Arabic as a Second Language

I first heard the Arabic word for “vibrator” by the ice cream machine in a cafeteria at Middlebury College. The rainbow-colored sprinkles that I liked to dump onto my soft-serve swirls had run out, and I was yearning for an attendant who might bring more. Class was going to start again in five minutes, and facing the prospect of three more hours of strenuous grammar, I was fixated on the missing sprinkles. A line started to form behind me. Clare wandered over. Clare was an anthropologist friend from Berkeley who was learning Arabic so that she could “study” nightlife in Beirut. Clare was always late for lunch. I suspected she went back to her dorm after our morning sessions to get high, but I never asked.

Today she looked sad. “My electronic friend is broken,” she said. Sadiiqi al-elektrony la yashtaghal.

“Your what?”

“Sadiiqi al-elektrony,” she repeated. Her eyebrows rose and dropped back down while her head bobbed from side to side. I fidgeted. The queue for ice cream was growing thanks to the kids from the Russian School, and I was nervous I’d be late for class.

“You know, hazzaza,” she bobbed again. “From the verb to shake, convulse, tremble, quiver.”

I stared at her blankly.

She pulled her electronic friend out of her bag, its pinkish silicone tip visible for me to see. One of the teachers brushed past, a tightly veiled Egyptian. “The root of ‘to shake’ is ha, za, za,” the Egyptian whispered, with one eye on Mr. Silicone. Am I imagining things? Did she wink at us? This question occupied us for days.

We were bored. The hazzaza incident, or hadath al-hazzaza, as it came to be known, was a millimoment of fun amid an otherwise very serious nine weeks. When Hans Wehr (his text was our bible, a green Arabic-English dictionary) couldn’t supply the answers, we invented words. Tofurkey, a cafeteria staple — Wikipedia calls it a “portmanteau of tofu and turkey” — we called kharra, or shit. We found occasions to speak of pornography (esteporn), fashion victim (dahiyat al-moda), lesbians (al-butchaat). Electronic friends. We estimated, improvised, reconceived, and mostly butchered the Arabic language out of sheer lassitude. We also developed crushes — on students in other language schools, on our teachers, very rarely on each other. And at times we were mean. Really mean. It was like junior high school all over again.

Middlebury, Vermont, sits 135 miles north of Boston and several hundred miles south of the North Pole. In the winter it’s known for its exceptional bobsledding pistes, and in the summer, its kayaking and competitive “canoe polo.” The town, whose population was a little over 8,000 people at the time of the last census, boasts a handful of notable residents, including John Deere, the creator of the eponymous tractor, and Bobo Sheehan, the coach of the 1956 Olympic alpine ski team. The great American poet Robert Frost also spent more than two decades moping around the woods being depressed here.

And yet outside the greater New England area, Middlebury is mostly known for its incomparable language study. Chinese, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish. During the Cold War, legions of patriotic polo-shirted Americans came here to learn Russian. Later, when the economies of the Far East were booming, many came to learn Japanese and Chinese. Today, it’s Arabic’s turn. Year after year, hundreds of bushy-tailed (and many Bush-supporting) Orientalists, some more seasoned than others, make their way to this remote location. Here, among the fresh-faced, flip-flopped masses that give this part of the world its discrete charm, students learn the finer points of grammar, elocution, and execution. For those in the know, the pilgrimage to Middlebury is a rite of passage, a… bar mitzvah?… into the rarified world of the Arabic language.

Week One, Day One

It is difficult, having given up undergraduate life some years ago, to accept that to master Arabic one must live in a dorm. We sleep in narrow beds, for which one must buy special sheets. Those of us who refuse to buy special sheets on principle are left to make do with cold, itchy, inhospitable vinyl. Most students have roommates, too. Out of fear of being assigned one, I had every medical doctor in my family pen a note attesting that I am an insomniac, that I have been known to walk in my sleep, that I can be abusive in the night. But the sweet success of being assigned a single is quickly tempered by the room’s size; I call it “Little Gaza.” I tape images of Dalida on my walls.

We take our placement exam today. In the gymnasium-sized cafeteria, minutes before the exam, dozens of students have their heads buried deep in their Arabic books. They are cramming. Others are stuffing bananas and Power Bars into their backpacks as provisions for the hours to come. I force myself to look away but must admit to having pangs of anxiety as we walk toward the testing hall. Where is my Xanax when I need it?

After the exam, H and I decide to go for a swim at the university’s sprawling indoor athletic complex. Though the sky looks grey and ominous as we set out on our school-provided bicycles, we decide to chance it and forego umbrellas. H does laps while I do the sidestroke like my grandmother does it. We shower, and as we prepare to return, we find that the lobby of the athletic complex has been flooded by torrential rain. We turn and run, only to find that we are trapped by water on every side. Finally, a kind man leads us out to his pickup truck and drives us back to the dorm. H has an Arabic dictionary with him, and we look up the following words: Noah, ark, flood, hero. (For the record, it rained all summer, and I never went back to the gym.)

Week One, Day Two

Today we sign the Language Pledge. The Pledge is one of the defining elements of the Middlebury experience. Its foundational philosophy is that one should be so intensely committed to learning a language that one can and will, for the period of six to nine weeks, forego any contact with the world in any other language but the one under study. As we prepare to sign, I overhear the boy behind me tell the story of an especially serious student who broke her leg the previous summer. Even in the emergency room, he says, she spoke only in Arabic.

Horrified by his tale, I try to figure out how to ask for a bikini wax in Arabic.

In celebration of our last night of freedom, we walk into Middlebury, an irregularly shaped village with one central street running through it, featuring an abundance of shops devoted to both gift cards and athletic goods. There is a single bar, a sort of pub with thumping hip-hop emerging from its basement depths. We duck inside. By the end of the evening, we’ve dubbed it taht al-ard, “under the ground.” Any existential connotations are lost as we find that the DJ is a skinny sixteen-year-old from the local high school playing shuffle with his friend’s iPod. One boy among us, who has spent a summer studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo, requests Amr Diab. “Who?” asks the skinny DJ. “Aaaah-mer Deeee-ahb! You know, Prince of Arabic pop!” Some of the others smile, nodding approvingly. Our DJ doesn’t know him and doesn’t seem to care that he doesn’t know him, either, and we’re left to hop around to Jay Z. Some of us try to belly dance to Beyoncé; others make equally awkward advances toward the townies. Unable to speak anything but Arabic, we smile a lot and use loghat al-jesm, “body language.”

Week One, Day Three

Today is the first day of class. I’m assigned to an over-bright conference room in the university’s library complex. My teachers hail from Iraq and Sri Lanka. Pressed to make conversation, I ask the Iraqi whether it’s true that Saddam Hussein loved Star Wars; I tell the Sri Lankan that I really love the music of MIA. I am very stupid, and they are both very kind to humor me.

We are to introduce ourselves, going around the room one by one. We are especially urged to explain why we are studying Arabic. The motivations are legion. One girl, a native of Vermont, wants to read the Qur’an “à l’originale.” She has the complexion of a peach. There is a graduate student with severe, asymmetrical dark hair who plans to write the definitive take on the politics of garbage collection in Palestine. There is an aspiring foreign correspondent prone to wearing a kaffiyeh about his neck. He writes everything down in a black Moleskine and often throws sympathetic glances at me, the lone brown person in the class.

There is another young woman with a phenomenally tight ponytail who tells us she is studying counterterrorism (from her I learn the word mutarada, “manhunt”). She spent a previous summer copy writing for Al-Hurra, the American-funded television station in Baghdad. She makes me nostalgic for Cold War cultural diplomacy, when they used to send black people to play jazz in faraway places. Everyone likes jazz.

No one likes Al-Hurra.

There is M, a frosty blond forty-year-old with excellent posture who is hard-pressed to smile and tells us she is “between jobs.” Later, we learn that she served at Abu Ghraib in some military capacity. I’m not sure how we learn that — whether this is just a fantastic rumor or is in fact true — but we all make a point of frowning when we see her.

And finally, there’s a fifty-something FBI employee, who’s spent some time in the Middle East. He’s up for a posting as a legal attaché in Baghdad next year and wants very much to brush up on his Arabic. At times he makes Alden Pyle look like Edward Said.

Following introductions, we break for our first evening’s homework, which is considerable.

Later, some of us meet at The Grille, the Middlebury campus “bar,” which immediately evokes the camp hokiness of sitcom hangouts like Max’s or the Peach Pit. While H and I are having a drink, a fellow student, a translator from the US Army, joins us. I’ll call him X. From X we learn that the military Arabic-language guidebook teaches students that the Arabic word for “God willing” (inshallah) sounds rather like the “English word ‘enchilada.’” We laugh and decide to come up with some of our own. For example, “I think” is batfakkar, which sounds an awful lot like “butt-fucker.” There is kont (“was”), faqat (“only”), and fartt (“excess”). There are squeals of delight all around the table and rounds of “Ana enchilada butt fucker faqat… ”

I move on to the next table, where a doctoral student studying political science tells me he has spent some time walking the Arab Street. “We must support democratic elections! Blogging is the future! We must support dissidents!” I wonder why he’s yelling. He wags a drunken index finger furiously around my face. As I look down at the table, I realize that he has made a map of the Greater Middle East out of peanuts.

I go to sleep dreaming of Mexican food, knowing the world is in safe hands.

Week Two

I am to perform a skit with one of my classmates, using as much vocabulary as we can cram into ten minutes. Being vain and not belonging to any identifiable clique, I wait until someone invites me. Finally, Joe FBI asks me to be his partner. I can’t help but smile! At his suggestion, we attempt to create a coffee-shop encounter between an American photographer who has just come back from Iraq (him) and a journalist of Iraqi extraction (me). In scripting the lines, I wonder if it might be funny for the photographer-character to have had a grandmother named “Gertrude” — was it not Gertrude Bell who made the map of modern Iraq as we know it? For one second, I worry if he’ll be offended by my little joke. Mostly I’m proud of myself for thinking of it. As we rehearse, he asks me, “Who is this Gertrude you keep mentioning?”

Week Three

I’m called to Dubai for the weekend for a work assignment. I beg the director of the program, a cheery Egyptian man who always speaks into a microphone, even in the intimate space of his own office, to allow me to go away for a mere forty-eight hours on the condition that I not fall behind on any of my homework. After all, I tell him, it’s an Arab country I’d be traveling to. And who would have thought that in 2008 the miserable Arabs would be building the tallest building in the world? We should be proud! After much equivocation, he consents. When I get to Dubai, I find myself struggling with my homework, but I can’t find anyone to help me with it. This being Dubai, no one speaks Arabic. I call H back in Vermont to help me conjugate the irregular verb ta’awwada, “to get accustomed to.”

Week Four

As I return to Middlebury, I find that the entire Arabic School is abuzz with an article that was published in the Washington Post some days before, about Arabic language study in America — specifically, about our textbook, the same book most institutions use: Al Kitab. The author of the article argues that the book’s creators have an anti-Israel agenda. Al Kitab, the author continues, contains subliminal messages littered throughout the text about the wonders of Pan-Arabism. (That part is true: one character reminisces about going to a rally for Gamal Abdel Nasser in his youth — doubtless nostalgic for better, pre-Mubarak days.)

Al Kitab’s pedagogical motif is a cast of characters who introduce the various chapters and vocabulary as their story unfolds. The central protagonist, Maha, is an attractive New York University student of mixed Egyptian-Palestinian origins; she has a bone structure as fine as a cat’s. Her father, a sympathetic man with thick eyebrows, works at the United Nations, while her mother works at the Office of Admissions at NYU. Over the course of twelve chapters, Maha tells us she has few friends, feels neither American nor Egyptian, and is very often lonely. By the end of Book One, it’s hard not to expect that she’ll be betrothed to her cousin, Khaled, who studies commerce at Cairo University and appears in a parallel story line. Khaled, like Maha, is attractive; he also seems always to have an erection, visible through his too-tight gym pants.

I am confused by the Washington Post controversy and try to redirect the discussion at the lunch table to Khaled’s gym pants. In fact, my only critique of the book is that one learns that there are no negatives in Arabic! It’s not until deep into the second book that one learns the word for “bad,” “tired,” “angry,” or even “bored.” This is probably why dozens of beginner students run about Middlebury shrieking “Not great! Not great!” (“Leissa jayed! Leissa jayed!”) when, say, queuing for Tofurkey at the cafeteria, or learning that the dorm bathroom is out of order, or being told they have a quiz the next day.

Come to think of it, what they do opt to include in that first book is curious. According to the elliptical logic of Al Kitab, one should be capable of saying “United Nations,” “senior Army officer,” and “Admissions Office” by the end of one’s first week of study.

Week Five

There is a CIA recruitment session on campus. We receive many circulars and announcements and are given all manner of options as to informational sessions and one-on-one meetings with recruiters. I must go, I tell myself. I am a budding anthropologist, after all. I pull out my pair of khaki pants and hang my BlackBerry around my neck like a fetish. As it happens, there is no room at the secret service — the sessions are already booked up. I see Abu Ghraib M in line for one of the meetings and bunch up my eyebrows, shooting her my meanest glare.

Week Six

Week Six is trying. The equivalent of the famous “sophomore slump.” Schoolwork continues to be harrowing. I am up many nights until 2 am working (mostly shuffling flashcards made minutes before and taking long circuitous walks to the library bathroom). Time for socializing is rare. And besides, one can only handle so many parties built around a game of beer pong — even if it is called Beirut. I am reduced, for the purposes of entertainment, to making eye contact with a Lilliputian boy from the Russian school at the cafeteria salad bar.

As I reach over for a boiled egg one day at lunch, I let my hand brush against his. He says something to me in Russian. I am certain that we have connected. I reply in Arabic, with an innocent query of “What?” in the Lebanese dialect. With its “shhh” sound, I think it very sexy and suggestive. “Shou?”

He repeats the mysterious utterance with even more Slavic oomph. My heart flutters. I am certain he is visually frisking me.

I say it again with more feeling.


A fellow student from the Arabic school, who studied Russian last year, leans into me and whispers, in Arabic, “You left the egg spoon in the pickle plate.”

Humiliated, I run back to my table.

That weekend, H and I decide to go to a party organized by the Spanish School. He puts on his black dancing pants, and I wear the same thing I always wear but spray some Chanel No. 5 around my arms and head. We agree that if we’re discovered attending another language school’s party, which is a form of breaking the Language Pledge, we will invoke the glories of Andalusia. We arrive at the party to find that all of the Arabic School teachers are there, including the tightly veiled Egyptian. She is dancing to Shakira, her body gyrating in a way that makes us blush. Confused, we go back to Little Gaza to drink.

Week Seven

There is a showdown in soccer between the Hebrew School and the Arabic School. I try not to think too much about the symbolism, but I can’t help but be moved as I see Uri, the hirsute fat kid from the Hebrew school, wrestling one of our teachers, a skinny Yemeni named Omar, to the ground in a rapturous embrace in front of the goalie box. Abu Ghraib M is playing goalie. It’s all very weird, and suddenly I want to cry.

Week Eight

Our weekly guest lecture is by a liberal university professor of Arab provenance. The title of his talk is “Sectarianism in Iraq: Yesterday and Today.” He introduces the history of Iraq in brief, becoming more animated as he tells us about having left the country at the time of the Gulf War, about the Americans’ betrayal of the Shia, and finally, as if climaxing, a slogan: “There was no sectarianism in Iraq before the Americans!” This causes a hullabaloo. I hear short intakes of air from the State Department contingent in the front row. Many, many disapproving heads. The professor grows even more excited, now sweating, building up to a final crescendo, “And the American imperialists should leave Iraq now!”

One of the front row guys, plainly piqued, can’t help himself: “Fucking socialists.”

Week Nine

The end of Arabic School is marked by a talent show. Our class performs a musical, with the FBI guy playing Muammar al-Qaddafi, the hack journalist playing Amr Diab, Clare the pothead playing Margaret Thatcher, the socialists playing themselves. The Egyptian teacher makes a guest appearance as Ustaza Hazzaza, and Abu Ghraib M stars as Bill Clinton, all dressed up in pleather. We take first prize.

Actually, I’m not sure who won the talent show, or even what it was like, as I skipped out to meet the tall Russian at The Grille. Or I studied more for the final exam. Or something — I don’t remember what I did, to be honest, just that I didn’t want to be caught singing in public, dead or alive. I do know that I used the word batfakkar at least three times that afternoon. And that I will never be so good a grammarian in my life, in Arabic, as I was that day.