The Politics of White People Speaking Arabic

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:

الاصل ايه؟

(What’s your original nationality?)

امريكية

(American)

بس الاصل

(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.

The Mogamma, an ancient Egyptian temple built to please the bureaucracy gods.

The Mogamma, an ancient Egyptian temple built to please the bureaucracy gods.

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.

 

10 comments

  1. I hear you, sister. Those comments from locals can either tear you down – “You’ve been here this long and your Arabic is still this bad?” – or make you feel like Rocky. My best ever encouragement was when a weary airport policeman was searching through people’s luggage at the X-Ray machine. He had just dealt with a large group of European tourists, trying in his broken English to get them to open bags and show him particular things. Then he turned to me and asked “You have battery?” I replied in Arabic:
    عايز تشوف البطارية اللي في الكاميرا؟
    To which he gave me the biggest smile, and said with relief: “3rabi, ya salaam!”

  2. I’ve been thinking about moving to Egypt to get better at Arabic. What is your job there? I heard I might be limited to teaching English, which is fine for a while but I don’t want to do that forever. Also, how long have you been studying Arabic?

  3. Hey I absolutely understand you dear, but I think it’s not only about Arabic, cause that’s very similar to what I witnessed with my polish, which sounds much better than what it really is. Regards :)

  4. As a white, Jewish woman who has learned fluent Palestinian Arabic – I deal with this quite often. So glad to know there are others like me in this world!

  5. I have dealt with this a lot, too, but one interesting divergence — I have always been universally and emphatically instructed to pretend I don’t speak Arabic when dealing with the bureaucracy. The implication being that a helpless blond girl will get better and more efficient outcomes.

  6. The totality of English language hegemony came into its sharpest definition for me in my professional life. I live and work in Jordan, but nobody expects me to speak it perfectly, even if I’m answering phones at the office. I don’t imagine someone ever get off the phone with me and cursed at foreigners who don’t speak Arabic the way Americans mutter about fast foot employees who don’t speak English to their standards.

  7. Post 9/11, I find that one thing you will also get is accusations of being in the CIA or Israeli intelligence. I am not fluent, but I speak with a hijazi accent and am now learning Sana’ani. The other kick I get is when you speak Arabic to someone in the West and it takes a second for their mind to click to the idea that you are speaking to them in Arabic because they dont expect it to be coming out of your mouth. I found out how they feel once….I was in line at a bookstore and I started speaking to a couple of Lebanese guys in front of me. After they left a white guy behind me said something and I couldnt figure out what he was saying….until it clicked in my mind that he was speaking to me in Arabic. Turns out he was in the Army and spent a couple of years in Iraq/Khalij and spoke some Arabic.

  8. My greatest triumph came when someone asked me if I was from Alexandria. I got a lot of others: Tunisia, Damascus, Albania (!!). Now that I live in Lebanon, people just think that I’m Egyptian, even though I have acquired all of the usual Levantinisms and lost the Egyptian ones (for the most part – the demonstratives are still sometimes Egyptian and an occasional giim slips out). But even if I just say one word, like shu or heek, people will still spot the accent. Don’t know why.

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