Tag Archives: learning arabic



I’m not an Arabic scholar. I’m still in the single-digit chapters in Book 1 of Al-Kitaab. However, I know enough Arabic to say things like, “My paternal uncle is a translator at the United Nations in New York,” or “I have 8 sisters and 4 brothers who live in Cairo and study English Literature at the university there.”

However, I DO know enough Arabic to feel validated when complaining about it, or making fun of it, or making memes out of it. So, to all of you who don’t study Arabic, I’m sorry. These won’t be funny. Well, maybe they will! I’ll try to be both entertaining and instructive.

I think this meme perfectly (PERFECTLY) embodies what studying Arabic, both Fousha and spoken dialects, is like:

There is nothing simple in Arabic. One does not simply doanythingin Arabic.

For example, at its most basic level:

Arabic. That’s the one written right to left with the pretty connected letters, right? Well, yes. But there are several rules about how to write the letters, which are simple once you learn them but also objectively hilarious. There are four ways to write each one: its independent symbol, its starting position, its middle-of-the-word position, and its ending position. Don’t even get me started on calligraphy, of which there are 6 main types (and probably a bajillion other kinds too), and in which the shapes of the letters change even MORE.

Anyway, several letters never connect to the left butdoconnect to the right, while others always connect both ways. There are also some half-letters or non-letters that may or may not connect, that serve different grammatical or stupid purposes. You know, like hamzas and tamarbutas, which aren’t letters. Tamarbutas are just one of the Hs (there are 2 Hs) with the two dots from the taa (there are 2 Ts) on top, and they’re sometimes pronounced like the taa and sometimes pronounced like ah and are ridiculous. Hamzas – just – don’t ask.

This is the alphabet! I got the image from Wikipedia. Hamzas, Tamarbutas, and other stuff not included. This is just the alphabet, woo! 25 consonants and 3 long vowels.

ا    ب    ت    ث    ج    ح
خ    د    ذ    ر    ز    س
ش    ص    ض    ط    ظ    ع
غ    ف    ق    ك    ل
م    ن    ه    و    ي

Now you’ve learned the alphabet. Good for you!

There are also short vowels and other diacritical markings in Arabic that aren’t written in formal Arabic (in fact, they’re only written in textbooks and children’s books). They tell you how to pronounce the word, which is essential because one short vowel can differentiate completely different words. This makes reading Arabic tricky, because you’ve got to already know the words before you read them. Trickyyyyyyy. However, every so often in Al-Kitaab (our textbook), you’ll come across a passage written with the short vowels included. It’s weird.

That is how I feel whenever this happens, sort of a combination of joy and confusion.

In Arabic,

Plurals are a mushkil. That’s all I’m going to say.


What a great topic to write about! The Arabic script above is pronouncedmushkil, which means problem. However, the word no longer directly translates into English because it’s become a more meaningful term among those of us studying here.

It’s like the difference between the word “home” and “my house” in English: mushkil is a specific term that encompasses an entire spectrum of sentiments and contexts, and the English word problem just doesn’t have the same effect. Therefore, some things are mushkils that aren’t problems, and some things are problems that aren’t mushkils. Mushkils (this is funny because the plural of مشكل is المشكلات or مشاكل, not “mushkils,” which is adding an English plural onto an Arabic word, and this whole thing is funny because plurals are mushkils ANYWAY HAHA IRONY) are a perfect example of what makes wonder if I’ll ever be able to effectively relate my experiences in Morocco to the people I love at home. Oh, let’s talk about that.

I fear sometimes that the enormity of everything I’ve experienced here will stay trapped in my heart, unreachable by my loved ones simply by virtue of the fact that they weren’t here to experience it. It’s a 4-month-long inside joke that nobody at home will get but me, which is bound to be lonely.

I also know that this is one of those “duh that happens to everybody” feelings, so what are we going to do about it? Keep in touch, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to maintain our connections to those who DO get it, and tell crazy stories to let everyone else in on it best we can and you know what? Whatever, dude. This is going to be great.

I’ve been thinking more and more about those little things that define our everyday life lately: mushkils, tea, mosquitoes, Darija, our concrete bunker classroom, medina life, Temara days, the ridiculous Qalam administration, french fries, dirhams, blankets, old walls, street food. Bees. Men peeing all the time. Avocado juice. Grody Eye and Fidget, two of the Qalam cats I named. The walk from the Fac to Qalam, the walk from the tram to Oudaiya, the walking all over Rabat. Cafés in Agdal, buying phone recharges, pickup soccer games, eucalyptus trees. So much comes to mind when I think about what life is made of here, and I’m realizing more and more how much I’m going to miss it all!

I’m having those goodbye thoughts, as of course I would: thoughts about how in four days, my way of life is completely changing. How, even though I’ve spent so much time missing home, I really don’t want to leave the home I’ve found here. Holy crap, I don’t want to leave! I KNOW. WHAT? Who’d have thought?!

Yet, won’t the little things that I’ve forgotten about at home be just as wonderful to rediscover, even while missing those little things I’ve grown to love here? Probly. I’ll let you know.

You know what else is funny? I said in some post awhile ago that I’d probably tell you all about these mixed feelings when I was feeling emotional or hungry, and I’m STARVING. I got hungrier and hungrier as this post went on, and it’s funny because now you can reread this and observe my descent into NEED FOOD the more emotional and philosophical I get.









Today, class, we’re going to learn how to learn Arabic hellza fast—or, we’ll learn all about what frustrates me while attempting to learn Arabic hellza fast. Mezien? Good.

Arabic is a varied and complex language, with (I am so eloquent here) bajillions of different spoken dialects spanning North Africa and the middle east. I’m studying the very particular dialect of Arabic spoken in Morocco, Darija, which is often incomprehensible to Arabic speakers from anywhere else (this incomprehensibility is, interestingly, one-way; since the media is largely in Fous7a and Egyptian Arabic, Darija speakers have no trouble understanding other dialects). Darija is an entirely oral dialect, and so the rules that apply to written Modern Standard Arabic do not apply in our Darija classroom; this makes spelling and pronunciation sort of whatever-you-want. Cool!

We conduct classes using a mind-bending combination of Arabic script and latin-script phonetics (there is no International Phonetic Alphabet here, we just write what sounds right, which is different from the weird Peace Corps textbook, which is different from the class handouts. BRAIN). So, for example, here are some verbs conjugated in the past tense:

(Pretty, right? I friggin love this script.)

AND THEN we are instructed to write a paragraph about something, using the verbs that we just conjugated. Easy, right? NOPE. We’re not fluent enough in the alphabet to be able to spell out a paragraph using Arabic script, so we’re supposed to do it something like this:

(It looks like jibberish, yes. Yes, that is my nose. Yes, these are my notes. JIBBERISH NOSE NOTES.)

I’m struggling a lot with the brain acrobatics, I just thought I’d share that with you all. Good thing Allie is a fous7a goddess. Good thing we have 12-year-olds to be way better at this than us. WOOOOO!!

Sometimes in class, I get frustrated with myself for not understanding immediately, for messing up sounding out words, for not learning it all perfectly as soon as I open the book. It’s the classic measure-self-worth-against-performance-in-class complex, which is silly, and so I’m working on being patient with myself. This is only week 2 and I can DO this. I AM doing this! I WILL LEARN THESE SKILLS TO PUT TO USE FOR A MORE JUST AND HUMANE WORLD! RAAAAAAAWR!!!

Still, the combination of difficult classwork, new culture, new place, new language, new everything, feeling isolated and starved for news of you—I find myself sometimes becoming overemotional about things like numbers and verb tenses, laundry and showering, eating and sleeping. It’s the little things here that yank the comfy chair of familiarity out from under me at every turn; sometimes I get tired of falling off the cultural merry-go-round, and every-so-often attempt to steal a meditative moment of solitude in the bathroom.

(Pooping is becoming a very spiritual experience for me. It’s the ONLY time I ever spend alone here.)

It’s just that before I left, 4 months was no big deal. I think of my friends who have left for months and months, years and years, and my heart fills up; 4 months looks pretty scary from here.  But I have found a wonderful community here, too, and I know it’s something we can all pull off together (cue high school musical. Yeah, and I know a dance to it, too. NO SHAME! WOOO), as we share our linguistic triumphs and awkward moments. Let’s DO this.