When I first moved to Egypt I used to be able to tell whether I was having a good Arabic day or not judging by the nationality people guessed I was: Syrian/Lebanese meant I had thrown a Shami word or two into the conversation, but was generally doing okay; Moroccan meant that my speech was mostly unintelligible but still coding as Arabic; and American meant that I should probably take a nap before trying to use real words again. The spectrum of compliments I’ve received on my Arabic ability over the years has also been quite broad, ranging from delight to suspicion to spontaneous marriage proposals.
But my favorite type of confidence-boost is the conversation I had with a tired Mogamma employee while renewing my visa yesterday:
(What’s your original nationality?)
(No, your original nationality)
امريكية امريكية يعني
(I’m American American)
طب انتي بتتكلمي عربي حلو كدا ليه
(Okay, but why do you speak such good Arabic?)
This is one of the great self-confidence related benefits of mastering Arabic as a foreigner, although it is certainly a double-edged sword: after a certain point, people assume that you must be half-Arab, because the number of foreigners–and I use this word mainly in reference to white foreigners–who can actually speak fluent, colloquial Arabic is so, so little. And this, to me, is quite sad.
Of course, there are reasons why this happens: the majority of Egyptians do speak some English, and if most of your Egyptian buddies received their schooling under the American or British systems, you can reasonably get by living in Egypt with only around 50 words in Arabic (“One Stella please” “Turn left” “Your mother’s privates” and so on). Learning any variety of Arabic is also a very objectively strenuous task, and even if you become skilled in speaking MSA to some extent, you essentially have to start from scratch in order to become capable of speaking like a normal human being in colloquial Arabic. If you pick up and move to another Arabic-speaking country after mastering one dialect, the process repeats. The whole thing is quite daunting.
But still–it is unsettling that people who speak English much better than I speak Arabic receive so little praise for their hard work. Here, I am also thinking about people who learned English out of necessity–people who had no racial or passport privilege to fall back on when words failed them in their new country of residence, and who were denied even occasional affirmations of their efforts and improving abilities. I chose to learn a language that Arabs themselves are often told is second to English (Exhibit A: AUC students who don’t have Arabic keyboard functions installed on their laptops). For that, my efforts are rewarded far more than those of the rest of the world who struggled to master my native language because speaking English is widely considered a pre-requisite for being a valuable human being.
Although receiving periodic praise, surprise, and sometimes absolute bewilderment at my whiteness juxtaposed with my colloquial Arabic ability is very much a satisfying experience, I am constantly aware that race, power, and privilege are all hopelessly entangled in the process of learning a foreign language and living in someone else’s country. No matter how fluent I become–no matter how many swears I know or how many times I nearly convince someone I’m from Mansoura–I’ll always be a white person navigating Arabic. And that journey will always be a political one.