Learning The Language

Currently, I am enrolled in an Arabic language class at Imam University here in Riyadh. I’d link the university web site; but it’s in Arabic and unintelligible to most folks reading this blog. Notice the picture of the mosque on the right-hand side of the page. I walk out the front door of my apartment building, look to the right, and get a shot of that pair of minarets and that dome each day. The university, considered one of the top-notch Islamic universities in the world, is located right across the freeway from the compound in which I live. Over 20,000 students attend classes there each term.

When I first determined I would be coming to Riyadh, I set up a Google news alert for Riyadh. Back in June, one of those alerts hit my inbox, and I noticed a tidbit about a class in Arabic being offered for Westerners who work in the Kingdom. I enlisted the aid of an Arabic co-worker, and he called the Institute of Arabic Teaching (one of the branches of the university) to determine what was needed to enroll. In the meantime, I began asking around work to see if anyone else was interested in taking the course. I found nearly 11 individuals with an interest, so I – with the help of my Arab friend – set things in motion to get the proper enrollment forms, requirements, and other miscellaneous information.

The enrollment process is reflective of some of the issues faced by the several million alien residents residing and working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. First, it is impossible to accomplish some tasks successfully without the use of Arabic. Sure, enough folks speak English to get some things done, but it is impossible to know what is actually going on when conducting business without at least a basic understanding of the language. Often, as I did, it is better to hire a trusted friend to conduct business of this nature in one’s stead. I paid 200SAR to a friend (his time is worth something)who took care of all of the administrative minutiae for all the interested parties, and it proved to be money well spent. Everything went smoothly, and my friend even guided us to the proper building, as well as the office of the Institute’s director.

A few folks lost interest along the way, and a couple of others balked at some of the entry requirements. For example, it was necessary to have a letter from our “sponsor” stating that we had permission to attend the classes. There is something demeaning in being an adult who’s made up his own mind for for nearly 30 years having to ask permission to attend a life enrichment class. Still, though, sometimes it is necessary to swallow a little pride to accomplish a desired task. Probably the most bothersome issue for potential enrollees was the necessity of providing a copy of one’s iqama, along with five photos. Fear of location by extremists who might be attending the school surfaced. The school’s largest college teaches Islamic theology and Sharia legal instruction. Without a doubt some of the individuals there regard Westerners as a blight on the Kingdom. On the other hand, there are a lot of students who are there simply to attend school. So far, I’ve found such concerns to be misplaced paranoia; although it is important be careful how, and when, such information is dispensed.

For others, the cost of the course proved an issue. Most of us send the bulk of our money home to our wives, keeping a monthly allotment for our own use. Some keep more than others, and others keep a lot less than some. The initially quoted price was 600SAR, which is about $160. We hit upon a bit of luck with regard to the price, however. The Institute of Arabic Teaching named a new director, a genial fellow with a good handle on English (he taught in the US), who decided to cut the price in half for this term, as well as to extend the length of the term from 8 weeks to 14 weeks (28 class sessions). When we showed up to take the required placement exam, the director told us that, based on what he knew of our backgrounds, we could skip the exam and just enroll in the Level One class. We agreed and did not take the exam.

The make-up of our class is one of the elements that I enjoy the most. We are comprised of 7 or so Americans (amerikee), several Hindis, several Pakistanis, two African (africanee) diplomats, at least one Indonesian (indoneesee) doctor, and a few more from other countries of southern and southeastern Asia. A few of us are managers (madeer), while a larger group work as engineers (mohindis). The vast majority of the students have an informal understanding of spoken Arabic – mostly colloquial – and little or no written skills. However, they are at a distinct advantage when conversing with the teacher (mu’allim). One of the disconcerting facts we Westerners face, particularly we Americans, is that the Arabic word for university student is talib. To make it plural, as in speaking of all the students in the class, one adds -an to the root word. Therefore, we students, as a group, are taliban. Talk about a word getting twisted around in its use.

The class is an immersion class. The teacher uses English only to clarify terms that cannot be made clear using context or pointing to items. This fact creates quite an intense presentation of the materials. There is absolutely no way to drift off into a daydream without coming back to reality lost as hell and unsure how to catch up. Couple that with the fact the teacher calls on students randomly, and it is paramount that everyone pay close attention.

The teacher is a good-natured fellow named Turki who is probably in his early 30s. He is very patient with the Americans. We have had little exposure to using the language, and he knows that. I knew the alphabet and phonetic sounds before I started the class, and that has helped me immensely. Unfortunately, that hasn’t helped me a lot when we start declining nouns or conjugating verbs. Through it all, he slows down a little and coaches and coaxes us to the right word or pronunciation.

There is no way to really do well in the class without doing a fair amount of outside study. We’re out of class for the next 2 1/2 weeks due to the end of Ramadan and the Eid vacation that follows. I, for one, am using this time to solidify some of the information that’s been thrown our way over the last several sessions. This has now become one of my biggest academic challenges ever, and I refuse to surrender to the intermittent thoughts of chucking it all and relaxing in the evenings instead of doing homework and attending class. A challenge is good for the soul.

Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2007.

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