If you don’t speak their language…

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…!

Cairo and Que-Jumpers

As-salamu `alaykum wa rahmatullah

Kate Fox (an anthropologist with a great sense of humour) wrote a nice chapter on ‘Queuing’ in her book ‘Watching the English.’ Below is an excerpt…

“The English expect each other to observe the rules of queuing, feel highly offended when these rules are violated, but lack the confidence or social skills to express their annoyance in a straightforward manner. In other countries, this is not a problem: in America, where a queue-jumper has committed a misdemeanour rather than a cardinal sin, the response is loud and prescriptive: the offender is simply told ‘Hey, you, get back in line!’ or words to that effect. On the Continent, the reaction tends to be loud and argumentative; in some other parts of the world, queue-jumpers may simply be unceremoniously pushed and shoved back into line – but the end result is much the same. Paradoxically, it is only in England, where queue-jumping is regarded as deeply immoral, that the queue-jumper is likely to get away with the offence. We huff and puff and scowl and mutter and seethe with righteous indignation, but only rarely do we actually speak up and tell the jumper to go to the back of the queue.”

If you’re English or grew up in England, let’s just say that you might have a few problems in Egypt when it comes to queues. Ok, wait, let me backtrack on that… most of the time, there are no queues! The first time I realised there was a problem was when way back in my early days, I stood in a ‘queue’ (or what I thought was a queue), only for it to never move! Well, I never seemed to be getting any closer to the cashier…

Don’t do what I did… don’t be so English in the middle of Egypt. The sun will probably set before you get anywhere. If you see that there are a lot of people aiming to get to a cashier for example or a ticket booth at the train station, you will at times have no choice but to help yourself get in there too. If you decide to be a bit miskeen and give way to everyone, then you’ll be waiting for an awfully long time. In a lot of places here, it is commonly understood that queuing doesn’t always mean ‘forming a straight line’ and in Egypt, well erm, queues can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (so it’s probably wise not to stand there trying to figure out where the queue is or where it ends!) :)

“… in some other parts of the world, queue-jumpers may simply be unceremoniously pushed and shoved back into line…”

In Cairo you’ll find that sometimes you’ll be unceremoniously pushed and shoved, not back into line, but just pushed and shoved back (and out of sight). The funny thing is, you can do the same to others and not be stared at like you’re from outer space. For the record, I’ve never pushed anyone out of line (although I’ve been tempted), but a piece of advice if you’re new here: if you wish to get served in busy places, you’ll need to stick strong to your place, square up and move with the crowd, otherwise you’re going absolutely nowhere. Most of the time, the que-jumpers don’t realise that they’re doing something wrong (it’s actually quite normal to do it here), so arguing with them won’t really solve anything, but it does sometimes work telling them that you’ve been waiting a long time before them.

For sisters, it can be at times frustrating when there are many men crowding places where a queue will most likely never form; around a stall for example, or at a juice bar. Personally, I prefer not to get inside the crowds (don’t recommend it for sisters either) but this is a cool trick: Stand at a short distance and wait for 5 mins not doing anything except looking to the front of the ‘queue’, and soon enough the guy at the cashier/stall/wherever you wish to get served will definitely notice and he’ll tell the guys to make way for you :) Sometimes you get served before others who’ve been waiting longer than you!

So all in all, the message I’m trying to get out is: Get used to que-jumpers (in a land where this isn’t a crime, I guess they’re not guilty), don’t feel insulted when you’re the victim on a daily basis, don’t bear any grudges when it happens, and hey if you see that there is some empty space in front of you, it doesn’t hurt filling it up lol.

Once, I actually saw (and joined) a nice queue at the exchangers. It was quiet, straight, not crowded at all, very much like the simple queues at my local Natwest bank . I thought ‘Wow, what a change’ when out of the bright blue a lady calmly walks past me (you could say I was invisible) and erm, just squeezed in – right in front of me too. I don’t know what was funnier, the calm sophisticated manner in which she did it, or the fact that I finally realised this is something I could never get used to despite all my years of living here. I guess Kate Fox pretty much summed up my predicament of why I could never confront a queue-jumper. What’s worse is that I’m not even English; I’m just a Londoner.

For the Book Lovers in Cairo

As-salamu `alaykum

So… you missed the famous book exhibition in Cairo this year (the ma3rad), or you have come to Cairo with a huge list of books and can’t seem to get them all at your local bookshop? Or maybe you’ve decided it’s time that your bookshelf had a new makeover :)

Welcome to Darb al-Atrak.

I was on the phone to a dear friend of mine a a couple of weeks back when I mentioned I needed some classic works so if she was interested in accompanying me, to let me know. She called me back some time later asking:

‘Have you been book-shopping yet?’

‘Nope, haven’t had a chance.’

‘Make sure you’re free on Monday. We’re going Darb al-Atraak.’

‘Darb eh?’

‘Darb al-Atraak, a street behind al-Azhar. I’ve never been there but was told they have a lot of books.’

‘Sounds interesting, let’s check it out. Meet you after Dhuhr insha’Allah.’

And so we set off… as we reached al-Azhar Mosque and Khan Khalili area (Sooq Husayn), we were told Darb al-Atrak street was just behind it. We got the directions, took a deep breath and went down the narrow and busy road.

Perhaps only other book lovers like myself and my friend will appreciate the scene we saw next. Putting aside the dingy narrow road lined with rubbish, cats and funny smells… we saw what can only be described as treasure – rows and rows of a lot of famous publishing houses, book distributors and maktabat! Absolutely superb.

Ok, you’re probably thinking ‘enough of the exageration and get to the point already’ :)

Coming to the crunch of this blog post… If you need to purchase a lot of books, you need not wait for things like the Book Exhibition which takes place in Feb every year (Cairo). Instead, the best thing to do is locate the publishers around your area and visit them with your list of books.

One such area is the one I visited above, Darb al-Atrak, which houses some well-known publishers such as Maktaba al-Safa, Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, Dar al-’Aqidah, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq to name but a few. The prices of the books they stock are very decent (cheap) because it’s straight from the warehouse itself. I think I purchased Hilyat al-Awliya (10 vol.) for about £9, Sharh of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Muqaddimah in Usul al-Tafsir for about £1.30, and Tafsir Tabari which I didn’t managed to get this time round was at £25 (12 or 14 vol.). They have various tahqiqat, taba’at (editions) and the latest publications and the other good thing is that they all have contact with each other so if the store that you’re in doesn’t have what you need, they dash over to another publishers and get it for you lol.

I think I found most of my books in Dar al-’Aqidah which has another branch in Alexandria, but was able to get some of my other books from Dar Ibn al-Jawzi as they stock some of the Saudi publications too.

Any other places?

Yes. But you need to find them!

Last year, I purchased most of my books from a place next to ‘Ataba (which is about 10mins from Azhar itself). I believe it’s called Sooq (or soor) al-Azbekiyyah. Take the metro going to Giza and get off at ‘Ataba. As you come out from the Akbekiyyah exit onto the square, go straight ahead where there are many small make-shift makatabat. Last time I checked, they had some rare collections masha’Allah and again, the prices are quite decent. However they may not have such a huge range of taba’at, and a couple of months ago a friend told me they were rebuilding the area so I’m not sure if that’s complete yet.

So there you have it folks, something to keep you busy next time you go to Azhar area.

In Darb al-Atrak, I was so intrigued that I spent hours just flicking through books, requesting titles, crossing through my lists and getting lost in between piles of books (I even knocked down a couple!). The intial idea was to go, get the books and make it home as soon as possible but have you ever tried to get 2 women do any shopping in short space of time? Ha, never happens. My friend, who I was relying on to pull me out of the stores actually turned out to be worse than me… each time one of us would ask:

My friend: ‘You ready to go?’

Me: ‘Yeah sure, 5 mins insha’Allah’

20mins later…

Me: ‘I’m done now alhamdulillah, are you?’

My friend: ‘Yep, just 5 more minutes.’

Half an hour later, we’re still there reading! And to make it worse, I didn’t manage to get through my booklist! Oh well, Qaddarallahu wa maa shaa’a fa3ala… I guess that means I have to go back again lol.

Meeting Other Students

As-salaamu `alaykum wa rahmatullaah 

One of the benefits of studying Arabic in a class with other students is the beauty of meeting people from all over the world (literally from all the corners of the globe!). In class, I would be thrilled whenever a new student joined us as it meant a new insight into their background, life back home etc (yeah, this stuff fascinates me although unlike science and medicine, anthropology & humanities were never my cup of tea!)

Imam al-Shafi’i said it best when he said, “I love the righteous, though I’m not from amongst them”. These accounts below are of a few blessed individuals that came across my path and who unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever be seeing again (names have been changed). Sometimes, people have an impact on us and leave many a memory, even though time together may have been very short. Bearing in mind I was only a teen when I went abroad, and I was easily inspired and thus looked up to many people… but of course I’m not able to include everyone, so these are a select few who I wasn’t able to keep in touch with.

There was Ruwaydah from Kosovo, who was just a gem. I would visit her often, doing homework together and she’d teach me how to make a banana and peanut cake (of course, I was too busy eating it than listening to even the ingredients!). We’d talk about common things in life – from war and politics to marriage (which I guess means more politics) and of course banana/peanut cakes lol. She was an amazing sister, never failing to cheer me up (and always making me laugh in class! Hmm… is that a good thing?).

Then there was Salihah, a very, very wise sister from Albania, full of good advice. She would always have a balanced approach to things and look from a different perspective.

One person who inspired me a great deal was Layla from Kazakhstan. She was the most fluent amongst us when it came to speaking and reading Arabic. Subhanallah, her modesty and kindness shone from her like light shines from the moon. She would mention her dreams of teaching Arabic when she went back to Kazakhstan, and of course knowing the situation back there (of persecution, and public ban on teaching even Arabic), we asked how – she simply replied, ‘she’ll try even it has to be taught in secret’. This always fired me up, how something as innocent as teaching Arabic could be a threat and consequently banned?! Allahul Musta’an. Anyway, one day just before she left, she came into class and gave me a book. It was al-Ajroomiyyah, with the Sharh of Shaykh Ibn Uthaymeen! The sister knew that I, being the bookworm that I am, had been looking for this particular book (published by Dar al-Ansar) for so so long. She said that she couldn’t find it, so she gave me her own personal copy.

There were also Zaynab and Firdaws, 2 sisters from South Africa (one of Asian descent and the other of mixed European and African). These sisters were very studious masha’Allah and in addition to being able to recite exceptionally well, they were memorising text like al-Shatibiyyah and were well on their way to receiving Ijazahs in Qira’ah (inspirational!)

I also met the funniest twins from Kyrgyzstan. At ages 16 or 17, they were the youngest in the class (after being teased in class for some time, I was glad someone younger than me turned up!). They’d crack us up in class with their unique character and even the teacher would be left in stitches lol masha’Allaah.

I had the honour of meeting an older sister, Khalida from Malaysia. She had the characteristics that were very much the epitome of the Malaysian people, tabarak’Allah – very welcoming, humble, kind and generous. Very inspirational she was, holding strong to the Fast of Dawud (AS) – fasting on alternate days. I must go and visit her one day insha’Allah, apart from being such a gem; she owns one of the plushest hotels on the small Islands of Malaysia!

I also met a plethora of reverts coming in from Europe, the UK and USA. Alhamdulillah I’ve been able to keep in touch with the UKers on our returns, and was delighted by some old students turning up!

Other sisters whose company I was blessed with came from other countries including France, Pakistan and some from Algeria/Morocco. Cairo is bustling with Indonesians, who all study at al-Azhar, one of them helped me find out a lot about al-Azhar when I had planned to enrol (I didn’t after she showed me the timetable!).

There are also many Russians that study Arabic in Cairo. Subhan’Allah, I was quite shocked when one of them said to me that Muslims in Russia number 1 in 5! In our local masjid one time, my dad came back from the ‘Isha Jama’ah quite late. He told us of his amazement in witnessing a Russian brother complete memorisation of the Qur’aan (khatm) and even more amazing was his level of Tajweed.

In addition, there were also scores of Chechens. Such a pleasure to be around them, masha’Allaah very studious, strong and hard-working people. We heard the account of one sister who at the age of 8 or 9 year, had her whole family killed in front of her eyes during the conflict (as she hid in a closet), when the invading army left, she left and in obvious shock began to tread the mountains. She was found by a group of Mujahideen, and they helped her get back on her feet and paid for her to get some education in a more stable country.

I could go on, but the stories will never stop. This is without doubt one of the benefits in studying with other students – you meet people that influence you to really aim high and achieve a lot in life, some tell a life of amazement and others… well, Allaah `azza wa jall puts them in your path for a particular reason…

Which Institute?!

As-salaamu `alaykum wa rahmatullaah

Many times, people ask “What is the best Institute in Cairo for learning Arabic?” and I always respond, “Well, it depends on you! What are you looking for?!”

Every institute and centre has something unique to offer. It may surpass others in a particular field for example,
- In finance (dead cheap!)
- In structure (excellent programs)
- In content covered (grammar specialisation or conversational?)
- In location (right in the centre of town! Or perhaps in your backyard..)
- Or simply in reputation (hey, everyone is talking about it so it must be good!)

If we look at how things were about 10-15 years ago, there was hardly a single centre in Cairo where students from abroad can attend and study Arabic well, then it all bloomed. In fact, Al-Fajr Institute which was established around about 1995 had only a handful of students, it now caters for 2000+ every year from 77 different countries. This is the same story for a lot of other places too and personally I believe it’s due to nothing more than the blessed revival happening around the world resulting in people flocking to the Deen of Allah and returning to studying and properly seeking knowledge (which begins with learning Arabic!)

Due to this, there are now about 7 or 8 institutes in Nasr City, Cairo alone with 3 or 4 them being big names (i.e. popular with students from the west). We have the likes of al-Fajr Center, al-Ibanah, al-Dewan Center and the newly established Cairo Institute to name a few.

What happened to Qortoba Institute?!

Those of you who’ve lived in Cairo know that originally there was al-Fajr, and then Qortoba was established by one of the Co-founders of al-Fajr. These 2 centers were brilliant mashaa’Allah, and well co-ordinated as they both offered something unique to the students e.g. I believe Qortaba had more flexibility in their timetable while al-Fajr had the rigidity for serious students. I don’t know the full story of what happened, but recently Qortoba Inst. in Cairo was shut down and only the Alexandria branch remains open. I pray for their success and the success of every beneficial inst.

Ok, so the question remains… how do the Institutes differ?

Books

Most of the centers currently use al-Kitab al-Asasi (e.g. Cairo Inst. & al-Ibanah). Other Inst. have switched to using more ‘user-friendly’ books as I call them (i.e. they have more pictures, colours and other intuitive aspects) like al-Arabiyyatu Bayna Yadayk.

What is important for you as a student is to actually find out what exactly you wish to gain from your studies. By that I mean, are you grammar/sarf orientated? (i.e. do you wish to study the Sciences of the language from the word go?) Or do you want to boost your reading, writing and speaking first?

Method of teaching

All the centers incorporate aspects of reading, writing, speaking, listening etc into their courses. Some might focus on a particular aspect more-so than others. 

Since switching their core syllabus from Kitab al-Asasi to Bayna Yadayk, the very teaching method of al-Fajr center changed. They now dedicate a lot of time to getting students to speak, and understand Arabic from the 1st step and as a result, grammar is introduced gradually (in Level 3 of their 11 levels). Al-Ibanah and Cairo Institute on the other hand have grammar taught from the 1st level which leaves conversational aspects as a gradual progress. Al-Ibanah is probably the most grammar-orientated institute out of the whole lot if I’m not mistaken.

Personally, I prefer the method taken by al-Fajr Center for a number of reasons:

1. Building your vocab, understanding text and being able to read and write efficiently is the very core of learning new languages (and becoming fluent).

2. It’s no use treading down the traditional route of just rolling off grammatical formulae e.g. fa’ala, fa’aloo, fa’altu, etc as this route was designed primarily for those that already understand Arabic – so they can grasp this without a problem. It makes no sense to learn the nitty gritty details of Arabic grammar from the get-go if the student can’t even understand the sentences they are reading! To be very strong in grammar, you have to fully understand the text. Sometimes, the grammatical function or position of a word cannot be found except with the meaning of the sentence. This is why Fajr center put the initial effort in building the students’ understanding of Arabic first (levels 1 & 2) before grammar immersion.

3. A lot of students, when bombarded with grammar are sadly put off continuing their Arabic (ask anyone who took this route and they dread grammar!). This is unfortunate because grammar opens up numerous doors of understanding – especially if one wishes to continue reading books in Fiqh, ‘uloom al-Qur’aan etc. However this disheartenment can be avoided if grammar/sarf/balagha are approached at a good pace and after some establishment of understanding and reading. Trust me; you do not want to fry your brain cells with rules upon rules before building some good foundation.

4. Learning how to speak re-enforces your usage of vocab and builds your application of the language.

And there more, but that’s the gist of it

So really think about what it is you want to improve on. If you have a good foundation in reading, writing and perhaps even understanding then you could do very well in any of the institutes, especially al-Ibanah and Cairo Inst. If you require building some good ground first and pick up on conversation then either al-Fajr or Dewan might be for you.

However, I must stress that whichever Center you go to and complete, you’ll end up learning the same amount of Arabic Sciences. Speaking-wise you might be more fluent in some institutes as opposed to others. But in all, each place has alhamdulillah very good systems in place.

Danger!

The no.1 thing to avoid (and seriously, I can’t say this enough), is to avoid jumping from institute to institute and moving from center to center in an attempt to find the one that’s ‘just right for you’. This can have disastrous affects on your learning and you’ll fall behind a lot.

Why? Every school has a working system that takes you from point A to B, and it is ensured by the Administration that you cover all essential material along the way.

If you move from say al-Ibanah in Level 3 (because you found out they’re the most expensive) and try to join Dewan Level 3 (to think they all follow the same grading system is a big misconception anyway), they’ll assess you and may find you are lacking a certain criteria of their Level 2. So they put you back one level.

You get frustrated after a month and decide to move to al-Fajr. They assess you and find your speaking is not that good, so back you go to level 1!

You can’t take it anymore and decide to go back to al-Ibanah where they resume you to your Level 3 again – having wasted your money & precious time (and of course tired out those brain cells), and what for?! Imagine had you stayed with your primary center you’d have been perhaps on Level 6 by now.

I’ve seen this happen with so many people and the fact is, students always seem to return to their 1st center after having gone in circles. Avoid doing that. Try your best to choose the center/institute for you and then stick with it till the end insha’Allah (unless of course a meteorite hits it, or worse; it’s shut down).