On Speaking Arabic

Ilana Nelson wrote an extremely interesting and, in my opinion, correct article in yesterday’s edition on the importance of teaching our children to learn conversational Arabic.

Although I can converse in eight languages, I very much regret that Arabic is not one of them. No matter how much I tried many years ago, I failed in sincere attempts. I still have five different textbooks on learning Arabic, three written by Israelis for use in Israeli schools. But try as I may, I failed.

One text by Professor Moshe Piamenta, published in 1973 by Maariv Publishing House, is called Aravit Meduberet L’Matchil (Spoken Arabic for Beginners). It is basic Arabic written in the Hebrew alphabet. It begins with “ana asmi Yusef. Abui ismo Schak. Ili achain” (ani shmi Yosef. Avi shmo Yitzchak. Li shnai achim).

OK. So I learned that his name is Yusef, his father’s name is Schak and he has two brothers. How does that help me to converse with the Arab waiter in my restaurant?

Then I have a very old copy of Aravit Yesodit (Basic literary Arabic) by Dr. Gerbel and Dr. Bloch, printed by Chichik Publishing in Tel-Aviv in pre-State Palestine which introduces the student to the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet and the 8 vowel signs. It assumes that mastery of the alphabet and vowels will aid the student in reading all the following lessons in the text, written completely in Arabic.

There is a 1940 textbook, published by Rubin Mass in Jerusalem, called Arabic Language and Grammar by Dr. Jochanan Kapliwatzky, formerly of the Palestine Broadcasting Service. The text emphasizes Arabic grammar and does not deal with ordinary conversation.

There is a Teach Yourself Arabic book by A.S. Tritton, Professor of Arabic at the University of London, which is easier to follow because most of the Arabic lessons are printed in the Latin alphabet.

And finally, I have the 1944 Egyptian Colloquial Grammar: A Conversation Grammar by W.H.T. Gairdner of the School of Oriental Studies in Cairo. At least that text offers a bit of conversational possibility. It begins with “Good day, sir. How are you today? Fine, thank you, praise be to Allah…. Ahmed, please bring me a coffee…..”

I think this is not the Arabic to which Ilana Nelson made reference. More than forty years ago, I suggested that every Israeli secular school should be required to make Arabic a mandatory (not an elective) subject. If Arab children are required to learn Hebrew in our school, our children should be required to learn basic Arabic. Not literary. Not even the ability to read or write the language. But the necessity to hold a simple conversation in that language with the Arabs with whom we may come into frequent contact… taxi drivers, waiters and waitresses, shop keepers in the Jerusalem shuk.

Our country has three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English. We see them written on road signs, highways and exit/entrance directions everywhere. I am surprised that we have not yet added Russian and Amharic to our list of national languages. We are, after all, a polyglot country.

But since we Jews are bound permanently to be neighbors of Arabic-speaking countries, I think it is essential that we learn to converse with them in their own national language.

I am told that literary Arabic is beautiful and very poetic and descriptive. But I would much prefer the simpler Arabic. I would like to greet a shop-keeper with a “saba al kher. Kef halik?” (Good morning. How are you). It is far more pleasant than beginning a conversation with “My name is Yusef and I have two brothers”.

Ilana Nelson sends her children to a mixed school where Jewish children learn Arabic and Arab children learn Hebrew. Then, when the school day ends, each returns to his/her own home in separate neighborhoods with separate playgrounds and the languages remain silent until the next day’s class.

If we are to survive together we must learn to speak together. Our children do not have to learn in private schools. It should be obligatory to learn in our excellent secular schools. Maybe it will bring us closer to one another, im yirtzeh Hashem……ooops, forgive me. I mean insh’Allah. Todah. Shukran and shalom (salaam).

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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