ON Arabic: the reason for the Season

Standard

Arabic is the reason why I am in Egypt.  I am here to study Arabic, to master it and get as much as I can get, because the buck stops here: This is the end of my long lasting love affair with post-secondary education.

With that said, I am sad and a bit scared.  I have 7 months to get my Arabic where it needs to be… where is that exactly?  I need to be able to speak, read, and write like a non-native but completely fluent person.

This never seemed like an easy feat, but somehow at the beginning of this leg of my foreign language journey I felt it was possible.  Now, with 7 or so months to go, and after learning a dialect that was worse than useless to me (as it kind of confused the language acquisition process for Egyptian Arabic) I’m not sure what is going to happen in the end.

It’s taken me 2 months to get used to this place, and now that I am used to things, what have I accomplished?  On the one hand language acquisition is slow after passing he intermediate phase, and that happened years ago (supposedly) but sometimes I feel like it’s superbly, incredibly slow.  So I have to make some changes to jump start this magical ride on the Arabic train:

1. I need to speak in Arabic… like all the time. This is easier said than done as a lot of people seem to feel pretty comfortable just prattling off at me in English.  It’s not a problem, or so I thought. But when I think about past experiences, it really does help to get in the language zone meya meya (100%).  I have to remember that everyone here has different language goals,  and my responsibility are the goals specific to the level I need to reach.   So I am trying really hard to reply to people in Arabic even if they speak to me English.

2.  I need to try and befriend more Egyptians.  This is a feat that is even harder than the first.  Not because I don’t know any, or because Egyptians are not friendly (because they are).  but I am just not one of those uber friendly people (alas it is true) who charm you with their smile and make you feel like you’ve been friends forever.  Friendships develop slowly for me over time, after discovering several shared goals, beliefs, or at least being able to laugh at the differences. The trouble with the people that I know in Egypt is that 1. The vast majority are younger than me, I mean even my instructors are younger than I am!  2.  art, particularly dance here… They are out there, but again establishing these connections take time.  Time, unfortunately is not something I have a lot of.

3. I need to find usefulness in all my classes and assignments.  That, is also a tough feat.  Sometimes I really feel like I could just sit at home, turn in work electronically and get the same results.  But perhaps this is just the thinking of someone in a “Been in Egypt for two months rut?”

4. I have to figure out a way to stop making the same little mistakes.  Well actually, they are not the same mistakes, but they are the same kind of mistakes… most grammar, mostly feminine -masculine or definite-indefinite type of mistakes.  This has been my Achilles heel for too long.  (If anyone has any methodologies besides write more often— as I unfortunately do not have time to write more in Arabic— there is almost too much of that as it is, I think—- I would like hear about it).

Specifically, my modern Standard instructor is convinced that I make mistakes in writing that I never make while speaking. And so, despite all the effort I put into my work, she is convinced that I am just slapping crap together.  Under other circumstances, I would care less about what she thought, but I wonder, do I really do that?  My suspicion is that when speaking little grammatical errors are not as noticeable as opposed to when you have the paper in front of you and can clearly see the mistake.

At any rate, I need to step it up.  The truth is, I am tired of people thinking that just because I speak Arabic quickly, with (apparent) relative ease that this must mean that write it that way too!

InshAllah, Gazelle with find a way to reinforce their misguided assumption 🙂

On Apprehentions about Race(ism) in the Arab world… (and by Arabs in America)

Standard

One of the reasons why Egypt did not find a way onto my “been-there, done that list,” is because of my apprehensions about being black in a brown world.

That is, I knew that color  is important and that darker skinned peoples did not always fare too well, and did not know if I could handle being in a place like that so soon after being in Morocco.

Now, it’s not that these fears have evaporated at all.  But Alhamdulilah I am a little older and have had other brushes with being black in a brown world so I can handle it… or can I?

Race relations, or colorism or whatever the heck you want to call it, in the Arab world is a beast all its own.  I am trying to flush this out more and more before I get there…again.

It certainly felt like “White makes right” In Qatar, but that of course was with certain caveats.  Nationality outranked everything. In class, I certainly felt like my white, American counterpart was seen as the strongest, the most interesting, the smartest… even more so than European students in my class.  In fact, some of them even joked about how instructor(s) doted on this individual while they could care less about anyone else.

I of course blogged about how people treated me one way when they thought I was a black African (which technically I am) and completely different way when they found out I am American.  By the end of my stay there, I began to reflect on certain things, and feel  that some of my instructors at least, had an estimation of me as a student that did not match up to the grades I received from the very courses they taught!  Yes, there were student who felt the same way, but them I just ignored.  I won’t go into longer explanations of what

The two incidents that stood out to me were: One instructor in particular, although he tried hard, could not hide his shock at finding out   that I would continue Arabic at the graduate level upon my return to the U.S.  2. the program itself misprinted my final grade on my certificate (an entire letter grade).  On one hand I chocked it up to one of the many randoms that happened in Qatar.  On the other hand, for something as important as this, one would think that they would have taken the time to put the correct information on there.  And then the thought came to me, this program is not that big, everyone pretty much knows each other.  How could this kind of mistake happen?  Was there something working in the subconscious of the instructors that be?

Is this the reason behind my conundrum?

Fast forward to my fall semester here in the U.S. and I am met with a heaping helping of frustration and incompetence.  Not one, but two instructors blatantly insulting my intelligence weekly if not daily.  Instructor A: Egyptian.  He was disorganized and his lessons inherently incoherent.

I could go on and on about the hell that was his class…lol… but the most important thing for the purpose of this post is that He always, always put me down.  The literature that I enjoyed reading was “nonsense”  (he literally told me this).  If I produced a particularly well written piece of work,  I was praised for it, followed by the question “Did you write that yourself, I mean without help from anyone else?”   Honestly, I did not get it.  paperwise, and based upon my performance in the summer, I was/am one of the strongest students in the program… so why was this guy insulting me? There was slew of other problems with this instructor.  He certainly did insult almost everyone in my class…(although not the same intelligence focused, comments that he threw at me).  So I don’t know what was really up with him.  Could have been color, could have been his crappy personality.

Instructor B was even worse.  Instructor A was so horrible (as were/are many other facets of my program) that I almost did not detect his treachery before it was too late.  Instructor B always gave me blank stares when I spoke, you know those  “why tf did you just open your mouth?” type stares.  He never understood me when I spoke… like Ever.  It practically became the job of the native Arab in my class to explain to him what I was saying.  I was perpetually perplexed because my accent while noticable, is not thaaaaat bad.  I would go on to venture that I speak far more clearly than many of the other people in my class that other people, native and non-native alike have remarked at their difficulty in understanding them (people, might I add, whom this instructor never seemed to have problems understanding and who sat further away from him).  But what really irked me, is that the other native speaker understood me just fine.  So what was his problem?

To add insult to injury, when it was my turn to lead class discussions, he actually gave me the questions that I should ask, something that he NEVER did for any other student in my class.  He actually even read each question to me and explained what he wanted to ask… I can read Arabic just fine.  In short, the instructor treated me like I’m slow to the take.   Again, I was perpetually perplexed.

But, I didn’t mind too much because my grades on all of his exams were “excellent” (literally his words, not mine) as a matter of fact, I scored an A- on an exam where the native speaker in our program scored a B., one of the highest in our cohort.   My final paper, he could find no fault with substance wise (to start off with it was on a topic that he has woefully no knowledge of) and it was clear that it was thoroughly researched, well thought out.  I won’t lie, that assignment was probably my favorite one the whole semester, and so I relished reading the sources (English and Arabic ones) that brought my paper to life.  Contrast that with many of my classmates who literally put something on paper the week before. … I am not saying that they are not intelligent, capable individuals, but I put months into my work and it showed.

After quickly praising my work, he slammed it because I did not separate it into sections (something not stipulated before) and because I did not use the word “I”!

My final grade for the course, a  B+ was a kick in the face.  He had no real reason to back himself up. Thankfully I never throw anything away, and prefer correspondence in writing… so I was ready to challenge this nonsense.  I was in the right, and  had all the hw, tests, quizzes and emails to prove it.

The issue was resolved in a compromise of sorts.  But what I leaves me a little bitter about this experience is the question, “why? ”

Why was I being denied the grade that I had earned?  What was it about me that made this man, who did not know me from Adam, evaluate me so low?  At least one conclusion, reached by those other than myself, Arab and non-Arab alike, is that for this man “White makes right.”  It would not be a stretch to believe that he could not look past my skin color and acknowledge my intelligence.

But, I don’t go too far down that road, because I have to ask myself, How much of this is my perception?  How much of this has to do with race(ism)/color(ism) Being at work, I will never know.  But what I can not, unfortunately ignore, is that it is there at all.

I know all too well that it exists in the Arab world.  I have friends and acquaintances that have intimated as much and or blatantly said what I would call racist things.  As well as  people who have been disowned for going “black.”   I have Arab friends and acquaintances who have objected to people calling them racist terms usually reserved fro black people.  Not because they are inherently wrong, but because they aren’t ethnically black.  Yes.  I know all to well that racism exists in Arab societies whether it be Arab country X  or random Arab instructor living in the USA.

And that is what I am thinking about as I go to Egypt. Qatar certificate aside,  before this program, the thought never occurred to me that I could be graded down because of race… unfortunately, that could be the case….sigh.

Some of the Arabs I know certainly seem to think so… Whatever the reason may be, I’m ready to document every interaction and file every piece cw, hw and exams… sigh.

On What I’ve Been Reading…

Standard

I am supposed to be studying Arabic… but guess what?  after two years I am tired… and bored..

One thing I have been able to get into again, that I was pretty good about when in was working is reading books for pleasure… of course that wasn’t really possible when I was in Qatar…. and my first two semesters in the program were not conducive to me time either… well hello 2011.

I just finished a book called “A song yet sung” by an author called James Mcbride and I realized that I have enjoyed reading two previous works of his “The Color of Water” which is a memoir about his life as well as that of his mother, the daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents who ran away and married an African-American in the 1960s or so… and “Miracle at St Anna“, which became a feature film its about a group of African-American soldiers during WWI.  A song yet song is about a runaway slave who dreams the future, its pretty fast paced an grabbed my attention from the first page… I loved it!

That got me thinking about the books that I have enjoyed reading in the recent past.  I must admit, that while the English “Classics” are important they have not played an important role in my book list of late. I am just really into literature coming from minority authors as well as contemproary authors and find that the works they put out is just so unlike the books that I had to read in high school…

Among my favorites are

A thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  It’s about two women who live in Afghanistan before, during and after the Soviet War and the U.S. attacks after 9/11.  Like Song yet Song, it was a great read, pulls you in and just keeps you turning pages.  Add to that it was a sort of personal take on the variety of Afghan society.

A Tree  Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith was one of those books that I didn’t think I was going to like all that much. but I absolutely loved it.  It’s a really big book, but you really feel like you are living through the ups and downs of this early 19th century Irish-immigrant family. I think it is considered a classic text and is read in lots of English classes in the US.. so its an exception to the rule.

The Book of Night Women and John Crows Devil by Marlon James.  Marlon James is a Jamaican-American and both of his novels take place there.  Although Night Women is about a slave revolt in the 1700s and is certainly not for the faint at heart.  It’s riddled with very rough, very raw language and some of the scenes are so brutal.  However, I think that that is what makes the book so interesting to me. Plus, much of it is written in Jamaican patwa which was amazing to me the extent to which I didn’t notice it after the first few pages.  Some people don’t like it and don’t think the foul language is historically accurate, but I think its more about the author expressing the harshness of slavery especially in the West Indies. John Crow’s Devil is  about an evangelist and how he brings sweeping changes to a little Jamaican town.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan, who of course is a pioneer in the minority literature circuit, is a captivating story about three generations of Chinese women.

Sarah’s Keys is about a little Jewish girl who locks her brother in a secret closet when French officials come to take her family away to Nazi camps and tries to get back to Paris tho free him.  Well, it’s about a woman who is trying to find out what happened to Sarah. Of course it’s a sad story but its a good bit of history added in too as it discusses the complicity of Vichy regime during WWII.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barba Kingsolver is another one of those books that I did not think I would enjoy that much… but I absolutely did.  It’s a bout a Missionary family that goes to the Congo during the time of Independence.  It’s  great story about the shortfalls of religious extremism, and history lesson of sorts on the nature of American and European involvement in the brutal assassination of Patrice Lumumba. It made me read up more on the Congo.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is witty hilarious depiction of the life a Dominican-American dweeb growing up in NYC. It was hilarious and also a great introduction to Dominican history. I personally don’t know much about Latin America, and this book definitely gave me food for thought.  I plan on reading up more about the Dominican dictator Trujillo.  How in the world can a book that talks about a brutal dictator be funny?  you have to read it.

The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chestnutt a traditional tragic mulatto story about a black girl who tries to pass as white and has her whole world crashing down on her. I read it because it was written in the 1900s instead of the 1800s which is when most of the tragic mulatto stories I had read previously were written.

Of course, there are others, some of which Didn’t like very much, so I probably won’t mention them…lol… some of which I did , but they have just slipped my mind. Interestingly enough I have also tried getting into some African authors, but I still haven’t found one that tickles my fancy.  One in particular, considered quite a success in our time has been quite diasspointing to me… I just don’t get why I can’t connect to his characters… oh well.

ON Arab-African Relations: the Israel factor

Standard

So I watched this video for a class, and it was quite enjoyable (if you understand Arabic) as a matter of fact, I actually am getting into the program Minbar Al-Jazeera because it is one of the few programs that just feature the ideas presented by regular people.

At any rate, yup yup back to Arab-African relations.  The thing that I on one hand understand the reasons behind on the other hand see as a scapegoat for a lot of things is the Israel factor.  Apparently Israel is making a concious effort to strenghten its diplomatic relations with sub-Saharan AFrican countries, which is putting many Arab countries/communities in an uproar.

Well, that is what you would think if you watched this program and read some of the articles for class.

The reasoning goes that anywhere that Israel goes it is trying to undermine the influence and power of the Arab world.  In fact, the main  and recurring question throughout the episode above is does Israeli’s presence in Africa pose a threat to the Arab world?

Which is fair enough I suppose.  But this discussion much like everything else that I  read in Arabic about this completely strips Africans of their Agency!

Africa is still viewed as cake to be divided up, In fact more than one caller says that Africa is being divvied up between America, France and China. (or some variation thereof).

I made it point to tell my instructor today that the Arabic sources are treating Africans as if they don’t have common sense and can’t think for themselves.  As if AFrican leaders don’t have Concerns and strategic priorities.  In fact, for me this discussion reads as if Africa just sits there and will blindly follow whomever will offer some bread for her poor , naked, starving people.

This, I think is a terrible mistake because its not a realistic base from which issues can be resolved.

I always refer to it, but the Southern Sudan issue is the oft-repeated example.  In fact someone on the program says that it’s Israel that encouraged the Southerns to fight against the central government and push for independence.

Really?  I thought it was the 100+ years of degradations, and eexploitation on the part of the ruler of the time (Ottomans, the Mahdiyya, the British, and  then the modern Sudanese state) couple with post-independence antagonism and struggle that was the root of that conflict!  Israel is a cop-out to the government and the Arab League’s inability to face reality on this issue.

Then we have the fight over the Nile.  Which is something I really don’t fully understand the details of up until now.  The Source of the Nile is the Victoria River which is located in a bunch of AFrican countries.  Other smaller sources are located in a bunch of AFrican countries like Rwanda and  Ethiopia and maybe Eritrea as well.  The main problem as I understand it is that Egypt and Sudan will be adversely affected by any sort of plans that these African countries take to use the Nile waters for their own purposes.

This is compounded by the fact that they have banded together to revoke Egypt’s right to veto any decision made by any other country on building dams and agricultural projects and such.

The article my instructor had me read was something so the effect of “x.y and z country band together to destroy Egypt!” What!!!!!!!!!

While I understand Egypt and Sudan’s concern with this issue, after all the Nile is the Life source for both countries, I must confess what intrigued me most about this issue, what I want to know is,

How in the world did Egypt get the right to veto any other country’s development project? Me thinks that the terms of this initial agreement (from 1929) need to be revisited.  Unfortunately it will mean that Egypt and Sudan will have to do with less.

But I would wager that this has more to do with countries trying to find ways to feed their people and develop their economies… than Israel convincing those Africans that they should get those Arabs up North… sigh.

But what do I know?

Africans are a lot more savvy than people give us credit for.  We are not clueless about the true reason behind other people’s interest in the continent.

On African-Arab Relations

Standard

I am reading about Arab-African relations for one of my classes and (although loving it!) am a bit perturbed by a recurring theme that I think is sort of the elephant in the room:  Race-(ism).

No, this is not a treatise against Racism in the Arab world (been there, done that) but as someone genuinely interested in strengthening relations  between the two regions and peoples (even though they really aren’t two distinct entities) I am wondering all the more how lack of frankness on this issue will effect things in the long run.

Case in point: Check out this article on the historical roots of Arab-African Relations (if you can read Arabic that is ;-/)

While I found it useful, interesting and a good summary article, I have big issues with the way in which the author framed the issue—- It’s almost as if he is saying that Africa would have become pretty much Arabized or at least Islamicized if not for outside influences and manipulation and that is what is at the root of any Arab-African tensions.

In Sudan, he says that the South would have become Muslim if not for the British.  While I agree that British colonial policy was ridiculous and its strict separation between the two regions and their peoples is a large part of contemporary Sudan’s problems, (as well as them just going on an annexing DarFur) the North-South issue is far more complicated than that.  I don’t need to and don’t have enough space/time to get into it, but I was really surprised that the article totally glossed over the Fact that the south had been a rebellious region from the jump and never acquiesced to it’s annexation into the Ottoman empire, or that the Ottoman empire is where slavery really begins to flourish.

Which brings me to my next point/peeve, Slavery.  I think discussions of the Arab slave trade (or any other slave trade for that matter) get watered down, because people IMO hide behind the tired refrain “It was not as bad as the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” (which is basically what the author of this article and the other things I am reading make point to explicitly state as they gloss over the ramifications of slavery on the sending and receiving societies)  As if that means that the slaves in these networks lived these super fantastic lives  and it was no biggie.

I’m sorry, but to me at least it is a biggie, especially since you can see the vestiges of this system on social and economic organization of the countries that the slaves were sent to.  In the Gulf, while there was some race mixing (as there was in the European system as well) I was really surprised at the extent to which people “stuck to their own kind”  in fact, when I was there I wrote this entry about it.  Racism is rampant in Morocco, (I should know, I lived it)partially because of the influx of illegal immigrants, but also because of the slavery legacy there too.  And don’t even get me started in the Egypt-Sudan vortex where it is indeed very hard to be of African descent —- and that is not surprising considering slavery’s legacy in Sudan.

In fact there is a Hadith that goes:

The Prophet said, “Listen and obey (your chief) even if an Ethiopian whose head is like a raisin were made your chief.”

Which to me would suggest, that the idea of the lowly status of  Africans/people of African descent in Arab society.  And I wonder how if these ideas were so deeply rooted in the society before the advent of Islam, then isn’t it quite possible that despite fact that Islam stresses the equality of all before God regardless of race, individuals and societies did not get that email or at least did not internalize it as they should have… practices are easy to change, but mindsets are not.

But like I said, it’s not about casting blame, I just wonder if there are any frank conversations on slavery and racism in Arabic, i.e. that Arabs are engaging in.  I have yet to come across any and as I wrote above, I think that without frank discussion on this issue African-Arab relations will falter or at least, they won’t be as strong as they should be.  I think about the “African position” (which doesn’t really exist and will change from context to context) and if the slavery/racism matrix is actually something that is important to African leadership.

I will admit that in my stints in Morocco and Qatar as well as in private circles here in the states I have heard “black” Africans say some pretty bitter  or mean things about Arabs… mainly in reference to “perceived” racism from Arabs.  While this kid of resentment is certainly not helpful, do  individual, anecdotal experiences, however sad, horrifying or unfortunate they may be, actually affect the bigger picture?

Part of me says yes.  You may be friendly but you can’t be friends with someone you know/believe deep down thinks of you as less than they are.  Then again, part of me says no because when it come to the macro level you do what you have to… developing countries do it all the time with the Western world.

Then I go back to yes.  When I think of strengthening Arab-African relations, I might get a bit carried away here, but the pinnacles of which would be an EU style federation.  The strong sense of nationalism in certain European countries aside, the EU has made it work by letting bygones, be bygones and there being certain amount of mutual respect.  It is taking some time, but even racist attitudes towards Eastern Europeans is changing… then again maybe not as much as I think.

At any rate, this is what I am thinking about now.  It’s the one thing that irks be about this lesson, and each video and each subsequent article just confirms much of the same.  To be quite honest, the discrimination/racism factor isn’t just an issue in Arab-African relations, it is something that has affected Arab-Iranian relations and to a lesser extent Arab-Turkish relations.

“Can’t we all just get along?”  That has yet to be seen.  But some official spaces to just come out and say I resent you for this or I have problems with you because of that could be helpful… Right?  If only as a gesture. .. the future will tell.

On Not Going to Syria after all

Standard

So the U.S. issued a travel warning for Syria, I think this means that the road to Damascus for me ends here.

Yup, I was not even trying to be a part of that

I have no idea what is going to happen or what heck I am going to be doing after May but it’s OK.  I hope that we do not get sent somewhere cruddy… or somewhere that I have already been, but looking at the travel warning list makes me realize that my pickings are even slimmer than I had expected.  like 80% of the Arab world is on the travel warning list!

I’m not kidding… see for yourself!

So it’s going to be Jordan, Oman, the Emirates (yeah, I wish,) Qatar (Um, not ANOTHER year) Tunisia (which surprisingly does not have a travel warning)  or El -Maghreb BKA to English speakers as Morocco…

I mean darn! even Mauritania has travel warnings…

No secret I am rooting for a year in one of the Emirates, it wouldn’t even have to be Dubai or Abu-Dhabi, I would settle for one of the lesser known ones… sigh.  But Jordan or should I say Amman would not be so bad, I think.  But we will see.

I feel like I am going back to the drawing board… at least when I knew that I was going to Syria I could enquire and try to imagine what I might face as a Black woman there (* and here I should make the following caveat… when I go abroad I tend to go for extended periods of time i.e. one month or more and with an academic purpose whether study or research… this is expressly different from  a weekend or two week getaway… every place is great when you aren’t there for very long and when you don’t have to settle into the daily hustle bustle of the local population or your own— does it preoccupy my life? No.  But I prefer to look at things without scales on my eyes and face/be aware of whatever I might face beforehand), but now the upcoming year is a blank canvas.

Talk about Middle East adventure!

Spain vs. Sierra Leone

Standard

ah yes, the question of the decade for me right now…

I am trying to map out my five year trajectory, and my plan A has hit a snag… I am torn between trying to spend a year in Spain or a year in My (ahem) Native Land, Sierra Leone.

Each place offers some interesting and attractive possibilities, each also has its own set of possible obstacles, each would affect me career wise in different ways.   I took a poll amongst my dear college friends and Spain won hands down, with one undecided… lol… I don’t know if people were telling me where they would rather visit or what, but I am still hopelessly torn between the two 😦

I don’t want to go into all the specifics/logistics of my plans but the gist is this

Spain- would give me the chance to Speak Spanish and get it back on track, as well as speak, lots and lots of Arabic.  I Love Barcelona, or at least I think I still do.  I could work with the Sub-Saharan African Muslim community, which in Europe people tend to just ignore as well as the Arab Muslim community which gets a shalacking all the time.

But Sierra Leone is where the mind-set is long-term.  I could work with the Lebanese Sierra Leonean community, which there is much on in terms of studies and such, and i could get a better understanding (personal, first-hand) of the feasibility for more long-term projects.

 

I don’t know, I don’t know I don’t know!

 

One of my dear friends said that the thing I would probably dislike the most was the way that things are run, then again, Spain isn’t a prime of example of efficiency either.  My other main concern is health, not so much malaria and such, but allergies and asthma, as I know of people who have died of attacks while on vacation in Sierra Leone/after repatriation.

Sierra Leone, interestingly enough would probably be a little easier to get funding for, but I am scared to think about what would happen to my Spanish.  Then again, I could always teach it while in Sierra Leone (ha! ha! —- like there is such a big market for Spanish there…. well I could create it… ;-/)

 

Like I said up top, both are potentially life-changing/transformational… both in their own way are much the familiar mixed with being a gigantically broad and new frontier.

So yes, here I am terribly confused and confusingly undecided…. what do you think?