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.
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.
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.
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.