Today marks the end of Week Two of my latest self-reinvention scheme. Mostly these schemes tend to fall short of the ideal once they get going; you start with what you imagine will be an off-the-deep-end plunge into bracing waters, but by Day Two you have fallen back into whatever old habit you were trying to escape from. This time around, my ambitions were more modest. I wanted to be able to read street signs and maybe a few headlines in Modern Standard Arabic. This seemed reasonable. It ought to be doable within a modest time-frame, I thought; what about three weeks?
Now, at the end of Week Two, I suppose it makes sense that I am beginning to get worried. But whatever happens over the next seven days, I am happy to report that I am already dreaming in Arabic. Needless to say, the dreams in question are anxiety dreams – the kind where you wake up with a start because in your dream you are speaking in Arabic and all of a sudden you hear yourself make a grammatical mistake.
There are three of us struggling together to resolve the twenty-eight letters and various diacritical marks that make up the Arabic system of writing into words. Most of the letters have four different forms, so this is quite a task. Sofie, an elegant and funny museum educator from Yorkshire, has a decided advantage, since she learned the alphabet years ago to read aloud passages from the Qur’an – a practice of Muslim devotion that is seen to have spiritual value even for readers who do not understand the meaning. The other two of us – myself and Monica, a distinguished historian of medieval medicine hailing from Arizona – are starting from scratch. Monica and I have fallen in behind Sofie (who is roughly half our age) like children tagging along behind an older sibling.
And then there is Amal, our teacher, a tiny and doll-like person whose musical voice and infectious laughter soften what can only be described as a fierce approach to combating ignorance. Communication was limited at first, because Amal’s philosophy is to speak only in Arabic even to beginning students, so that the student instinctively begins to try to put together ideas in the same language as soon as she has two or three words to work with.
We fell in love with her immediately. To convey the idea of Amal, you could begin with a cross between Mary Poppins and the Virgin Mary – but you would need to add a dose of the Emperor Constantine or Alexander the Great. The St Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V could have been written for her; she is certainly the kind of person you would follow into battle even when the prospect of victory seemed entirely absent. My feelings about Amal are a mix of blind adoration and respect bordering on terror.
By lunch-time on Thursday, we had got through the alphabet. After lunch, I arrived late for some reason, and was greeted by the rare sight of a frowning Amal: now we were moving on to more important things, and this was a very important lesson, the letters of the Sun and Moon! On the white-board, she had drawn a large sun and a large moon, each with a speech-bubble coming out of it. Divided among the two bubbles were the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet.
What followed was an explanation of a fundamental point of Arabic grammar: that there are two ways Arabic words can react to the addition of the definite article, and it depends on the quality of the first vowel. The words ‘moon’ and ‘sun’ illustrate the two types of vowel, and as a result they are used to help children (and non-native speakers) remember the difference. Amal was kind enough to let me take a photo of the white board, but the photo cannot convey the moment of epiphany which the idea of the sun and moon letters unleashed on me. Somehow, it was a glimpse into the fact that Arabic is not ‘just another language’ – it is a capsule into which a whole way of seeing the world has been captured. (Actually, I suspect that this is true of any language – none of them is ‘just another language’.)
On the last day of Week One, when we were so tired that we had become completely incoherent, Amal kept us for an extra half-hour to expound the lyrics of a modern love song in a YouTube video. The song involved a moonlit terrace, rose-petals, the moon and the stars, and what seemed to be ballroom dancing; the lyrics were about the enchantment of words, how words – in this case the words of a handsome dancing-partner – can make you believe anything. But in the end, these ‘words that are not like words’ are only words after all. I may have been hallucinating given the state I was in, but I believe I remember our teacher waltzing around the classroom as she tried to get us to understand the poetry. We were far beyond understanding anything at that point, I suspect. But still, we there on the terrace for a few moments, musing in an ancient and beautiful language on the strange power of words – and I think we will remember the terrace, and the music, and the moonlight, for some time to come.