One of my classmates here in Qatar often asks me, “Why do you know such random words?” She can’t understand how I came to know the Arabic word for “rowing.” It’s true, I never thought to ask Professor Baccouche, before I graduated in 2006, what the word for rowing was in Arabic. While sitting around the CCAS lounge with my classmates, playing our favorite game of “Who can find the most random word in Hans Wehr’s Arabic-English Dictionary?,” that one somehow never came up. I didn’t anticipate that I would spend the summer of 2006 teaching Arabic at the brand new Al-WaHa Concordia Language Village, nor did I anticipate spending the following year studying Arabic at Qatar University. Nor did I anticipate learning the word “tajdiif,” as I tried to teach canoeing in Arabic to American students on a lake in northern Minnesota. (Incidentally, I also learned the words for troublemaker and fingernail polish.)
Being the first year of the Al-WaHa Concordia Language Village, our mix of native and non-native-speaking staff had to create everything from scratch. The songs we sang, ranging from those of Fayruz and Amr Diab to self-composed fusHa tunes, was quite amusing. We agreed to teach fusHa (Modern Standard Arabic) and to expose the students to the differences between fusHa and ‘aammiyya (colloquial Arabic) through songs, skits, etc. Staff and native Arabic-speaking villagers were also allowed to speak ‘aammiyya outside of class. One of the skits we used to familiarize the students with fusHa and ‘aammiyya involved me playing a tacky tourist traveling around the Arab world, attempting to understand the ‘aammiyya answers to my badly accented, “As-Salamu alaykum. Kayf al-Haal?” My co-workers, representing Lebanon, Sudan, Tunisia, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and Morocco, would attempt to make me understand, “Minih. Kiifik? Ca va?” “Kwayyis. Izzayyik?” “Zayn. Schlonish?” One of my Egyptian co-workers felt so odd speaking fusHa that whenever forced by my lack of understanding colloquial Egyptian, he would speak in the cadence of a news announcer. It made our discussions about which cabin was cleaning the bathroom that day very amusing.
Al-WaHa: The Oasis. While the other Concordia Language Villages are all called “A Lake in the Woods” in their languages (El Lago del Bosque, Lac du Bois…), the Arabic language village is called Al-WaHa: The Oasis. The justification for this, as well as for exposing the kids to ‘aammiyya, comes from one of the central tenets of Concordia Language Villages: the village is supposed to replicate, as closely as possible, the region(s) where the language is spoken. The goal of this immersion is to give the villagers experience in the culture and to build cultural sensitivity and global awareness while also teaching language. Concordia Language Villages hopes that their students will not be surprised when they travel to the region the village is representing. It is not difficult to ascertain that exposure to ‘aammiyya is crucial in creating an Arabic cultural immersion environment. The immersion goes so far as to include the physical environment, and as there are few lakes in the woods in the Arab world, the steering committee deemed Al-WaHa the more appropriate name for an Arab environment. The job awaiting the staff was to transform a rustic Minnesota camp, located truly on a lake in the woods, into an oasis. Thanks to many donations by individuals and organizations, we were able to decorate the camp with flags, posters, rugs, and cushions. We had a majlis and a full costume room, signs in Arabic, and Arabic music. The challenge remained to represent the diversity of cultural environments of the Arab world to our villagers, who came from Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Maine, Iowa, Washington, Washington, DC, North Dakota, and even Dubai and Doha. The majority of our students were beginners in Arabic. In addition to 2.5 hours of official Arabic lessons a day, students were expected to speak Arabic during activities, meals, and cultural projects. One of the ways in which we sought to represent different aspects of Arab culture was to focus each day around a theme. Some of the themes which we presented were: Morocco, Palestine, Ramadan and other holidays, Arabic literature, modern music, and dance.
Mughaamara: adventure. At Al-WaHa the word mughaamara signified an Arabic lesson; when I moved to Qatar to study Arabic at the University of Qatar it came to have a whole new meaning for me. Kull yawm mughaamara fii Qatar (Every day is an adventure in Qatar) became one of my favorite phrases. One of the first of such adventures occurred on our first day of classes. In the morning, the bus came promptly at 8 am to pick us up from the apartment building which we shared with other colleagues and professors from the University of Qatar. However, we had not been informed that we were first to go to the Medical Commission. We watched in complete confusion as our driver, who spoke neither Arabic nor English, was unable to communicate to us exactly why we were driving away from the campus.
In Qatar, where Qataris comprise only 20 percent of the population, one is more likely to meet Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese, or Filipinos than Qataris. English is the language of both the street and the university. So we arrived at the Medical Commission having no idea why we were there. After about an hour of being ferried around to different offices, we figured out that this procedure was the first part of the process in gaining a residency permit–which we didn’t need. We then discovered that the bus had left us and no one could come get us until three hours later. So we sat for four hours in the Medical Commission, whose services we hadn’t needed in the first place, and missed our entire first day of school. Kull yawm mughaamara fii Qatar.
While my classmates and I initially used this phrase to indicate the profusion of frustrating experiences, we came to see that it also encompassed the many truly rare opportunities we’ve had in Qatar. For example, there is no other Arabic program that I know of where an American student can sit in class with such a diverse group of colleagues—my classmates come from Chechnya, North Korea, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Senegal, and Chad. They are teachers of Islam, of Arabic, and translators. While our different backgrounds lead to constant controversy, at times involving outright insult, we have come to consider each other friends. We sit together in class around 20 hours a week studying Arabic media, grammar, and literature and criticism. One wonders how a discussion of the mechanics of metaphors and similes might lead to controversy, but somehow we manage to clash over the most seemingly benign topics. I was therefore surprised, after our mid-semester break, by my own excitement to see them and by the warm reception they gave me. Now when we dispute gender roles, diin wa dawla (religion and state), women’s clothing, 9/11, or proper classroom etiquette, we laugh at ourselves together. If one is open to experiencing a more international environment than one encounters in other parts of the Arab world, the meetings between people of different cultures can comprise true mughaamaraat.
TaHwiila: diversion, sidetrack. It is definitely possible that every street in Doha, somewhere in its course, has a sign posted reading taHwiila. While the pervasive construction is also a symbol of the forward-looking perspective of Qatar, for its current inhabitants, it is more closely symbolic of the flexibility and resourcefulness required to live in an environment of constant and sudden change. I have learned that what one needs to succeed in Doha are the qualities of resourcefulness, initiative, adaptability, as well as a resolutely positive attitude. One day some friends and I were discussing these ideas as we walked along the main thoroughfare near our house. I felt encouraged to continue my struggle to pursue the opportunities unique to Qatar. Just as I was pontificating to my captive audience, my friend stepped ankle-deep in wet cement, requiring her to walk a good distance back to our apartment, barefoot. It was the perfect example of how many taHwiilaat one has to take to make things happen in Qatar.
One of the more exciting opportunities I’ve had in Qatar was meeting with some leading Arab literary figures, including Adonis. I asked Adonis what he thought of Doha, and he replied, “It’s like a ship on the sea. It’s nice for a couple of days, but after that you want to return to the shore.” With all respect to Adonis, I have found the opposite to be true; Doha actually becomes more interesting the longer one is here. Thus, during my first year after graduating with my MAAS degree, I have found that whether one is working on a lake in Minnesota or studying in Doha, Qatar, with a positive attitude, there is always a lot to learn.