Abra-Abra-Cadabra: A Year in Arabic


The academic year has come to an end. The final exams are today, which I am not attending and there is lunch with a little ceremony and although there is free food involved I am not attending that either. The last few weeks of beach, booze and party hard has completely distracted me from the purpose I came here for in the first place. I guess I have learnt some this year, but definitely not as much as I wanted or expected to. Arabic is an absolute f*cking b*tch to learn. Don’t start boys and girls and if it’s already too late; I feel your pain.

I state this ’cause when it comes to learning Arabic things can get rather messy and frustrating. Not only because I am convinced that Fusha (classical and modern standard Arabic) has been designed to discourage non-native (Arabic) speakers from learning it, but also on the streets, especially in Egypt, if you address people in Fusha they laugh in your face as it sounds heightened, like you’re being addressed in Shakespearean English. The point is that Shakespearean English is dead – in the sense that it is not spoken any more- and Fusha is the official written language, the language of media, education, politics and business across the Arab world and let’s not forget that it is the language of the religion of islam with about a billion followers, so therefore pretty much alive. If you’re learning Spanish, Swahili or Chinese you get to practice what you learn with the people on the streets. Not so with Arabic, especially when you’re in Egypt. There is the Fusha I learn at the centre, which I can practice by writing, reading the papers and listening to the news or cartoons (in Fusha), but which is f*cking useless when talking to people as they speak Masree or ‘ameya, which can be considered a dialect of Fusha. Since I chose to be here for my degree, which is Modern Standard Arabic and our ‘ameya classes in the first term were well boring and for a long time I couldn’t be bothered to address the stupid f*ckwits on the street in their language – I mean, I can do my shopping, take a taxi, tell a seller his price is too high, what else do I need. Now, I realise that it would actually be quite cool to speak ‘ameya so you can have a bit of banter with people, like Jameela has. If you look at students at the centre, who are pretty serious about their studies you can tell there is a clear division of people who focus on ‘ameya, ’cause they want to talk to people and people who focus on Fusha because of their degree and/or for religious and pan-Arab linguistic reasons. Coming to Egypt to brush up on your Arabic is actually learning two different languages. Or making a choice which of the two to focus on. Is a(n academic) year enough to learn two languages, especially Arabic and Arabic? Does that mean absolute dedication and having very little fun? Or is the aim to find the fun in the language learning? Or is the idea that you do your hard core Fusha stuff at the centre- and at home, taba3an-  and learn your hard core baladi slang from your Masree mates?

If I had to do it all over again I probably would have done it differently, but I don’t know how exactly. I suffered a lot in the first half of the year. From academic pressure, work pressure and boredom. In the last term I saw my Egyptian friends a lot more, met the Helms and thought; sod it. I’ve been boring for way too long let’s get loose. As a flatmate of a classmate once said -horribly clever, knowledgeable and entertaining, he so tops my list of cutest geeks : ‘In school or at uni they don’t teach you Arabic the right way with their stupid exercises and quizzes – weekly mini tests- and homework assignments. That might be the case but I (still) don’t know (yet) what my method is to master this b*llocks. End of an academic year; time to party some more. Time to refocus.

pain in arabic


About Lemba

Non-conformist Writing Soul and Language Geek from the Lowlands with a South London accent, currently living a nomadic, location- independent lifestyle. While executing the Big Fat Writing Plan I’m invading cyberspace with my views on 'expat living', travel and other lifestyle choices, current affairs and other randomness. Welcome to the Dark Fairy Zone.

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