Learning Arabic in Cairo

Keith Hammond reflects on his experience of learning Arabic in Cairo.
Written from the Roma Hotel, Cairo on 26th October 2014.

The Arab world has an incredible history of learning.  It begins in the Madrasa.  Language has been central in the tradition with many international students to Cairo.  Damascus was another city very popular amongst those learning Arabic as a foreign language.  Of course the visitors have now slackened off but the demand for Arabic is still extremely high.

Cairo is good city to start learning Arabic, one because there is such a wide range of schools and two because the Arabic in the city is so flexible.  Different accents are all over this city.  Much more than some European languages, the same thing can be said in endless ways in the Arabic.  So for learners like myself who make all sorts of strange sounds, in different word orders, the place is a gift.

Language for Wittgenstein was not simply a tool for referencing the world.  Language constituted a completely humanized ‘reality’ that it is impossible to move outside of in our thinking.  For me it is the other way around right now.  I cannot ‘think my way in’ to looking at someone in front of me and thinking ahhh ‘enta’ or looking at a third person and thinking ‘huwa’ or ‘haya’ …

So different languages constitute different realities and here’s where all the fun starts.  There is not much for us humans outside of language but there are a lot of very different languages.  Not sure that language constitutes realities in and of itself now, because of globalization. A problem of course it that Arabic constitutes one big reality but within that there are lots of variations.  You hear the whole range in Cairo and that is why it is a great city for learners of Arabic.

Cairo Traffic KH Oct 14

Cairo Traffic October 2014

In many ways the language in Cairo is much like the traffic.  All kinds of differences but people communicate all the same.  Sometimes it is frustrating but that is the same just about everywhere.  For me the biggest difference is between the written and spoken Arabic.  Learners use textbooks that employ Classical or Standard Arabic.  But the communication on the streets in shops and cafés is something else altogether.  This difference makes me think of written English and spoken Glaswegian must confuse our students in Glasgow.  It must be mystifying.  I know it is here …

So you slave away at the books and tapes and then you go into a local shop and this is where the fun starts.  My first two statements that were understood here were at the American University of Cairo bookshop last Friday.  Because it was Friday the shop was closed.  You could not get beyond the security gates.  So I said to the man at the university gates: bukra?  His response came quick as a flash.  Hearing him was like discovering penicillin.  Na’am, buckra – La, la la dilweitti.  Very simple.  No Nobel Prizes involved.  Straight forward.  Another experience ordering what I thought was hummus was not nearly so life affirming.  But it is all part of this lovely learning process.

In my hotel there is an old man who cleans my room each morning.  He greets me, sabbah il khair and I respond Sabbah a noor.  He then goes on to simple stuff and if I slide into English the feather duster comes out!  This is also part of the charm of this city.  There are some wonderful people who help with the language everywhere.  So much of this makes me think about Wittgenstein critically.  There is difference of course but there is also an awful lot of shared ground.  I come to think that I will never understand people who fear difference.

Maybe different worlds are not so different …

All our troubles emerge, so it seems to me, when we expect too much of sameness.  Borders do not mean that one ‘sort’ of people end and another ‘sort’ begins.  Culture – including linguistic culture – is complex mess.  It is not maked out like the lines on a football field.  Some meanings are specific to cultures.  But in Cairo the people find endless ways around these problems.  Pronouns are moved around and gestures invented constantly.  And regardless of what we are seeing on the television each day about Syria and Iraq people here for the most part are kind to foreigners.

I think Derrida tried to get at some of the points I am making in relation to that fancy term ‘difference’ … He thought there could be nothing outside of difference, that it held language together but nothing like the way we assume there are all these essences.  He thought we just have these linguistic joints.  I love that idea. So exercise the old joints and difference is fine.

Yesterday I saw a picture of the piece of wall below.  I could not but think of how clever it was in taking the rip out of our sophisticated play on language and art.  Language here is a gift. Graffiti Wall KH Oct 14

But none of this makes learning Arabic any easier.  I am now off to make more strange squiggles in my little note book and then return to the wonderful Roma Hotel where I will walk around like a nutter going through my ena, enta, enti etc.  But it is all fine …

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