Thursday, May 13, 2010

Politics; or the Translators' Dilemma

No, don't worry--this is not (and never will be) a political blog. I just don't have the heart for it.

But the recently-held municipal elections (and a well-timed Arabic lesson) got me thinking about something.

First, a little background. One of the things that makes Arabic such an elegant, poetic language (and one of its redeeming qualities in terms of ease of acquisition) is that the entire language is based on three letter roots: the most oft-used example is the root KTB. Kitab means book. Maktab means office (a place where writing happens). Kitabat means writing. Kitabut means discourse in written form. Are you starting to see a pattern here? But wait--kutbah means beads. Huh? Every root has a base meaning. According to one website I saw, the KTB root primarily communicates the concept of writing. But KTB doesn't just mean the idea of writing, it communicates the idea of binding together or joining, like stitches or beads on a string. And so writing is a way of binding letters into words and words into concepts. It is also a way of binding writer and reader together. Pretty cool, huh? And like I said, very, very elegant.

I like root words. A lot. This is something that I inherited from my family, although more often than not, the meticulously detailed word history that my father or grandfather would explain to me would turn out to be an example of fiction rather than actual etymological fact. Just ask my uncle Ned about kiosks.

Family quirks aside, sometime word roots can give you surprising insights into a culture. Most of you probably know already that the English word "politics" comes from the Greek root "polis", meaning "city". Politics is about how groups of people live together and govern their lives. The Arabic word that we translate as "politics" is "siyehsiyeh"--which has an SYS root. The base meaning of that particular root? "Control." In this sense, politics is less about how we live together and govern our lives, but how we control (ourselves and others).

Now, I don't want for this to sound patronizing at all--look at us Westerners, with our 'sivilization' and such. How evolved are we! We should really let the Arab world bask in the glow of our superior governing principles. Clearly, the practice of politics in the west (and present-day America in particular) doesn't always compare to the ideals set out by the root of our words. But it still is an interesting thought--the area of my brain that lights up when I hear the word politics is different from the area of a brain that lights up when it hears the word "siyehsiyeh," even if they are considered to be translations for each other.

I shall leave it up to more qualified minds than mine to decide how much language influences culture and vice versa.

Victory is Ours!

Forget the Palestine issue. Forget the Golan Heights. Forget Hezbollah. Forget Iraq.

There's a war that's brewing between Lebanon and Israel, and it's been simmering since I've been here. This week, peace finally broke out, and Lebanon won!

I'm talking, of course, about hommos*, the mashed chickpea spread that has shown up at every single potluck I've attended since 1995. The Lebanese have been all a-twitter at what they feel is the appropriation of their culture by the Israelis, who have proclaimed hommos a national dish and who were (until recently) the title bearers of the World Record for Largest Bowl of Hommos.

Well, my friends, all that changed this week. Just read this article ( and all will be explained.

Now, if only the Tabbouleh right-of-return issues were so easily solved...

*Not to be confused with Hamas, unless you are Sasha Baron Cohen and you are trying to be funny.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Order of Acquisition

I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately, and especially how and when we acquire it. This is largely selfishly motivated, as I am about one month into Arabic classes with my amazing tutor Rima. Arabic is the first non-Indo-European language I’ve ever tried to learn, and it’s both intimidating and not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I’ve toyed with the idea of blogging my Arabic progress, but I’m stymied by not having an Arabic font installed on my computer. I will say that I’ve got my possessives down (it’s a much more important feature of Arabic than it is of English) as well as my present tense verbs. Learning the past tense these past few weeks has felt like a huge step forward. At the very least, I just doubled my language capacity!

One of the big things I’ve been thinking about is how language shapes identity, and the personalities we form in other languages. Think of everything you do in your language (which, for the sake of argument, I’ll assume is English): you love, you work, you laugh, you form connections, you take in the world. These are the things people do in every language, in fact. When you learn a new language, though, you give up your ability to do these things that are so automatic to you—so necessary to your daily life—all at once. In her amazing book The Middle of Everywhere (about working with refugees—if I haven’t pushed this book on you yet, read it!), Mary Pipher wrote “Every day in a foreign country is like final exam day.” The amount of stress it can cause is immense. When I was first learning Spanish in Guatemala, I slept for 10 hours a night—minimum—because my brain was so exhausted. Even then, I had dreams in which I would be in a place surrounded by people who were speaking a language (not Spanish!) that I couldn’t understand. It was inescapable and, at the time, a little overwhelming. Thankfully, this phase only lasted for two weeks at most.

Here in Lebanon, things are a little different. First of all, I’m an English teacher, and English is the medium of instruction and interaction at my school. Secondly, and not unrelatedly, language education here is amazing. There’s a t-shirt that they sell in tourist shops that reads, “Hi! Keefik? Ça va?” (Keefik is “How are you?” if you’re talking to an Arabic-speaking woman—keefak for a man—and ça va you can probably puzzle out on your own) This is a very common greeting in Lebanon, and it reflects the fact that you will often hear Arabic, English, and French within the same conversation—often in the same sentence! Code-switching (the act of changing languages within a conversation) is even more impressive here than in the already impressively bilingual South Bronx. For this reason, even if your opening salvo for a conversation might be in Arabic, the odds are that the Lebanese person (the person sitting next to you on the bus/bar, your taxi driver, etc) you’re speaking to will respond in English. It’s been hard to work up a lot of language anxiety because everyone speaks my language!

Still, I am feeling adamant about learning Arabic, and I can feel a little defensive when my conversation partners automatically speak English back—especially in the (admittedly very limited) situations where my Arabic is better than their English! I also feel defensive when I ask a question in Arabic—for example, “Where is the school office?”—and the person I’ve asked answers with “Where are you from?” instead of with the information that I actually need to know. This is really a mark of admirable cultural curiosity and openness, I know, but there are times when I actually need to know something, and I’d rather not give my life story to get it!

To combat this defensiveness, I’ve taken a cue from CLL (Counseling Language Learning), a teaching methodology we learned in grad school. CLL suggests that adult students invent a new persona for their new language, in order to avoid the dissonance of not knowing how to do the basic things that make up our adult identities. This isn’t quite as removed from mainstream culture as you might think: Beyoncé (as good a role model as any) has famously talked about her stage personality “Sasha Fierce” in contrast to her more reserved authentic self. So, with Beyoncé’s approval, I’m trying this out. When I’m speaking Arabic, I’m no longer Sarah Gulley, mild-mannered English teacher from North Carolina on a fellowship in Lebanon. I’m Rena Ghassan, from Dar El Qamar. I feel a little strange discussing this in such a public forum—it feels a little bit like talking about having a Second Life account or a role-playing game habit wherein all of my unrealized ambitions can have free reign. But thankfully, I’m not going to tell you that Rena is a rock star or an elf queen or an elf rock star. She’s a student, leading not a terribly glamorous life. Although I should mention that she’s a student with such limited verbal skills—so perhaps I should consider making her a three-year old. Like all experiments, this might be doomed to failure and/or ridicule (keep any comments nice, please!), but we’ll see how it goes.

Billy Collins wrote about “great car of English itself” in the last line of “Consolation”—for right now, I’m changing back and forth between that comfortable sedan and an early-model, rattling, falling-apart-at-the-seams Mercedes taxi that is a staple of my Beirut life.

Nawruz (originally written on March 22nd but posted late!)

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Oh, spring has sprung—despite the mini cold snap that we’re facing this week. (Highs in the mid-60s! Heavens!) The clearest sign of spring (apart from the flowers blooming everywhere and blessedly long days) was a party that I went to last week. My friend D from Iran had a lovely gathering in her apartment last Saturday night to celebrary Nawruz, or Persian New Year. Her instructions (sent by text) were to arrive at her house by 7. Unfortunately, I missed the bus to Beirut (by 15 stinkin’ seconds!) and got there closer to 9. The sight that greeted me in D’s cozy, warm apartment was this:

Nawruz is celebrated every year when the earth is in a specific position in its revolution around the sun. This year, we reached that position at exactly 7:32 p.m and 13 seconds—a much more interesting New Year’s countdown than just plain old midnight. I missed the countdown (which the party followed via streaming radio from Iran) but apparently once the clock struck 19:32:13, everyone popped balloons and ate food from the specially prepared table. All of the foods and objects on the table begin with an “s” in Farsi—grass (or at least something green and growing, represented by the pineapple top) honey, oil, cookies, nuts (especially pistachios—yum!), and garlic. It was quite a feast, much of it brought from Tehran by D’s brother, who is visiting this week.

After some of the guests left, they served Koukou (made by D’s grandmother), an Iranian take on the Tortilla Española, but even more delicious: imagine a frittata with spinach, parsley, and other greens.

I understand why we celebrate our New Year at the first hint of the returning of the light—sometimes that first glimmer in the darkness is enough to sustain us and put us in a celebratory mood. But with Nawruz, the light is almost fully back, the flowers are in bloom, and the whole world (not just the light) is new for the New Year.

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