The language issue loomed large from day one. The school gave us a little lesson during orientation but with nine new teachers to train, it wasn’t possible to do any more.
We assume and are told that English is “the” international language and therefore we tend to expect in our ignorance of the world that even the humblest shopkeeper or market stall vendor will have at least a smattering of English.
Well we were wrong. Imagine the Egyptians expecting to speak their own language in their own land! At one time Alexandria was the most cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean which, amazingly, is what Alexander the Great and the Ptolomies who followed him had in mind. Over two hundred thousand Europeans lived here at any given time. French was the language of the ruling classes and English was used a great deal.But the revolution and much other change has had an impact. The expat population is much smaller.
Arabic does not have a lot in common with English. In French, I always cheat and anglicize troublesome words. There is overlap. And there is a similarity of vocabulary that helps a lot in a pinch. Our Survival Arabic course put any hope of similar little cheating possibilities to rest in a hurry.
One of these days I am going to draw up a “you’re never to old to…” list. Such as, you’re never too old to try to learn a new language. Or at least stumble along in a new language. We have basic vocabulary for greetings (sabah el kheer!), the market (bikam? How much?) or Judy’s favourite…ghelee owee!…too expensive!
The language school owner, Frank Lewis, is an American who spent his first six months here nineteen years ago just sitting with a local shoemaker chatting, picking up the language and the idioms. His Arabic is flawless according to the locals. That won’t be us, not by a long shot, but Frank did make the point that the Egyptians were fundamentally kind and would appreciate our efforts to speak their language. He is right. Just having a smattering of it has really helped in the market, with the taxis and in the restaurants. It is humbling but fun too.