Silently Seeking Arabic

Throughout this trip I have been silently seeking Arabic language everywhere we go. At Northwestern I studied the language for 2 and a half years, and I have loved it ever since starting to draw the alphabet. I joke that I would give up my English skills if I could trade them in for Arabic fluency. The amount of Arabic in Tel Aviv is limited. I overhear it in some places, and in many places I have seen the script, but I was pleased to hear it prevalently in our trips to East Jerusalem, the Arab Sector, and especially the West Bank. I’m not sure how much I was listening to our hosts speak during the clinic visits because I was always looking out for Arabic signs to read. I didn’t know many of the words, as they were mostly medical terms, but it was comforting for me to at least be able to read the letters.  I was in a state of near euphoria when one of our hosts spoke to us only in modern standard Arabic. My classmates relied on translations from our professor but I eagerly listened to our host, nodding along when I understood full sentences. It was heaven for me.

Coming to Israel, I was told I would get a chance to practice my language, but it has been much more limited than I expected. Every sign is in Hebrew and everyone speaks Hebrew and English, and although I have definitely gained some Hebrew knowledge I am constantly listening in to conversations in order to spot familiar Arabic words. In order to make myself feel like I’m not missing out too much, I convince myself that being surrounded by Hebrew has become good for my Arabic. Certain sounds and grammar structures have revived my memory of Arabic and actually improved some of my pronunciation, surprisingly. Hearing how certain letters, specifically ‘h’ and ‘d’ sound in Hebrew has helped me distinguish the sounds in Arabic and made me a lot better at recognizing the differences between these related languages. My ears have become accustomed to distinguishing these sounds and understanding simple conversations in Hebrew in addition to Arabic. All of the listening practice has ultimately helped my own pronunciation, which in turn makes me much more willing to practice my Arabic out loud (a very scary concept even after almost 3 years of the language). I recognize I am not in an Arab country, and I knew from the start my practice would be limited, but the feeling of comfort I get when we enter an Arab town, Palestinian village, or even just overhear our bus driver say ‘ahlan wa sahlan’ has been gratifying, and it has curbed my craving for Arabic at least for a short time.

Note the Arabic and Hebrew scripts. Photo credit Jessica Hoffen

Note the Arabic and Hebrew scripts. Photo credit Jessica Hoffen