Monday, April 2, 2012

Adventures in Arabic: Introduction

by Sally Zahav

I have been studying Arabic for a couple of years, and I often learn things that I would like to share with my readers. So I will occasionally write a short piece when my studies lead me to an interesting place.

Why do I Study Arabic?

Frankly, I can only offer a partial explanation. Sure, there are rational and logical reasons for me to learn Arabic, since I live in the Galilee, an area that is populated fairly equally by Arabs (Christians and Druze as well as Muslims) and Jews. Practically, this means that I come into contact with Arabs very often. He might be the gas station attendant or the owner of the large, meticulously tended plant nursery. She might be the pharmacist at the local drug store or a doctor in the government-run clinic. At our nearby branch of Ace Hardware (yes, we have Ace in Israel) many of the staff are Arabs. Of course, they are all perfectly fluent in Hebrew, so I don't need to learn Arabic in order to communicate with them.

These are my neighbors; not next-door neighbors, but next town neighbors - and some are content to live peacefully with the Jews. Of course, it's also true that some would be much better pleased if I and other Jews had never immigrated to Israel from our countries of origin. Some would even enjoy eliminating Jews with their own hands. I'm well aware of that.

Nevertheless, the abiding hope for most Israeli Jews is to live in peace with the various minority cultures (Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bahai, etc); that we should all have a rewarding and prosperous life. Not as "dhimmis" - or second class citizens, the way I would have to live in an Arab state - but as equals, within the context of a Jewish state. So in part, my study of Arabic is an expression of cautious hope for a shared future and an effort to meet Arabs part of the way, culturally; to be able to speak with my Arab neighbors in Arabic as well as in Hebrew. And by learning the language, to gain insight into the culture or at least get a glimpse into it.

Another, very different factor that motivates me is the flood of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic material that dominates the media in the greater Arab world. We know that some Arab politicians and Muslim clerics engage in pure genocidal incitement because of the invaluable work of organizations like MEMRI and Palwatch, who monitor Arabic media and sermons preached at Friday prayers, and then post English translations on the Internet. Being able to understand Arabic would allow me to access Arabic media outlets directly. And I do want to know what they think, what they say and what actions they intend to take. It's a natural impulse of self-preservation and an unfortunate but necessary damper on the bright hopes for coexistence.

These are the rational reasons for me, an Israeli Jew, to learn Arabic. But I'm also aware that there is something else, undefined, maybe even mystical, that drives me. It's true that I enjoy delving into languages in general, but my quest to learn Arabic is almost an obsession. I listen to Arabic CDs in my car and when I work in the kitchen. I read Arabic text whenever I have a free moment. When I pass by road signs on the highway, or shop signs in Nazareth, even when signs are written in English or Hebrew as well, it's the Arabic that I struggle to decode as I whizz by.

Which Arabic?

Anyone who has the least familiarity with Arabic is aware that Arabic is not really one language. There are many spoken dialects, defined by geographical areas and sometimes even by tribe. I've been told by scholars of Arabic that the differences between the dialects are so great that they are virtually different languages. But there is one universal form of Arabic that most Arabs understand, even if they don't speak it, called "Modern Standard Arabic" or literary Arabic. It's the Arabic of the media and the Arabic that is taught in schools.

Arabic is a beautiful language, logical, well-structured and rich. In its written form it is graceful and artistic. And although there are significant differences, the similarities between Arabic and Hebrew are many, which is not at all surprising, since both languages are branches that stem from the same Semitic trunk. Next time, I'll go into some of the many similarities that I, as an intermediate student of Arabic, have already seen.

Sally Zahav

Source: Middle East and Terrorism

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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