I’ve been refreshing my Arabic, once again, for maybe the tenth time in my life.
I originally learned a little bit of Arabic in 8th grade, when my family moved to Kuwait. It was a requirement for the curriculum at the private school we attended. I had to take just one course of Arabic as a Foreign Language (AFL). I was only exposed to the language for 6 months total, and for most of that time, I knew next-to-nothing. I could have taken greater advantage, but I certainly learned enough to get by. I managed to learn to read and write, which is actually really only helpful if you also know some words. Of course I knew “y’allah!!” and “shukran”, but I wasn’t equipped with the tools for learning a new language and I didn’t take the time to practice as much as I could have considering the unlimited number of Arabs available to speak Arabic with back then.
At some point after we returned from Kuwait, I purchased my own Living Language Arabic course and began listening to a CD that would say a phrase in Arabic and then repeat with an English translation. I think I did this sometime while I was still in high school, because I had retained the alphabet from 8th grade. I remembered the middle school instructor taking us through each letter as it sounds with all three vowels: “aah, ooh, eeh- baa, boo, bee- ta, tu, ti- tha, thu, the,” and so on. This helped a lot with pronunciation, and hearing the very subtle differences in some of the letters that to Americans can sound the same, like siin and saad, for example. Americans don’t pick up on the depth of saad versus siin- for us its all s’s. With the CD recordings, I was actually starting to get even better at the pronunciation because I could read from the workbook while listening and then I could listen later while I was driving and I could remember the letters that I already knew.
When I tutored Arabic in college, I became more aware of particular points of difficulty with hearing the differences in the way we Americans might hear certain letters pronounced in Arabic. I think in Arabic 1, we had a few other students, but by Arabic 2, it was just me and twins. They essentially said they had entered the class series because they thought it’d be cool, and stuck around because I was willing to help them in level 2. By the time I was ready to take Arabic 3, they were no longer offering Arabic at my University. What appeared to be a dead-end was a highly informative experience for me. I had the unique opportunity of tutoring a pair of people that know each other better than any two humans ever could. Hands down. They shared a womb together. Their interactions began at conception. As someone that is trying to understand a language, its very helpful to have two people giving very honest frustrations and feedback. Two people that feel very comfortable sounding awfully stupid trying to produce sounds their mouth muscles had not developed to pronounce. They could not pick up on the differences in saad and siin pronunciation either, and thought it was hysterical that the instructor and I could detect such a thing.
That was a time in my life that I felt like it would click, but it never did. I wasn’t engaging in conversation again. I was just learning “Hey, how are you? Where is the bathroom?” My ex really did not want for me to speak Arabic at all, much less with anyone else, so it never came up as an option at that point in my life in that sense either. I kept reading Arabic as one of my sideshow acts; a trick that I pull out when the opportunity arises; a moment to shock people with a strange capability they had no idea I had. There was a period of time that I would write English words with Arabic letters to code my journals. It kept the desire alive.
When the pandemic began to wind down and my life started to slowly come back together, I finally bit the bullet and bought a course from Maha. I had been watching her Youtube channel for nearly my entire Arabic journey, after returning from Kuwait. She co-created with one of her former studdents an online Beginner Arabic course. It was helpful to have the opportunity to practice with classmates, but I was also at the time preparing to travel to Jordan. There were too many moving pieces in my life to settle down and take the course for what it was (an opportunity to be a part of and to build a network around the language). Unfortunately, I was still in too manic a state of mind to really absorb and retain any new information.
Once my trip to Jordan was canceled and then later reinstated in December 2022, I decided I was going to officially get further this time than I had ever gotten before. I’ve been flipping through some of the old flashcards I once made, but after I get through this 8-day straight work week, I am going to schedule in Arabic lessons to my schedule. I’ve been looking around for communities in my area, but none pop up on a Google search. I’ve been asking God to send someone to me that I could speak with. Today that happened.
He was wandering around in my department and, as I do with everyone, I asked, “Hey, is there something I could help you find?” To which he responded “Yes, I would like a piece of steak with the bone in it that is halal”. “Halal?” I repeated back to him, just to be sure he did just say that Arabic word. “Yes, you know this?” he looked at me surprised. As I walked him to the meat counter, I told him about how I had lived in Kuwait for a little bit and learned a little bit of Arabic. We arrived at the display and I rang the bell to get the attention of the attendant. “You just gotta hit this button and then he can hear you” I said as I pointed at the doorbell button and nodded my head toward the window of the door to the… I guess we’ll call it chopping room. Butcher Door. The Undertaker’s Corner. The cold room that the meat attendant hangs out in as he does his work.
I walked back over to my section and continued cleaning bottles. It didn’t take long, and I kind of expected that the guy walked back over to my section. “So you lived in Kuwait?” We talked for a bit about him being stationed in Texas, and learning English for 3 months through their Navy courses in San Antonio. He said I am one of only a few people he’d ever spoken with in English! I told him about the countries I got to visit while I was living with my family abroad. At one point I asked him if I would be able to visit Saudia Arabia, because that’s where he is from. He told me that I could visit no problem and dressed just as I was (which is admittedly very modest naturally, but he was mainly indicating I would not have to cover my hair). He said that women have even more power there now. That if he were to even make a woman feel uncomfortable, he could be fined a very large amount of money.
This may partly explain why I did not get creepy vibe from this guy. Guys, I’m sorry, but when you are nervous, you sometimes give off creepy vibes. Then there are genuine creepy vibes and those are just too similar to nervous creepy vibes, and it can be impossible to discern. Women with trust issues have a natural ability for sniffing out repressed feelings. Its not a gift we pride ourselves on, which causes us to repress it and then its a sticky, backward, upside down, reflection of what everybody does not want out in the open.
The only moment that this guy and I had which felt like we were kind of tip toeing around a ledge, was discussing the obvious elephant in the room. The Navy Base here has only just reopened after three years of being closed to civilians due to a shooting that was carried out by a soldier from Saudia Arabia. This guy I was speaking with is a soldier from Saudia Arabia. So he felt the need to express condolences for the incident. Of course, I explained that based on my experiences of living in Kuwait only a few years after 9/11, I saw a different side of the Arab world and I do not make such associations like a lot of people might. He is no more responsible for any acts of violence against my country than I am of any acts of violence against his country. I described to him how I was hugged and kissed everyday by my classmates. “That’s just what we do” he said with a proud grin.
This guy was clearly amazed that I had any interest in his mother-tongue and his sheer fascination made for an engaging conversation instead of one that left me wondering about ulterior motives. In fact, he even told me when I asked about places where people meet up to chat in Arabic, that he did not know of any, but that I could speak with his wife. I was actually relieved to learn that he is married. Then I was even more gracious that he offered his phone number for me to reach out to him and his wife. I am hoping that we can all help each other learn a new language. One of the last things he said to me before leaving was “You’re different.” Its one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. I knew what he meant. He had briefly described earlier how my willingness to help had far exceeded that of other people he’d experienced. This short statement was a deep understanding of a true human connection that was shared. Agape.