Arabic: a remedy for the winter blues
December 27, 2022
If you've been reading this blog for long, you know that I struggle with the cold dark days at the turn of the secular year. In high summer I sometimes have to remind myself not to dread the winter that is always inevitably coming. And at this season I seek comfort in all kinds of ways, from warm-tinted lightbulbs to blankets to braises, but I still have to work hard to avoid the malaise of SAD.
The best mood-lifter by far that I've found this winter is... being terrible at Arabic. To be clear, I've never learned Arabic, though ever since the summer I spent in Jerusalem I've aspired to someday be the kind of rabbi who speaks some Arabic. (Someday. Later. You know, when I have time.) And then I read R. David's Why This Rabbi Is Learning Arabic (And Every Rabbi Should), and I thought: ok, I'll try.
It's engrossing. It feels like it's working a different part of my brain -- learning new characters, trying to train my ear to distinguish new-to-me sounds. Maybe best of all is that I am an absolute beginner. I know nothing, so every little bit of learning is progress. Remembering the initial, medial, or final forms of any letter feels like victory. And maybe that's part of what lifts my spirits.
I'm using Duolingo. And before anyone objects: yes, I know all the reasons why that isn't ideal. I should take a real class. I should find Arabic speakers with whom to practice. I can't do those right now, for all kinds of reasons. What I can do is keep a tab open on my computer, and instead of doomscrolling, work on parsing a new-to-me alphabet. (It's also great instead of doomscrolling on my phone.)
I can practice sounding out syllables while my kid's brushing his teeth. Remind myself of letter-shapes over morning coffee. Short digital bursts are not pedagogical best practice -- and yet I am learning, bit by bit. I do know that there are a dozen different forms of Arabic and what I'm haltingly learning is Modern Standard Arabic, which may or may not be helpful. But that's not a reason not to learn.
So far I can mostly parse sentences like "Sam is a good translator," or "Judy has cold fish," or "Tamer has a new house." None of this would be especially useful if I were in an Arabic-speaking place right now. (Well, maybe the words for chicken and fish?) In a funny way, that relieves the pressure. I'm really learning lishma -- for its own sake, for the pleasure of learning, not for the sake of any task.
Spiritually I think it's good for me to be a beginner at something. It gives me renewed empathy for my students who struggle to parse Hebrew texts that have become comfortable and familiar to me... and it's a good reminder to practice beginner's mind in other spheres of my life, too. It's good for me to allow myself to be terrible at something -- to practice something that I am not remotely good at yet.
Those things would be true if I were learning any language with unfamiliar orthography. But the fact that it's Arabic also matters. I want to learn Arabic in part because of Israeli/Palestinian traumas, histories, and realities. I want to learn Arabic because trying to learn someone else's language is a way of extending myself to others. I hope it's a way of showing that I see (and seek) common ground.
Also, Arabic really does have things in common with Hebrew. I get a little jolt of joy every time I encounter another cognate. And doesn't that feel like a metaphor for Judaism and Islam -- different and sharing some key underpinnings? Of course, it's also a false linguistic / cultural binary -- Arabic has a long history in Judaism too. (Just ask Saadia Gaon, Rabbeinu Bachya, or Rambam.)
How much will this help me next time I travel to a place where Arabic is spoken? Who knows. (Last night I slowly sounded out the unfamiliar word on a container of زحورات -- it turns out to be the name of this floral herbal tisane.) Still, with every lesson the language becomes ever-so-slightly less opaque. The learning is definitely good for me. And every day I can pick up a tiny bit more than I did before.
Worth reading: Why Israel’s Jews Do Not Know Arabic, by Yuval Evri