Mutual Language Learning, Genuine Relationships

By Jamie Fico (Spring ’17, Winter ’16, Fall ’16 Participant)

I’ve studied Modern Standard Arabic for four years now, and I can proudly recite classic poetry, write with impeccable grammar, and remember more words useful for diplomats than common knowledge such as foods.  However, the classroom has ill-prepared me for what I really want to use my language skills for, to connect with people.  My first time abroad in the Arabic-speaking world was last summer in Morocco on an intensive language program.  Shyly, I walked into restaurants and rode in taxis speaking to Moroccans in fusha, and receiving chuckles over the formality.  Many replied in French or darija, Moroccan dialect, two languages I was useless in.  After thousands of hours spent on wajibats, flash cards, and grammar drilling, I was the laughing stock of the Magrib; an American speaking formal Arabic during a casual drive to the beach.  If the sides were flipped, I would probably laugh at myself too.

Fusha, or formal Arabic, is understood throughout most of the Middle East, but daily interactions, market shopping, and conversations with friends and family are done in dialect.  This language is meant for those close to you, while fusha is for the politicians, scholars, and imams.  After returning home to Virginia from Morocco, I joined Banaat Connect, a budding online language program initiated by my friend Lilly.  I’ve continued participating in the program for three sessions now, two of them with my current partner Isra.  We started off speaking in a combination of broken fusha and English, but (very) slowly, I am picking up Palestinian dialect.  It took time, many months, but now our conversations have transformed from a weekly chore to joking, laughing, and sharing stories about our lives.  We’ve become friends, and we’ve never even met in person.

Building off of weekly conversation topics, Isra and I ultimately decide what we want to discuss, and we inevitably flow into a casual conversation about our friends, work, and hopes for the future.  We have a lot more in common than it first appeared.  We share many of the same beliefs about family, relationships, and feminism.  She continues to surprise and impress me every time we talk.  Her life has many more obstacles than mine.  As a Palestinian refugee living in Jordan, it’s difficult to find work or enjoy state benefits.  However, she also overturns common misconceptions about refugees.  Isra has a college degree and is a primary school teacher.  She works long hours every week for little pay, and she lives at home with her parents and siblings.  Regardless of this, she always finds time to talk to me every week. 

It is her commitment to the program that pulls me out of bed in the morning twice a week for our sessions.  My goal has always been to travel to the Middle East and use my language skills to build relationships with people.  I know that one day if I ever make it to Jordan, I will already have one friend waiting for me in Jerash with open arms and a beaming smile.

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