How to screw up in Arabic

I thought I was so clever learning the language right after 9/11, but I bungled it for years. I wasn't the only one

Published September 7, 2012 11:30PM (EDT)

 A photo of the author.
A photo of the author.

Twenty-seven doesn’t feel old enough to have spent a very long time doing anything, and accounting for a few decades’ worth of life still seems like something too grown-up for me to ever be capable of. But, looking back now on my 20s, I realize I really did achieve something: I spent almost a whole decade failing to learn Arabic -- really trying, and really failing, for 10 years.

9/11 happened when I was 16. Since I'm British, it didn’t affect me like it did the Americans I met later. Even now, it feels strange saying it at the start of a story, like it isn’t mine enough to mention. Of course it seeped into everyone’s lives in the end, and England was no different – the London bombings, the Bertie Wooster bumbling of so much of it. There were distinct notes of Britishness to the entire decade: the carving up of other people’s countries, those inquiries into the war on terror’s illegality that, quite Britishly, came to nothing, and how we hoped the awkwardness of having stumbled into several wars would just politely subside. Whoops-a-daisy, like Hugh Grant says when he’s playing British for American audiences.

But still, at the start, 9/11 had little to do with us, me and the brats in my middle-class high school, who in 2001 tried desperately to hammer the horror on our television into the trusted molds of late Marxism, anti-globalization, and other '90s left-wing flotsam. Our school was basically a Free Sex and Pretentiousness Camp for 16 to 18 year olds, and we’d arrived only two weeks before, certain that Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” and The Strokes would be a sure compass for navigating the new millennium.

In the first week, we were handed a shiny booklet of free evening classes. It was my first encounter with that delicious autumnal back-to-school undertow of everything out there that I can learn, that I can know, that I can master. And not just the school-prescribed languages like German and French; the glossy booklet had magic spells in it, like Beginner’s Mandarin, Portuguese for Holidays, Intermediate Hindi – course titles I’d come to fetishize in my years of being weak prey to the promise of a community education course.

In the first week of September, I’d already decided on Arabic, something to mark me apart from my new friends. (Who else, I thought, would think of learning Arabic these days?) I felt very clever at the time, but that feeling didn’t last long.

From 16 to 18, I studied the alphabet, learned the maps of the Middle East by heart, and recited the arguments of every curly-haired, Converse-wearing college boy I met at anti-war protests. They were always a few years older than me, so their language was a little different: Seattle, Chiapas, Subcommandante Marcos. I had to play catch-up on the 1990s while history returned and while boys from school who’d joined the army went to Afghanistan and then Iraq.

I left my dad’s house to live in a squat with some university-student anarchists. It lasted for about a week until I needed my dad’s help with my history coursework. The student anarchists were learning Arabic, too. In their case it was so they could go stand gormlessly in front of Israeli army tanks, which around that time seemed to be a summertime hobby of liberal politics students across my country. It was almost a substitute for skiing or something. We’d drop basic Arabic words into conversation like y’alla and habibi and – God, we were wankers, all of us – salaam. In the evening classes, my Arabic language teacher was strangely unimpressed with how I tried to signal my subversive coolness to him with half-remembered Ramallah Underground lyrics, as if these were a substitute for actually learning verbs.

But I can’t say that I stuck to Arabic in my late adolescence. I managed to fail pretty well at learning other languages, too. Spanish, Hebrew, Bosnian, Chinese: I did my best to suck at them all equally. Like that’s what globalization really meant – being a bit crap at everything. I signed up for evening class after evening class in an attempt to convince myself that I’d never be one of those English people, unapologetic monoglots buying up the houses in southern Spain and buying up the subcontracted business deals in the Green Zone.

Sucking at languages wasn’t really all my fault, if that does sound too British and excuse-making. For instance, there was the conversation partner for another language I met through an advert in the local library, a PhD student in his mid-30s whose idea of weekly conversation practice was to teach me all the pretty Internet lady phrases he wanted me to type to him over MSN. These were fairly early Internet years for me, and I remember thinking how counterintuitive it was that the PhD student didn’t want me to say dirty phrases to him in person – our conversation practice was, I realized, as we sat in the medical textbook section and he chanted foreign porn-words at me, a kind of pre-game prepping for the online chats he hoped we’d conduct that evening. I always associate that language with a kind of dissociation now.

The modern Greek evening class was worse, destroying as it did both my chance of being able to get by in Athens and my faith in public adult-education courses. Modern Greek definitely put the adult into adult education. At 21, I sat in the middle of a row of 13 blubbery, lobster-red British men in their 50s who had recently met their teenaged, or little more than teenaged, wives on packaged holidays to the Greek islands. With their sunburned noses and their sexist jokes, they weren’t exactly Leonard Cohen in his Hydra days, and I’m sorry to say that pity and disgust curdled in me together like milk and orange juice, as the potential power dynamics of their marriages bubbled up alongside awkward tendernesses. All the questions they’d ask our evening class teacher were things like “How do you say ‘I love you’?” and requests to translate their “jokes.”

After my adolescent awakening in the squats and left-wing libraries, I fell into dating privileged, liberal college boys who had indulgent parents and who studied things that seemed improbable as subjects, such as architecture and art history. This introduction into the cultural elite gave me new opportunities for failing at languages.

Wanting to learn Spanish, I settled for teaching myself Italian from a 1950s book I spied on the shelves at my boyfriend’s parents house. His parents, it seemed, spoke another language -- the language of their British boarding school days. The Italian phrasebook was thick with balustrades and candelabras, and I later learned that my boyfriend’s mother had used the book when she “summered” (what a verb) in Venice in her youth. I built a map of Italian interiors in my mind populated by dressing rooms and ballrooms. I seemed to have drifted, somehow, quite far from a socialist desire to learn Spanish. Comfort corrupts, I guess – I shrugged and continued to overstay my welcome in my boyfriend’s parent’s French summer chateau. I was almost 19 by then, and I now routinely told everyone that my Arabic was coming along “just great.”

I spent that summer sunbathing down by the river outside the Pyrenees village and being as obnoxious as possible to my boyfriend’s mother, who I decided was responsible for all bourgeois hypocrisies of Western civilization, including her ownership of the French summer house I was very comfortable to make the most of. I’d come into the dark, cool kitchen, my hair still wet from the river, and tell my boyfriend’s mother, proudly, of my plans to make her son learn Arabic and come to Lebanon with me. “Sounds lovely” she’d say, “do help yourself to some more wine.” And I did, because it was thirsty work, being so insufferable.

As soon as I arrived at university, I found the nearest madrassa that offered free Arabic classes for students, and I helped myself to the plasticky pamphlets at the entrance to the classroom, which outlined the advantages for young women in converting to Islam. Sure, I still sucked at Arabic, but the important thing was that I went to the madrassa to learn it -- sure proof of my liberal tolerance! I broke my no-cooking-for-men rule to make couscous for the boy I’d met in the Classical Arabic seminar, and I told him I was learning Arabic because I wanted to work on human rights in the Middle East. “You’re so brave” he said. Yeah, I totally was, I thought – going to madrassa, making couscous when I can’t cook anything, going on protest marches in London. I was totally brave and not a lost, pretentious, too-young idiot who didn’t understand anything in the news or in the verb charts -- not at all.

After I graduated, moving to Jordan was tricky. How could I trade on my I’m-learning-Arabic kudos in a country full of, well, Arabic speakers? Sooner or later, I worried, the inconvenient fact that I couldn’t actually speak Arabic might begin to make its presence known. At the local human rights organization where I began my first job, I played British tricks of politeness long enough that my Palestinian and Jordanian colleagues seemed to assume I was fluent but just charmingly shy. In Amman, I took to telling local people I spoke modern standard Arabic, or fusha -- “Just not Jordanian Arabic, I’m sorry!” I told Tunisians and Moroccans I met at human rights conferences that the French influence was the reason why their Arabic, specifically, was a little bit tricky for me. I was very polite about it, and so were they -- “At least you made the effort to try to learn,” they’d say, and guilt would swell inside me like cooked rice. By then, working on human rights issues, I’d learned some more useful phrases anyway: rendition flights, enhanced interrogation techniques. Between George Bush–world argot and fudging some vowels together at falafel stands, I lived in the Middle East just fine.

But shit got serious when I actually fell in love, for real and with no-faking. A long-distance relationship in which I traded daily on my status as a human rights worker for sympathy and unsociable-hour Skype calls eventually unraveled and, my Arabic still shaky, I moved to Sarajevo. We never saw each other again and, like dividing up a city, he took Jerusalem – a place he’d never been before his relationship with I’m-learning-Arabic girl. When I picture him in the Middle East now, I gloss over this fact: I encouraged a man to learn Arabic, and now he can speak it. Meanwhile, in the however many relationships and however many countries bombed since I first went to evening classes, my own promise of mastering Arabic never materialized any more than regional stability did. Did we ever believe that it would?

I wasn’t alone in this. Almost everyone I met while working abroad in my early and mid-20s who wasn’t already a native Arabic speaker or Israeli was learning Arabic. It was a new script and tone for our times. The 1960s aesthetics that had been so comprehensibly retro'd in the 1990s -- like “Austin Powers” -- smelled stylistically bad to us in the 2000s for many reasons, but one was surely that Western pop culture of that era was primarily pilfering and appropriating from South Asia and South East Asia – like the Beatles visiting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Compared to my father’s youth, my era felt distinctly Abrahamic, and the reverence of text seeped into daily life, from the Arabic-practice textbooks on all my college friends’ bookshelves to the crisp, white, bloodless clarity of human rights law.

There were many obvious reasons why so many of us tried to learn Arabic, but perhaps more important is the question of why we mostly failed. I think perhaps Arabic was not as much of a bloodless charter as it looked when, in the textbooks, they separated out each letter – in real life, of course, language is pungently real. Attempts to classroom-learn it (as almost all my non-Arabic-speaking friends did at one point, picking from a menu of modern standard, Egyptian, and other dialects like Lebanese and Iraqi) always resulted in an experience that felt like you’d just turned up in Sydney and tried to order a beer in Shakespearean sonnet form. In Sarajevo, my Bosnian friends who’d grown up in Libya tried speaking to me in Arabic, and I genuinely thought – for the former Yugoslavia was conducive to delusional paranoia like this – that they were making up sounds to trick me because I didn’t understand a word.

I think my experience was a common one: Arabic soup. You’d mix your modern standard with Egyptian g’s, Levantine flourishes, international-ish noises like “yalla” that were our generation’s “ciao,” and malformed repetitions of words you’d heard your Middle Eastern friends say. What came out of your mouth – I imagine – was the equivalent of, in Europe, if you’d stitched Spanish syntax into phrases you’d heard on Turkish soap operas and added -- Achtung! -- exclamations of Hollywood German and thought you were speaking pretty good European. This is the Arabic I currently speak, a mutant strain I concocted in which I don’t know what ingredients I’m really messing with. In general, in the 2000s and in my 20s, we didn’t know what concoctions we were messing with.

So what now? We live in a time of clear-cut divisions and stern edicts, and it feels like this story should have a decisive resolution. After ten years of failing to learn Arabic, I should commit myself to it entirely or never try to speak it again.

But instead, life keeps mushrooming up in its asymmetrical, unresolved way. Above all, the Arab Spring, that great uneven mushrooming of desires and demands, means Arabic-speaking season has blossomed again, uncontainable in the terminology and lenses we had learned in the last ten years.

I’m in Tunisia as I write this. I came here with my French boyfriend, who knows no Arabic, though his Tunisian grandfather never learned French. My Arabic-soup concoction barely gets me anywhere. Modern standard still works as a lingua franca, as does French in certain spheres, like the tram-lines around the city, if you’re content not to scratch the surface. As I try to reacquaint myself with the language, the beginner’s phrases are so overlaid with memories of the years before – and layered over again by the fact that this dialect is different. It’s always different, uncodifiable.

Perhaps where we really failed then -- all the people like me who have been plowing ahead like this for most of our youth -- was in our arrogance that we’d ever master this, or anything. What did we expect? “Done Arabic, onto Chinese next!” I hope, as I open up the textbooks again, that I finally learn that what matters is persevering with something, although that sentiment isn’t easy to swallow for those whose adulthoods have been soothed and smoothed by Twitter, quantified barometers of achievement, and attention-deficient aesthetics.

Alif, baa, taa: Here I am again, feeling too old now to still always be at the start of the alphabet. It feels a bit like the last decade we all lived through: still not getting our shit together, despite all the time we’ve had to practice.

By Heather McRobie

Heather McRobie is a British novelist, journalist, and contributing editor to openDemocracy's gender section.  She is writing her PhD on the Arab Spring and her first non-fiction book, on literary freedom, will be published later this year. She's still learning Arabic.

MORE FROM Heather McRobie

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

9/11 Arabic Editor's Picks England Life Stories Travel