As-salamu `alaykum wa rahmatullah
I’ve learnt many things when it comes to speaking Arabic in Cairo (indeed, in many Middle-Eastern countries), but nothing stares at me so much in the face as the clear difference between Fus-ha (classical) and ‘Amiyyah (colloquial) Arabic.
My father once related a funny incident that happened when he was a student in Cairo (paraphrased by me):
I was a young soldier out with my group when we suddenly got lost. Now, because we were international students/soldiers under the wing of the Egyptian Army, we were not yet fully exposed to normal Egyptian life nor were we exposed to the intricate subtleties of the common man’s language! So anyway, the group got lost. We searched for a way back but it was hopeless. Then, alhamdulillah we saw an Egyptian and decided to ask him for directions. The group put forward their best student who spoke Arabic the best… but oh dear, he spoke only fus-ha (classical Arabic) and so he stepped forward to the unsuspecting Egyptian and said to him with a spur of confidence:
نَحنُ ضلَلَنا إلى الطريق
فهَلْ تُرشِدُنا إلي الصِرَاطِ المُسْتقِيمِ
We have gotten lost on our way
So will you thus guide us to the Straight Path?
Lol, when I first heard this, I almost died of laughter. In a land where the streets and general life is dominated by the colloquial Arabic (‘Amiyyah), a group of young soldiers coming out with such a statement can only be described as being ‘classical’ (pun totally intended). What was even funnier is that the students didn’t even give the name of the place they were intending – they could’ve said “direct us to the Kulliyat al-Harb (Military Faculty)” etc, but no, it had to be the Straight Path!
This incident is an interesting one because it shows something that many of us students encounter and struggle with when we first learn Arabic – the war between fus-ha and ‘amiyyah. You might find yourself spending months and months learning the classical tongue only to find that you can’t use it in daily life because the general public don’t speak that way in their general affairs. I must admit, in the beginning of my studies when I was just a teen, I was a staunch advocate for the fus-ha Arabic, almost militant in my stubbornness and outright refusal to speak ‘Amiyyah and let it taint my progress. I remember whenever I went shopping, or popped down to the grocers, I used to battle with the poor grocer. Often my conversations with him (or whoever I’d interact with in the market/various places) went something like this:
Grocer: $*%^%$&^%&*#& [throws sentences at me in ‘amiyyah]
Me: Sorry, I can’t understand you. Can you speak Arabic, please?
Grocer: I am speaking Arabic!
Me (ever so zealous): No, you are not! Speak Arabic!
Grocer (in ‘amiyyah): Wallahil-‘Azim I am speaking it! %#&%%^$%£#^&*# [Repeats everything again in ‘amiyyah]
Me: **Frustration point**
In reality, it need not be a war (although yeah, it took me a while to soften up and retract from my hard-line fus-ha views!) As a student, you’ll probably only be staying a few months and understandably most of your effort will need to go towards your studies and learning the fus-ha tongue as much as time will allow you. In the beginning, you might find that people will advise you with different things; some will say to learn Fus-ha only, others will say that you should learn ‘amiyyah alongside the fus-ha and yet others will say something completely different. It can be quite confusing. Looking back now, I don’t really regret the way I did things, although I ignored the ‘amiyyah completely at first (except for some words that I eventually learnt out of mercy for that old grocer man lol) but once my fus-ha was stable, I actually turned my attention to the ‘amiyyah and began taking it in too.
So what to do?
Well, it’s really up to you to do what you think it’s best for your own personal circumstance. But I would perhaps advise anyone studying Arabic to put their main primary effort into the fusha and learn that really well because studying the ‘amiyyah beforehand (or alongside) the fus-ha can have detrimental affects on your learning and progress of the fusha. This is specially true if you only have a few months to learn Arabic. However, in the long run, it doesn’t hurt to pick up the dialect of the land you’re in because you will naturally need it if living amongst locals. For one thing, it’ll be easier to understand the people, talk to them in your general day to day life (neighbours, shopping, transport etc) and the bonus is that the Egyptian dialect is the most popular and widely understood across the Middle-East! Oh and hey, if you can argue like an Egyptian, you’ll also get that extra bit of r-e-s-p-e-c-t
I once had a long discussion with a teacher of mine about the intricacies of ‘amiyyah, where the words originated from and how the local language came to be. It was a very interesting discussion, best saved perhaps for another blog post. :) Let’s just say that after having this discussion, I realised just how much the ‘amiyyah is actually deeply embedded into the fus-ha and at times is just an extension of it… Hardline views you say? Meh, not me…!