Alif Baa

I think I’m in love with my Arabic teacher. She’s exactly the kind of teacher you need for a weeknight adult learning class full of beginners who have no idea how much suffering lays ahead. We laugh more than we speak, we laugh more than we learn. And we are learning a lot (compared to the nothing we had only a few weeks ago). She weaves stories and jokes into everything. When explaining why and how each letter in the arabic alphabet has a different form depending on its position in the word she says,

‘When you were born you had your whole body and you were by yourself. Then you grew up and needed to connect to others. Can you live your whole life alone? No! You need to meet others and connect to them. You need to go out and have a life, fall in love, meet people.. you know. So that is what the arabic letters do. They start off by themselves but then they connect. In the beginning they take the lead – they are the leaders. Then in the middle they are like the proletariat who are squashed, stuck like slaves. They lose their bodies and keep only their heads. Then, because they have worked so hard, at the end they are rewarded and regain their body leaving a tail.’

I love her, seriously. Her hands wave around, she does little dances, sings little songs to get us to enjoy the very slow-going process of learning Arabic as English speakers. It is unlike Spanish, which is so easy to pick up. There are sounds I’m training my ear to hear. So many kinds of H. I have to pay attention to what my tongue is doing, my throat, the shape of my mouth. And I walk home after every class in a happy daze, my mind full of the knowledge that I am learning a new alphabet and the beginning of a new language.

This time last year I signed up for an eight week Creative Writing Course with a friend. Each week we had to write a story, bring it into class and we each took turns reading it aloud. It was terrifying. Truly. If public speaking racks your nerves, nothing compares to bearing your inner soul, your secret heart in a room full of strangers. Language classes are different. Everybody begins as children learning the sounds, the letters, repeating the vowels until they stick. Unlike children we are all embarrassed, unaccustomed to fumbling tongues and finding ourselves quite illiterate. I adore it.

I am a well-practised beginner of languages. In Bolivia, for the month that my funds allowed it, I had a Quechua tutor for two hours twice a week. It was the first language of the large indigenous population in Cochabamba and my interest was piqued at the worlds apart that Quechua was from Spanish. One, the native language, the other the language of the colonisers. My tutor Lisbeth and I would sit at different rooms in the two storey volunteer house, sometimes on the balcony overlooking the street and others in the small room by the garden that was constantly being replanted by the famous resident hippy Gary. It was thrilling beginning to learn Quechua in Spanish. I loved wrapping my head around the way the language was structured, the words that grew long without separating, the stops and sounds I could not yet make. It was a puzzle and a pathway not only to another language, but to another world and I was in awe of the completeness of its difference, the ties to the people who spoke it.

And so it is with Arabic. The mystery of it draws me in, even as I begin to unravel it. I can read now but I don’t know what I’m reading. Where I work I hear Arabic always but I don’t know enough vocabulary – or any really – to know what is being said. Every bit enthrals me. I listen to it intently, hoping to catch something. Maybe someday I will. My hope is mostly that I can gain access to a world hidden from me and one which I very much want to be a part of. I want to be able to greet the families I work with in their first language, not in Classical Arabic which is never spoken but in the slang of Iraq and Syria and Lebanon. What drives it all, always, is the desire to connect to others and be allowed the honour and privilege of stepping into their culture and their world.

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