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Editorial: Benefits of learning the poetic Arabic language
If I was a cool guy I would be learning Chinese. Being able to speak even a few words in Chinese is cool. Learning Spanish is cool too -- that makes you a part of the multi-cultural vision. If you learn Chinese or Spanish you’re fulfilling the principles of diversity.
Or you could learn Gaelic, the language of Ireland and Scotland -- going back to the Olde Country in Europe. That’s cool too, in a retro way.
If you’re really cool you could learn an indigenous language, like Quechua, which is spoken in Bolivia, or Coastal Salish, which is spoken in Puget Sound.
But who needs to be cool? Not me, I’m learning Arabic and people think that’s weird. They get kind of an uncomfortable look on their face when I tell them, like saying, “Can we talk about something else?” Or else they say, “Isn’t that pretty hard?”
People don’t like Arabs for one thing -- I mean in general. And the Arabs -- what they think about us I can’t print, so it’s not cool.
Returning to my mention of the Chinese people and our Spanish-speaking neighbors -- they don’t hate us at all. We’re not even at war with them. Well, they might quietly despise us and they might plot to overwhelm us economically, but they don’t hate us. But we can’t say that about the Middle East -- the Middle Eastern people hate us, some of them do.
So an unspoken fear is don’t learn the Arabic language, because you might unknowingly besmirch the reputation of the Prophet, and then Al Qaeda operatives will capture you and have you beheaded and the videotape of your execution will be sent to your nearest relatives.
Or worse, if you study the language of this hostile culture, the NSA -- which might be looking over my shoulder right now as I type this message, and if you’re reading this message then they might begin watching you too because they have flagged certain words such as “Arabic” -- the NSA might want to talk with you, at a safe house, after a long car ride ... No, better to learn Chinese or Spanish.
But what do I care? I’m old and I’ll do what I choose to do. So I’m learning Arabic. I have engaged a tutor. She’s very smart and I’ve learned a lot from her. I have become friends with Arabic-speaking people who have immigrated to the United States. I have made Facebook contacts with people in Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- they’re very nice people, and I’m very glad to be friends with them. And they don’t hate me, although it’s possible that they might find me somewhat annoying at times.
But this does nothing to solve the intense political problems that set their culture against ours. I can’t fix that.
There’s another reason to avoid learning Arabic. Classic Arabic is the language of the Koran, the foundational text of Islam. Islam is a patriarchal monotheistic religion -- like Christianity and Judaism -- and that’s not cool. To learn Arabic is to learn the Koran either directly or indirectly. This is just the way it is and likewise with the study of any Western language we will encounter the Christian heritage, like it or not.
We have our own fundamentalists whom we despise for their dogmatic fanaticism, and the Muslims have their fundamentalists (and the Jews too have their fanatics, except they are not dogmatic), and the only interesting question is whether their fundamentalists are worse than our fundamentalists.
To which I answer undoubtedly -- their fundamentalists are worse than ours. But I don’t want to start a debate on that topic. I only want to say that learning Arabic has been a wonderful, stimulating, emotionally satisfying experience. The language, written and spoken, is rich beyond measure in poetry, music, rhythm, depth, and beauty.
The political problems fester in a climate of sustained mutual hostility. “What you did to us! We will never forget!” The image of mobs of unshaven men shouting with anger in the streets of Cairo and Baghdad. I can’t do anything about that.
Except to say that the war will end. Wars always end. And this war will end someday and I hope that day is soon.
My Arabic tutor responds
I study with Miranda Zora. She is a Middle Easterner, a native speaker of Aramaic and Arabic. She is also an undergraduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In her response, Miranda points out the positive aspects of studying Arabic.
I really like your essay. It’s true, a language is related to the history and politics of the countries/cultures that speak it.
I like specifically the part about language and religion, because that’s mainly why people don’t like Arabic; it’s the language of the “terrorists.” Moreover, English is based on Christian traditions. Expressions such as “Thank God,” “Bless you,” and “Oh my God” express that idea.
However, the main benefit and positive thing for me is that the only way you can understand the culture behind something so controversial and so different is by learning its language. People are afraid of Islam because it’s so different; or at least they think it is. However, once they learn the language they will realize that it’s in fact not that different and they will be able to relate better to the people who speak the language, aka Middle Easterners.
For me, as a linguist and polyglot, I know that language is the reason why I can relate to so many different people and cultures in the world. I can relate to people who speak all the languages that I speak, Aramaic, Arabic, English, French, and Spanish; and even to people who speak languages similar to these. When I meet people who speak Hebrew for example, we end up comparing our languages because they’re very similar -- Hebrew came from Aramaic, and that’s the basis of our conversation.
Therefore, when I do go on further with my passion and learn more languages, I definitely don’t want to learn something that is so similar to what I already know. I’m not going to learn another romance language, I already speak three. I’m not going to learn another Semitic/Middle Eastern language, but I’m going to learn something that is so different and alien to me; also taking into consideration what will help me in my career later. I want to learn Greek for example, because I love the culture and it’s nothing like what I already speak. My other choices are Chinese and Russian, because they’re different and would help me in my career later on.
So I actually think it’s a smart choice for you to learn Arabic at this time, because it is one of the main languages in the world right now and it’s especially important because of the political situation between the United States and the Middle East. Plus it opens your horizons and helps you relate to and communicate with so many more people in the world than what you can now without speaking Arabic. 150 million people speak Arabic, and you can relate to them now because you’re learning Arabic.
My point is that learning what is different for you is what will make you a global citizen who can survive in this world in any situation and in any country/culture, because I think that that’s what’s required to survive in this extremely diverse world that we live in today.
Fred Owens worked at the Wilson County News as a reporter in 2005-06. Owens lives and works on a small farm in Ventura, Calif., and writes occasional stories for a community weekly newspaper there. Find his blog, Frog Hospital, at froghospital911.blogspot.com.
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