Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why I want to learn Arabic

It seems that throughout my time in the Middle East Arabs are surprised by my desire to learn Arabic and often ask me, “Why do you want to learn Arabic.” I’ve answered this question in Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, almost wherever I go in the Arab world. Arabs are so surprised by my desire and motivation to learn Arabic that I’ve decided to answer this question thoroughly and set it down in writing.

I can understand why I am questioned about my reasons for learning Arabic. In the Middle East and perhaps most of the developing world, English language skills are highly prized as they allow people to advance in the job market. One example will suffice. I met a Syrian woman who was born and raised in Damascus. With proficiency in English, she was able to obtain a job in the Four Seasons Hotel at the reception desk where English was necessary to communicate to guests. From there she moved up through different positions until she was finally offered the opportunity to transfer to work in Dubai in the Emirates, a much richer city with more opportunities compared to Damascus. Thus, when English is the international language of trade, and I possess native fluency in it, Arabs wonder why I would want to learn their language when they desire so much for economic reasons to learn mine.

The first two of three reasons, which are the foremost and primary, for why I desire to learn Arabic is due to family and religion. I will discuss family first. I was born in Kuwait and lived there close to five years until I moved to the US where I spent the rest of my childhood, graduating from high school and university. My mother was Kuwaiti and spoke to me in the Kuwaiti dialect of Arabic. Hence, the first language I learned to speak was Arabic. I even attended the first year of kindergarten in Kuwait where I was just beginning to learn how to read and write. I still remember sitting at a desk bathed in the desert sunshine streaming through the windows learning how to write my name and a few other words such as ‘camel.’ Additionally, much of my childhood in Kuwait was spent with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles with whom I spoke Arabic. Of course I learned English as well to communicate with my father, but Arabic was my first and primary language. Consequently, when I moved to the US I was an Arab and considered myself a Kuwaiti.

Though I may have left my birth country, my mother insured that we kept our link with our family in Kuwait by traveling to Kuwait almost ever two years for a period of one to two months. However, I experienced a dramatic decline in my Arabic proficiency. My mother told me that my brother, who is a year and a half younger than me, and I switched to speaking in English 6 months after moving to the US. Although every trip to Kuwait would result in a little gain in Arabic, the overall trend was a loss in proficiency to the point that when I was 14 and visiting Kuwait when my grandfather was visibly dying, I could not communicate with him as he didn’t know English. That was the last time I was to see my grandfather as he passed away about three months later.

My grandfather was the strongest male figure in my family who had the greatest influence on me. He was born a Sunni Muslim in the south of Iran where he attended an Islamic school and studied the Quran. He moved from his small village in Bandar Lengeh to Bahrain and then Kuwait. In his youth in Iran he heard about the Baha’i Faith which he investigated before converting to it. He was a Muslim who was willing to choose the path of faith rather than comfort and ease, for he investigated Baha’u’llah’s claim to be a new messenger of God and accepted it regardless of the consequences which at that time in Iran could have been fatal. He was the only one in his family to become a Baha’i and his new faith strained relations with some members of his family. Nevertheless, he did not choose to simply follow the religion of his forefathers.

They say: “We found Our fathers following a certain religion, and We do guide ourselves by their footsteps.” Just in the same way, whenever We sent a Warner before thee to any people, the wealthy ones among them said: “We found Our fathers following a certain religion, and We will certainly follow in their footsteps.”
He said: “What! even if I brought you better guidance than that which ye found your fathers following?” They said: "For us, We deny that ye (prophets) are sent (on a mission at all)."
So We exacted retribution from them: now see what was the end of those who rejected (Truth)!
(The Qur’an, Surah 43:22-5)

My grandfather was an embodiment of the following verse from Baha’u’llah’s writings:

Abandon not the everlasting beauty for a beauty that must die, and set not your affections on this mortal world of dust.
(Baha'u'llah, The Hidden Words)

Thus, at the age of 14 when I was entering into adolescence and becoming more conscious of the world, I sought during my last visit with my grandfather that fateful summer to know more about his life and upbringing. I wanted to know about his childhood, the things he enjoyed, the sufferings he endured, and most importantly, I wanted him to share with me the pearls of wisdom that he accumulated over a lifetime with regards to life and religion. Yet my wish was not to be granted for my time with my grandfather was limited as he was too weak and my Arabic nonexistent. My last memory of my grandfather was of him lying on his bed, slowly dying, with a great stack of books in Arabic opposite to him, all of which he had read. He was an avid reader who built a dedicated personal library in a room of his house with books neatly stacked in cupboards and bookcases from the bottom of the room to the ceiling. In the end, my grandfather had grown tired of this mortal realm and sought the eternal life of the world beyond. He had lived a poor and hard life and sought his rest from it.

A few years later, my aunt recounted to me how my grandfather wished for me to become a bridge between the East and the West, as I am born of both worlds. As a result, the impression left on me by my grandfather; my desire to speak Arabic again with my family in Kuwait and Arabs; and the chance and hope to become a bridge between two worlds, East and West; from these was instilled within me a burning motivation to learn and study Arabic that would compel me to undergo the hours necessary to strive for proficiency.

Yet, religion is probably a stronger motivator in my study of Arabic for it is the language of revelation in which the Quran and the majority of the Bahá’í Writings have been revealed. Baha’u’llah refers to Arabic as the eloquent tongue. Growing up I learned that no translation can truly render the full and entire meaning from the original revelation in Arabic to English or any other language for that matter. And after studying Arabic I can agree with this statement since for any language some words can be used with dual meanings that when translated one of the meanings is lost or obscured. Translators may likewise err in their translations as they may translate a word with multiple meanings using an unintended meaning. I also noticed that those who read the original religious scriptures in Arabic were accorded a greater share of credibility and authority, especially in Muslim communities, when explaining certain verses since their understanding was not obscured by any translation.

Thus, as I seek to know the truth unobscured and clear, perhaps a trait from my grandfather, I desire to learn Arabic to gain greater religious truth by reading the original revelations of the Bahá’í Writings and the Quran. Additionally, I noticed that the Bahá’í Faith is in need of skilled translators between Arabic and English and this may be a way I can serve my faith when I advance in Arabic.

My third and final reason I wish to learn Arabic is for career purposes which also ties into my desire to be a bridge between the West and the East. Arabic is spoken to varying degrees and abilities from Morocco to Iraq making the Arab world a large cultural center. Knowing Arabic, especially since the demand for Arabic speakers after the terrorist attacks of September 11 has risen, will make me a more marketable worker, especially among governments and international organizations such as the UN. Thus, I hope learning Arabic will provide me with more career opportunities and allow me to be a positive force of communication and understanding between East and West.

These are the ideals that I aspire to and God willing I will be made successful.