September 8, 2009 | Arabic

Bay Ridge Field Trip

I take quizzes and a field trip.

I had so much fun today. It was back-to-school day (i.e., the day after Labor Day). I took that literally and did a lot of studying, plus other useful stuff.

The words for “husband” and “wife” are very interesting. First, at least in the dialect I’m being taught by Pimsleur, they’re quite similar:

  • zoj        husband
  • zoji       my husband
  • zojti      my wife (I’m not sure what plain “wife” is)
  • zojtak   your wife, spoken to a man
  • zojeik   your husband, spoken to a woman
  • zoja      her husband

And so on! You add a t after zoj to change it from “husband” to “wife,” and you change the endings to create different possessive forms.

This afternoon I took a whole bunch of language tests on the website! It was so much fun!!! I don’t think I can make much of this—the quizzes are easy, short, and not at all comprehensive—but I placed into the same level for Russian that I placed into for French and German, what they described as “upper intermediate.” It has been a long time since I studied those latter languages, of course, but I did study both of them for years in school, and my college degree is even in German. Russian, on the other hand, I have studied for two months.

I did notice it took me way longer to complete the Russian quiz than the others. Because of the still-less-familiar alphabet, my reading is slow.

After those three quizzes, I took their Spanish quiz and scored into the “very advanced level.” Which means, according to them, “You understand almost everything, including idiomatic expressions. Despite occasional mistakes you are close to native speaker level, even in complex situations.” That’s not exactly accurate, though I do pretty well and, on a good day, can carry on quite sophisticated conversations. Other days I get tongue paralysis, but Spanish is far and away my best (non-English) language.

Anyway, the quiz boosted my Russian confidence. Even though the quiz is superficial, I clearly learned a lot in two months. Whether I will retain it is another question, but I feel comfortable that some meaningful residue of the experience will stick.

After the quiz-taking was over, I did a little Arabic research. In an online article, I read, “Brooklyn is host to an estimated 24,000 Arabic speakers with about one third living in Bay Ridge, according to the 2000 Census.”

That settled it. Even though it was already 4 p.m., off I went to Bay Ridge. I rode the 2/3 line to the R train, which I then took to the Bay Ridge Avenue stop. Bay Ridge is in the southwest corner of Brooklyn, and I don’t think I have ever been there in the nearly 20 years I have lived in New York.

On the subway on the way there, I read my Easy Arabic Grammar book, written by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gaafar. I think I may love this book. There was an excellent and reassuring explanation of why vowels (short ones, at least, which are the ones that are not indicated) don’t matter in writing. They often differ from dialect to dialect, for one thing, and in Arabic, meaning is carried primarily by consonants.

As soon as I sat down on the R train, a white guy with longish blond hair, probably in his thirties, looked at my book and said: “What are you doing? Studying to be a spy at the CIA?”

I replied, “I wouldn’t be a very good one if I were.” And moved to another seat shortly thereafter.

5th Avenue Between Ovington and Bay Ridge Aves.

A Cafe and Law Offices, Bay Ridge

The Bay Ridge Avenue subway exit in Brooklyn is on 4th Avenue. I walked over to 5th, which has many Arabic shops, and promptly crossed paths with a 30ish-year-old woman walking briskly down the street in head scarf and full-length dress. She was just dialing a cell phone, and when the person on the other end picked up, she smiled and said loudly into the mouthpiece: “Hey, baby, what’s up? You alive?” The speech and the attire struck me as incongruous; if my eyes had been closed, I would have been more likely to picture someone in denim cutoffs and a tank top.

Anyway, those initial moments—of seeing people dressed so differently, and seeing signs all in Arabic, all along the street—were like a miraculous flash, a shock of amazement, and then suddenly it was a little hard (just as in Brighton Beach) to know what to do with myself. It’s embarrassing. People look at you. And I wasn’t sure exactly which of my many automatic, unconscious habits could be considered socially or culturally unfortunate.

Balady Halal Foods, Bay Ridge

But I managed. I walked around. I was able to make out letters on signs, which was a thrill. And, although I felt uncomfortable, I decided to go into one of the shops, a food market, Balady, whose name was printed on a green awning in both the Latin alphabet (i.e., what we use in English, French, Spanish, etc.) and the Arabic alphabet.

As I was going into Balady, a middle-aged woman, nearly fully covered and with a head scarf, was trying to steer a metal cart out of the store, but it was getting caught on the door, where there was a small lip. Rather than helping her lift the cart, I stupidly stepped aside to give her more room. A man then stepped forward to help her get it outside, and she told him, Shukran (thank you). I felt bad for not having helped her myself, but was pleased nonetheless that I could understand this real-world interaction, albeit a small one involving the tiniest possible amount of vocabulary.

Inside the store I saw Arabic lettering on many products, especially cans. Some had the Nestle logo on them. I bought a bottle of water. I really, really wanted to say shukran to the cashier, but I said simply “thank you” instead.

Olive Oil and Pickled Cucumbers with Arabic Packaging

Rose Syrup and Fruit Cordials for Sale

The reason I hesitated to try out my Arabic is that with other languages, I have occasionally found that people are not 100 percent friendly when you make a less than professional effort in their native tongue. I thought the cashier wouldn’t mind, but I was nervous about trying.

Also, I am chicken.

On my way back home I continued to work on my Easy Arabic Grammar. I was impressed to learn that there is a word specifically for maternal aunt (khala) as opposed to paternal aunt. In addition, I learned that sahra means desert. Does that mean Sahara Desert is essentially “desert desert”? Do Arabic speakers call it Sahra Sahra?

In the evening I tried running in the park, but was too tired and after less than a mile converted my run to a walk. I did Pimsleur, though I confess I felt slightly embarrassed walking around pronouncing some of the words with glottal stops and emphatic or guttural sounds. The phrase for “with sugar” is bizarre to me. It explodes out of the sentence like this: MAAA! sukar. Why? I found myself wondering whether Arabic-speaking women speak Arabic differently from their male counterparts. The language seems harsh in some ways, though I am loving it nonetheless. Unfortunately, I alternately sound as though I’m either choking or freaking out.

I definitely feel as though there are more similarities between Russian and Arabic than between Arabic and anything I studied before beginning this project.

Comments (2)

JennieAAANY • Posted on Tue, March 16, 2010 - 1:29 pm EST

I feel the same way about Balady’s! That’s where we buy our Lipton tea, except it’s pronounced “Leebton” and the packaging is in Arabic. Foreign-language foodstuffs are about the most decadent, wonderful thing in the world. It’s exciting to see that you made this trip to Bay Ridge on your own volition, as your own tour guide! The Brooklyn Arts Council has a self-guided walking tour online, which gives a pretty good sense of the neighborhood, for anyone lacking your courage or located far from New York:

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, March 16, 2010 - 9:38 pm EST

Jennie, thank you so much for the great tip about the walking tour!

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