Thursday, June 25, 2009

In the Spirit of Dante

"You seem to have done quite a bit of traveling" my cousin remarked a few years ago after looking through my photos from my year at yeshiva in Israel, "but I thought you came to the country to study?!" Rather than allow the same misconception take hold about my current visit, let me take a few lines to explain why I came to Syria and what it is that is occupying most of my days while I am here.

The top reason is to study Arabic. My graduate program grants all students studying the Middle East a generous stipend to improve their Arabic in the country of their choosing. I chose Syria because the local dialect (amiyya) is pretty much interchangeable with Palestinian amiyya, both of which are closer than any other colloquial Arabic to the standard language (fu'sha) taught in university. Then again, I may have chosen Syria even if the locals were still speaking Aramaic, if only because no other Arab country has the same appealing mixture of political isolation and historical treasures. I am hardly alone in coming to this decision. Damascus attracts hordes of foreign students over the summer, most of whom live like myself in the Christian quarter of Bab Touma and arrange private lessons with a tutor. My school alone has close to ten students in Damascus over the summer.

Perhaps the only part of my decision that is unique is that I am only studying the local dialect, Syrian amiyya. While other foreign students do likewise, every other student from SAIS is only studying fu'sha. The distinction between the two languages is not minor. Fu'sha is what all students learn in universities and it is the Arabic that SAIS students must demonstrate proficiency in order to graduate. In the Arab world, mastery of fu'sha allows one to understand the media and decipher government reports. Fu'sha can also be used in conversation from North Africa to the Gulf. But it is an akward process, somewhat akin to communicating in pig latin with an English speaker. The problem with using fu'sha to converse is that Arabs do not and often cannot do so. Instead every region in the Arab world has their own spoken dialect, no two of which are exactly alike.

For me, the decision to focus on Syrian amiyya is a no brainer. Like anyone else, I want to eventually have the ability to follow Arab media and converse with the man on the street. But in the short term, Arabic is important to me for where I will be serving over the next two years. I have always associated having a working knowledge of Arabic with making Aliyah. And I have no doubt that it will be invaluable to be able to understand the language of Israel's Arab neighbors over the next two years. Impressing SAIS professors and future Chinese employers with my knowledge of formal Arabic will have to wait.

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