Saturday, June 27, 2009

Why Hebrew is Cool According to Muhammad Sayyid

As I sit here in the Alexandria Center for Language, looking lustfully at the food that they have prepared for lunch (they feed us something every day), my stomach is growling, I need to shower, do laundry, and go to the gym, and the Internet is down. So I’m blogging to cure at least the hunger.

{Mom, grandma: stop worrying, I’ll be fine once our weekly Arabic lecture is over (at 5) and I can go buy something to eat. Though, ironic in some profound way, the lecture this week is on Arab FOODS…}

I have decided to discuss my Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) class with you. Particularly my Fusha teacher and his fantastic “charujat” (digressions). He pontificated yesterday on a number of things including how impressive he considers revival of the Hebrew language, the unfair position of the Iranians in the sphere of international politics, and the origins of Humus. In an attempt to avoid (most) politics in this blog, I’ll tell you only what he said about the foremost topic. Food, as we all know, can get dangerously emotional.

He explained to us, in beautiful Arabic wrought with case endings (yes, this man speaks in case-endings, as one might read the Quran) and emphasized long vowels, that Israel is a great example of how a language can unite a people. The revitalization of the Hebrew language, which had previously been dead, is not only a remarkable feat to be marveled at, but should be duplicated when it comes to Arabic. His sermon came out of a discussion based on a text we had read about the difficulties presented by the disconnect between the “High” Arabic (“Fusha”, literally “eloquence”) that is used in official things like the news on TV and official speeches and announcements, and the spoken Arabic of the street (“Amiyya” - dialects that change from geographic region to geographic region, from country to country, and even sometimes from city to city). Mohammad Sayeed disagreed with the article’s position, and proceeded to posit his own: Bring Fusha back. Just like Eliezer Ben Yehuda brought the language of the Torah into daily life, we (the Arabs) should command the language of the Quran even when it comes to the mundane. And, most importantly, all Arabs understand it, so becomes a unifying, broadly nationalizing force, like Hebrew is for the Jewish people. I don’t think he - or anybody - really thinks that this is a practical solution, but it was fantastically cheering to listen to, and understand him. (I hope) it means I’ve made strides in my path (Tariq, if you will) to learning this “critical language”. Mabruk to me.

Other hilarious things about Ustath Sayeed:
1) We did a play in which I was the wife and my friend Andy was the husband and we were supposed to discuss the “problems of our marriage”.
a. I began by complaining that I wanted Andy to come home earlier to put our daughter to bed. He responded “We have a daughter!?” Muhammad Sayeed keeled over laughing…and then we all followed suit because he was laughing. It’s now a running joke.
2) He told me I sound like a rural farmer (one of the “Fellaheen”) when I pronounce the words that mean “Noon”.
3) He taught us how to say Zebra: “hasaan wahish”, which literally means “Ugly Horse”.
4) He orders tea to class. The errand boy brings it. Sometimes he asks if we want anything. Totally normal.
5) He is also just a fantastic, helpful, punctilious Egyptian man who understands very little English and cares deeply about the Arabic language. He loves to remind us that he considers Modern Standard Arabic is his first love.

No time for a song of the day. I'll get back to you on that.


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  2. loving your blog lady!

    May i direct my montreal friend to it?

  3. Can we please hear about the origins of Hummus? A South African friend who is visiting the Middle East was asking me about it yesterday!

  4. I second Avital about hearing the origins of Hummus.
    Also, having an errand boy bring tea to class sounds perfectly normal for developing countries (or interns in the US!). In India and Nepal there are always young people bringing tea from a store to offices - remember in Slumdog Millionaire that is the character's original position (chai-wallah = tea boy).