“Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel.” – Jhumpa Lahiri, on learning the Italian language
There’s no way around it – Arabic is a daunting language for English-speakers to learn. When I practice, sounds come from places in my throat I never even knew existed. The script, while beautiful, blends into one long strand of arabesque. Unlike most of the other interns, I had never studied Arabic before. I literally looked up how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” while sitting in my airplane seat en route to Cairo. Thankfully, my new friends and co-workers at AUC have enthusiastically helped me grow my vocabulary over the past three months. But no one has been as encouraging and influential as my Arabic tutor, Arwa.
All interns receive six hours a week of private Arabic tutoring as part of our program. For me, this meant spending the first month learning the alphabet, the number system, and simple greetings. Now, after almost six months, I have graduated to directing taxi drivers and exclaiming my excitement for various food items. Arwa is an amazingly patient teacher. During our lessons, she repeats words and phrases many times over until their sounds became familiar to my ears.
Eventually, we’ve also started to take our meetings outside of the AUC campus. Once, I learned how to order Koshary – a quintessential food staple of Egyptians – at a Koshary shop near Tahrir Square aptly named Koshary El Tahrir. Koshary is a quick, easy, cheap fill-‘er-upper consisting of pasta, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and topped with hot sauce, tomato sauce, and tangy vinaigrette. Inside the store, Arwa refused to say a word as the waiter came around to our table, forcing me to slowly choke out the Arabic equivalent of “Koshary. Small. Extra onions. Thank you.” It is quite easy to resort to English and get by in Cairo, so I very much appreciate Arwa persistently urging me to speak Arabic.
Perhaps most empowering is the freedom that comes along with speaking Arabic. Even armed with just four months of lessons, I feel more assured to explore Cairo by myself. It has been a gateway to the city because now I know that if a taxi driver does not speak English, I can navigate. If I believe I am being overcharged, I can bargain down. Furthermore, I have been able to strengthen relationships at the workplace with my co-workers. Taking a genuine interest in the language, and by extension, culture of any country not your own demonstrates to others one’s assertiveness, curiosity, and open-minded nature – all of which helps in making new connections in a foreign place. So even though Arabic is difficult and the learning curve is low, I am encouraged to putter through it because knowing those words means freedom and understanding.