On Orientalism and learning Arabic

بدي أهوة عربية وحمص

No? How about this: Biddi ahwa arabia wa hummous.

Now you can read it but it’s unlikely, if you’re not an Arab, that you can understand it. The word ‘hummous’ may stand out as an English word expropriated from Arabic. You may be able to guess from that word that the sentence pertains to food. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t.

Frustrated? Be patient and try again.

That’s how I tried to approach Arabic. I had learned German as a teenager. I’d mastered French (or it felt that way) during the summer months after my Master’s. Surely Arabic would be tougher but still systemic. It would fit neatly into a linguistic category.

I spent my first year in Jordan without using Arabic. I hung out with expats and Jordanians who’d lived abroad and spoke fluent English. Only when I decided to try and crack the code of Arabic did I truly feel I was about to break my comfort zone and go deeper into the culture, not as an outsider “capturing” the Arab world, but as somebody immersing themselves in and willing to learn from the Arab culture.


The first day of class, I told myself I was fine. I was with other expats and we were all in the same boat, of course. When I left and explored Amman with my school books, I was surprised to receive respect from locals who spotted the texts I was carrying. Some even shook my hand. I pretended I understood what they were saying.

Shu hatha? One man smiled, pointing to my notebook. I froze, like an actor who’d forgotten his line.

Shu hatha? He repeated. Taarif?

My mind went blank.

Deftr, he replied, answering his own question. Yes, that was the word for notebook.

Living in a foreign land, learning a foreign language can make you feel vulnerable. Some days you feel isolated, overwhelmed, confused. But you go on, knowing that learning Arabic at a modern school is not only an experience but a luxury. For a Swiss-educated expat, it’s another way of adding to the list of your degrees and accomplishments. It can even be fun – but you have to be mindful to not become an “Arabist” – somebody that views the Arab world with a Eurocentric lens.

As I start my third year for my PhD programme amid further Brexit panic for Europeans and Brits, amid the refugee crisis and further news of ISIL, I recall another feeling that my time in Jordan gave me, one I am grateful for to this day. Humility. I struggled with Arabic. I felt “put on the spot”, I felt frustrated and vulnerable. But I also knew that I had a choice. Learning Arabic became a way to connect with a new culture, a coping skill. I never had to learn it to survive. I didn’t flee to Amman with clothes on my back and nothing else.

It feels good to be home. My Arabic may slip but that’s okay. I have time to regain it. I also have time to think. About the refugees who have fled the region I entered and exited so easily. About the struggles they must go through. About whether or not they have a choice. If I found choosing to learn Arabic hard, what must it be like for a Syrian refugee to learn English just to survive? How vulnerable must they feel; how alone will they truly be?

And even if many of them master a new language, I doubt they will be congratulated for trying. When journalists can kick refugees, how can they expect anyone to even shake their hand? I encourage anybody with problematic views to challenge themselves, to confront these views head on and to go out there and learn Arabic for themselves.

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