The Lugha (Language)

Just because I put the section on language so far down the chain of contents doesn’t mean that it’s any less important. This isn’t a hierarchy of my travel ambitions though it is somewhat ironic that it comes right after the food section. Insofar as I’m concerned, considering that knowledge is food for the brain, the order works pretty well and it’s essential stuff. And so: the reason I came to Egypt was to learn…

My arrangements were to go and meet my teacher after a couple of days; I would be taken by one of the other students who lived in the flat. All of them were studying with the same teacher so I had my choice of person to follow to class. There was no chance of it turning into the playground facade of picking out your football team from the line up. I was just eager to get started and after two days indoors I was glad to get out; it would be the start of my outdoor experience of Cairo. More importantly, I’d break free of the indoor chill and thaw out.

I went with Khaled, a young Bangladeshi man of slight build from Luton, who lived not too far from my cousin, in fact. His Cairo advice was good, from the most pertinent pieces of advice came: This is the pavement, so walk on the road. It really was that blunt, just delivered with a spritely voice and big smile. Prior to Khaled’s lesson I met the teacher, Ahmad AbdelKarim, Said’s brother, who had an identical smile; just as prominent and resounding. Meeting my teacher was a pleasant affair, we discussed an arrangement that would accommodate his schedule and that was that really. I left to go back to the flat and Khaled began his lesson. It was on this trip back that I had the brief “Bakidi Bins??” episode I mentioned earlier.

A few days later, I began studying with him. My classes commenced in the early part of the day, I was his first student so I guess I was pleased that both he and I would have fresh minds, additionally I would have brought my crusty eyes too. The problem was that I found it difficult to wake up in the morning, fortunately though that never factored much during my classes.

The monotony of the schedule isn’t really that important so I won’t bore you with the details. After a short duration I concluded that I couldn’t afford to remain with my teacher long term so I detached myself of any obligation and found a new teacher. In reality I had been looking for a particular teacher since my arrival, I had been given such a glowing reference that I decided that he had to be the one to teach me.

Embarrassingly, after Said took me to the flat when I first arrived and I had taken my seat in the pink Venus Flytrap, I mentioned a little something I shouldn’t have. I have foot in mouth disease, if I haven’t mentioned that already I probably will later, it just splutters out. My wife has it too, and I’m not sure who caught it from whom. So Said, having had waited for me for four hours, having had brought me to the flat, having had introduced me to the flatmates, I told Said that I was looking forward to taking lessons from Ahmad AbdelKarim Showki (someone other than his brother).

I got a blank stare from him and the others. I’m such a tool.

Despite the fact that a teacher by that name doesn’t actually exist, I genuinely thought that my teacher was going to be Ahmad Showki. I didn’t know it was someone else at that point because the person who had made the arrangements for me hadn’t told me the final plan. It was a misunderstanding. This is how I convince my wife that she is higher up the foot-in-mouth league than me.

I left Said’s brother after two weeks, which made me look like an even bigger jerk.

Forget that now: After numerous enquiries Rehan helped me pinpoint the teacher I had been searching for. I was finally given a telephone number and on calling it we arranged yet another meeting to discuss my programme arrangements. A taxi drive and midday prayers later, I met him outside the mosque. I had no idea what he looked like apart from an Arab guy who probably had a beard; looking for a needle in a haystack Rehan and I stood outside bewildered.

It’s possible that there was a large illuminated neon sign flashing above our heads, but if it was there I don’t know why I couldn’t see it. Aside from that, I don’t know how he could have recognised us amongst all the other rambunctious Egyptians and Daghestanis, we were chameleons, masters of disguise. Obviously he had developed a sixth sense over his years of experience, he walked right up to us and said “hello!” We walked to the language centre and while we were there we agreed on a time to start class, it was in the morning again but this time slightly later that with my previous teacher. He began at teaching at 6am, which I considered an absurd time for me to begin so I plumped for 8am- give him time to warm up.

Rehan and I both left having had set our tasks to stone and began making our way back to the flat. Now the school isn’t that far, it isn’t that near either but you can walk in twenty minutes. I think one of the blessings of not driving is that you never give up on the glorious nature of a good walk. Rehan couldn’t hack the walk for no more than 30 seconds and he hailed a taxi and shot off down the road still negotiating a price with the taxi driver. It’s good to walk, you see other things and places of interest … BUT that didn’t happen here because there’s nothing really interesting to see in Madinat Nasr, at least I became familiar with my surroundings.

I took my walk every morning, I equated it to good exercise before I trained my mind. Arabic isn’t that easy but it’s thorough and in very detailed in meaning, a new script, a new tongue and I was happy. You’re not allowed to copy the syllabus books, copyright laws are just as prevalent here as in the West but everyone flaunts it because of lack of availability of books. Mainly because they don’t give it a shit, though. I built up a small photocopied library of books on Arabic in Arabic, it wasn’t meant to be an immediate help but something that I could aspire towards and build up to. A few children’s books were added to help improve my reading but even they were a little difficult at first.

This is a house, that is a castle. Only kidding! They weren’t that simple.

The teaching method isn’t that different to Pavlov’s dog, but I’ve gone past the learn and be rewarded stage that I had become accustomed to at the mosque in London. It was common to read a page and get rewarded with a sweet, or sweetie as it was called when I was seven. On the other hand if you fail to conform you become the recipient of a classic clip around the ear. I never used to get a sweet because I never ever finished the page, I felt kind of cheated because at the beginning of every class I started at the top of the page; it took me seven years to get a sweet, that one was because I was the only one not naughty enough to deserve a caning. This is probably the reason I couldn’t read Quran properly until my trip to Egypt, Alhamdulillah.

Now, a quarter of a century later and a few thousand miles away from the Masjid, I finish a page and smile with a ton of self satisfaction until my teacher steals the smugness from my face with a pinch, punch and twist of my arm. “Rubbish!” He adds. The physical torture doesn’t inspire me but he tells me that the mistake is recorded because of the consequence. Even if I tell him that I’m older than him, it doesn’t matter to him because it’s only a year and a few days difference. It was more than a little irritating, so when a later teacher tried to carry out the same procedure, I looked at him and said, “don’t do that again.” That was that.

Pavlov’s dog is wasted on me.

Though I paid him, it was a discounted amount that we arranged between us. He’s not much of a businessman and I tell him that he needs to acquire a steel-manner when it comes to business and not a big heart. As an idealist, he’s an educator who believes in passing on his skills, training new potential teachers and spreading the good language: Unfortunately more often than not his protégés are not of his ilk. Teaching has become a cut-throat business and many teachers vie for new students to teach and not all of them are good: You’ll hear the gossip of which teacher is great or mediocre, when you meet them they’ll push all the pitches of an egotistical, narcissistic salesman. Fair play to that, it’s a job that pays the bills.

My teacher, his name was Ahmad Showki (Sho-i’e) which could be fortunate or unfortunate. You see, Ahmad Showki, may he rest in peace, was a man of erudition, a famous poet. Therefore, it’s not a name easily forgotten, so if I was to tell anyone my teachers name, I’d have to follow it up with, “no, not the poet” despite being the theme of Robin Williams’ literature class of ’89.

Oh Captain, my captain.

You didn’t get that joke?

Dead Poets Society!! Jokes aren’t as funny when they need explaining.

He’s more of a friend now than a teacher and that was the reason I realised I had to leave his classes, we spent more time talking than studying, though it was extremely helpful for my proficiency in speaking.  Uhm, I didn’t leave though.

Grammar and vocabulary are obviously essential and it’s really a question of revising rules and words until they’re firmly stuck in your head. Phonetics are difficult for those who are unaccustomed with the language but a little familiarity helps and I don’t think my efforts in classical Arabic are that bad. I can do a few mean accents: Geordie, Scouse, Yorkshire… Sounding like a native is an incredible achievement but Egyptian colloquial is a new prospect, mastering classical is a little like speaking to a native  in Latin or Olde English.

When I moved, a twenty-minute walk became a forty-five gallop; I couldn’t cope with the distance to his school that but that’s a story for later. Anyway, the problem with walking everyday is that you inhale more than just air.

Ahmad Showki is one exceptional teacher, and though this isn’t a resume for his talents, but as a graduate of the esteemed Al-Azhar University in the faculty of Arabic, he utilised his skills by teaching foreign students as soon as he graduated. Those skills have developed and he’s something of a Arabic Language philanthropist, though private classes aren’t free, he (and Ustad Abdul Aziz) opened up a school for locals to expand their knowledge of Arabic.

There is a story of the formulation of language that is prevalent in the Arab world. It is alleged that the written word of the modern Arabic alphabet was created by virtue of an impending event that needed to be conveyed. The people couldn’t write, so in order to create an alphabet they used the names of their kings, Abbajada & Hawwaz. 

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