Outside the Box, a  column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

When I was in teenager, my father announced at dinner one night that we’d be moving to Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know where Saudi Arabia was, but I wanted to go. After the meal, I went downstairs and pulled out an atlas and found the large desert country on the other side of the world.

I couldn’t wait to go. I wanted a change and an adventure. I parted with my beloved Ford Mustang, which I had purchased with my hard-earned fast-food and waitressing wages. We landed in Riyadh and I discovered we had moved to a country where women were banned from driving.

The dictates of the culture and laws of the land clipped my teenage wings and quashed the independence I’d enjoyed in America. I couldn’t leave the house on my own. I had to be with a male companion—my father or one of my younger brothers.

I was both frustrated and enchanted with my new home. I loved the vast desert landscape with its hidden wadis and rolling dunes, the Bedouin traditions of hospitality, the history, the bustling ancient suqs. And the language.

I left Saudi Arabia to attend college in rain-soaked Oregon. I had decided to become a foreign correspondent, so I majored in journalism and French. I studied Russian as my second language. It was a different time; Arabic wasn’t offered.

When I graduated, I went to Cairo to begin my journalism career. I have a knack for languages and I picked up the Egyptian dialect by ear—in the streets, the markets, taxis. I worked with a tutor to improve my understanding. My Arabic served me well in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Egypt; but, it was conversational at best and I dreamed of being fluent.

My second year at Allegheny, the college began its Arabic program and hired a professor of Arabic and invited a Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, both named Reem. I asked Reem Hilal, the professor, if I could sit in on classes.

Ahlan wa sahlan. You are welcome.

Both women assured me I belonged in intermediate Arabic. I wasn’t so sure. I spoke colloquial Arabic, but I could barely read or write it. Plus, we’d be studying classical Arabic, al-fusha.

My vocabulary carried me for a while. I soon learned being a student and being a student as a professor are two different things. When I was a student, I spent hours on my studies of French and Russian. I attended my language labs and conversation tables. As a professor, students come first; my own class comes last. I told Professor Hilal I needed to start over in beginning Arabic.

I love being a student. It reconnects me to what it feels like to be facing the front of the classroom rather than facing the class. As a student, I still get nervous when the professor calls on me to write on the board. I feel badly when I don’t do my homework.

I get to witness the stress of the students. After one exam, I walked into a gathering of classmates outside Ruter Hall. They were talking rapid-fire, a few smoking cigarettes. They were giddy with relief that they’d made it through the midterm. It made me remember the remarkable pressure to perform that students impose on themselves. I was once that student, minus the cigarette. Now I walk out smiling if I’m able to finish the exam.

In learning a language, I’ve found I learn about the people who speak it and their culture. I also learn about my culture and myself.

When I was a student in France, I quickly realized that I could translate my English into French and still miscommunicate by missing the nuances of the words, body language and culture. Americans are generally an exuberant, happy-ending-loving, bordering-on-hyberbolic people. We love words like amazing, awesome, fantastic. If it’s cold outside, I might say it’s freezing. Il ne fait pas chaud, it’s not hot, is the likely French rendering of the same weather.

As I was finishing this column, I ran into Salah Algabli, a Yemeni who is the current Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant at Allegheny. I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk about learning a language.

Sure, when you hear a language, you will get to know the people, the culture and, sometimes, the faith, Salah said. Learning a language helps you understand the deeper meaning of the words. You learn how to understand and express happiness, sadness, gratitude, friendship.

In Yemen, there’s an expression, taht al rasa, or al rasa, Salah said. It literally means “under the head,” however, if a stranger came to a village and said al rasa to the chief, it truly means “I am under your protection,” a cry for sanctuary that the villagers are bound to honor.

Salah noted that when he first came to America he would start his conversations with questions, as he would in his homeland. How are you? How’s your family? How are your children? He realized people would look at him strangely.

They felt like I’m a creepy person, Salah said. What might be creepy in America would be considered rude if he didn’t do it in his country. In Arab cultures, it’s expected to make such extended inquiries into the health of friends and loved ones.

Salah said he’s learned the American equivalent. “What’s up?” He now asks that one simple question.

The other day I heard a piece on National Public Radio by Michel Martin, entitled “Grief Knows No Native Tongue—but We Must Listen, Whenever It Speaks.” She wrote it in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. She noted that on the same Friday that members of the Islamic State group launched the attacks in Paris, a bomb killed people at midday prayers in Yemen and a suicide attack at a Baghdad funeral killed at least 18 people. There were two attacks in Beirut that killed more than 40 people last Thursday.

These attacks killed people indiscriminately, regardless of language, faith, nationality, gender or age.

In troubled times, language can divide or bind us.

When I think of the victims of violence, including the refugees, I remember the expression Salah taught me.

Taht al rasa. I am under your protection.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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