Return to Riyadh in Southern Italy

In July of 2013, I spent three weeks in Italy visiting relatives and attending the wedding of my cousin’s daughter. Again, for the third time, I felt so much at home there that I was loathe to leave, except for the fact that I missed my family, and had to return to work.

The lifestyle of Southern Italy echoes the lifestyle I lived in Riyadh. The sidewalks, stores and apartments also resemble those of Riyadh, with their concrete construction and vines clinging to gates, pointing towards flat roofs.  Even the weather pattern resembles that of Riyadh albeit less extreme. In Italy, I awoke early in the mornings, took my coffee, read and wrote, just like I did in Riyadh. Mid-morning, I walked to my relative’s apartment, and we shopped, ran errands, and even went to the beach (something I could never do in Riyadh).

Rosa cooked the midday meal, which was always the larger meal of the day, again like my lifestyle in Riyadh. I wish she would have let me cook, but the kitchen in the new apartment is small, and she is the queen of it. The entire apartment is small; in fact, there is no guest room.

I stayed in their old apartment, the one I stayed in during my previous visits. It is located on the third floor– we in the States would call it the fourth floor– accessible after a sixty-step trek up a gray marble staircase exactly like the gray marble staircases of Riyadh apartment buildings.  Hard and noisy, also like the Riyadh steps, the Italian steps did not accumulate triangles of sand in their corners. Franco and Rosa had lived in that apartment many years, and raised their three children there. The only reason they moved is that the building has no lift, and they have became too fat to ascend those stairs.  

I walked back and forth between the old apartment and their new one– on the ground floor—twice a day. They always wanted to drive me back and forth but I refused, because I love to walk when I travel. Walking is the best way to explore and get some exercise for mitigating the effects of an uncontrolled diet.

I walked along sidewalks that changed width and sometimes disappeared altogether, sidewalks that dipped, curbs that crumbled, and potholes in the middle of everything, all the while keeping one eye up and one eye down.

The down eye scanned my footing and warned my feet when to adjust their steps.

The up eye devoured the grace and singularity of the doors that separated streets from living quarters. Italians live much closer together, and closer to the street, than Arabs.  Italians do not demonstrate an exaggerated sense of privacy. On the contrary, they are constantly mingling in public places, chatting, sitting outside their doors along the street when the air turns mild in late afternoon. 

Southern Italy provides the best of both my worlds, gives me the freedom I need to wander, and the flexibility I need to be myself. Then, there is the language. I speak Italian now, not fluently, but well enough to take care of myself and interact with the relatives, most of whom do not speak English. Their delight at my efforts, and their encouragement, reinforced me in ways they cannot perceive.

My ex-husband never allowed me to speak Arabic. Every time I tried, he walked around the house whining, “Speak English! Speak English!” He never understood, or cared, that his rejection of my desire to speak Arabic figured prominently in our divorce. At least, he did not object to me going to the madrassa to learn tajweed, nor to the community college to study classical Arabic grammar. No, those skills would not have threatened the linguistic gap he wished to remain between us.

Of course, I was thankful for those learning experiences. I studied intensely, and learned more academic Arabic than most Westerners, yet my heart wanted more than anything to speak freely with my husband in his own Egyptian dialect. He never let down his guard, and never spoke to me in Arabic, and never let me speak Arabic with him, even by mistake.

Now, after having learned Italian, and spending time in Italy with my relatives, speaking Italian only, I am vindicated for the pain I felt from my ex-husband’s disdain towards my efforts with Arabic. I intend to speak Italian with near-native fluency, sooner or later. Already, I have read several books in the language, and continue to read, study, and watch Italian films without subtitles, and I take immense delight in my progress.

In spite of my success with Italian, however, I still feel a hole where the Arabic should have been planted.

 

 

Pronounce Your Name Correctly, Please

The Muslim families in my community want to build a mosque. They are tired of driving thirty minutes to the central mosque downtown; they want a mosque in their neighborhood. They convened and bought a piece of land, drew plans and submitted the project to the city for a conditional use permit. Naturally, some of the surrounding non-Muslim families objected.

Tonight I attended a City Hall meeting regarding whether the project should be granted its permit. Several hundred people attended, many of whom stood at the podium for as long as three minutes each, voicing their support or objection. For two hours, the people took turns speaking their minds. Three local television stations swung their cameras around to catch the action.

I sat in the middle of the room and listened. I was pleased to hear nearly ninety percent of speakers urge for approval of the permit. Most speakers were Muslims, but of the non-Muslims, most of them, too, voiced approval and even welcome of the addition of a mosque to the neighborhood.

Two people gave strong objections. Those two were featured on the television news broadcasts later.

Watching TV, one would think that a mosque on the magnitude of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was being considered. In reality, the mosque will be small, with only 114 prayer spaces (including the women’s section). Our community has 100 Muslim families that would use the facility. Many of those families were in attendance tonight. Each person who spoke introduced him or herself.

I was appalled to hear some of them mispronounce their own names. Men named Ahmed called themselves Amed. One named Hassan called himself Hassahn (accent on the last syllable.) A woman named Suhair became Sue Hair. Khalid became Kalid, Iman became Eye Man, and Quraishi became Kereshi. My poor ears nearly curled up and folded over!

Several years ago, I met the wife of one of the Ahmeds, and even she pronounced her husband’s name, “Amed.” I asked her why, and she gave me the predictable answer, “Americans cannot pronounce Ahmed.”  I wanted to say, “But you can pronounce it!” I wanted to tell her not to cave in to poor pronunciation simply because the majority of people in this country cannot pronounce the names. I wanted to tell her that many people here can, indeed, pronounce the names correctly, especially if they want to do so. They need a little tutoring, and then they’ll pronounce just fine! As a native-born American who did not pronounce my first Arabic word til the age of thirty-six, I disagree that most Americans cannot pronounce Muslim names, or  any names in a language other than English. A name is just a short sound that can be learned in a matter of minutes.

Well, I didn’t tell her all of this; that would have been impolite. I’m telling it to you now, you who read this and might have a name you think,  “Americans can’t pronounce.” You may be right. Some non-Muslims, non-Arabic speakers may never be able to pronounce your name, but you must make them try. They’ll respect you for it, and you’ll respect them because they will try. Some of them will actually learn their first non-English word– your name!

Learning names is a first step in forming relationship. Muslims are missing out on an important step in building relationship when, in their eagerness for acceptance, they do not teach their names, but instead pick up the incorrect pronunciation of native English speakers. I wonder whether the people who objected to the mosque in question had ever met a Muslim person, let alone been taught a Muslim name.

Arabic Language, Again

Lately, I’ve been spending more time on the Natural Arabic website. I’ve been studying the vocabulary, taking the quizes, replaying the selections, and doing my best to put those new words into my long-term memory. It’s not working very well, yet I continue to do it, as if learning Arabic is something I should do, can do, and need to do. I apply myself to it as if I haven’t already applied myself year after year with the same poor result. I am not fluent in Arabic. In fact, I can’t even understand it whether it’s spoken in Fusha, Saudi dialect, or Egyptian. I worked so hard, the entire time I was in Riyadh, to learn this language, and I had no support from my husband, except for learning the Qur’anic language, and yet, after twelve years in Riyadh, I should be farther along. I should have been fluent years ago.

Why am I resuming my study of Arabic? I abandoned it from 1998 til 2008, while I struggled to reestablish my life in the United States. I missed it, and felt sorry that I couldn’t achieve fluency. I still loved the language, and felt my disadvantage in not knowing it. When I took it up again, I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t forgotten much of what I’d learned. Has I learned so little that retaining it was not difficult?

I remembered the basic grammar. In fact, I can still look at just about any Arabic word and tell you its grammatical structure, if not its meaning. I remembered how to form possessives. I remembered the dual,  I even remembered some of the common verb forms and how to conjugate them.  I remembered the particles and many of the verbal nouns.

Reading is still easy. It’s just the meaning that continues to escape me.

I can’t even blame my retardation upon Arabic’s expanded vocabulary (compared to English). Even the common words that I recognize easily enough do not register with meaning in my mind. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of repetition, I thought, as I applied myself to the lessons of Natural Arabic. I repeated words and phrases and entire articles over and over until I was sick of them, then went back the next day, and couldn’t remember half of what I’d learned, so I’d do it again, and come back the next day, and maybe remember a few words.

I love the Natural Arabic website. It’s user-friendly, efficient, and the most engaging Arabic language tool I’ve discovered, so I cannot blame it for my incredibly slow progress.

I downloaded the articles and put them on CD so I can listen to them in my car. The result is that I can now read and recite along with the CD, but I still don’t get the meaning, entirely. Oh, I can usually get the gist, but the gist is not good enough. I want to remember the meaning of every single word, every phrase, every idiom, and I want to remember them instantly, almost like the native speaker I should have become.

Now that I’m sixty, I refuse to believe that my mental capacity for languages has diminished. My daughter wants me to speak Arabic with her son, whose first language is necessarily English because we live in the United States.  She wants him to grow up with Arabic, also, so I am finally getting my chance at speaking, even if it is with a three-year-old. I’ll really be mortified if he learns more than I do, and learns it faster. Well, at least I can still claim the technical achievement of knowing the alphabet, word structure, and how sentences are put together. He’ll have to grow half up before he can grasp those basics. I’ll probably be a goner by then.
 
So why am I doing this? I love sound of the language.  I’m doing it for love.


 

The “Bismillah”

One of the joys of living in Saudi Arabia was seeing Arabic calligraphy, especially the “bismillah” and other  renditions of  verses  from the Qur’an,  expressed artistically  in various media.  “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” is a key phrase in Islam. It prefaces ritual prayer, and is said often throughout the day, to oneself or out loud, when embarking  upon a task.

I remember an outing to the desert with a group expats from  King Faisal Specialist Hospital, in which I worked. Our Saudi driver said it before starting the bus. He said it quietly, almost to himself.  After that, I noticed other Muslims saying it, often before doing something new or something that involved the well-being of others. I liked the phrase. It encompassed the best of intention, the realization that we act in faith, without  the assurance of  the consequences of our actions, and in the acceptance of whatever result followed.

I began seeing calligraphy everywhere, especially the bismillah, which always graced the letterhead of official stationery. In the suq, I saw wonderful wall hangings, some painted, some inked, some sewn with gold letters on black velvet.  Book covers in the Arabic section of bookstores showed dramatic, often shiny gold calligraphy, and I never could decipher the titles, even after I learned how to read Arabic. In the women’s cafeteria of the hospital hung a large panel painted in bold brush strokes of mauve, purple, blue, yellow, green, with flecks of gold and diamond-like textures that caught the ambient light.

I know nothing of the art or science of calligraphy. All I know is that seeing it pleases me immensely, fascinates my eye and  engages my heart. I won’t mind learning how to do it. Until and if I ever do, I’ll remain content with looking at it, especially at the bismillah.

Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

Ya Mamma, Ya Babba

When I read Bedu’s recent post, Saudi Arabia- Understanding Umm’s and Abu’s, I became inspired for this post. I suppose I should say it is a rant, but I am genuinely curious about how the following custom got started and what it means.

I’ve noticed that many Arab parents address their very young children as ya Mamma and ya Babba. Both parents will address their daughter as ya Mama and their son as ya Babba, but I’ve also heard mothers saying ya Mamma to both sons and daughters, and fathers addressing both sons and daughters as ya Babba.

I understand the “ya” part, as a sort of a polite equivalent to, “Hey, so-and-so”, for people of any age,  I’ve picked up that custom myself, but the Mamma and Babba part still stumps me when I hear it addressed to children.

In fact, it grates my ears, and I was mortified to hear one of my daughters begin addressing both her kids as ya Mamma and ya Babba, right from the cradle. The poor little girl still thinks her name is Mamma, and the boy is too small to know his own name, much less anyone else’s.

I would never criticize my daughter or anyone for following a harmless cultural custom, but I wish she would realize how ridiculous it sounds when she says it here in the States, especially in public.  I’ve asked various Arabs about this custom, and I’ve heard various answers, none of which make sense.

One Arab father said, “Because I want my kids to know that their babba is talking to them.”

An Arab mother said, “Because my kids will grow up and becomes mammas and babbas.”

Can anyone enlighten me further, or agree with me or disagree that the expressions sound silly? Has anyone addressed a child as ya Mamma and ya Babba? If so, why, and what does it mean to you?

Easy Natural Arabic Article

For those of you subscribed to Natural Arabic, www.naturalarabic.com, this week’s article is particularly accessible. In other words, easier than usual.

تفاصيل يوم رتيب في حياة عائلة مغربية

(Details of a routine day in the life of a Moroccan family)

For those of you not subscribed, a seven day free trial is available, as well as several articles you can examine if you don’t want the trial.

( I am not affiliated with this web site at all, except as a happy customer.)

Multi-Lingual Family Life

Multi-Lingual Family Life

An Entreaty From One Who Learned (the Hard Way)

When a Western woman marries a Saudi man, and moves to Saudi Arabia, she is faced with a language barrier. Her MIL  likely will not speak much English. Even if she does, the Western wife will find herself an object of curiosity and conversation within the family. Her world will both narrow and expand in ways she never thought possible.  In fact, her whole life will close in on itself or blossom out, to the extent that she learns Arabic.

Her husband will be the main person- the only person, at first- she’ll be able to talk with, unless we can count the maid, who might know a few words of English.  The family will help her a bit, but they’ll always run off and leave her, conversationally, and she’ll end up sidelined, finding more meaningful social contact with pre-lingual nieces and nephews.

When her kids start school, she will be unable to communicate with the teachers. The kids will have learned Arabic from Baba, of course, and guess what language they’ll use when they don’t want Mama to understand?

The common Arabic phrases are easy enough to learn. Foreigners cannot help but learn them by osmosis, but permanent residents need to learn more. They need to apply much effort. The language is difficult, and the multi-cultural, multi-lingual atmosphere of Saudi Arabia can lull a person into laziness. An ex-pat worker need not speak a word of Arabic, but a permanent resident needs to do everything she can to get a good grasp of it.

Without a working knowledge of the language of your own family, you put yourself at risk for all kinds of misunderstanding, if not worse.  Please, if you live in a multi-lingual family, do not trust them with a language you do not speak. Learn it, no matter how hard, no matter how long it takes. Consider it an insurance policy of sorts. Consider it your right and your responsibility. Make your husband aware of this stance. If you do not, you remain in a compromised position within the family, even if mutual love and respect suggest otherwise.

Learning Tajweed, Part Five

 Learning Tajweed, Part Five

My tenacity brought a big blessing. I inserted myself firmly into that madrassa, never missing a day, and always fully prepared for the lesson. I was surprised to discover that most of the ladies had no problem learning the special rules of tajweed, but all of us had problems discarding the accents of our native languages.

The other women were Arabs, but from various Arab countries.  A Pakistani or two, an Indonesian, and I, rounded out the group. As you know, the various dialects of Arabic are different from one another not only in word usage, but in pronunciation of letters. The two letters most distorted by dialect are Qaf and Geem. The dialect furthest from classical Arabic is the Egyptian dialect, and half of the ladies were Egyptians.

So, I did not feel as odd as I expected I’d feel. My pronunciation issues were not more severe than theirs.

I practiced every day at home, when my husband was at work and the girls were at school. I derived an inner contentment from reciting the Qur’an, as opposed to reading it, or reading the translation of it. I started paying attention to the various recitors; some were easy to understand, and some had melodious voices.

Ahmed Al-AJami became very popular at that time, but I knew people who did not like his style because they thought it was too close to singing. I must confess, I liked his style for that very reason!

During  the year, I discovered that my one and only neighborhood friend, an Egyptian woman, also studied at the same madrassa and was enrolled in the highest class available, with the best teacher. This was the class I wanted to enter, but the waiting list was long, with the requirement that you finished all the other classes first.

My friend spoke to the teacher about me, and I was allowed to sit in. Then I was allowed to read for the teacher, and she invited me to join the class!  I’m not sure she was  comfortable with me, but she  recognized my diligence, desire, and accomplishment to date, thanks to Allah.

I spent the entire next year in that class, learning more than I’d ever expected to learn. To this day, I thank Allah for the blessing of putting me in that class. I am not worthy of it, especially since I’ve neglected the Qur’an since repatriating. The good news is that my solid foundation still stands.

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Learning Tajweed, Part Four

Reinstated

At home, we poured out the whole story to my husband, who then said,”I know the husband of the mudeera. I will go pray Isha with him and find out what’s going on.”

He was gone longer than usual that evening, but we were waiting for him at the door when he returned.

“Everything is OK now,” he said, “they will phone you tomorrow and ask you to come back.”

What?!”  For the second time that day, I was in shock.

Turns out, one of the madrassa teachers recognized my girls as daughters of an Egyptian woman who had been a teacher several years ago. She told the mudeera, who was then suspicious. Why were these Egyptian girls coming with an American woman who pretended to be their mother, and they pretended to be her children? Stranger yet, why did this American woman read Arabic but did not speak it very well? And where was the real mother of these girls?

The mudeera decided that I was a spy for the government, though for which government, she did not know. However, that was the most plausible explanation. So she kicked us out, not wanting any trouble.

When my husband told the mudeera’s husband that he had divorced the girl’s mother and sent her back to Egypt, and later married an American Muslimah, the other man understood, and explained the situation to his wife.

My girls’ dignity had been insulted to the extent that they said, “We’re never going back there!” but I said, “Let’s go back and show those people that they cannot push us around. We want to learn tajweed, so let’s make them teach us.”

The next day, a woman phoned and said, “Well, are you coming back or not?” and I said, “Yes,” and hung up the phone. No salaam, no sorry, just that question. I knew these women were not of a more fortunate social class, but I was surprised at their crude manner and narrow attitude. I needed all my courage to go back the next day and convince my girls to go with me.

We did. We were reinstated and everyone acted as if nothing had happened. That was fine with me. All I wanted was instruction, nothing more, nothing less, and I got it. We stayed for several months, but the biggest blessing was yet to come.

 

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Learning Tajweed– Part Three

Kicked Out!

I spent a fruitful term sitting in the circle with the “literate” ladies.  We read, but the class focused on memorization. That was fine. I wanted more, however.  I knew that tajweed had rules of its own apart from grammar and I wanted to learn them.  My husband suggested I enroll in a new madrassa that was opening in the neighborhood, so I took my girls and enrolled.  There, I was put into a class with barely literate women, but that was fine, as long as we were reading and learning the rules of tajweed. My girls (whose native language is Arabic) went to a more advanced class.

After a few days, the mudeera (director) pulled us aside as we headed for our classes. She said, “We have a special class starting soon, a class for Western women, and I’m sure you’ll feel more comfortable there.”

“Fine,” I told her, and started for my classroom so I wouldn’t be late.

“Wait,” she said, and then gave me a speech about how, as a Westerner, I would want to learn with other Western women, therefore I should wait for the new class to start rather than continue. Something sounded fishy. I knew I was the only Westerner who lived in the neighborhood within a twenty-five mile radius.

“OK.” I said, “but I know how to read. What I need is pronunciation.”

She said I didn’t read well enough to remain in any class other than the special one being organized for Westerners, and I said yes, I do read well enough, “…and I’ll show you.” I opened the mushaf (copy of Qur’an) and started to read. 

“No, no, you must go now. We’ll phone you when your class starts.”

“What?!” I said. “Ask my teacher. She’ll tell you that I am doing fine!”

“No. Please leave!” She got up and herded my girls and I out the door. My girls spoke up for me, but could not soften the will of the mudeera to be rid of us. The girls nearly cried. As we left the building, the mudeera shouted, “Wait! You can’t leave like that,” and threw down three pairs of black gloves.

We put them on and walked home, all three of us in tears.

 tn_cavern 

(Today I am leaving for our family cottage in the nothern part of the state– a mini-vacation while I’m still on medical leave for my hand. I won’t be able to post for an eternity of six days. I’ll have to work off-line, preparing future posts, of course.)