Last fall at the annual welcome bash at the president’s house, I met Allegheny College’s new professor of Arabic, Reem Hilal, and her mother.
Ahlan wa sahlan, I said. Welcome.
I chatted with Hilal in my rusty Egyptian dialect and I told her I’d love to study Arabic.
Ahlan wa sahlan, she said.
I next met Reem Abou Elenain, the Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, who hails from Alexandria, Egypt. Both Reems — Hilal and Abou Elenain — insisted my Arabic was too advanced for the beginning course and advised me to join the intermediate class. I knew better.
I have lived in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and I worked for a significant stretch of my career in the Middle East and Africa. I have no formal training in Arabic. I learned by ear — and by necessity.
I speak street. I knew enough Arabic to scream at the man who called me a sharmota, whore, as I passed near Tahrir Square when I was a young journalist in Cairo. I had enough vocabulary and moxie — yes, moxie is part of the language — to talk riot police into letting me pass through their phalanx during Gulf War protests.
Yet, I don’t know classical Arabic, the gorgeous language of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, with its lyrical script that I can barely read and a grammar I have never tackled.
I held my own in the early weeks of intermediate Arabic. As the semester passed, I attended fewer classes. As a professor, I discovered that teaching class, grading assignments and attending meetings often sidelined my attempts at being a student.
And, as a professor, I am keenly aware that I set an example whether I am in front of a class or in it. By midterm, I realized I couldn’t keep up — and worse, I wasn’t setting a good example. I was embarrassed when I didn’t have the right answers to write on the white board. The students were gracious and patient with me. I eventually beat a retreat.
This semester Reem Hilal is on maternity leave and Reem Abou Elenain is back in Egypt. I spoke with Bilal Humeidan, the professor teaching Arabic this fall, and Salah Algabli, the new Fulbright assistant.
After chatting with me, Salah insisted I take intermediate Arabic. I insisted I needed the beginning class.
Three times each week, I join a group of intrepid Allegheny students in a tiny classroom in Ruter Hall where we stumble and sparkle through our Arabic lessons. It’s fun to be a student. I join others at the board for dictation exercises. We play games to improve our vocabulary.
Last week Humeidan led an impromptu Arabic version of Pictionary, a game I’ve never played in English. The word was shebaab, people. As I stood at the board with my dry erase marker poised, I decided it would take too long to draw a crowd of faces, so I wrote the word in Arabic. I felt clever. Problem solved. My team guessed correctly — though I was disqualified. Not so clever. I learned a player can only draw images — no words allowed.
Who knew? I know I’m still competitive, just as I was as an undergrad. I still strive for an A in class.
I took the first quiz. I wasn’t sure how I’d done. I would like to have studied more. I would prefer if my memory and retention were as sharp as when I studied French and Russian years ago at Oregon State University.
When the professor returned my quiz, I didn’t dare look at it. I hesitated. Then I opened it slowly and peaked at the score. An A. A smile busted out across my face and I busted into a happy dance.
I couldn’t help myself. I posted on Facebook. “I got an A on my Arabic quiz. As a student, I’ve still got game.” My friends around the world gave me thumbs up.
I enjoy learning. I don’t mind looking silly, taking a risk in Pictionary or mispronouncing a word. I’m learning to read and write Arabic. Alhamdulillah, thanks be to God.
I do mind falling behind. It is getting tougher to keep up now. We switched books and gears. We’ve finished learning the alphabet and we’re on to bigger things: grammar, syntax and verbs. The amount of homework and the time needed to complete it doubled overnight.
I tell students in our journalism courses that one of the keys to success in class, and in life, is to show up. That’s what I intend to do. Keep showing up.
There’s a midterm on the horizon.
I can do this. Insha’allaah, if God wills it.
Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.