I love the Middle East: the sights, the smells - oh, the smells! - the sounds, the architecture, the music, the history, the people...you name it, I find it fascinating. One of the things to do on my 30 before I'm 30 list is to learn Arabic to a conversational level. For all that I've travelled to the Middle East up until now, I've never managed to get beyond the basics of speaking and listening to preliminary greetings, and "thank you" and "no". I haven't even learned to swear! Reading and writing was beyond me. I could recognise the "Exit" sign - a useful thing when you're driving down a highway and wondering why your lane is about to disappear - but that was about it. For the record, it looks like, but doesn't always have the English translation.
I'm taking a basic Arabic course through university - 2 hours a week of class, plus 15-30 mins a day of homework and drilling. We're learning the alphabet 5-6 letters at a time, and some weeks we have vowels and vocalisation marks thrown in for free. There's 28 consonants in the Arabic alphabet, 3 of which serve double duty as loonnng vowels. Like, really long: it's one of the many features of the language which has no English equivalent. Then there's 3 short vowels which aren't usually written and 11 or so other marks or versions of letters to learn.
I've just discovered what it's like to be illiterate. It's horrendous. I love books. I always have done. Ever since I was a little kid, books have been keys to other worlds, with the author's words providing a framework around which my imagination can fill in the other details. When I read, I don't just read. I vanish inside my own head, with the author leading me by the hand through the world they have created and shared through the printed word. I'm terrible at watching films based on books that don't stick to the original point. I'll read anything that's lying around, including very trashy fiction.
And now...I can't read. At least not in Arabic. I can slowly and painfully spell out some words, but it is letter by letter. And if there's more than 3 or 4 letters in a word, chances are I've forgotten the beginning by the time I get to the end, and I end up spelling it out 2 or 3 times before all the bits stick in my short-term memory long enough for me to string them together into a full word.
Adding to the complication is that many letters share the same basic shape, distinguishable only by the placement of dots. 1 dot or 2? Above or below the line? Or no dots? Are there no dots because I forgot to write them, or does this basic letter shape have a legitimate form with no dots? I can manage 20-30 minutes of this before I get a headache and have to stop. It's worth it though. It really is. Knowing so little means there's tangible progress every single day, and every day I can look at a string of Arabic and recognise more and more of the shapes. I don't have all the keys needed to open the door, yet, but I'm definitely getting a clearer picture of what's beyond the door when I do get to open it.
The other thing that has struck me is that my handwriting (in English, French, and anything else based on the Latin alphabet) is terrible. But in Arabic, it's turning out to be not too bad. It's not the beautiful calligraphic script which Arabic is famed for, such as this panel in a mosque:
but it's not hideous.
Compare the English scrawl of my title with the repetitive Arabic words here:
For what it's worth, I've tried many times over the years to neaten up my handwriting. I really have. I can do a decent Black Letter when I need to and a passable cursive hand, but it takes aaggeeess. I've never managed to make either of them something I can do at speed. And let's be honest, in today's world of meetings, lectures and use of computers, how often to any of us write anything extended or slowly by hand? Even my shopping list is done on my Android phone these days. But maybe, by learning a new script at this age instead of being the impatient so-and-so I was a child, I can learn to write Arabic not just neatly, but beautifully. That really would be an achievement!
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