Confessions of an Arabic student: Ordering Falafels And Sounding Like A Pirate


Monday was a very important day for me. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, or the day I competed in the Slovakian jousting championships. In fact, it was an occasion of much greater significance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, and she-who-serial-googles-‘snails’-to-land-here, last Monday evening, I learnt the last four letters of the Arabic alphabet: ط, ظ,
ع and غ.

Those final four characters had been hanging over my classmates and me for a full three weeks. Our Mudarrissa (مدرسة) kept promising we’d get to them the following lesson, but we got tied up learning how to attach possessive pronouns to objects like chairs, bags, chickens and doors and how to ask for falafels.

The four offending letters had been left until the end because native English speakers tend to mispronounce them because we lack an equivalent sound. The most felonious one is: غ.

“Who wants to pronounce this one?” asked the Mudarissa, pointing at the lone-standing, three-shaped character with a hat she’d printed on the board.

(Teacher tip: Never, ever ask open questions)

An eerie silence descended.

“How about …. you. Kate?”

“Agggghhhrr”, she said.

“Aaarr” I replied, as if I was at the dentist. She shook her head.

“Agggghhhrrr” she repeated.

“Rrrrrrrrrgh” I tried once again, only to cause her to shake her head more violently.

“No. It’s AGGGGHRRR. Not “RRRRRR”.

“AAAAGRRR?”.

“No.”

This went on for some time. I estimate that I voiced the letter incorrectly seventeen times before she gave up on me. I was prepared to continue indefinitely but the other students were beginning to shift in their chairs and smother giggles.

It might not seem like a big deal to seasoned polyglots, but I am pretty glad I’ve got this far. You might remember that Arabic has twenty-eight letters, which change shape according to their position in a word.

What’s now happened – since Monday- is that I can look at a word and actually read it –albeit incredibly slowly. Of course as most standard Arabic script doesn’t mark vowels, what I’m reading could have a myriad of actual pronunciations. The point though is that I’m now in a position to consider those possibilities.

Today I started using facebook in Arabic. My profile picture was immediately transported to the other side of the screen and the ads offering me Masters Degree Courses in John Hopkins University switched to the left. In an effort to learn new vocabulary, I diligently copied and pasted some of the Arabic characters into Google translate. The Arabs, I’ve learnt have a way with words. They may not have the time to mark their vowels, but they do translate ‘unlike’ as “cancellation of admiration”.

H-A-L-A-L

Life for LSB has become yet more tedious since my initiation into the Arabic language. We can’t pass a kebab shop without me reading “H-A-L-A-L” (حلالا) extremely slowly while missing the English translation that accompanies it. The other evening, on Camden Street while we were on the way to meet a friend for a hot port and a natter, I reeled off everything I could say in Arabic complete with elaborate supporting gestures.

“That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.

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10 thoughts on “Confessions of an Arabic student: Ordering Falafels And Sounding Like A Pirate

  1. Oooh, the 27th letter sums up my feelings perfectly; wow woo wheeeee! Very impressive, I’ll rely on you for all my future falafel needs.

  2. Well done, excellent progress with Arabic!! I have nearly forgotten about it since the last post!
    Sadly speaking, I havent made much progress with my language learning and with me getting drowned in work everyday, it’s hardly the best time at about 9 or 10pm to try to absorb or even write a german paragraph.. I am trying to make some time over Christmas to do more learning, I hope.
    I do have more thoughts about some great materials to blog about – aside from poetry and I am rather looking forward to it:)

  3. Directing your eyes from right to left, recognize 28 Arabic characters and trying to figure out which of the missing vowels would make most sense is certainly a feat you should be proud of! It has exercised your brain and added to its plasticity! Where are you going from here?

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  5. Aw wow! That’s utterly hilarious! The Arabic alphabet is undoubtedly scary and daunting at first, not just for Anglophones, however, I firmly believe that that it’s the kind of thing where practice really does make perfect! I cannot speak Arabic myself, however, I do have a rudimentary grasp of some very basic basics I think, (wahid falafel min fadlik) hee or something like that. Being an Urdu speaker and knowing how to recite the Quran means at least that I can pronounce the alphabet! I find it thoroughly exciting that you’re learning Arabic, would dearly love to do the same! Superb entry as always!

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