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I Don't Know Arabic, but I do. And yet don't

Watching an Arabic movie every Friday throughout my childhood. Nearly 30 years would pass before I discover that my grandmother and Farid al-Atrash were friends. I have no idea, it goes under my radar. And yet they are there, the words.

By Tamar Kaplansky (Translated from Hebrew by Orna Meir-Stacey)

I don’t know Arabic.

My mother grew up in Alexandria, my father still has a Palestinian identity card. Both my grandmothers spoke Arabic – one with a K’ of Egypt, which is A’ (and this is why ba’lawa is called ba’lawa and nothing else), and one local, Galilean, Arabic. But I don’t know Arabic.

Watching an Arabic movie every Friday throughout my childhood. Nearly 30 years would pass before I discover that my grandmother and Farid al-Atrash were friends. I have no idea, it goes under my radar. Don’t know Arabic.

I also did not learn Arabic, except for one year in fifth grade before we went to France, with Shoshi, the teacher. I do remember to this day all the songs from Jarak (k)aribak, and the song I was supposed to sing on the day the inspector for Arabic was to arrive for a visit (and didn’t sing in the end. Long story, prepare the hankies) – but Arabic I don’t know.

I mean, except after a few days in the Sinai, when suddenly I discover that I can compose sentences. Slowly, admittedly, and a little crooked, but sentences. Or when the alte zachen[1] comes, one Aref from Abu Tur, and we are having a whole conversation. Eight children, the youngest one year old. “All the leaders are laughing at us,” he says to me, drinking his tea, surprised that Jews, too, have sage.

Or when I hear Umm Kulthum for the first time, and discover that something about it is totally clear to me. Half a sentence here, two words there. And unlike other languages which I don’t know, I learn all of Inta Omri by heart without meaning to. So that some time later, in the Sinai, Ibrahim, who always loses in backgammon, is surprised to hear me singing the lyrics with the tape, and translates for me. Khudni Lehananak, khudni, anil wugud wab’eedni. Hananak, he explains in broken Hebrew, is something sweet. He brings his hands embracing an imaginary baby close to his body, tells me that this is also where a mother puts her child. Ah, bosom, cheik, I say. Kheik? he repeats after me, and my chet is a very clear khaf in his mouth. Yes, I confirm, and then emphasize the chet[2]: cheik – explaining that it is actually spelled like this, but it’s barely pronounced this way today. (Every day, at sunset, Ibrahim calls Allahu Akbar, heard throughout the beach, religiously praying five times a day. Trying desperately to recover from loving men).

Don’t know Arabic but I do. And yet don’t.

From the left: My grandmother Becky Memran (formerly Rouvio), with Farid al-Atrash, and her sister Léonie.  Alexandria, sometime in the mid-late thirties.

Don’t know even though Arabic has always been there. All my life. The most vivid word from my childhood is khaliha, which dad says to mom. Leave her, it’s alright. Shoof, Grandma Sarah points at me with laughing eyes. She says about my Granddad Zalmen, who was born on the Volga, ‘jozy’ (but I know it should be ‘gozy’ – inadvertently carrying the Egyptian arrogance, the deep conviction that only ‘our’ Arabic is correct). Mark, shouts my other grandmother from the kitchen. Na’aaaam, replies my grandfather, already exhausted from the expected speech, which indeed follows. And me, on the living room sofa in Paris, watching Goldorak on television, and mindlessly collecting single words. Sit and go and come and don’t want to and please tell me and now and keep safe and God forbid. Khali-balek ala nafsek, ya sater ya Rab. Piles of single words that only in the Sinai, many years later, I learn some of were Egyptian-Egyptian. Look how she walks, this one, like some he’ah, I say and Tariq laughs, how do you know how to say that; stares at me, surprised, when I say to somebody returning from the shower, na’iman.

And all the sweet words that my grandmother says. Ya rohi enti, ya asal, ya omri, first to me and then to my children. Ya katkut, ganenteni.

Don’t know Arabic, but three weeks ago in Al Araqib two men are whispering and then one says to me, in Arabic: A question, may I? And as I approach: Btehki Arabi? No, I answer, aware of the absurdity and yet not lying. So so, a little bit, I add in the Arabic which I don’t know. But I heard you speaking words here, he says in Hebrew, you don’t have any accent. Yes, I nod, words I have. I don’t have sentences. And then in Arabic, my mother is from Egypt, from Skandria. W’abuki? My father is from here, in Hebrew. W’enti, min wen? Me, I feel like saying, I’m from another story[3]; do you know the Sixteenth Lamb? But I tame the associative weakness and don’t say it. These people have had their houses demolished more than 40 times and they are sleeping in the ancient cemetery site. Will you really start explaining the wandering and where you learned to speak? I am from all sorts, I finally say, half-apologetically.

And he smiles, bending down to Yotam, in Hebrew, want to get on the horse? Inside my head somebody knows: Hessan. Come sweetie, I will pick you up. Ta’al, habbibi, he puts him up on the saddle. And the boy is frightened at first and then laughs.


(Umm Kulthum, Inta Omri. Bring me to your bosom, bring me, from minute 1:04:20 and onward.)

[1]Peddler; from Yiddish,, literally meaning “old objects”. Often they are of Arab origin.
[2]Chet and Chaf are two different Hebrew consonants with equivalents in Arabic. While they sound completely different in Arabic and in Mizrahi Hebrew pronunciation, Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation does not differentiate them. Therefore, they are powerful cultural signifiers.
[3]Reference to the Story of the Green Man from the Sixteenth Lamb by Jonathan Geffen, a popular Israeli children book and album.

Tamar Kaplansky is an editor, translator and writer, and sometimes a singer. This post was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Beautiful story.

      Reminds me of my own occasional memories of Arabic (not from childhood but fom my marriage).

      How, for instance, the word “malesh” (which I learned meant something like “too bad”) leaps into my mind’s mouth.

      H’mm — seems to be:

      Ma’alesh – A wonderful Arabic word meaning so many things. I just ran into the back of your car? Ma’alesh (I’m sorry, it’s not so bad, sh*t happens) I walk into a store looking for something and don’t find it so I say “ma’alesh” as I’m leaving in apology to the clerk. Your dog dies and you are feeling miserable? Ma’alesh. These things happen. I’m sorry you’re sad.

      http://miloflamingo.blogspot.com/2004_10_31_archive.html

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lauren

      Rich and engaging article.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Palestinan

      You live in the heart of the Arab world , you can learn Arabic shway shway .

      Reply to Comment
      • Tamar K

        You are right. The problem is the shway is always too shway :). Off course, I believe arab should be taugt in israel the same way english is: very early, throughout school years and obligatory.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          English is needed to get a job in the modern marketplace. Nearly the entire Israeli Arab population speaks passable Hebrew and many speak it at a native or near-native level. Why should Israelis be forced to learn a useless language? Not only that but it would take time away from other more useful subjects such as math or English. In my view one of the reasons for the relatively poor academic record of Israeli Arab youth is their need to learn 3 languages before getting to college (Written Arabic, Hebrew and English) while Israeli Jews only need to learn English.

          If the surrounding Arab countries had something to offer maybe it would be different, but our southern neighbor can’t afford to feed its people and our northern neighbor is busy fighting a civil war. Even when those countries are stable and even if peace were to arrive those countries are so economically backwards as to be nearly entirely empty of economic opportunities. And in any case we have 1.5 million citizens whose native language is Arabic who can play middleman.

          Reply to Comment
          • Tamar K

            Why learn arabic? I don’t even know where to start my answer – so obvious it seems to me. Because we live here with arabs, promising equality of rights but not even bothering to acknoledge their language (and everything that goes with language). Do you also suggest arabs should stop learning arab because it is useless? do you think israeli highschool students learn french because it is useful in finding a job (allow me to assure you – it’s really not that much)? and are you serious about arab kids doing poorly in school because of being bilingual? are you familiar with research about bilingual children? do jewish children from russian speaking homes do poorly in school? could it be arab children are doing poorly because of institutionalized discrimination – less budgets for education?

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            No, it isn’t obvious. You live in Israel, where Hebrew is the absolutely predominant language in all spheres. That there are Arab countries around is only important if there are opportunities to be found there from interacting with them. However, vastly more opportunities are to be found elsewhere where the knowledge of Arabic is absolutely useless. For comparison’s sake, South Koreans mostly learn English and not Chinese or Japanese and the Polish now learn primarily English and not German or Russian.

            Equality of rights for Israeli Arabs has nothing to do with the Arabic language. It is like arguing that equality of rights with Russian-Israelis means that all Israeli Jews should be forced to learn Russian, and if you say something like “Russian isn’t an official language” then the response is where is the equality of rights then for Russian speakers? The whole concept is retarded on all aspects.

            Your comparison to bilingual Hebrew-Russian students doesn’t wash. Students whose first language is Russian study in Hebrew for the entire extent of their academic careers and in general the knowledge of Russian of children who go through Israeli public school from an early age is poor because there is no requirement to learn Russian in school. This is in comparison to Israeli Arab students who are forced to first get to a high level of MSA Arabic (which is a different language from the colloquial Arabic they speak at home), then get to a high level of Hebrew and then get to a high level of English in order to compete with Jewish students for university spots for whom Hebrew is a native language. So, yes, in the interests of their own academic achievements I think that Israeli Arabs should study in Hebrew in school for pretty much all subjects with Arabic studies being of secondary importance. Forcing kids to learn 3 foreign languages makes it hard for them to compete with people that only need to learn one.

            “do you think israeli highschool students learn french because it is useful in finding a job?”

            Learning French isn’t mandatory in Israeli schools which is what you suggest should be done for Arabic. In comparison I would say that French would actually be more useful than Arabic, but not as useful as German or Chinese.

            Reply to Comment
        • It needn’t be so shway. As a Hebrew speaker you’d probably pick it up quite quickly, given the similarities between the languages, and the fact that you know some already (even if some of it’s dormant) should make it even easier for you. What is stopping you? There are classes available, and no shortage of helpful people. I carried a tattered notebook around for ages, and certain kids in Bethlehem would demand it as soon as they saw me, so they could write down something new for me to say – their idea of what was important for me to learn. :P They’d probably do the same for you in Araqib.

          Reply to Comment
    4. “These people have had their houses demolished more than 40 times and they are sleeping in the ancient cemetery site. Will you really start explaining the wandering and where you learned to speak?” : And so it ever was.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Noevil9

      Arabs and Jews( not the Ashkenazi ones) Share so many things in culture and language, even in their features, that this conflict becomes more absurd and foreign to the history that they have shared for over 1400 years together. Zionism, is as guilty of this conflict as any one could ever be. It is refreshing to hear you speak of those stories with such endearment and open heart.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Your comment that Ashkenazi Jews don’t share culture with the Arabs is incorrect. Judaism and Islam have a LOT in common….both have a law-based religious code, more than does Christianity. Ashkenazi Jews have always carried the Hebrew language with them and it is close to Arabic. Religious Jews (both Sefardim AND Ashkenazim) are closer in many values to pious Muslims than they are to the secular Western world.
        There is much more to cultural values than cuisine and music, which is what I think you were basically refferring to.
        BTW-I agree that ALL Israeli Jews should learn Arabic….it is the language of the neighborhood and we should not hold ourselves aloof from it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Have you ever come across Ya’aquob Yehoshua’s memoir ‘Childhood in Old Jerusalem’? He was part of a Sephardi community rather than an Ashkenazi one, but something he wrote about the neighbouring Muslim families made me do a double-take at everything I thought I knew about the synthesis and transmissions of culture in late Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine. He writes that Palestinian Muslim women, who socialised often with the neighbourhood’s Jewish women, ‘even learned how to speak Ladino and were adept in its sayings and proverbs’. This was the first reference I ever found to non-Jewish Palestinians being proficient in a Jewish language and making it part of their daily life. Looking at the history of Ashkenazi communities, I was initially surprised to find that they too often knew Arabic. Prior to that I had assumed that only Mizrahi Jews would have used it, in the same way I assumed that Ladino was ‘just’ for Sephardim, but it seems that the relationships between the different subcommunities that made up the Palestinian tapestry were a little more complex than is usually supposed. Tamar’s statement – “I am from all sorts” – applies to a lot of people.

          As for religious commonalities, I agree. My Hebrew class in England was taught by an orthodox rabbi. There is a Palestinian Muslim from Nablus in the class, and it was always interesting just to listen to the two of them talk.

          Can you speak Arabic?

          Reply to Comment
          • XYz

            Unfortunately, no, but I have taught myself with the help of my daughter who took an Arabic class to read their alphabet. I study Talmud regularly and it is written in Aramaic which seems to be even closer to Arabic so religious Jews are even that much closer to Arabic culture. For example Arabic for “north” is “shimal” which is a variation on Hebrew “Smol” which means “left” because the main direction one faces in prayer is originally east. Similarly, “south” is “janub” which is a variation on Hebrew “negev” which also can mean “south”
            The big problem is in learning Arabic is the big difference between written and spoken Arabic which seem to be two different languages.

            Reply to Comment
          • The difference between spoken dialect and formal written Arabic is less daunting than it looks. Don’t be deterred by it. If you really want to learn, it would make sense to choose just one of them to focus on initially, and then use that as a springboard to help you get the second. I stuck with colloquial Arabic first, as my priority was to be able to talk to people. Just recently I began taking classes in literary and Qu’ranic Arabic. With your background (familiarity with Aramaic, used to a lot of self-directed study) it might be easiest for you to go the other way round and look at literary Arabic first. Having access to Arabic texts might augment your religious studies a bit – there’s a lot of good stuff out there to read.

            If you’re mainly interested in learning to speak, this book and CD set is a nice clear resource, good for people studying without a teacher: http://www.speaking-arabic.com/. I imagine you could get it from somewhere like Steimatsky, but if you wanted I could let you have mine. I don’t need it any more and it needs a new home.

            Reply to Comment
        • XYZ, I know there are many ugly things in Qur’an (sorry but they are there), but there is also this: “Vie among yourselves in good works, and leave your differences to me”; the context are Jews, Christians, and Muslims in common life. There are also rather ugly things in Torah, as well as statements not like this one but compatible with it. Seems to me Judaism and Islam indeed have a lot in common.

          Reply to Comment

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