Swimming in a Linguistic Ocean

When I signed up for Arabic my first semester of college, I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. I had chosen to study Arabic for a couple of reasons: I was interested in living and working in the Middle East, it was an important language for the future, its script is beautiful and, in comparison to Chinese (another language of the future), it has an alphabet.

I didn’t expect, however, that it would take me an entire month just to learn that alphabet. While students in Spanish or French where quickly putting together sentences and starting to describe objects, I was standing in front of a mirror with a glass of water gargling. “Now do that without the water”, a CD instructed me, “and that is the letter ghayn”.

There are a number of sounds in Arabic that simply do not exist in English. For example, there are three “h” sounds, one similar to ours, another that is the sound you make when you are trying to fog up glasses and another which can best be described as the sound some people make before spitting.

My good friend. Once I learned how to use it anyway...

In addition to the sounds, the writing also goes from right to left and all of the letters are connected, but take different shapes based on whether or not they are in the beginning, middle or end of a word. Words are also categorized by their three-letter root so that when you look up maktab (desk) in the dictionary, you do start at “m” but instead with its root k-t-b. All this combines to make Arabic one of the world’s harder languages to learn.

People in the Middle East are fairly cognizant of the difficulty of their language and it makes for some great interactions. Often they will complement you on your Arabic after only 2-3 words, responding with “ma sha allah! Arabic good! after you have only said “Good Morning”. People are so happy that you have put in the effort to learn their language that they are also eager to teach you, inviting you to drink tea or just chat for a bit longer to practice. This can at times manifest itself in a comical fashion. After having bought green onions one day, I was walking back home with them in my hand (I try not to use plastic bags when I can avoid it) and I had no less than ten people point to them and tell me their name in Arabic, smiling joyfully.

and I have a long way to go until I reach the bottom...

When asked if learning Arabic is hard, I often respond that Arabic is an ocean. In addition to having words that cover every shade of meaning and a grammatical structure that meticulously covers every irregularity, you can also learn a lot about the culture of the Middle East by diving in to the language. Having recently finished the Arabic portion of my Fulbright grant, I wanted to share some words and phrases that I have picked up in my studies and might give you a glimpse into life in Egypt and the Islamic world.

Al-Hamdulilah – Praise be to God – This is most often used when someone asks you how you are and you simply respond with “praise be to God”, which has the meaning of being thankful to the Divine no matter what situation you are in. This is one of the hundreds of phrases and words that invoke God and are used constantly in everyday life. It gives one a sense of the nature of Islam, that for many, it is not a religion to be put in one of the boxes of your compartmentalized life, but instead a way of life whose perspective and practice in some way touches every part of your day.

‘Aysh – Bread – This is specifically Egyptian colloquial (as are the following words) and is derived from the same linguistic root as “to live”. Bread is a central part of people’s diet throughout the Middle East, being served at almost every meal. This has been true in Egypt for millennia. So much so that laborers on the pyramids ate as much as five pounds of bread a day and other ancient peoples referred to the Egyptians as “Bread Eaters”!

Suda’ – Headache – When you begin to read Egyptian literature, you encounter this word a lot and it tells you a little bit about life in Cairo specifically. Cairo has some of the worst traffic and congestion in the world, which is a headache in itself, but the 4,500,000 cars also contribute to the terrible air pollution as well as the incredible levels of noise. One common way to express happiness after a wedding for example, is to drive around the city in a caravan of cars, each honking a rhythm of “beep, beep…beep, beep, beep”. Combined with widespread poverty, life here is enough to give many a constant suda’.

Ya Amina Rizq – Oh Amina Rizq – This term is straight out of Egypt’s widely popular television shows and is the equivalent of calling someone a drama queen as Amina was the drama queen of Egyptian cinema. Egyptian television and music are followed throughout the region and although this influence is slowly waning, people in any country you visit will know many of the movies produced in what is the third greatest movie production center after Hollywood and Bollywood. Our Arabic tutor once jokingly said in relation to music, “if you are not famous in Egypt, you are not famous.” Whether or not this is still true, singers continue to come from around the region to try and make it big in Cairo.

Abu kirsh – Someone with a potbelly – Abu means father so you are literally calling someone “father potbelly”. This is another great term, which speaks to how family relations have seeped into language. In many families, the father and mother adopt new names after the birth of their firstborn son, and are then referred to as “Abu Ahmed” and “Um Ahmed” or father and mother of Ahmed for example. Linguistically you can then give people attributes using the same formula so that people can be referred to as “abu nus lisan” which literally translates to “father half-tongue” and means someone who talks a lot but doesn’t say much.

‘Amila zay illi raqist ‘ala as-silm – She is acting like she is dancing on stairs – The people at the top of the stairs can only see and the people at the bottom of the stairs can only hear. This means that someone is trying to do too much and not achieving any of the results well. Colloquial Arabic is full of these sayings and you have to know a good portion of them to be considered fluent. That said, if you know some, people love it! I thought one taxi driver was going to have a heart attack he was so excited after we told him that the subway was like a “jar of salmon” (the equivalent of a can or sardines).

‘Ayni – My eye – This is one of the perhaps hundreds of terms of endearment in Arabic. The language has an incredible amount of ways to express your love for someone and many of them are very strong. It is not uncommon to hear “you are the light of my life” being told to a beloved, even though such expressions in English seem over the top or cliché.

Oneayn – Two ones – This word is the English “one” combined with the Arabic grammatical dual to make it mean “two ones”. We saw this in a movie recently but it is a good illustration of the fact that Arabic is adopting English words and very rapidly bringing them into the common vocabulary. Although this is particularly clear with technology such as “moobile”, “coomputer” and “faks”, it also occurs with food like “ice cream”. At times you will hear English words randomly pop into Arabic conversations (especially for those with higher education) such as, “wa ana kunt really mad ashano ragl mish quiyis.

I hope you have enjoyed this short linguistic journey and that you learned something more then how to covertly point out someone’s potbelly on the street! :)


Dubai – Need I say more?

The world’s tallest tower, artificial palm tree-shaped luxury neighborhoods extending into the ocean, skiing on real snow when the temperature outside is over 100 F. This was the image that Caity and I had of Dubai as our bus pulled in late at night after a long ride from Oman. We came to visit not because we love shopping and fancy hotels, but because we felt as if we should see the place that has been the source of so much hype and contention over the last decade. A spot that has quickly become an emblem of consumerism where people often say, “I came. I saw. I maxed out my credit cards and had to fly home in economy.”

Visiting the surprisingly well-designed Dubai museum located in old Dubai at the beginning of our stay made it clear that “old” can be a relative term. The history of the city began in roughly 1800, making it the first place in the region whose grand history did not begin thousands of years before the United States, in contrast to Cairo, where many of the buildings are older than the US itself! Although known for its pearl industry, Dubai used to be a tiny walled town with fewer than 10,000 residents and no significant international importance.

That was however, until oil was found (a change so significant that the museum divided history into the pre and post-oil discovery periods). The documentation of the change is dramatic, with buildings, highways and marinas springing up in incredibly short periods of time, transforming what was once largely sand and scrawny trees, to a booming and green financial capital.

Although the old forts, traditional souqs and the recreated home of the ruling family made for an interesting first day and provided some historical background, our experience in the new Dubai on the second day proved to be the most fascinating. This new Dubai very quickly communicates two things to you: with money, anything is quickly possible and for those with lots of money, everything has VIP options.

We saw both these themes in the Dubai subway. Not only was it conceived, planned and built in around two years, but each train had a special luxury section for “Gold Members” which must have been filled with champagne dispensers, massage chairs and free imported truffles, although I did not get a chance to check  :)

Our first stop was the Burj al-Khalifa, which is currently the world’s tallest building and can be seen rising majestically into the air from almost any point in the city. It does not seem so big until you start walking closer, at which point it becomes almost impossible to take in the entire height of the building at once and I had to literally lie on the ground to get both Caity and the top of the building in the picture. Although they do not let you enter the building from the front, as that portion is reserved for the luxury residents and businesses, the Dubai mall sells tickets to ride to the top. After finally making our way in however, we discovered that regular tickets were sold out for the next four days and the only way we could get to the top was to get an “immediate entrance” ticket for over $100!

Deciding not to pull out our magic credit cards just yet, we instead headed over to the Emirates mall, one of the largest in the world, for the next adventure. I didn’t come to this mall to shop, however, I came to ski. The Emirates mall is home to Ski Dubai, the wildly successful ski resort with an 85-meter tall slope, snow tube run, snowball shooting gallery, ice cave and 3D theatre, all kept just below freezing year round. After paying around $50 for two hours on the slopes, I headed into the fitting room where the staff struggle to provide thousands of daily visitors with jackets, snow pants, boots, socks, and skiing equipment. People can come in dressed in heels and miniskirts (I am not including myself here…) and head out to the hill decked out in full winter regalia!

Riding up the four-person lift was a surreal experience. There is real snow on the ground; the walls and ceiling are painted blue with large air conditioning units sticking out of the wall every forty feet; and Christmas music is playing throughout the indoor complex. This is made all the more odd looking out the windows at those inside the mall walking about in shorts and tee shirts; all while my fingers are starting to shake! As the hill itself was not exactly impressive when you had grown up skiing in Colorado, taking about thirty seconds to ski from top to bottom and the “black” run for advanced skiers maybe qualifying as a blue run back home, I soon began to focus on the people. Riding up on the lift I met tourists from Italy, France, the UK, the US and others from around the Middle East, including one Iraqi boy who told me “Dubai is the best place in the world!”

When my two hours were up, I met Caity outside for some shopping and more people watching. Dubai is an international city, and this is certainly represented in the population roaming about the malls. Only seventeen percent of the population of Dubai is native Emirati, with immigrants from mostly Asia making up the vast majority of the remaining portion. This distribution makes English the lingua franca, even though Arabic is the official language, and demographics that are skewed so that the population is largely composed of younger males who travel here for work. Adding in the tourists, this creates a mix where a fully veiled woman will be walking beside another wearing a revealing top and short skirt and then passed by a third wearing a brightly colored sari while the call to prayer plays over speakers throughout the mall. Although you can find signs encouraging mall goers to wear modest clothing, there is no sense of the enforcement you would find in Saudi Arabia. After all, that would be bad for business.

Our next stop was the Burj al-Arab, Dubai’s famous sail-shaped seven star hotel. After receiving some misinformed advice that the building was only a ten-minute walk from the subway station (clearly the subway guard had never tried), we caught a taxi to the entrance gate. Without a meal or tea reservation however, this is as far as you can go and as Caity and I were not about to give up our $65 hostel room to rent one which could cost anywhere from $1000-8000 a night! We instead took free pictures and headed over to our next stop, the Ibn Batuta Mall.

On the ride over, our taxi driver took it upon himself to tell us how much better Dubai was than America by listing all of the structures and creations that have outstripped our puny attempts. Despite his confrontational style, in many of the cases, I would have to agree with him. I have never seen malls, towers or marinas in the States quite like what I have seen here. Although we may have created the “bigger is better” contest, places like Dubai are starting to win it. Unfortunately, this unsustainable consumerism is one of America’s least attractive traits in my opinion and no matter who builds the tallest tower or most expensive hotel, ultimately the world is losing out.

Leaving behind our contentious driver, we got out at Ibn Batuta mall but instead of entering a regular shopping center, we stepped into medieval Persia. We walked through the doors to be greeted with a massive decorated dome, a beautiful chandelier and walls adorned in a beautiful Persian architectural style. The entire mall is themed to follow the famous explorer Ibn Batuta’s journeys, which carried him across the Middle East and all throughout greater Asia, making Marco Polo’s trip seem like an afternoon stroll. We explored ancient China, whose main room was filled with a massive traditional boat, ate dinner in Lebanon and then proceeded through India, which even had a distinct smell! We then ended by forging through ancient Egypt and meandering past the beautiful white houses of Tunisia. The architecture was incredible and with the addition of exhibits on the contribution of Islam to world civilization, this was by far the best stop.

We spent a much more relaxing third day at the beach, watching a movie in the HD theatre and eating food from a different nationality for each meal. After three days however, we were ready to head back to Cairo with its familiar, albeit dirty, streets and the continuous traffic sounds outside our bedroom window. Although Dubai was certainly more complex and interesting than we had imagined before arriving, it was tiring spending too long in a place centered on consumption and spending. I feel much more comfortable in the role of a producer, whether it be healthy meals, research papers or blog entries that are entirely too long :)

To see more pictures of Dubai and the rest of our trips to the outside Egypt, click here.

Oman – Beautiful Mountains and Beloved Leaders

Once we saw mountaintops majestically rising up out of the clouds, we knew that we must be flying into Oman. After landing we started out to try and find the minibus stop that would take us into town. We made the mistake of asking directions from an employee of a taxi company and he told us that we should, of course, just take a taxi into town or if we really wanted to take a minibus, take a taxi to the drop off point, which he said was over five kilometers away.  After asking a less biased security guard, we walked over to the minibus stop, about 500 meters away (quite different from five kilometers), and packed into the van with ten other people heading in to town.

On the drive in, we noticed that every major building and traffic stop had a huge poster of the Sultan, all celebrating his 40th year ruling the country. Although I was skeptical at first of this mass outpouring of public affection (as many countries in the Middle East have such posters of the ruler but often because they have to be there due to fear or public/political pressure), it seems that the feeling is genuine in Oman. It turns out that Sultan Qaboos has single-handedly modernized the country and his love and dedication to the people is completely reciprocated. One example is that every year the Sultan and many heads of local government pack up their tents and head out from the capital to set up camps in the outer provinces, receiving both gifts and petitions from locals, some of whom literally have ridden for days on camels to be there. Petitions for services, such as electricity, are at times even answered within days, as the Sultan can apparently just “make it happen” with a speed that would leave many democratic processes jealous.

We checked into our hotel in the little India of Muscat and then headed down to the corniche for some shopping and sight seeing. In the souq, we were surrounded by shop owners selling a number of products from frankincense (which has been harvested in Oman for thousands of years), to small daggers in ornate curved cases worn by traditional Omanis and sandals made from camel leather. Over time, Caity and I have developed some pretty good bargaining skills. We take turns playing the overly critical or uninterested partner who, in motioning that we should move on, elicits a lower price for the good in question. We also negotiate in either English or Arabic but speak between ourselves in Spanish and throw in Swahili as well because “si” and “no” are a little to easy to figure out. Having been largely successful in our bargaining, cutting the starting price in half at least, we headed out for some sight seeing.

The new side of Muscat is very scenic, filled with small forts perched on top jagged looking hills that continue right down to the sea, mosques with brightly colored domes and matching minarets, as well as traditional wooden fishing boats anchored next to modern cruise ships twenty times their size. As we walked along the sea, we were surprised by how clean the city was, especially in comparison to Cairo, and how well maintained all the buildings were. This is apparently due partially to the people’s habits and partially to some aesthetic laws, such as the one that mandates fines to drivers of dirty cars!

The real beauty of Oman however is to be found in the landscape outside the cities. After getting significantly lost (I blame the shoddy map) we made our way down the southern coast, heading for a wadi where we could spend some time hiking. In this case, the journey was just as rewarding as the destination. Oman possesses some of the most beautiful rock formations that I have certainly ever seen, with the mountains jutting right out of the earth without any preamble, each with beautiful multi-colored shades of rock, and going off into the distance until they are obscured by low hanging clouds. The only problem with the rugged landscape comes if you want to listen to the radio, which crackles in and out of reception after each song or two, ultimately causing you to switch it off and enjoy the vast beauty in silence.

Driving along on the main highway, we were surprised to see continuous exits labeled as going to “qurayyat” or “little villages”. Having mistakenly taken one of these exits, we discovered that in contrast to the large well-constructed turnoffs with overpasses, the paved road quickly turned to gravel and lead to a small outpost of five to ten buildings where the people and goats alike stared at us wondering what in the world we were doing there. Perhaps the benevolence of the Sultan extends down to the smallest group of people. I can almost imagine the campaign slogan: “an exit for every village!” That is, if he needed to campaign.

The second day found us driving out to the west (and interior) visiting Jabal Akdar, or the green mountain. In the end we decided that the name must be relative, because the mountain’s foliage could only be considered green when compared with the lifeless rocky landscape we drove through to get there. We drove for an hour up a steep road that was carved straight out of the cliff face and wound its way up to a scattering of small villages. A short hike led us to an impressive view of a massive canyon that snaked off between two cliff faces. Looking at the steep twisting road left me thinking of the pains that people must have gone to traveling between villages 100 years ago. No wonder the mountain peoples they developed their own specific language!

We turned in our car the next day and picked up bus tickets out of Muscat. We were going from a country famous for its beautiful mountain scenery to one that blasted apart its mountains to build palm trees in the ocean. Dubai here we come!

The sign says, "It is totally prohibited to sell or demonstrate fish in vehicles."