Learning Arabic

I love languages. I love everything about them—their sound, grammar, script, variations across regions, its provenance, accents, colloquial usage, swear words… everything (and no, SMS language is not included here!). It’s no surprise then that languages were my favourite subjects in school.

My fascination with languages continues even today long after I have finished school and college. But somehow I did not attempt to enroll for any language course, Indian or foreign, after my formal education. There were a couple of failed, informal attempts to learn Urdu, but they never really took off.

Arabic Calligraphy on an artefact in the Islāmic Room of the British Museum in London

Around the time I started working, I got interested in calligraphy art and through that I got introduced to the beautiful Arabic script. Its flowing script, the fluid patterns it made, not to mention that it was written from right to left only fuelled my fascination for and the desire to learn the language. My attempts at trying to find an Arabic teacher in Mumbai were not really successful, in the sense that I did find teachers willing to teach me Classical Arabic (which would have helped me read the Qur’an), but not Standard Arabic (that is everyday Arabic), which is what I wanted to learn.

Then one day, in August 2008, the opportunity to learn Arabic literally arrived at my doorstep, or to be more specific in my inbox. I won a scholarship to do a Master’s programme in a London-based university. Among the various information packs that I was bombarded with received from the university, before I left for London in September 2008, was one on studying a foreign language there. And guess, which was one of the languages being offered? ARABIC:-)

After I had registered for the Arabic language course and on the eve of my first class, the long-awaited anticipation of learning Arabic wavered due to some serious doubts about my own ability and expectations. Learning a language as a child and learning it as an adult are two entirely different processes. Would I be able to manage? Would I have a good teacher? Would I enjoy learning Arabic? What if I hated it?…

I needn’t have worried at all as all my fears and doubts came to nought. Though I have always enjoyed language classes in school, learning Arabic was a uniquely, fantastic experience. My Arabic classes used to be on Monday mornings and I used to look forward to them so much that there was never any question of Monday morning blues. :-D

When I was learning Arabic, I found the alphabets quite confusing. So I made these posters and put them up on my wall. Not only did that corner suddenly look like a wall of calligraphy art, it helped me learn the language better. :-)

From the very first class to the last, there was never a dull moment thanks to my teacher, Abir Ahmed, and the innovative pedagogy she adopted to teach us. For example, the Arabic alphabet was taught by grouping similar looking alphabets, rather than teaching it to us in a linear manner. Every class had speaking, listening, reading and writing components and the learning aids included audio and video of poetry, songs, conversation, and short films. Sometimes, the classes would be a discussion on Arab culture, food, music, poetry, the educational system, etc. I never missed even a single class. :-D

March 23, 2009. My classmates and teacher (extreme right) after lunch at a middle eastern restaurant on last day of class.

At the end of 6 months of classroom learning, 6 assignments, and 2 examinations, the course formally ended. But my learning didn’t. Parallel to the classroom learning, which introduced the Arabic language and gave me a glimpse into its rich culture and history, another kind of learning was happening. Thanks to Erab and Karim, my two Arab friends in London, I was exposed to another kind of learning that continues even today.

Erab and Karim were my classmates in the Master’s programme I was in London for. And we kind of hit it off from day 1. Their curiosity and pleasure at my wanting to learn their language cemented our friendship. They became my informal teachers and how !

Through them I got to understand the political, cultural and religious history of the Arab world. I watched in bemusement as a discussion on how to write a particular alphabet turned into a discussion on the differences in how Arabic grammar was taught in their respective countries (Karim is from Algeria and Erab from occupied Palestine). I had my image of a unified, rigid Arab world shattered when I heard them discussing the divisive politics of their region. I learnt about the different types of Arabic spoken (not that I could differentiate) across the Arabic world. I felt their pain, anger, humiliation and resignation at being singled out for their nationalities and religion. I relished the Arabic food that Erab would prepare or and enjoyed the Arabic music that Karim would share with me. I heard Mawtini (the former Palestinian National Anthem) with them at a rally in London, and saw grown men and women weep at their statelessness, and for a homeland that is no longer theirs. I learnt how the Arabic numerals were adopted from India and, unlike the rest of the script, is read from left to right! Most of all, I had my own prejudices and ignorance shattered.

It is almost 2 years since my last Arabic class, but the extra classroom learning remains and grows every day through my emails, phone calls and Skype chats with Erab and Karim, through the news…

Yes, I learnt a language. But more than that, I learnt about a rich culture, as diverse and varied as my own and one that shared similar values as my own. Learning Arabic gave me entry into a world that I knew existed, only at the fringes of my consciousness. That is the beauty of languages, they are like keys to a journey into an exciting world, but only if you are willing for that journey.

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17 thoughts on “Learning Arabic

  1. That is a wonderful post. I myself was born and brought up in a Gulf state and learnt Arabic in school. SO, I can read and write Arabic now, without any clue to what it means. To us, Arabic was a language in which we could score the highest marks with the least efforts (effort = mugging up and spewing it on exam paper). However, I do regret that now…I wish I had learnt to speak the language while I had the chance.

  2. I know what you mean. I am slowly beginning to lose my hold over whatever basic stuff I learned, and it is quite heart-breaking, you know. My search for an Arabic (Standard) teacher continues.

  3. Sudha — I would like to thank you for putting my name on your blog, it is an honour for me. I am very impressed at the way you wrote the story. It is very realistic and emotional at the same time. I was reading it with impatiance.

    I will never forget my days in Britain espcially when you started learning Arabic and I became the “unofficial” teacher of Sudha. I would like also to thank you for sharing with me your knowledge on India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as we had very thoughtful discussions on the situation and the culture there.

    I wish we can repeat those days in Britain again.

    Keep writing nice pieces on the old days in London.

    His Royal Highness Prince Karim — hahahha.

  4. Marhaba, Ustad Karim. How nice of you to drop in. This post is a very small way of acknowledging your invaluable help in my understanding of Arabic. Shukran jazeeran.

  5. Amazing. I would love to learn Arabic, or actually, every language there is, except like you said SMSese – that shouldn’t even be called a language, actually! I really wanted to kick start by learning Sanskrit, but unfortunately there is no other option than to learn in school, or get a professional degree where I come from; so right now I’ve settled for learning German – and I’m loving it too!
    That is a really beautiful picture there, and a great post!

    • Thanks, Priya. It’s great to meet another person who loves languages and learns one just for the love of it. Most people I know learn languages as a business necessity or because it looks good on their CV. Ecah to his/her own I guess, but for something as beautiful as languages, I wish that people would learn only for the love of it.

      I am so happy that you loved the post. Thanks for dropping in and commenting, and do keep visiting.

  6. Hi Sudha,

    I really enjoyed reading your post and believe it or not, I was transported back to my school days learning languages, in this case, Bengali. I had a beautiful Bengali teacher- Sharmishta. She would very often use Rabindra Sangeet and dance to teach us not only the language but also its rich culture. She was instrumental in taking the whole class to Shanti Niketan. I know you have been there. I wish I had continued reading Bengali literature. Now, I can barely identify the alphabets.
    Lovely picture of the pottery and the group photo.

    Maybe, I can start by learning Tamil from you. Will you be my teacher?

  7. I have started to catch up with your posts, starting with this one. I know nothing about Arabic other than the popular (mis)perceptions. But , as Avvai, said- what you have learned is a fistful of sand; what you have yet to learn is like the whole universe. I am glad that your writings reflect an open mind eager for new experiences.

  8. I am not a social person, whatever the reason. And I love languages. They are all only read, never spoken, except Bengali as I lived in Calcutta for decades and studied in the Varsity there ages ago; for a couple of years I learnt Russian who had settled in Calcutta. Even there my lack of social ability held me back. I had two colleagues learning Russian; as professional interpreters in the High Court they like spoges picked up talking and went visiting Russia. For me Russia has been the Moon.
    I read it and some other languages too.
    Your ability to blog so much is astonishing for such a busy person. I do love them so
    much and avidly await them. Carry on the good work.The range of subjects too are wide; but knowing you I am not surprised.

    • I remember your love for Russian and the “boring” fat books that you read, at least that is what it felt like to me then. Do you still read them now?

      Thank you for your encouragement.

  9. I forgot to tell you that I started Urdu 30 years ago am still at the very elementary stage ( the script does puzzle me). English has spoilt us; if there is some English reading matter(even if it is an old magazine) you pick it up preferentially. So you miss the much needed practice and familiarity with the other languages. your reading speed also is affected. I grade my reading skills thus; English up in the sky- on the ground in diminishing order come Tamil,Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, French, Russian. So Urdu still for away; I think India would do well if they had or at least useda common script.

    • I don’t think a common script would work, because each language has it own particular sounds which a common script may not always be able to convey. Take Sanskrit, for example. Western scholars and many of the Indian ones too prefer to use the roman script with diacritical marks to convey the pronounciation. That is very painful for me, as I have to spend time figuring out what each ones mean. I don’t know if Russian can use the Roman script, but I know that Arabic can’t. It has “kh”and “gh”sounds, which no other script can convey. The Tamil “zh” also cannot be written out in any other script.

      • The north of india with devnagari script with slight variations does a pretty good job to an interested person; maybe the south too can try the devnagari at least in a magazine or too. i think the British Army in India tried the roman script in their army magazine.

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