My Relationship with Arabic: It’s Complicated…

Sometimes, when I sit in Arabic class, I feel like an imposter. I’m the literal definition of “fake it till you make it,” or so it seems. Those are the rough times. The days when my teacher expresses her surprise because there’s a basic grammar concept that I don’t know, or I mess up for something that should be second nature for a “student of my level”. The days when I spend the entire 3.5 hours of class going through a three page article, because Arabic is hard, and there’s always so much I don’t know. 

There are holes in my Arabic knowledge. While I have the ability to rant passionately about Western imperialism, I still struggle to recall names of fruits and vegetables. I can muscle through articles about American media and Egyptian theatre, but still forget to put dots on letters. As I approach five weeks of having lived in Morocco, it’s easy to get disappointed in my progress at times. By week five in Jordan, I had gone from zero to very comfortably conversational. Rather than the drastic improvement that I was expecting, these five weeks have actually made me realize how little I know, and how much more there is to learn. As I speak to my favorite waiter at my favorite cafe in an awful mix of fus7a (Modern Standard Arabic) and Darija (Moroccan Arabic), I feel like a beginner again, struggling and confused. As I stare at my reading homework cluelessly, knowing that if I circled each unknown word, I would have marked up the entire article, it’s easy to feel unsuccessful, because even though I’m surely progressing, it’s slow, and sometimes painful.

Homework + mint tea at my favorite cafe = essential elements of every day I spend here

But that’s when I have to remind myself of where I started. For the past two years, I have not taken a single real Arabic class. For two whole years I let dust collect on my copy of Al Kitaab 1, and turned my back to fus7a, said goodbye to constraining grammar rules, and fully embraced Shaami (Levantine Arabic), learning from Skype classes, WhatsApp conversations, and my favorite playlists. As I worked on fus7a extensively this summer, and attempted to get rid of the traces of dialect in my speech, I was struck by a fear of forgetting my Shaami, thinking that two years would be rendered useless once I arrived in Morocco. I remember my host mom in Jordan reassuring me over video call that I couldn’t forget the dialect, but as I neglected Shaami for the more “academic” fus7a and the more “relevant” Darija, I couldn’t help but think that I would lose it all.

However, a visit to the Embassy of the State of Palestine in Rabat made me realize that my Shaami, although a bit rusty at times, is still there, and it’s here to stay. When I visited with my friend Colleen ❤ (NSLI-Y Jordan ‘18), we decided not to speak in Darija, because since we were technically on Palestinian soil, it would be best to speak in the local dialect. We had requested to see the Palestinian Cultural Center, but somehow, we were given a meeting with the director of the cultural center. And with that, I had my first Shaami conversation in Morocco… and it was wonderful and validating. Arabic went back to feeling the way it did a while ago. No stressing about grammar, no concentrating on if I was using the right register/dialect or not. Suddenly, I was speaking without thinking, as if the words were just rolling off my tongue. Of the foreign languages I study, Arabic is the one I feel most comfortable speaking in. However, for the past few weeks in Morocco, as I’m exposed to my weaknesses far more than my strengths, it’s often easy to think that I’ve “lost my touch” when it comes to speaking the language. But it’s not true. As I learnt about the workings of the Palestinian Cultural Center, shared my experience in Jordan, and why I was interested in getting involved, I felt in my element. 

At the embassy!

This past Saturday, I joined a weekly dabke class with some of the other NSLI-Y and YES students. The teacher was Jordanian, and as we spoke together, she expressed her surprise that I had only spent six weeks there. In the class, I met a few Palestinian girls who are studying here in Rabat, and it was lovely to have conversations in a dialect that I was comfortable with. I know that it’s not good to seek validation from my surroundings, but it’s just so encouraging to have a smooth conversation in a foreign language and receive a nod of approval from native speakers. 

Dabke class!

My visit to the embassy was well timed. Every time that I struggle and feel that I’m unable to live up to my own expectations, I think of the little conversations that remind me why I love this language. I’ve also realized that I wasn’t always this comfortable with Shaami. I remember cringing as fus7a words mixed into conversations with my host family back in Jordan, or laughing at my Arabic videos from 2017, where I spoke in such a mix of registers. Developing relative comfort with an Arabic dialect took me a long time. But if I’ve done it before, I feel that I can do it again. Yes, I get tongue-tied at times. Yes, I make plenty of mistakes. However, I know I can speak Arabic, and I won’t forget my first dialect, because years of effort don’t just dissipate like that. And yes, I’m struggling… but I’ll continue to work harder because even though the dream of “fluency” seems intangible from where I stand, every step gets me a little closer. 

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