Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Habeeby... Arabic, my love

Arabic is a fascinating language. I maintain that it is the most difficult language in the world, that is, it's the least likely to ever be mastered by a non-native speaker. In fact, it's a rare gem to find a native speaker who has mastered the language!

It's also beautiful. It is THE language of poets. I have a friend from Iraq who is a poet - at 18 years of age she won a regional contest so she must be good. When she stands up to recite a poem, I don't understand a word. But my heart is inevitably touched. The sound of the words, the tone of the spirit in the phrasing, it's music!

Arabic also has many different dialects, some as close as the New York Twang is to the Southern Drawl, and others as different as Spanish is from French! This second comparison might fairly apply to the relationship between the Arabic I speak and the Arabic spoken in Dar.

Case in point: today I was talking to the cook in our compound about the water filters. I asked her where she was going to put the water filters (in Arabic). She replied, "What?" (in Arabic). I asked her if she planned to put the water filters in the living room (in Arabic). She replied with a confused look. I asked her if the filters would stay in the kitchen (still in Arabic). She nodded in agreement. This evening I arrived home and found the filters in the living room. Oh yeah, we totally speak the same language.

This evening I asked her to pick up something for me in the market. I wonder what she'll bring back!

But what's truly fun about being in Dar, where the dialect might as well be a different language from the Shami (Damascus) dialect I speak, is that everyone knows the Syrian soap operas and so they try to stay up to date on Shami slang. My arrival has become a source of great entertainment for many of my colleagues, who try to think up good Shami greetings whenever I walk by.

"Kif Halek!", they'll greet me, trying to sound Damascene (Darians could just say "Keif" if they want to ask me how I'm doing), but in fact sounding like a textbook.

"Shu Akhbarek?", they might ask me, meaning "What's up?", but only remembering to ask me once we're in the middle of the conversation.

"Shu biki?!", they say cheerfully. This means, "what's the matter with you?", but close enough.

Sometimes when I enter a room, I can see that they've been prepping. They smile at me, pause, crunch up their eyes as if trying to remember, then sputter out a typical Damascene greeting which makes me feel right at home.

I appreciate the effort because I don't yet know beyond a few words of Darian Arabic.

But then, of course, we are likely to switch to English, since their Arabic and my Arabic might as well be two different languages.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Arabic as THE language of poets - I know exactly what you mean - I don't understand a word either when I hear it recited or sung, but there's something there that my soul seems to understand...

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