Josh Phinney

My Arabic Journey

When people ask me why I’ve been teaching myself Arabic for the last few years, I tell them about my uncle’s friend Sam, who I met while vacationing in Ocean City with my family.  I had gotten sick at the end of our trip and was lying in bed in the hotel room. The bed was very close to the door. Everyone had gone to the beach and when they returned, I heard through that door words and sounds I had never heard before.  I was so fascinated, I got up out of bed, left the room, and saw that it was Sam talking on the phone with his parents.

“What language is that?” I asked. My parents gave me the look they give me when they think I’m being impolite, but Sam looked at me and smiled after saying something in Arabic on the phone.

“This is Arabic,” he replied.

“Which country is that spoken in?” I asked.

He smiled and said, “I’m from a country called Lebanon, but Arabic is spoken in many different countries in what is called the Middle East.”

“I think I’d like to learn Arabic,” I told him confidently. I was young and had little exposure to foreign languages aside from TV shows and movies and the Spanish network, Univision. In fact, my cousin, brother, and I would watch Univision when there wasn’t anything else on, and we used to joke that the shows looked so much more interesting than regular TV.

Sam told me that it was a hard language to learn, but that with dedication I could master it.

I began to talk to Sam more and thought that he was very interesting.  However, this was not that long after 9/11 and, although I had been raised to be tolerant and he was my uncle’s friend, one of my older cousins told me at the time that Sam could not be my friend because Arabs hated Americans and saw us as evil and disbelievers. My brother shook his head in agreement.  I told them, my brother in particular, that they were being stupid and that Mom and Dad taught us not to judge people.

Unfortunately, I also was young and my attention span was spread thin among friends, TV, and video games. In fact, this habit of relying on my friends would hinder my life more then I knew.  As with many teenagers, I experimented with drugs at parties, got into fistfights, and overall believed that my friends were everything. Late night parties got me in trouble with my parents. The lifestyle had put my life on hold so that when I graduated high school I didn’t know where I was going or who I was.

One day, I was at the library and thought about my conversation with Sam many years before. I decided to check out a copy of the Qur’an. As I read, I found it similar in many ways to The Bible.  I began learning about the different groups within Islam and the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and about a mystical side of Islam that was about getting closer to and building a personal relationship with God called Sufism.

I began learning more about Islam and how Muslims believe suicide was a sin and that most Muslims condemn and see terrorists as disbelievers. I learned about the history of how the Islamic Caliphate had ruled over Christians and Jews for centuries and there was peace between them and that, in later times, during the Ottoman Empire, Christian boys fought as Janissaries in their armies.  I found out that there had been a Golden Age and Enlightenment in the Middle East in what is now known as Baghdad and that there was a place called Bayt Al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, where Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other non-Muslims shared, debated, translated, and discussed ideas.  Is this the same Islam, I thought to myself, that could have made someone do what they did on 9/11? The answer to me was simple. Those who perpetrated 9/11 were not truly following Islam.

As the result of my fascination with Islam, I decided to learn Arabic, and this time, I refused to let friends, video games, or anything else get in my way.  After two weeks of studying and writing down each letter in the 28-letter alphabet, I knew it front to back. I soon found out that there are three types of Arabic:

  1. A handful of spoken dialects, some of which are completely incomprehensible to the others. These languages are used in everyday life and also on TV, as is the case with Syrian and Egyptian dramas, soap operas, etc.
  2. Classical or Quranic Arabic, which is used in the Qur’an, poetry, and other old documents.
  3. Modern Standard Arabic, aka MSA, which is used in all modern writings and literature, the Internet, and the news media, and television. MSA is also similar to Classical Arabic, and with a good knowledge in one, you can easily learn the other.

Because I’m not a huge fan of soap operas and had no Arabic-speaking friends, I decided to read and watch the news to help me learn MSA. Because MSA is similar to Classical Arabic, I would also be able to learn how to read the Qur’an. I started learning the alphabet and discovered that there was ways to remember the letters by using associations with things I already knew or mnemonics. Every day I wrote down these letters and the mnemonic devices I used along with the help of a paid program called Arabic Genie that had other mnemonic devices. You can also learn via the use of a free program called My Arabic Website.

There is also the Foreign Service Institute or FSI, an older program used to train people in the Foreign Service in the United States back in the ’70s.  The FSI focuses on newspaper articles, and with it I began a course every day and reviewed what I had learned the day before. Seek out their volume 1 and volume 2. I quickly went through the FSI course and found that if I persisted with it I could really read and understand Arabic.  I found to my delight that after I completed the second volume, I was able to read articles and headlines on www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/ with a little help from a dictionary.

Around this time, with the discipline of learning Arabic, I started to get a clearer picture of my life. I wanted to read, speak, and breathe Arabic. I wanted to get an AA degree and transfer to a four-year college that had an Arabic or Middle Eastern program.  I enrolled in courses at Harford Community College.

Although I began focusing more on school, I always found time to read and listen to Arabic.  Once I was able to read articles, my brother gave me a Qur’an that had Arabic along with the English translation side by side. With my newfound knowledge of Arabic, I easily started to understand the meaning of unknown Qur’anic words. After months of reading BBC Arabic and the Qur’an, I soon gained enough knowledge to be able to read the Aljazeera website, the news station synonymous with Arabic, with little or no help from a dictionary.

I loved being able to read Arabic, but my listening, speaking, and writing skills weren’t as sharp as they could be.  Then I happened to stumble across a site called livemocha.com, which allows you to get your accent and writing peer-reviewed by native speakers!  I was really excited to get reviews from native speakers encouraging me to continue my studies.  After all of that I became fairly knowledgeable in Arabic and, although I’m still learning new words every day, it is something I look forward to doing and hope to continue to do.

Sam opened my mind to Arabic, but Arabic has opened my mind to so many other things. It has changed my life and brought me clarity. Without it, I wouldn’t know where I’d be. Arabic helped me to discover me.

© Josh Phinney

Josh Phinney is a student at Harford County Community College. He enjoys  learning about different cultures and spends his free time studying Arabic and writing. In 2014, he hopes to attend the University of Maryland, College Park to major in Arabic while pursuing EMT certification.

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