Progress in Arabic, Despite Occasional "Stolen Camels"

Saturday, August 6, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Minefield separating the Israeli and Syrian Golan Heights: some vocabulary words are more important to memorize than others.
Since my last update on the subject of Arabic, things have really picked up here.

My class is going well now, and I really feel like I'm learning quickly. When I arrived two months ago, I could barely stutter out a sentence, but a week ago I wrote a small essay on possible solutions for global terrorism, and give a forty-five minute presentation on the Crusades in Syria. Compared to the other students in my class, I seem to have a much more solid foundation in Arabic grammar and word construction. (Thanks yet again to Professor Nydell; Georgetown's Arabic department was definitely right to spend so much time drilling the basics of the tri-consonant roots into our heads.)

The local dialect, 'ammiya (اللغة العامية) continues to be frustrating, but I'm slowly picking up snippets. (Last weekend in Hama nobody spoke any classical Arabic!) At this early stage, I think it makes more sense to put the majority of my efforts toward Modern Standard Arabic (اللغة الفصحى) anyway.

I had a major success a few weeks ago during my solo trip to Aleppo. That weekend, I didn't have room in my bag for any Arabic materials—not even my little dictionary, so for the first time I had to rely completely on my own Arabic skills, with no supports. In the end, I negotiated all my transportation, lodging, and everything else, and traveled around just fine! Though it seems simple, it was quite a victory for me.

Still, I'm far from perfect, and frequently screw up even the basics. Several days ago Julian and I received a postcard (in English) from our German friend Christina, who left Damascus recently to travel in Egypt. Our landlord Ra'ife was excited to hear news from Christina, so I took it upon myself to offer a simplified translation of her message on the spot. I was doing alright with the description of Cairo, but soon made a world-class blunder. Instead of saying that Christina "رقبت جمل" (rode a camel) at the pyramids, I said she "سرقت جمل" (stole a camel) at the pyramids.

Naturally, Ra'ife was shocked to hear of a new side of Christina she had never known! When she realized it was just my bad translation, however, she had a good laugh (and continues to, every time Christina's name is mentioned)! I definitely won't be confusing those two verbs again.

Overall, camel thievery aside, my Arabic is improving rapidly. Thanks to my great teacher at the university, Ra'ife's help at home, and lots of listening comprehension practice from her TV, I think I've turned a corner in these past few weeks. The more I learn, the clearer it becomes that this road is long and difficult, but with the solid base I've got I may just be able to figure this language out someday... inshallah.

Update: For more info on studying Arabic in Damascus, see "How to Live and Study Arabic Abroad in Damascus: the Scoop on Syria, plus Practical Info for Students".

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