Sunday, November 02, 2008

Arabic Adventures in Egypt

Yes, I mean the language, not the culture. Not for this post at least.

This post was triggered by an anonymous comment on my Omar Effendi blog post This comment resonated deeply within me as I have faced the same question numerous times here in Egypt "Why don't you speak Arabic?"

Well I did try my best, I can speak enough Arabic to bargain at the khan, with a taxi driver, shop at a grocery store and order a meal at a restaurant. I can understand a fair bit more, provided the person speaking isn't talking at full speed. But that is the limit of my Arabic language skills and I have not yet felt the need to learn any more than that (If I don't use a language regularly, I forget and I have never done well with learning a language in a classroom setting - blame it on the 3 compulsory languages we had to learn in primary school) My Egyptian friends happily and obligingly translate for me when the need arises.

But do I want to explain this to every person who asks me this question - most often taxi drivers, shop keepers and the like? - NO because it really isn't their business. Unfortunately in Egypt a lot of people do think that it is.

A lot of Egyptians do believe that just because you are here in this country (no matter how short a stay) you SHOULD learn Arabic. Its almost like they believe that Arabic is the lingua franca of the world. (Kind of like the Americans -WORLD SERIES in Baseball)

I don't deny that it is a widely spoken language and it is a beautiful language to learn to read, to be able to appreciate some classical works, but this isn't my calling. I already speak 4 languages fluently and a smattering of another 6 or so and that works for me.

I have no objection to an Arabic speaker not being able to converse with me in English, I will find myself a helpful translator. But I do object to the disdainful and scornful looks that I'm given by some who figure out that I've been here for awhile but can't speak the language fluently!


Cesario said...

that's strange, most foreigners I know in Egypt complain that people keep speaking to them in English even though they want to learn Arabic. I mean in Egypt, everybody knows English, in Turkey when I went there, English was a rarity.
Maybe you're misinterpreting people, because most Egyptians are over-enthusiastic to speak to a foreigner in English.

Cairo Typ0 said...

My Arabic teacher seems incredibly offended and upset that, after a handful of lessons, i'm not fluent. Taxi and bargaining arabic put you way ahead of me! My teacher hasn't gotten to anything *nearly* that useful. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

We Egyptians take being in Egypt for long time and don't speak Arabic as a sign of disrespect for the both language and culture.

Kim said...

Cesario - I guess it could be because I don't fit the blonde hair, fair skinned, colored eyes, English speaking mold of foreigners. LOL!

Cairotypo - I learn languages in a kind of organic way, where I learn what I need to learn to survive.

Nidhi said...

I post this comment with a heartfelt prayer that I am not tempting Fate!
We've been in Cairo 6 weeks and have gotten around pretty well with 'Maafi Arabic' (has become my 5 year old's favourite phrase)followed by broken english and plenty of gesticulating and smiles.
I'm picking up the bare minimum Arabic I think I need to get around (am terrible with languages) and for the present it seems to suffice.

Kim said...

Don't worry Nidhi, you will be able to manage fine.

I've been managing fine, as have friends who speak less Arabic than I do.

Its just a couple of people who ask me the question in an accusatory manner that gets me irritated.

amr.m.rezk said...

Hi I'm amr, an Egyptian, and I just read this post, and I don't think all foreigners must speak Arabic, after all it is one of the most complicated languages.

However, in Egypt you can always find somebody that speaks English or French fluently, so I don't think communication is a problem here, and good luck to everybody.

Jessi said...

I love your blog!!!!

I am a young (23yrs) British convert to Islam of around 4 years.
I am now a young British carcass for every vulture in Egypt!
I came here to learn Arabic for the purposes of reading the Qur'an but also because it has long been an ambition of mine to learn a foreign language, maybe the only ambition of mine that I can remember.

So, I had these romanticized ideas of coming to Egypt alone, standing on my own 2 feet learning Arabic and being happy.


I don't know if any of that has happened, I am now wobbling on (what I think are) my own 2 feet, and know enough Arabic to deal with cleaners, plumbers koshk owners and Taxi drivers......

Unlike many I took an un-natural ease to pronunciation, the letter 'ein' came with comical push after a week or so. Its the grammar rules I have problems with, there are so many that their too hard to remember when speaking.

I would love to know how you found your teacher!!! I seem to only find religious teachers that have too many rules for it to be possible for me to learn or they have an alternative reason for teaching me or try to push their ideas of Islam onto me.

I am happy as a Muslim, don't get me wrong, it's just not easy to be a British Muslim in Egypt, as like the west, even the Arabs blur the line between religion and culture.

I'm sorry you're getting negative response from the Egyptian people about your Arabic, but maybe it's more of an insecurity to there own level of English. I can see their point also, although I'm not saying that it's right. I remember being annoyed when I would meet one of many of my foreign friend's parents that had been in England for up to 9 years and spoke not a word of English passed 'hi, bye' and the occasional thank you.

I hope to hear back from you on any advice you have. I have been here for 5months, completely alone and completely in the deep end!

Jessi Walker

check out my blog;

...and excuse the spelling mistakes, I sometimes wonder if my English is under attack with my dive into the Egyptian language.

Kim said...

Thanks Jessi for your kind compliments.

Welcome to Egypt.

You asked about a teacher, I haven't taken classes. I had to compulsorily learn 3 languages in school and I hate the thought of learning a language in a classroom! It just doesn't stick.

I pick up what I need to get around and manage my daily life with minimal hassle and that is what I have done in every city of India that I have lived in.

I have never lived anywhere for more than 2 years. This has been my longest posting to date.

If I knew I was going to be here long term, I would put in more effort and learn conversational Arabic.

But since I learn my languages by listening and actually speaking, I have seen from past experience that I promptly forget them the minute I leave the area where it is used. . .

So learning languages in-depth doesn't work for me. Not with the 5 languages that I already speak, read and write.

Jessi said...

WOW talk about having a reason to blow your own trumpet! and here I am struggling to find the concentration to learn 1! I would love for you to put me in contact with anyone lol thats my mail id :)

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