In an effort to convey the reality of international travel, its ups and downs, and specifically the ups and downs of my experience in Bethlehem, I’m going to talk about the main difficulty I’ve had since moving to Bethlehem, and that is, I don’t know how to speak Arabic. Although I’ve picked up a few phrases over the past month, for the most part, I’m still oblivious to most of the speech I hear around me on a daily basis.
I’ve always thought Arabic was a beautiful language, and I have an even deeper appreciation for it now. I find myself mesmerized by the voices of the staff, my host family, and friends when they speak Arabic around me. The language is especially beautiful in songs, which one hears a lot of in Bethlehem. Usually, my daily dose of Arabic language-music sources from a neighbor’s stereo system or the taxi drivers blaring it in their cabs. My friends have also introduced me to a lot of good music. (Listen to this: Mike Massy مايك ماسي – Ghayyer Lawn Ouyounak. I guarantee it’ll make you cry.)
I’m most fascinated by the vocalization and pattern of speech the language requires. For example, while in the Roman alphabet, we have only one “H,” there are two different “H” sounds in Arabic. One is more of a “ha” sound, light and high in the throat, like your panting, and the other is more of a gargling “hkh” sound. There are also two “T” sounds, and like the H’s, one is sharper and the other, softer. Based on the way you say these letters, the entire meaning of the word changes. (There are, interestingly, no equivalents to “V” or “P” in the Arabic alphabet.)
I will repeat what I’m sure many other international, English-only travelers have said before me: the language barrier is very real, and it is painful. Many people here speak some English, but I always feel like I’m imposing when they have to speak to me. If they know English well, they see the blonde hair, and they speak to me in English from the start. When they don’t know English, a lot of tense silence and nonverbal gesturing occurs between the two of us. When I’m with others, they will defer to one of my Arabic speaking friends and completely ignore me. Basically, not knowing Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country turns you into a child. You don’t speak, you’re not spoken to, people talk about you in their native tongue like you’re not there, and when you are spoken to, it’s usually in slow, simple words – even when it’s English.
You take for granted the entire concept of language when you can speak the main language of the country you are in. Growing up in an English speaking country, I’ve never had to contend with a language barrier. This past month has taught me that language is the key to almost every activity of daily life; in order to be friendly, make apologies, ask questions, tell someone how you feel or what you want them to do, you have to speak their language. The inability to do these things when you have always been able to do them in the past is sometimes really rough, psychologically and emotionally. I often feel isolated, rude, and dumb when I am in public in Bethlehem and I cannot respond to someone in his or her native tongue.
Some days, the language barrier hits me harder than others. For example, last week I confronted one of the kids at Wi’am to pick up his trash that he’d thrown on the floor of the computer room. Because I knew he spoke English, I told him, in English, to pick up his trash. I saw the wheels turning in his head as he looked up at me, pausing, he was thinking, “This woman doesn’t know Arabic. I can talk back to her and she won’t know what I said.” And he did just that, he responded to me in Arabic and made no movement to pick up the trash. In an attempt to regain control, I told him, “I understand what you just said to me, I’m going to tell (staff member), and you won’t be able to play in here next week.” I left, but I was so upset that I didn’t tell the staff member. In that moment, I felt so powerless. I thought, how could anyone respect me, kids, shop owners, the staff, when I can’t speak the language?
That day, I was hard on myself for not knowing Arabic. I’ve talked to my friends about it, and they’ve made me feel a little better about not knowing Arabic yet. Even though I don’t know Arabic, the staff and my friends respect me and help me when I need it. I’m lucky to have a supportive group of people around me. There are people in countries all around the world who don’t speak the native language who are not so lucky.
To round out the post with a happy ending, I am starting a Spoken Arabic class at Bethlehem University on September 5th. (The campus rivals Belmont’s in architecture and flowers!) My class start date can’t get here fast enough. Although it has been good to contend with my English-only privilege and recognize how important language truly is, I’m ready to learn some Arabic so I can expand a conversation beyond, “Sabah al Khair, Keef Haluk(ik)? (Good morning, how are you(“-uk” for a guy,” -ik” for a girl)?).
Wish me luck, you guys. Arabic is hard. And I thought I was done with school! 🙂
Here’s some more songs if you’re interested in Arabic music:
Mustafa Amar – El Leila Doub – Bonus: This video is hilarious. This is a funny party song now.
Mohammed Assaf – Ya Halali Ya Mali – This guy won Arab Idol and is now a national sensation in Palestine.
This is Dabke – Dabke is a traditional Palestinian dance tradition that involves a lot of footwork. It’s really cool to watch. This type of song is played a lot at weddings and other celebrations.