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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KateKatharina’s Online Arabic Tutorial

I wish I could lie to you but I can’t. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, a large proportion of which change shape according to their position in the word. A select few are awkward and refuse to join with letters to their left. Many have the same shape when in the beginning or middle of a word but have a different number of dots above or below them. There’s a special symbol to let you know the absence of a vowel sound. In case you were, you know, in doubt.

I’m just back from my second class and am rather disappointed that there has been no opportunity to practise speaking, given that learning the alphabet seems to take an eternity. For this reason, I’m going to teach what I’ve learnt in the way I would have liked to learn it. I’m really not one to say a bad word about teachers (believe me, I’ve a vested interest) but as one of my classmates mumbled after class “she’s awful serious.. she’d want to ligthen up” and of the homework “It’d put you to sleep alright”.

To get us started, watch this. I dare you not to feel a smile creeping uponon your lips.

The only two things you need to remember from this video:
1.That little boy’s adorable voice (Bieber who?)
2.that Arabic has three vowels, which correspond loosely to ‘A’. ‘E’ and ‘U’. They’re a bit like fadas in Irish. For ‘A’ you put a dash above the letter; for ‘E’ below and for ‘U’ its a little sign that looks like a number 9 above the letter. That’s why in the song they sing ‘A, U, E, Be Bu Beey’ etc.

Okay, enough about the alphabet. (For my sake, not yours).

For those of you who don’t know me (I’m looking at the seven people who googled “smail” and were referred to my blog today. Though on second thought, perhaps it was was just one massively enthsiastic malacologist.)

“ismee Kate Katharina”

Say it.

Go on.

Now tell me who you are.

ismee= I

Your name=Your name

Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.

Now, Kayf- haluk? How’s life?

I’d hate to pre-empt you but are you feeling fine, thank God? And are you male? Then say this:

Tayeb al-hamdu lelah

Are you feeling fine thank God but worried, because you are female? Then say this:

Tayeba al-hamdu lelah.

Same? Nope. All adjectives (as here ‘fine’) have genders. How do we make an adjective feminine?

Add A.

Hmmm. There’s a problem, isn’t there?

Some of you are not fine. Some of you are tired. Fine. It’s a late blog post. You have an excuse.

Say this if you’re a man:
Ta-ban, which the stress on the ‘ban’.

If you’re female, say….???

Come on, you know this one.

Yes, you got it Ta-ban-a.

I (ismee) really am Ta-ban-na now..

So I guess I should take my leave from you and say

Mass-salama.

Go on, reply to me. It’d be rude not to.

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PS- Remember ‘share the luv’ on bebo? Well my lovely blogger friend Clariice over at Reise meines Lebens has shared the luv by nominating me for a Liebster blogging award.
I’m not sure if this is an actual award or simply a way to get bloggers to share each other’s work but I’m going to take the opportunity to link you to some blogs that I really enjoy.

1. Comeheretome: UCD history students writing interesting short pieces about cultutal landmarks. They often include scans of really interesting historical documents they have access to. Warning: also write about football.
2. Inside the brain: Love this blog. Irish neuroscientist summarises latest research in his fields in layman’s terms
3.Broadside New York-based writer and author of Malled: my unintentional career in retail writes short, poignant pieces in beautifully crafted prose
4. Kat Richter: Serial-dater from Philadelphia. What more can I say? Addictive and witty.
5. Last but definitely not least: Clariice herself. She writes wonderful poetry in language that I love. It’s totally unique in that it’s sparse but also satisfyingly clunky. Her words are real, soulful and off-beat.

“Hay” there: Arabic shit and how to put your foot in it

He sighs wistfully. “Ah my dear teacher, you need practise long time!” It’s Tuesday morning, the day after my first Arabic class and I’ve just greeted my student with “kayf halaka” (كيف حالك) or “howeyeah”. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate my effort, but apparently, my ‘ks’ are too harsh and like most people, I can’t master the breathy ‘H’, which is unique to Arabic. They say it sounds like you’re breathing onto a pair of glasses as if to clean them, but given that I’m blessed with 20:20 vision and that my windows are filthy, it’s something that’s going to take time.

Another girl looks surprised and then disgusted when I say “tibn” (تبن) to her. “Teacher, that not good word”, she says.
“What, why?!” I ask.

I’m a little indignant. After all, it’s in Chapter 1 of Mastering Arabic and it means “hay”. Not the most essential word for a slick city dweller like myself, but on the other hand, it uses the three letters introduced on page 2.

“It not good in Arabic”, she repeats patiently.
A more outspoken classmate chimes in:
“Teacher, it mean shit”.

Oh. So on top of having to read backwards, learn a 28 letter alphabet whose letters change form depending on their position in the word, and bizarre sounds only the visually impaired can achieve, I also have to bear in mind that my precious beginner’s textbook isn’t forthcoming in differentiating between horsefood and horseshit. I love a good challenge I do.

Anyway, some time ago I asked you all to make suggestions for what you’d like to see in my Arabic posts. One loyal and lovely reader suggested more about culture and language, less about politics. I breathed (not the ‘soft, on glasses kind) a sigh of relief. I had appealed in that post for suggestions on a postcard, but stipulated that should I not be considered worthy of a stamp, I would also accept suggestions submitted electronically.

Well, guess what happened. Last Sunday evening, I came home to find a postcard through my door from a magical friend, who happens to have just forsaken me for life in London. She had been clearing out her room and found a postcard from San Francisco which she’d never sent. On her very last afternoon here, she wrote an adorable piece of prose, included a suggestion for my Arabic series, stuck a 55 cent stamp on the postcard, and hand-delivered it. I’ve attached it with a wooden peg to my “poetree”, a cluster of branches which I keep in a pot on my mantlepiece and which I decorate with meaningful paraphenalia.

My Poetree


In honour of the two loyal readers, who together made the response to my request “overwhelming”, I will post a summation of what I have learnt to date after my second Arabic class tomorrow. If you’re really stuck until then, just remember to keep your glasses clean, and to learn how to pronounce “shit” before you put your foot in it.