Once upon a Hokie Saturday, nearly three years ago, I sat in bed contemplating my upcoming graduation. Leaving
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
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
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
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
And by the way, I have five friends named Mohammad now.