1. Learning Arabic

2 May 2020

A few months before quar, I suddenly decided I was going to learn Arabic. If you ask me “why Arabic?”, I go into a split-second psychic trance where I remember childhood summers in the Algarve with my grandparents and learning how “Algarve” comes from Arabic originally and so too do many other Portuguese words (like oxalá, “I hope”, from inshallah, “god willing”) and one time when we were visiting Portugal we also went on a roadtrip through Spain to see the Alhambra, which was breathtaking in its perfect geometry, as beautiful as the olive groves and warm beaches of the entire peninsula, beaches like the one on the other side of the Mediterranean that Camus had described so lovingly in his essay “Noces à Tipasa”, which I read in college when I had an Algerian roommate who, at the end of Ramadan, got a huge care package from her mom full of the loveliest homemade pastries, everything rose and almond, the same delicate flavors as the baklava a family friend would bring back from Lebanon once a year… and slowly making my way out of this Proustian reverie I’ll probably say, “oh I just wanted a challenge.”

And it certainly is a challenge. It takes all of my feeble brain power to try to memorize these new letters and words, leaving no energy for my brain to attempt anything else, much less worry about coronavirus. I simply cannot be overwhelmed by the misery of the world when I’m trying to remember the difference between بَ ,بُ, and ت. Writing them out is even harder; I constantly wonder if my handwriting looks childish (it most likely does) so I practice over and over, trying to make ن feels as familiar as “n”. It’s exhausting and meditative in equal measure.

One of the corniest things you can say about learning a new language is that it allows you to travel the world. Regretfully that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about in this paragraph, so bear with me. I may be stuck in my apartment in Oakland, but while learning Arabic I can have a pleasantly banal daydream about drinking tea in Marrakesh or, if I’m feeling more imaginative, I can go deeper into my mind palace and conjure up an entire Iraqi adventure where I explore Sumerian ziggurats in the desert. Even when it comes to baking bread, that ubiquitious quar activity, I’ve foregone sourdough in favor of Lebanese za’atar man’oushe. I know this is equivalent to what unimaginative teen girls do when they’re learning French and they start wearing berets and pretending they live in some black & white 1950s version of Paris, but please, it is quar, allow me whatever joy I manage to find.

I had always thought I was good at languages because I can understand a little bit of every European language, even the ones I’ve never studied. As it turns out, I was coasting on the fact that all of these languages are, you know, closely related, so this did not in fact make me a genius. Arabic has made this clear. This does however mean that every time I do understand something in Arabic, it is an ecstatic revelation. I was watching a Netflix show set in Israel and Syria, and at one point some Arabic text flashed on the screen. I recognized a few letters immediately, so I thought I would try to transliterate each word. One of them was ايران. I sounded this out: ah-ee-r-ah-n. It sounded like “Iran”, so I looked it up, and it was! That is the word for Iran! That was the first Arabic word I managed to accidentally translate on my own, and I am very proud of it.

Life has felt like it’s been on pause during quar. Nothing is happening, nothing changes. In this relentless monotony, learning Arabic is often the only thing that reminds me that time, somehow, is still marching forward. I know more Arabic today than I did a week ago, and I knew more then than the week before that, and so on. Maybe it’s a pointless hobby; I’m not going to be eating kushari in Cairo anytime soon, and it’ll be a very long time before I can read any books in Arabic. But, well, it’s beautiful, and for a brief moment every day my mind gets a welcome break from anxiously scrolling through Twitter, and that’s probably a good enough reason to do it. And one day, who knows when, maybe I’ll be able to go to some of these places, and I really look forward to going to Beirut and trying some real man’oushe and being like “wow the man’oushe i baked in quar was so fucking bad lmaooooooooo”. One sweet day :)