Learning Arabic 101


A friend who lives in another non-English speaking country made a wise observation recently. “You can ask for a drink and say ‘no’ and ‘thank you’, and you think you’re a hero of the language. It’s when you go any further that you realise you’re a complete novice.”

It’s the classic case of the wise man knowing he’s a fool.

I have hit that stage. I can argue with taxi drivers, buy and order most food, read menus and signs, as well as haggle, but to explain to someone the concept that my male friend is just a friend who happens to be male, and I lose the plot and stand there like a tongue-tied idiot. It doesn’t help that there is no concept in Egypt of non-sexual male friends.

I have stopped doing last-minute Arabic homework on the train because everyone reads my writing and smiles the way you’d smile at a small child or drooling idiot, then runs through the standard gamut of questions – where are you from, what’s your name, how many children do you have, are you married or do you just have a Friend (see comment above re: male friend).

Some people, notably taxi drivers, are most patient when it comes to listening to my mangled Arabic. Hell, I’m in their taxi, they want to get me to where I’m going and take my money. So they’re very complimentary and charming.

But there’s also a certain amount of arrogance amongst Arabic speakers toward the rest of the world, from educated Arabs and the street smart alike.

“You will study Arabic for 10 years and still not be able to speak it,” said my boab (aka doorman) in Arabic, who then informed me that in a month, you can learn to speak English. I asked him (in English) why he hadn’t done so, but he didn’t understand me…

TBC after tomorrow’s Arabic lesson…

PS: this is not my boab, but a pretty good idea of what many of them look like.

About the author

Fear is found on a creaking glacier in the Caucasus mountains and joy is encapsulated in the perfect Shanghai dumpling. And while I love a $500-a-night hotel room (who doesn’t?), sometimes the best stories are found in a $20 guesthouse. With an eye always out for good markets and great street eats, I write the travel news and features for the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age newspapers, and features for whoever else asks. I have a particular soft spot for the wilds of the Middle East, scarves and carpets. My articles and photographs have been published in a range of consumer magazines and newspapers in Australia and abroad.

One thought on “Learning Arabic 101

  1. I dont know anything about your boab…but I'm just watching the Le Tour de France going through the towns of Luttenbach and… Munster in the Region of France called Alsace(The cows in Munster are special cause they produce the lovely smelly Munster cheese…hmmm)
    This is a region where part of my heritage comes from… on my Mothers side of the family.
    Then next they are facing the daunting Col Du Platzerwesel(a climb of over 1000metres) and its cold and raining…so the roads are treacherous…and there is still 70 odd kms to the finish…now its back to my boab…who will explain what a Platzerwesel is!!!(a Col is a pass over a ridge)

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