Thursday, October 19, 2006

Arabic class or political commentary?

As many of you know, I'm taking three classes at Birzeit University...

Modern Standard Arabic
Palestinian Dialect
The Palestine Question.

The Palestine Question is taught in English, contains mainly foreign students but a few Palestinians, and is a historical and contemporary review of the events of the region, from the Ottoman Empire leading up to the creation of the state of Israel, and the current problems. The teacher, Sa'ad Nimr, is one of the top political advisors to Fatah political party and also spent eight years in Israeli jails as a political prisoner. Very fascinating and brilliant guy--Ph.D. from some prominent University, don't remember where. He asks provocative questions like "why aren't Arab countries democratic? Why did Jews in Israel develop economically much quicker than Arabs?" He's very secular, progressive, and abhors the trend towards Islamization in Palestine and the Arab world.

My teacher for the Arabic classes is a real piece of work. In the dialect class, he is much more relaxed and loves to make a fool of himself and make everyone laugh by emphasizing how to pronounce words to a ridiculous extent. Then, he makes everyone repeat him over and over. For a week straight, for example, he made us say, "Eey wah, wadhih!" (Yes, it's clear!) at least 15 times per class. I started dreaming about this phrase! And we couldn't just repeat it, we had to shout it and he would shout it and pound the table. In fact, the teacher, (Sami) shouts everything, which can be quite painful when he happens to be standing behind you.

The dialect class has about 10 people, an interesting range of folks. We have two Frenchies, one Swede, three Koreans, three Americans, one Dane, and a German.

The Frenchies (I can call them that; I used to live there!) are a guy and a girl: one works in Jerusalem, speaks fluent Hebrew and is learning Arabic just for fun. The other is dedicated to the Palestinian cause--boycotts all Israeli products and does not want to spend any money in Israel. He volunteers for an organization called Check out the maps on their website--the presentation they gave at our school is chilling.

The Swede is a journalist for a small trade union newspaper; the Koreans work for a social welfare organization in Jerusalem; the Dane also helps stopthewall and is here to learn Arabic. The German has family here (not sure how that works; he couldn't be more Aryan looking!) and is learning Arabic.

The Americans: a former Harvard basketball player (recent graduate) who's heading up a program to teach Israeli and Palestinian kids basketball so they can play together on integrated teams. They also teach girls, both Palestinian and Israeli, which I think is so cool. He's a celebrity in the West Bank, not only because he plays on a local team, but is so nice, and also happens to be 6'11! The other American is only 20 or so, and although she is full Palestinian, speaks not a word of Arabic, and has the most American accent I've ever heard. She bemoans that her family here keeps trying to set her up with a husband and think she has come here only for that purpose.

Anyway, back to the teacher Sami. He shares his opinions very liberally in class--and very seriously. Our vocabulary is regularly enriched with such phrases as, say... "Bush is against democracy. Israel and the US are two sides of the same coin. This is life under occupation. The United States is against human rights. Today's phrase was a real keeper. "The powerful, --America and Israel, eat the weak like fish." He demonstrated this sentence by opening up wide his arms to convey a big fish gulping down a small one. I honestly wish I could videotape a class and post it. It's quite a sight.

Not surprisingly, Sami also likes North Korea because they are a small country but are standing up to the US. After one of his tirades, he has several times turned to me to say he is sorry, he is only against the US government and the policies, not the people. I think he conveniently forgets that I used to work for the USG!

Sami also shares his stories of his life here. He is originally from Gaza but has not been allowed to go there for six years, even though all of his family is there. He told us how three years ago, his Mother died, and he was not able to go see her before she died or attend the funeral. Last week he also tried to go to Jerusalem to go to the al Aqsa mosque to pray during Ramadan. He was very excited because he has been trying for years and was told that now individuals over 40 can go and he is 45. At the checkpoint, however, they said that the new law is that only Palestinians over 45 can visit Jerusalem, so he was turned back. "Why? Am I a terrorist? The women and children who were also turned back--are they terrorists?? This is the occupation!!" he railed.

Sami also teaches my Modern Standard Arabic class, in which he is much more subdued, way more serious, and rarely jokes. Maybe it's to reflect the more serious content, formal Arabic as opposed to the dialect... In that class, we are focusing heavily on Arabic grammar, which makes English look like baby talk. We're talking, different pronunciations and markings for the same word, depending whether it is nominative, accusative, or possessive. Also, separate endings for dual, masculine human, masculine non-human, feminine human, feminine non-human, and again, where it falls in the sentence, whether nom. acc. or gelative. Sigh, you have to really think hard before you open your mouth if you speak in the MSA way. The only consolation is that native speakers find this stuff impossible as well, (although that makes it difficult to get help with my homework!)

The hardest part about Arabic so far is that in reality, I'm learning two different languages at the same time, the dialect and MSA. There are almost always different words for the same thing, whether it's a verb or a noun or an adjective. That makes retention difficult because one has to learn so many, many words. Also, the verbs are a killer because the conjugations are largely irregular and there is no magic book, such as 501 verbs, like there is in French and Spanish that has the tables of all important verbs. So, I always mess up the pronunciation and verbs are the main part of speaking! Insha'allah it will get better...

Our last day of classes was today. We now have a break for the Eid holiday, which is the end of Ramadan. Here, families get together and also spend a lot of time picking olives. I am hoping to get in on the action somehow...will keep you posted!

No comments: