The lighter side of language learning

I have no history with the other foreigners I have met here in North Africa: no previous inside jokes, no awkward memories of growing up together, etc.

Yet, because we are here together, we have begun to share something that I cannot share with people from home: the joy of mixing our common languages. And the beautiful thing is that we understand each other.

My class is known as the class that laughs a lot. My classmates and I are often drawing parallels from Arabic to English. There are verbs that in their conjugated forms sound like “guilty” and “dirty”, and nouns that sounds like “slave” and “smelly.” So we utilize them as their false English cognate, so much that our teachers have begun to do the same.

We also like directly translating from Arabic. In Arabic, many verbs are a slight variation of their nouns. “Do you want to coffee with me and have coffee at the coffee?”or “The chicken eggs eggs.”

And then there are times when we make up our own words completely such as tacking an English ending onto an Arabic verb or even using both Arabic and English constructions on the same root word.

For example, in Arabic the passive voice is typically the normal verb preceded by a “t” sound. And, as you know, the regular past tense verb in English ends in “ed”.

One day, as a friend and I were walking down the street, a guy from a passing vehicle hollered, “Bonjour!”

We giggled. “We’ve just been tbonjoured.”

Bad mood

I am telling myself it’s a combination of yet another rainy day and of not having a break from school. I’m exhausted and on the last day of the school week, I am required to slosh through puddles and mud and still be late for class.

And then I get home, reheat the coffee I didn’t have time to finish before school, and try to drown my melancholy mood in language study.

But in the apartment below, I hear the neighbors playing the Qur’an. The sing-songy chant grates on me. So I turn on my own music:

You’re the God of this city.
You’re the King of these people.
You’re the Lord of this nation.
You are.

You’re the Light in this darkness.
You’re the Hope to the hopeless.
You’re the Peace to the restless.
You are.

There is no one like our God.
For greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done in this city.

No matter how “done” I feel with life right now, His work has only begun in this city. And He wants to use me now, right where I am. In the middle of puddles, mud, and too much homework.

My calling to glorify Him isn’t based on circumstance.

Aisha- part 3

Isolated. That was the flavor of the air as we walked down streets that were merely variations of the same. I was the only foreigner in the neighborhood, strange considering that just over the hill, tourists were thick within the shadowy walls of the old city.

But here, crumbling buildings full of tiny apartments stretched toward the overcast sky. Cobblestone streets cupped leftover puddles and floating litter. Laundry was strung everywhere: on wires, through window grates, on rooftop clotheslines. Curious faces darkened whitewashed doorways and window ledges. Children danced along the streets in endless game.

Much of the world was happening outside. Together. As if the culture didn’t realize that people didn’t have enough room to live.

Our first stop was a relative’s home. We entered a low doorway and were enveloped in a world of chattering woman. It was a noise that trailed up several flights of uneven concrete steps. There Aisha picked up her 1 1/2 year-old son. And there, we were offered coffee so sweet it made my teeth cringe. My coffee cup smelled like the residue of someone else’s saliva. I smiled and drank the coffee anyway. Our hostess was a dainty woman. Her face was young, but her smile revealed only a few teeth scattered along her gums.

I met in-laws, nephews, sisters, and other connections I no longer remember. It didn’t help that I was struggling to remember my family vocabulary! After a few more stops, we wound our way to Aisha’s apartment. She insisted on carrying the juices I had brought with me even though she was also carrying her little boy.

The apartment building was cold and concrete. With every floor that we climbed, I would turn and ask Aisha, “Here?” She would shake her head, “Still!” She said that all of the way to the sixth floor after dozens and dozens of uneven concrete steps.

In each woman, there is a certain amount of pride for her home. Aisha was no exception, although her home consisted of a closet-sized wash room and kitchen, one salon, and one bedroom. That was all.

Aisha’s 16-year-old daughter Soukaina and I walked out on the roof to stare at the world six stories below. Heads walked by–heads without faces from my point of view. A woman dumped a bucket of water over the cobblestones in front of her home and scrubbed vigorously. Two little girls played school. A man propped himself in the doorway and watched the world. A woman two doors down did the same. But it wasn’t just the street that was alive; all throughout the apartment towers, people were moving: appearing in windows, hollering to someone below, gathering laundry on the rooftop, smoking a cigarette, or talking across the street with someone in the opposite building.

Once Aisha ascertained that I liked couscous, the lunch preparations began. I offered to help once, but only once. I was a guest. When the food was ready around 4 p.m., the family pulled down the table for my sake. (I heard the father say, “She’s American.”) There were some other random family members around the table, and I couldn’t remember exactly how they fit in the family. But it didn’t really matter.

We all dug into the center plate. Aisha kept tossing potatoes and carrots onto my side of the platter. Whenever I tried to stop eating, they demanded I eat more. No amount of “I’m full, praise God!”s could satisfy their vicious desire to watch me glut myself.

For me, mealtime was tense because in their attempt to honor me, they set my presumed needs so far above their own comforts that I felt the separation deeply. I was given two cushions to sit on at the table and the older woman present was given none. When I tried to share, I only succeeded in raising a chorus of protests. I was incapable of experiencing their everyday life because I had the prestige of a guest.

After an hour of TV and conversation over the TV, the preparation for the afternoon tea began. I offered to go with Soukaina to buy doughnuts, but the father turned down my offer on account of my being American. “This is not like the new city!” he declared. My presence would attract attention and a 16-year-old companion didn’t provide the necessary protection.

More female relatives joined us for tea and the conversation livened. We laughed, ate, and took pictures. And then it was time to go. We descended–down down down–until the precarious stairwell spewed us onto the narrow cobblestone street again.

We sloshed through the evening drizzle to the taxis. Aisha and Soukaina tried to accompany me home in the taxi, but when I put up a protest that rivaled their insistence, they relented. But Aisha gave the driver precise instructions where I needed to be deposited and made sure that I had enough money with me. I kissed them both goodbye.

For now.

A morning of sounds

What does my typical North African morning sound like?

  • Mourning doves cooing outside of my window and a lonely rooster penned in someone’s courtyard
  • Slated shades being pulled up from various apartments
  • Water running, the electric kettle steaming, my own munching and slurping
  • A few mumbled “Good morning”s and “Have a good day”s
  • The bang of the door as I pull it shut behind me
  • Clomp, clomp, clomping down two stories of steps and the banging the apartment building door
  • The murmur of passing cars from a perpendicular street
  • A few snatches of conversation between school children and university students
  • A cat meowing as it digs through leftover garbage
  • “Bonjour!… Bonjour! Hola! Hello?”
  • Horns honking around a busy intersection as other cars and pedestrians assume the right-of-way
  • Motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars, bicycles weaving in and out of each other—the screech of brakes and more horns and perhaps some yelling
  • A jackhammer of busy men working on the street
  • “سلام”
  • The scratching of a stalk broom on a sidewalk
  • The buzz of the Arabic school’s call button and consequently the opening of three heavy doors
  • “صباح الخير. لا باس؟”  “لا باس الحمد لله.”
  • The sharp sound of chairs on a bare floor and the rumble of moving wooden tables as we all pile in and settle down for a long Arabic session

Ode to Marriage

The rain is banging against the tarp, filling the concrete house with a dull roar. Just the sound of it causes my bones to shiver. I promised myself a cup of coffee as long as I diligently planned the week’s English lessons. Then I opened a blank document and forgot my promise.

There is something about having a sheet of white on my screen that makes my fingers want fill it up with random thoughts. This time my random thoughts are about marriage.

What do I know about marriage? Very little since I’ve been single for nearly 30 years. Yet, being in a culture that points to marriage as necessary for one’s spiritual journey makes me contemplate this more than I would were I still in the States.

In one perspective, life begins at marriage. The unspoken idea is that one cannot be happy unless they have a significant other.

Then there is the perspective that life ends at marriage. Think about how countless movies and books end with a couple finally realizing that they are right for each other. Why do the books and movies end there?

And then, even more real to me in this culture is the perspective that once a woman is married, she becomes her husband’s servant and is bound to her home. Her only joy after marriage is having children.

At times, I’m envious of married couples who step into this new world together and get to experience things as a unit rather as individuals.

To me, that’s one of the most beautiful things of marriage: companionship. I told my classmate my thoughts and she looked at her husband and smiled: “Yes, that’s true. But once you’re married, you don’t DO as much!”

I suppose there’s a flip-side to everything. That’s why I won’t stress out about my marital status. The preparation for anything is in seeking God’s face.

These are my disconnected, rainy day thoughts.

Bread and soap operas

What do bread and soap operas have in common? Perhaps nothing. Yet recently, I’ve been beginning to wonder if there indeed is some sort of correlation.

Imagine bread for every meal—breakfast, lunch, afternoon coffee time, and dinner—and soap operas, not between those meals, mind you, but before during and after those meals.

Lest you become concerned that I have just wasted a week of my life by living with a local family, rest assured that not all of my energy was spent in anticipating the next show.

More than spicing my limited vocabulary, the week marinated me in the flavor of the culture. What do their homes look like? What do they eat? What do they do during the day? How do they use a bathroom without an American toilet? How does a typical family function (or dysfunction)?

Overall, the week was culturally awakening. Now the North Africans I pass on the street aren’t just people–they belong to a home and a family…and maybe I’ve just sampled a slice of their typical day.

Having said that, I still might be able to tell you the time of day according to what soap opera is on.

Alone? Not at all.

There is something I know in my head but forget in my heart.

Do you ever look at your believing friends–those people you see every Sunday and meet for coffee during the week–and get overwhelmed by their spiritual “giantness”?

At times, exchanging a deep spiritual dialogue or having someone shower you with love strengthens your walk with God. Other times though, it discourages you. At least if you’re like me.

Sometimes, when I see flawless spirituality in others, I feel insignificant. I feel dirty. And selfish. My mind replays my past sins one by one.

“I’ll do better. I’ll try harder to be like my friend!”

Those are the times I feel the most alone; it’s as if no one can identify with the monster inside my sinful shell. No one else faces my daily temptations. No one else has to struggle with their thought life. No one else makes selfish choices that destroy trust in a relationship.

Have you ever thought that? Well, here’s a little bit of truth for you (and me):

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”

1 Cor. 10:13a

You’ve probably heard that a thousand times. Maybe two thousand. But the truth hasn’t changed. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Whatever you’re struggling with has been struggled with before by someone else…maybe someone is even struggling with it right now. And not just one someone but enough someones to make it “common to man.”

Depending on how you look at that, it’s encouraging. But wait; lest knowing that others have the same struggles makes us gloss over our sinfulness. There’s more:

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

1 Cor. 10:13b

Having a faithful God means that we shouldn’t yield to temptation so that His grace may abound. God forbid! (Rom. 6:1) Without rejoicing in others’ failures, we can realize we’re not the only one in our boat, paddling furiously against temptation’s current. Others are in the boat with us. What would happen if we would paddle together without fear and without judgment?

Enough of this silently drowning in our own shame! We have an “very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). We are not alone. Not at all.

Bittersweet release

Here I am at the coffee shop, thinking that there’s just something melancholy about today.

Dark clouds sprinkle the sky, peppering brick storefronts with moving shadows. Somehow watching the sun and rain play tag makes me not want to go.

I got my ticket today; I’m excited! ecstatic! but also nostalgic. Am I ready to introduce another home to my heart? Can I really say goodbye to life as it is?

These aren’t doubts exactly because I already know the answer to these questions is “yes.” But must feeling fulfilled in a calling always be preceded by a bittersweet release? Perhaps I just want to have my cake and eat it too…

A Steinway afternoon

Despite the diversity of New York City, Steinway street is different for me. It feels as if God is showing me a map with a red arrow and a clarifying “You are here” hovering over Steinway Street. This is very well what my life might look like for the next year while I’m in North Africa.

What are these people really like? What are their hopes, longings, and hurts?

  • A woman escorting her aging mother to the doctor.
  • A Lebanese man selling pastries.
  • A man with a leg injury, lingering outside of the mosque.
  • An middle-aged Egyptian couple–he sipping coffee and she rattling Arabic, hoping for someone to see her beyond the Alzheimer’s.
  • A young lady with heavy, dark makeup–guarded and watchful.
  • A sales clerk turning every hopeful conversation into a potential sale.

“They don’t know! They don’t know You.”

TELL THEM.