you can go this way.” And we both chuckled.

Though I told him to take me to the Ambassadors’ Hotel which is very close to where I live, we ended up making the entire trip to the door of my apartment building after a lot of “You can let me out here…well I guess a little further…here’s good…well maybe up ahead a little bit…yeah just turn here…” And we both chuckled again. He tried to refuse payment, but I showed him, and I gave him a 25 cent tip (of borrowed money). I meant it to be more but my skills in mathematics are very limited. This driver more than made up for the loser we had last night. There are good taxi drivers…may the entire world know!

Also, Che Guevara was at Boursa tonight, topping off a long day of post-death revolution making with smooth sheesha smoke.

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Didn’t understand and wouldn’t like it if I did

I saw a movie, “ِAn Ant’s Cry,” tonight. The experience was costly in a lot of ways…money, time, broken expectations. The group met outside of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, in the middle of an unfamiliar district that was in a wasteland of hospitals and other hotels along the Cornish of the Nile. I though it a random place to meet for a movie unless, of course, the milkshake shop we planned to visit beforehand was close by. It turns out both were about a twenty minute walk away, but we were not informed of the distance beforehand, so it seemed we were walking down the middle of the street, cars zooming past us, heading towards an undetermined destination for an infinite amount of time.

We reach the movie theater and it turns out there’s not enough time to get milkshakes before the movie starts. At any rate, tickets are purchased and then comes the best part of the night: the popcorn. Oh it was quite salty and delicious and gone within 3 minutes.  It was just the thing a weary traveler needs after a trek along the dusty streets of Cairo.

The usher shows us our seats in the movie theater, a baby sits directly behind me, and the movie begins. At this point, I saw the movie as a barrier between me and my milkshake. The movie finally ended after an hour and a half of blaring music and shouting that was less than half-understood. We were rewarded for our patience with milkshakes, which were large and relatively delicious.

So I guess the story has a satisfactory ending, despite the fact I made a critical error tonight when I said “I just want to try you” instead of “I just want to try it” regarding a dessert one of our friends had invited us to enjoy. Ooops. Pronouns are hard to get right sometimes.

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My pilot pens!

The flight from Amman to Cairo smelled like cardamom. Oh, to be back in the Middle East where every day is a feast for the nose.

Cairo: I wait at the baggage claim for my luggage. I continue waiting as everyone else leaves. I ask Mr. Man in broken Arabic if there is more luggage. There is not. I go to the claim desk and have a lovely conversation with the man there and he tells me they will bring my luggage to the airport when they find it. I’m not hopeful, but I think to myself, “I musn’t forget my passport” since I had given it to him while he was searching for the luggage.

I find the driver for CASA and there’s another student waiting with him speaking what sounds like perfect Egyptian colloquial. I, on the other hand, listen to a stream of sounds come from the driver’s mouth and realize he’s asking me where I’m staying. We finally arrive at the May Fair hotel after maneuvering through the labyrinth of concrete, neon, merchandise, construction, and people that is Cairo. I’m talking to the man at the desk in broken Moroccan/Formal/and Egyptian Arabic and he asks to see my passport since it’s required for everyone to stay at the hotel. I begin sweating…this is the closest to panic I’ve been in a while. I realize my mistake and stare off into space after fumbling blindly in my bag. He asks me where it is and I try to explain, jabbering in some dreadful mixture of “Arabic.”

“Emily?” He says. The baggage people had called the hotel. They have my passport. So far, only one out of three essential things has made it safely to my hotel in Cairo, and that is my body itself.

Also, the thing I was most worried about losing were my little spoon and my year-long supply of Pilot pens. How will I write without them? I’ll just have to go home…..

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