AL-Kitaab is the most prominent Arabic-language textbook for English-speakers; it is used by most colleges and universities in the US to teach basic grammar, vocabulary, and culture. Al-Kitaab is in its third edition–complete with sound-recordings and an interactive DVD for students to use to improve their speaking and listening.
The primary character in these sound recordings is named Maha–she speaks slowly and clearly in FusHa (formal Arabic) with short sentences that are atypical to Arabic. She uses only vocabulary from Al-Kitaab, and her facial expressions match the awkward tone of her voice. Maha’s famous phrase is “‘Ishoor bil-WaHida,” meaning “I feel lonely.” Often my classmates and I use this phrase jokingly–saying we feel lonely when we end up eating lunch alone, or when we have to go to the bathroom by ourselves. We use this phrase not because we truly feel lonely, but because its easy to remember and its easily accessible–it pops up in Al-Kitaab all the time, as various characters make appearances in Maha’s life.
Here in Tangier, I’ve started into the second book of Al-Kitaab; in a couple of weeks we’ll finish it and move to book three. This book contains a whole host of other “feelings” phrases–sad, happy, busy, in love, crazy, angry, homesick…things my classmates and I actually feel, especially while we’re studying abroad. Arabic is a beautiful language with lots of attention to detail; simple things like the names of people and places describe specific aspects of beauty and character that English names often fail to capture. For example, my Moroccan language partner’s first name means “woman with big eyes;” the city we traveled to last weekend (Tetuan) means “two big eyes.” Some friends are heading to the city Chefchon this weekend–“Chefchon” means “the space between two horns of a cow.” Our director gave us the description of the name–and he aptly said, “there isn’t a word for that space in English. But, we have one in Arabic–its Chefchon–and we call the city that because its positioned just between two mountains.” How Perfect.
And now, back to Maha, her feelings, and Tangier. This week has been a struggle because when I speak only Arabic, I lack a deep vocabulary–I lack a way to explain that I’m not really homesick, I just want to eat a toasted cheese sandwich from Kalid’s and watch a Hawkeye’s game on ESPN. In the words of my classmate Heidi, I want to be here in Tangier, but I’m overwhelmed, and I don’t know how to say it, which makes it even harder to feel. The hardest feelings to feel are those which we can’t concretely and accurately identify and describe.
We jokingly say, “Arabic broke my English,” because even when we have group meetings in English, its not a relief to return to our comfortable language–its almost just as difficult. English grammar is hard to switch back to, and I find myself constantly searching for words because my brain is full of words from Al-Kitaab instead of American newspapers, books, and daily conversation. It also becomes increasingly difficult to translate things I’ve learned in Arabic into English–things like the history of Morocco, information about religion, and daily life in Tangier. Its stored in the Arabic part of my brain, and when the English part of my brain tries to go there, it gets a baab slammed in its wajah. (Door slammed in its face).
Tangier is a beautiful, wonderful place and I’m learning so much–but I’m in a funk. Does Arabic have a word for funk? I don’t know. I’ve identified my emotion, and I’me realizing that navigating the world using Arabic instead of English has challenged me to express myself in new ways–and its hard to learn how to do that again. I suddenly understand why small children have temper tantrums–they understand what’s going on but they don’t know how to engage the situation because they lack the words to do so appropriately. The last few days, I’ve had moments where I get so frustrated with myself–my lack of vocabulary, my lack of understanding, my lack of basic communication skills, that I just want to throw a temper tantrum. Unfortunately, I’m 21 years old and this is not appropriate. So, sometimes I settle for “Ishoor bil-Wahida,” and sometimes I settle for not speaking about my feelings. Yesterday, I settled for about 50 freethrows and a few windsprints.
Every day in Tangier is about the small things. Its about learning the Darija words for “How much does this kilo of strawberries cost” and then using it at the market correctly. Its about figuring out how to conjugate the verb “to become” in the future so I can say, “I want to become a person who helps refugees and immigrants who live in the US after I graduate.” Its about an engaging conversation with my language partner about the way American women dress and how it relates to our religious views. These are the small successes I’ve had this week, and these small successes make the uncomfortable feelings and challenging moments worth the struggle.