Maha wa Khalid, the Romeo and Juliet of our times?

Today was (in theory at least) our first day of new material in classes, and the start of Al-Kitaab II.  Al-Kitaab I is the Arabic textbook beloved of thousands of American Arabic students, a good but kind of ridiculous introduction to the Arabic language and Arab-American culture via the notoriously depressing story (continued with a new instalment in each chapter) of Maha, a terminally pessimistic and culturally dispossessed Egyptian teenager living in New York.  She doesn’t like New York, as she never misses an opportunity to tell us, because the weather is bad; she doesn’t like America because she doesn’t feel like she fits in because of her strict Egyptian mother; she doesn’t like her mother, because she is too strict; she doesn’t like her father either, because he’s too busy to spend time with her; she doesn’t have a boyfriend; she doesn’t really have any friends at all, and even Leila, her one and only friend, confesses to us in the textbook equivalent of a stage-whisper that Maha is ‘a bit weird’.  Gradually we’re introduced to Maha’s cousin Khalid, who’s also a chronic misfit with a creepy side-kick friend, and whose true (and only) love broke off their engagement and left him for an engineer in Saudi.  Over the course of many chapters, and interminable vocabulary practices and fill-in-the-gaps exercises, it becomes clear that Maha and Khalid (despite being first cousins) are being gently but firmly manoeuvred into an arranged marriage which will, presumably, at least have the advantage of giving them sufficient material to complain about for the rest of their married lives.
Unfortunately Al-Kitaab I ends on something of an unsatisfactory cliff-hanger, and I’m told that Al-Kitaab II (tragically) doesn’t pick up Maha and Khalid’s story.  Still, it’ll be good to move onto new material.  I think the class will be fun – probably about the right level (maybe a little slow, we’ll see), and the teachers are both really friendly and enthusiastic pedagogues (an excellent American term which, in my opinion, should definitely used more often).  My vocabulary is still frustratingly small.  Despite having picked up various European languages in bits and pieces, I’m definitely feeling the classicist’s pain of sailing through all the grammar, but struggling with vocab and spoken fluency.  The key is, I think, to seize the opportunity to speak as much as possible in class, and outside of class as well. It’s a funny sight at lunch time – all these english-speaking students in the courtyard having broken conversations in varying levels of Arabic (ironic that we’re all sadistically putting ourselves through this torture to learn fusHa, or Modern Standard Arabic – the dialogue of the intelligentsia not spoken by any Arabs in daily conversation, and barely even understood by many of the locals here in Fes, who speak Darija, the Moroccan dialect).
Still, more and more I’m experiencing that magical tipping-point in the learning of any language – where what was previously just so much gibberish and gobbledegook mysteriously and wonderfully begins the transformation into rational and intelligible utterance.  Next (in shah Allah!) comes the even more exiting point where you realise that you were reading or listening in the other language, and hadn’t realised.  Then, far down the road, on the distant horizon, half-hidden in the shimmering heat-haze, comes the tipping point of active mastery – that moment when you realise that you don’t even have to think any more to say what you want.  I’m lucky enough to  have it (more or less) with French, and kind of with German (I had it with for a few brief and wonderful months after my amazing 2012 summer in Munich); Hopefully, one day, I’ll get there with Arabic too, though I’m not totally convinced that I’m not simply too old now… In any case, language is a miracle – there’s just no getting around it – and I it’s only the people who have the privilege of studying and using foreign languages that really understand this.  To each his own, though, and I’m sure my scientist friends have similar miracle moments in their explorations of the physical world – how wonderful to think that each of us has his or her own little insight(s) into the true wonder of creation, in both its physical and its intangible aspects.
Finally, for our obligatory piece of medieval what-not here’s a great little manusript illustration I found on t’internet – apparently it’s Peter the Hermit showing crusaders the way to Jerusalem.  Peter’s story is kind of sad actually – he lead a group of paupers in what’s known as the Peasants’ Crusade, a sort of democratic precursor to the First Crusade (#powertothepeople).  Unfortunately, this ‘army’ of poor common folk, far from achieving their goal of liberating the Holy Land, was starved through inadequate organisation, beset by disease, and finally decimated by Turks.  I like to think that Pope Urban II sent them off as a kind of beta test – Crusades.1, as it were – before making the required changes for the aristo version (i.e. funding, food, actual armour instead of sack-cloth etc.) and releasing the finished project on an unwitting world in 1096…


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