Before going to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 1986, I bought an Arabic phrase book with a cassette. The words to be learned were written in both transliteration and Arabic script. Even then, I ignored the transliteration. What kind of language was this that was written from right to left, with curls and curves, decorated above and below with dots and double dots, and sometimes dashes? I tried to learn the alphabet, but could not figure out why the words did not look like the letters of the alphabet. I listened to the clear, slow enunciation on the cassette, and I mimiced the sounds I’d never heard before, but couldn’t figure out how to put those sounds in the middle of a word. Much mystery resided in this language.
I didn’t hear the language in its perfection and beauty until the evening I boarded the airplane for my first flight to the Kingdom. I’d heard snatches of conversation by the Arab passengers, but I wasn’t able to listen well until everyone had been seated, and the airplane was about to accelerate down the runway. The pilot announced that we’d listen to a recording of Mohammed’s travel prayer.
I did not understand the travel prayer, of course, but I felt its meaning, and its sounds touched my heart. I loved the idea of public prayer, of prayer on an ariplane as it hurtled toward the dark horizon at the end of the runway.
During my first months in the Kingdom, I quickly discerned the difference between conversational dialect and Fusha– the formal language of the Qur’an and news announcers, the overarching language of the entire Arab world, understood by all, superseding every dialect. This was the language I loved to hear, but no one spoke it.
“No one speaks like that,” I was told repeatedly. Conversational Arabic unfolded in the dialects of speakers. I wasn’t able to differentiate dialects for several years.
“Why does no one speak in Fusha?” I asked my first Arabic teacher, an Egyptian woman.
“It would sound odd,” she told me.
So, I’d have to learn two languages?
Unfortunately, I never learned even one. Oh, I studied, formally and informally, for years. I achieved a fluency of sorts, in kitchen talk and market matters. I learned grammar, reading,writing, and how to recite the Qur’an with tajweed, but I never achieved the kind of fluency that carried me out of the kitchen or the suq. Maybe I asked for too much. Westerners are notoriously challenged with respect to learning Arabic. I attribute this difficulty to the respective structures of English and Arabic.
English is like a geometric plane, extending as far as the user’s vocabulary and imagination, but Arabic is like a cube, multi-dimensional, deep with shades and colors. It is qualitatively more difficult than any Western language, yet oh, so beautiful to the ear. I can only imagine the subtley and depth of meaning as perceived by one who has mastered it.
When I repatriated in 1998, I gave up studying Arabic, because I was ashamed of myself for not achieving fluency, and I knew my opportunities would be severely curtailed in the United States. I put my Arabic textbooks at the bottom of my storage box, and I turned to the tasks of repatriation. I wouldn’t feel the pull of Arabic language again until 2006, the year my father started running serpentines between good health and critical illness.