Friday, November 23, 2007

Egypt in the eyes of a foreigner: (Part 5) First day...

One of most important reasons for me to come to Egypt was to learn Arabic. Second most important reason was to get acquainted more closely with Egyptian culture and traditions, of which I have been fond of reading.

First traces of Arabic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic, date back to 8th century BC. By 4th century AD, several Arab kingdoms were flourishing in southern Iraq, southern Syria and Central Arabia, which developed the tradition of pre-Islamic (Jahili) Arabic poetry, Modern Arabic is classified as a language with 27 sub-languages in ISO 639-3. These sub-languages – otherwise known as colloquials – are spoken in more than 26 countries in the Middle East, Northern Africa and Western Sahara.

Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) derives from Classical Arabic, the only surviving member of the Old North Arabian dialect group, attested epigraphically since the 6th century, which has been a literary language and the liturgical language of Islam since the 7th century.

This resumed my general knowledge about Arabic language when I stepped into the office of STA Travel agency in Geneva. I knew no particular details or specifics. I expressed my will to study Arabic in Egypt and was told there is indeed a course of Arabic language for different levels of proficiency. At the agency, I didn’t receive any additional information pertaining course except that there were courses for beginners, intermediate and advance, each having a duration of either four or five weeks. I vowed for a one-month beginners course, further anticipating a possibility of taking another one.

Before coming to Egypt my vocabulary of Arabic included three words: Salam, Insha'allah, Yalla. I did not even know the Arabic alphabet.

Shortly after checking in at the hostel for first few nights, I took a quick shower and went to the reception with a list of applied phrases and words such as "thank you," "hello," "how" to be translated into Arabic. The reception guy was very kind, and he translated all phrases and threw few in himself, which he thought would be useful for me.

With this list of few applied phrases and expressions to be useful for taxis, Alexandra and I decided to meet in the morning and go together to the school on the first day. We took the taxi and told him the address "Shera Mahmoud Azmi" (Mahmoud Azmi Street). This street was supposedly short and we would have no problem of finding it, or so we thought at the beginning. We stopped on a street Mahmoud Azmi, and the taxi driver drove off happily, pouching 15 pounds for a drive of maximum 4 pounds, as I found eventually. This did not seem to be a problem at that moment. The problem was that the street, on which we were left, had no school on it. It did not take us long to realize that this was a wrong street. Later on, we understood what the problem was. We were in a wrong part of the city, which happened to have a street called exactly like what we were looking for. All this took time and when we finally took another taxi, this time specifying the part of the city we wanted to go – Muhandissin area – it was getting late. Yes, we were late on the very first day.

Our school, International Language Institute (ILI), is situated in a building in one a residential quarters of Muhandissin area. We quickly went to the second floor where the reception was, and presented ourselves. Alexandra, due to her prior knowledge of Arabic, was placed in the intermediate level, whereas I was to go to the beginners' course.

I entered the room, 15 minutes late, filled with approximately 18 people and class already going on. I was promptly asked to introduce myself and without further ado plunged into the essentials of the first-day lecture with the rest of the class. We were all handed printouts, which in retrospect turned out to be our study books. Only during the class, I discovered that it was the class of Egyptian colloquial. Startled, I asked whether I would learn the "normal" Arabic? A classmate of mine looked at me with puzzled expression of face. He thought I was mocking him. He explained me patiently that this was only a colloquial and I had to check with the reception if I was also to take the MSA course. During the first pause, I went to reception and was informed that indeed I was enlisted for MSA course. The reception officer, an Egyptian woman in her 50s, was amazed at my degree of ignorance and carelessness. I decided to take a course, paid a lot of money for it, but had no idea what this course included. I was amazed myself because there existed no rational explanation or justification.

Our classes usually started at 9am with Egyptian colloquial, followed by the MSA course at 11:30. During the big break, I met several other people, including one American, named Salaadin, namesake of the great Kurdish-Muslim general who repulsed Christian and Jews from Jerusalem at the end of 12th century AD. The course was over at 2pm, and I did not have a proper place to stay. I decided I would stay another night at the hostel, which was quite expensive. The school was helping students to find apartments, but again as I was told later, the school and the brokers involved in the search had their cut, which in some cases elevated the price up to 20%.

On the first day at school, I also met my American friend Tucker, who was in our MSA class. My first impression of him was contrary to what my ultimate impression of him is. During our first lesson of MSA, our teacher started by asking us to repeat Arabic letters after him. You would be amazed to see how all beginners try to interchangeably utter and emit sounds, which had a vague resemblance to what teacher himself was pronouncing. Tucker had the most ridiculous of pronunciations. We were all terrible, especially during the first 30 minutes, but in his case, there was a whole theatre show accompanying his short pronunciation "session". All of us mispronounced greatly even the simplest of letters, and some of us were unable at all to pronounce some letters. We all giggled along our own "performances" but when it came to Tucker many of us, including me, just exploded. I could not help myself but laugh aloud. Even teacher, patiently polite and solemn, cracked a wide smile. Every tie it was his turn to pronounce a letter, he would listen carefully to the teacher, solemnly look for two seconds at teachers lips as if he could gain the fluency of language by a mere look at lips which possess that fluency. This stage was followed by another two seconds of Tucker opening his mouth, but emitting no sound. His facial contours would then twist unnaturally, his mouth moving from half-open to fully open and back to half-open, adjusting its vocal apparatus, his eyes bulging, his nose contracting, for yet another two seconds. The culmination came, as most of us thought, when his brain, after multiple trials, refused to adopt his larynx to a seemingly impossible task of pronunciation. At this moment, he would emit a sound, out of desperation or perhaps hope, which more resembled an ululation or a shriek, differing hugely from what it was to imitate.

Understandably, our first day at school was fun, at least for me. Perhaps the fact that Tucker was quite different from us was what made me talk to him. We both were looking for an apartment but none of us could afford what our school had to offer. We decided we will conduct together our search and returned happily back to our hostel.

The rest of my day, I passed revising my very meager vocabulary of Arabic obtained during our first class and thinking how our choices determine who we ultimately become.

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