Alf Leyla wa- Leyla

This is the time of year where I edit the newsletter for the group that went to Syria with me in 2001. BEFORE September 11th and all that. And so, this is the time when I think about that half a year I spent in the Middle East and fantasize about going back. I remember the grammar of Arabic quite nicely. I remember how to conjugate in first, second, and third person masculine and feminine singular and plural, and even that odd Arabic anomaly, the dual. I remember about broken plurals. I could even probably produce a decent version of the chart with the ten verbal forms. But I am ashamed to confess that I avoid telling Arab people that I speak Arabic. There was the Egyptian at our favorite kebab shop in Saluzzo, and those nice young men we saw every day in the park in Florence, and the Tunisian woman I spent half an hour conversing with in Italian while we waited our turn at the immigration office in Florence. I just can’t bring myself to confess that I studied Arabic, because after the thrill of surprise and delight will come the moment when I must demonstrate that I am pitifully and absolutely incompetent at speaking. And I can’t understand anything anymore either.

I really shouldn’t complain. It’s my own fault I haven’t kept it up. But there were extenuating circumstances. Just a few months after I returned from Syria, I rushed off to Chile, where I spent a year and a half speaking only Spanish. And then the past couple of years we’ve been popping in and out of Italy, enough for anxiety but not enough for fluency. I guess that didn’t keep me from spending a month last year when I was sick in bed doing an intensive study of Ancient Greek, or beginning to work my way through the Aeneid in Latin. I don’t know what it is that keeps me away from Arabic.

I’ve had various secret resolves. I downloaded a sample of Pimsleur Arabic. I receive constant emails from livemocha that this or that new friend wants to chat with me in Arabic. The backup plan I always mention when we have problems in Europe is Morocco. And I’m always thinking about which Arab country I want to take my family to visit first. But I don’t really want to go. It makes me queasy to think of sitting down in a restaurant somewhere and finding that I need to order. I know that I’ll open my mouth, shut it again, and then pretend I’m just another American who doesn’t know a word of Arabic.

So meanwhile the Arabic I know sits dustily in a corner of my mind, pretending it isn’t there. But I know it’s there for a reason. And someday I will dust it off, move to the Middle East, and teach it to my whole family.

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