Sometime during the second month of my Palestinian stay, I tackled the challenge of learning the Arabic language. I was joining the Al Jaabari family every Friday for an afternoon and evening of sharing food and conversation. But I was definitely on the sidelines with the conversation.
I determined to change that. I purchased a Rosetta version of Arabic. On a Friday afternoon, I announced my intention to the family. They cheered and stepped forward. The three young women, Suhana, Tahira, and Noon taught me the days of the week. By day’s end, I could say them in sequence and I could almost answer when they quizzed me, “What’s Tuesday?”
I returned to my apartment that week with eager determination. I opened Rosetta and spent a couple of hours each day practicing my skills with Arabic. I made a deliberate focus on learning the Arabic names for different fruits and vegetables. By the following Friday, I was ready to impress the family with my new tongue.
After the Friday meal, we gathered around in the chairs and sofas that encircled the living room. I turned to Noon and announced my intention of sharing what I had learned. Everyone was hushed. All were eager to hear.
I began with tomato, “Bindura.” My word was met by blank expressions. I repeated, “Bindura.”
After three attempts, one of the boys shouted out the word in their native tongue. “Ahh!” Laughter echoed around the room and Noon repeated the word to me with a pronunciation that I barely recognized.
I tried another word, olive, “Zaytun.” Again, my utterance elicited quizzical blank expressions. I repeated. Eventually, Masood, the whiz-kid of the family, repeated their word for olive.
For the dozen or so words I had memorized, my hosts recognized only two or three. For half a dozen fruits, the family used an entirely different word.
I was disheartened and discouraged. I persisted but with less energy and enthusiasm. Occasionally, I recognized a word in their conversations. But translation remained the only way that my friends could include me in their discussions.
Today? “Salaam alaikum” and “Shokran” are the two lonely expressions that retain active synapses in my brain.