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 Four


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.



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.


(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.)



Learning Tajweed, Part Two


The class met every weekday after Asr prayer til Maghreb. Basically, it was a memorization class. The teacher would recite a phrase, and we’d repeat it in unison. When her sensitive ear perceived improper pronunciation, the offender was singled out and corrected. No one took offense. In fact, we were amused at each other’s regional accents. We were a collection of Arabs (all except me) from the surrounding Arab countries. We all had issues with certain Arabic letters, because the Qur’an is recited in perfect language, yet they were all accustomed to speaking in dialect.

Their challenge was to purge their pronunciation of regional variations, and my challenge was to master the letters that Westerners cannot pronounce with ease.

I enjoyed the reciting, and I improved my pronunciation, but I could not get comfortable in that class. There I sat, a Westerner who could read their native language while they could not, and I disliked having to ignore that fact. Perhaps they could not get comfortable with me, either. I could read, but I could not speak very well. No one understood that.

Before long, I asked to be moved into a more advanced class. I had to prove my reading ability, which was not difficult, and when the director heard my accent, she agreed immediately that I could graduate to the next level.

The women in the new class looked much like those in the first class; middle aged or older, mostly from Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia, and all sitting in a circle, draped in black, heads covered. I wanted to remove my scarf, but was told that one must cover while reading the Qur’an. I knew this was not true, but who was I to speak up?

So I sat hot, yet happy to be there, and looking forward to learning. While waiting for the instructor, a Syrian woman sitting to the left of me leaned over and asked, “Min fayn inti?” Where are you from?

I said, “Amreeka,” and she turned to the woman on her left and whispered, “Amreeka”. That woman turned to the woman on her left and repeated, “Amreeka.” Each one repeated, “Amreeka” in a whisper to the one next to her, until the entire circle had been informed. Eyebrows either raised or descended, while mouths frowned or opened in amazement.

The next question from the Syrian woman was the predictable, “Min fayn zowjik?” Where is your husband from?

“Misr,” I said– Egypt. Again, my response was repeated in whispers from one woman to the next, while I looked at each one of them as they talked about me without embarrassment and little restraint.

The self-appointed spokeswoman asked me all the vital statistics– what did my husband do? How many kids did I have? Boys or girls? How long had I been Muslim? How long had I been in the Kingdom? Each answer got whispered around the circle like the answers before them, and by the time the teacher entered the classroom, they knew more about me than I’d ever learn about them.

Such began my experience in the classroom with the literate ladies.


Learning Tajweed

Hijab, women’s rights, Islam, and East vs. West are subjects that never fail to stimulate a good, often repetitive, conversation.

Learning Arabic is another such topic. I am tempted to repeat my laments about my failure to achieve fluency, and the difficulty of the language, and my lack of helpful cooperation from my kids, etc. All of that is mundane.

I’d rather tell a story about how I studied tajweed.

After I had studied Arabic grammar two years at the ladies community college, conveniently located down the block from my Riyadh apartment (across from the TV tower, for anyone who wishes to investigate), my husband suggested I start tajweed. 

I confess, I would have rather continued grammar, but the college offered no further courses. I enrolled for tajweed at a local madrassa, also within walking distance from home.

In spite that my black wraps looked like everyone else’s black wraps, I stood out like a horse in a herd of camels.The ladies all looked at me like camels look at people– directly, standing still, amazed, and wondering what comes next. I was their first face-to-face Westerner.

They put me in the elementary class, with the illiterate women; no one believed I could read. We all sat on the floor, in a circle, and the teacher started taking attendance.

“OmAhmed? OmMariam? OmFaisal? OmNur?” One by one, the women raised their hands, and grunted something to indicate their presence.

“OmHammama?” (Mother of the pigeon.) They all laughed at this.

When she came to me, she raised her eyes, looked at me, and said, “OmAysh?” meaning, “The mother of whom?”

I said, “Ismi Marahm.” My name is Marahm.


“La. Ismi Marahm, wa bas.” No, my name is Marahm, that’s all.

“OMAYSH?” she repeated loudly, with wide eyes, as everyone in the room focused upon me, and no one moved.

“OmRanya,” I said meekly. So much for my Western idea of personal identity. I nearly got up and ran out, but that would have drawn even more attention.

Such began another two years of study, during which I suffered additional insults, but developed an appreciation of the Qur’an worth every minute. More later.


Passing the Torch

manta1.jpg My father is dying. The dying process began May 17, 2006– his first trip to the ER– and has accelerated during the last three months.

My memories of Riyadh have grown insistent as his body has grown weak. Many an evening, after having cooked, washed dishes, dispensed meds, walked my father to and from the bathroom, and made sure both he and my mother were comfortable for the night, I would ascend to my second story “loft” where I live and write. I would surf the net for photos from the Kingdom, and I’d seek out sites from which I could hear a bit of Arabic.

I’d work on my series of essays called “Vignettes from the Kingdom”, and I’d restrain myself from thinking I could ever study Arabic again, after all this time. Then I discovered, and I could no longer restrain myself. As the title suggests, the site brought me back to Arabic just as naturally as if I’d never strayed.

I found myself smiling, renewing my spirit for life, daring to hope that my life could absorb the blow of my father’s passing, and that I would recover after awhile. I found myself fully absorbed in the stories, the audio, the learning tools, and ultimately the ability of the human spirit to rally, to cling to shreds of meaning that can later be coaxed into the completion of essential life tasks.

This blog is not really about Arabic, Islam, Saudi Arabia or my experiences there. We already have many blogs and books written by people who are in a better position than me to provide that information. This blog is about tending gardens, nurturing connections, harvesting jewels and setting them into the shape of wholeness.

My Arabic adventure forms a matrix of sorts. By drawing the pearls of my past into the dynamics of the present, I shall craft a future through which the meaning of my life can express itself. I don’t know what that meaning is, exactly, but it’s about loving. It’s about my parents, my children and now grandchildren, my writing, my readers, and offering myself as a conduit through which others can discover what they need to discover, what will bring the meaning of their lives into focus, what will open their own channels, and strengthen them on the journey. It’s about passing the torch.

My father has already passed a mighty torch to me and all the others he has mentored and loved over the eighty-seven years of his earthly life. He has given everything he’s had to give, and is nearly empty of resources even to maintain his own body. For him, myself, my family, and my place in this universe, I must now grasp the torch with both hands, to keep it blazing, and learn how to pass it to whomever is worthy of holding it.

Living Authentically

eye_var2_f_tb.jpg  “Living authentically” is a catchphrase these days, but do you know what it means? I did not, until I pondered my friend’s comments regarding my “Return to Riyadh” dreams. She suggested that I had not been living authentically. What, exactly, did my years in Riyadh mean to me?

Did I miss having to swathe myself in black wraps? Did I miss having to keep an eye out for the mutaween? Did I miss not being able to drive? No, no, and no.

What I did miss, and still do, are the supportive friendships that nourished me there. I miss staying home to take care of my house and family, cooking lamb and camel with spices like mistika and dried lemon. I miss my daily chats on the phone, and reading the Qur’an in Arabic out loud, practicing tajweed, all by myself. I miss sunny days and quiet evenings. I miss the salmon colored sky of summer. I miss praying in mosques, especially during Ramadan.  I miss hearing Arabic all around me, every day. I miss the international atmosphere that is superimposed, and sometimes in conflict with, the Islamic basis upon which the country was established.

Most of all, I miss the sense of autonomy I developed there. That’s right– autonomy. In Riyadh, I was free to indulge my passions for reading, writing, travel, cooking, studying languages, and taking care of my family properly, without having to carve up my energy and allocate most of it to a job that did not promote the development of my spirit. 

Riyadh offered me a garden in which I blossomed.

My task now is to cultivate my own private garden, and keep it in bloom no matter where I live or what I do.