Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Desert Calls...

Once upon a Hokie Saturday, nearly three years ago, I sat in bed contemplating my upcoming graduation. Leaving Blacksburg was momentous, but up until that point I had never put any brain power towards actually figuring out what I wanted to do. Suddenly, a mischievous thrill shot through my body. Poof! Like the genie emerging from Aladdin's lamp, my thoughts transported me to the middle of an Arab bazaar, surrounded by veiled women and swarthy men. I imbibed the rich scent of exotic spices and the languid rhythms of sitar music. Wouldn't it be just great... I thought ... to live in the Middle East and learn how to speak Arabic?

My interest in the Arab world was first sparked by the events of September 11. Over the following years, I felt increasingly frustrated and indignant over the mischaracterization of Muslims as violent religious fanatics. These myths attempted to seal Americans off from the rest of the world by creating enmity out of misunderstanding. I wanted to bust through this wall and see the humanity on the other side. Surely not every one of the world’s one billion Muslims is a terrorist. Surely not every part of the region was tumultuous and violently oppressive. No amount of reading could give me the perspective I sought. I wanted to stand on the ground of my own experience to use myself as a human bridge between two disparate worlds.

My first encounter with the Arabic language was during the 1994 World Cup when I caught a few minutes of a Saudi Arabia match. I remember noticing the country’s bright green flag with its indecipherable script and sword. I was baffled that anyone could actually understand those slashes and curly-cues. I mean, come on, where were the letters? A decade later, I wanted that magical power myself. I didn't have patience to sit in some classroom twice a week copying down a new alphabet, memorizing a few vocab words, and reading the culture section at the end of a chapter. I wanted to be inside of it myself. I wanted to be bombarded with the language from all directions, forced to make myself understand and be understood. I didn't want to "Pretend you and your friend Mohammad are at an Arabic restaurant. How will you ask the waiter for a cup of coffee?" I wanted to be in that Arabic restaurant. I wanted a real friend named Mohammad! Scholarships abounded, but all required a minimum of two years language study. So for a year I lived at home, worked round the clock, and hoarded all my money in order to send myself to the sand dunes of Jordan.

And then I was there. Once the initial excitement wore off, I found myself confronted with a nagging question. Cari! What the heck are you doing here?!? Arabic is read from right to left, and I often felt that life in Jordan was similarly backwards. As a woman, living in the Middle East requires a few adjustments from the easy going freedom of the West. Appropriate dressing means ankle-length skirts and pants, covered arms and high necklines (although it is common to see something as racey as a T-shirt). I had to be cautious about the way I interacted with men and even encountered some of the uber-traditional sort who would not even shake my hand. Strolling down the street in the evening, I was often the only female to be seen. This would cause a scandal if I was local. Most of the restrictions put on Muslim girls are based around their family's sense of honor. Therefore, as a free-wheelin' American, no one was affected by my lack of impropriety. Nonetheless, I was constantly concerned about sending the wrong message or offending anyone. (I should also note that as far as the whole region goes, Jordan is on the liberal side of scale.)

As anyone who has been abroad knows, it’s exhausting and isolating to live in a place where a foreign language is spoken. And by the way, Arabic is freakin’ hard. Like a naive fool, I thought I could master it in a couple of years. On the first of class you learn three letters. Goodness gracious, there are two different "S" sounds, three different "H" sounds, and about four or five noises that do not exist in English (unless you are coughing). An Australian polyglot friend reports: If the average person (whoever that is) wanted to learn Spanish from scratch and took private lessons with a tutor for four hours a day and then studied on her own for four hours, she would reach fluency after six months. If this same average language learner wanted to speak Arabic she would have to do the same thing...for FIVE YEARS. Now, I don't know where he got this equation, and clearly there are all sorts of mitigating factors, but hearing this was enough for me collapse on a couch. It is overwhelming to think about how much work it will take for me to reach proficiency.

Despite the linguistic and cultural challenges, I survived four months in Jordan and made a vow to return. I knew I had just scratched the surface of understanding everything. And so, a year later, I'm on my way. The truth is, I'm probably more riddled with doubt that I am confident. What is the point of this? Left up to my own devices, I may not be so self-conscious, but two years of having to formulate an answer to “Why would you want to learn Arabic? What do you want to do with it?” I still feel like I’m grasping to find the right answer. Sure, the practical aspects are accurate: Arabic is a high demand language and speaking it will hopefully make me competitive in the job market. But my real mental process is based on something much less definable and much more senseless.

I’m doing this because it’s there. Because it’s crazy and fascinating and unique. And because I can. Perhaps in doing so, I am making larger statement about my life. I’m ignoring convention and thinking outside the box. Despite all the steady jobs, long term commitments, and strategic plans, aren’t we all just drifters? Devastating tragedy and glorious good fortune can pop up in an instant, and experience has shown me that it’s the former which has the greater power to shape the course of our lives. When an exciting opportunity presents itself, the only time is seize it is now. Maybe I will never learn to speak the language, never really penetrate the mystery of Islam or wrap my mind around Middle East politics. But who cares. I’m giving myself permission to follow the elusive spirit of possibility and trusting every message, lesson, and experience that comes my way. Cheers to the adventure.

And by the way, I have five friends named Mohammad now.