Finding Home in an Arabic Class in Israel

By Joanna Chen

I’m sitting in my studio at The Virginia Center for The Creative Arts in Amherst, writing about Jaffa, Israel, where I recently took a course in Arabic. It’s part of a memoir set mostly in Israel, where I now live. A text message pops up on my cell phone from my daughter, Jasmine. I’m OK, don’t worry, the message says. I’m immediately worried.  I check the wires and discover there have been three attacks in Israel today. One was in Jaffa, I learn.

With horror I watch a video on my laptop of a man running down a familiar street just off Jaffa, close to the promenade.  He’s stabbed a number of people, including an American tourist who later dies of his wounds. Someone, probably a bystander, is screaming in Hebrew: “Give it to him, give it to him.” I imagine the face attached to this voice, and I shudder. Pools of blood gather on the sidewalk, and the perpetrator, a Palestinian in his 20s, is bludgeoned and then shot dead near a fish restaurant on the beach front where I have eaten many times with my family on calmer days.

Back in January, when I told friends I was starting an Arabic course, eyebrows were raised. There had been a spate of violence around Israel and a renewed atmosphere of mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians had flared up. I began the course.

Perhaps this was the reason why there was plenty of parking the day I arrived in Jaffa for the first class. The flea market, where the course took place, was eerily empty for a Friday morning. Storekeepers were setting out their wares: Formica-topped tables from the 70s, incomplete sets of silverware, rocking chairs with flowery cushions and painted armrests. The corner coffee shop was empty. A barista stood at the counter, watching the street.

A feeling of dread filled the air as I walked toward the studio, nestled in a side-street of the market.  Our teacher, a jolly woman named Sahar, laughed nervously. “The easy parking is the upside of what has been a horrible week,” she says in Hebrew, her eyes twinkling, panning her new students. That particular week really was horrible, with a spate of knifings carried out by Palestinians in their teens. They were shot on the spot by Israeli security personnel. An innocent Eritrean man was lynched by a seething mob in the central bus station of Beersheba after a shooting attack.

I sat down on a stiff-backed chair with the other participants. There was labaneh and pitta bread and little cookies set out on the table beside us, an offering of goodwill from Elbahar, the NGO that offers this course as a way of both reaching out to Israeli Jews and raising money for small businesses run by the women of Jaffa. The door to the studio was open, and Sahar asked if we’d feel safer if the door was locked. Without waiting for an answer, she crossed over the room and locked it.

Jaffa is one of the few areas in Israel where Arabs and Jews live together. Parts of it, like the flea market, feel like fragile oases of peace in a country where peace hovers but never seems to land. Yet this fact is deceptive. In 1948, many of the Arab population fled in boats to Gaza, never to see their homes again.

Today, much of Jaffa is undergoing gentrification and the remaining Arab residents are making way for yuppie Jewish families. So, if you can afford the rocketing price of realty there, it might be hip to live in Jaffa, it might be cool to retain the softly arching windows and the original floor mosaics as you renovate the crumbling structure of a house that overlooks the Mediterranean, but let’s at least acknowledge the underlying social and political map of this area.

Arabic is spoken by almost 25 percent of the Israeli population; Hebrew reigns supreme.  Some months ago, a member of the Israeli parliament tried to pass a bill degrading the status of Arabic to a “special” language. That was when I decided it was about time I sit down and learn Arabic systematically.

While working as a foreign journalist, I picked up a sprinkling of Arabic, enough to show willing, to say please and thank you, but little more than that. I also learnt the word for journalist, sahafiyeh, a word I used at check points when entering and exiting the West Bank. When Sahar begins by asking us what our professions are, I raise my hand confidently and say: Ana sahafiyeh. The truth is, I’m not really a journalist anymore, but I didn’t know the word for writer or translator. I knew to say marhabah when entering a Palestinian house and could hold a very simple conversation. Beyond that, I was lost without an interpreter by my side. Now, in Jaffa, was my chance to learn those words.

We laughed a lot in that first class. There was a film producer, three lawyers, a retired scientist, a young woman who works for Oxfam and another who works in high-tech. There was also a woman rabbi, but Sahar explained there is no word for that in Arabic. It simply doesn’t exist.

One of the first questions Sahar taught us was Wen inte saken? Where do you live? A question that has always been difficult for me to answer. I was born in England but have lived in the Middle East for more than thirty years. I moved to Israel as a teenager, a move orchestrated by my parents that I have struggled with for years. It’s also a question that resonates for many here in Israel, a country that was founded by immigrants fleeing their motherlands but today largely resents new immigrants.

Almost all Arabic names (and Hebrew ones too) have a meaning. Sahar, for example, means dawn.  Our teacher explained that there are three different  words in Arabic for dawn: sahar, meaning a few minutes before dawn; fajer, meaning a few minutes before lights breaks on the horizon, and duha, a little after the sun rises in the sky.  I turn these subtle interpretations over in my mind and think of Nasser Rabah, a poet in Gaza who I met on Facebook a year and a half ago, as Israel was bombing his city. I have translated some of his poems with the help of a friend from DC. Rabbah’s words are important and brave. I want to understand them, I want to hear his voice.

Once a week for 12 weeks, we learned how to string simple sentences together, hesitantly at first, then more confidently as the weeks went by.  During the break at noon, the call to prayer from nearby mosques would ring out through the market at the same time as the Jewish population prepared for the Sabbath, buying challah and other items at one of the nearby grocery stores.

At each class, Sahar wrote conjugations on a blackboard propped up on a plastic chair, then erased the words and wrote more. She wrote in Hebrew script, using the “nikudut’ system of diacritical signs to represent vowels.  I found myself taking notes in English, writing the words with English letters and then, in a weird twist, copying the Hebrew dots and dashes underneath the English letters.

We learned the lilting songs of Fairuz from Lebanon, expressing the yearning for a home that has been taken away, and there were numerous love songs, mostly sung by men. Some of the songs sounded like Zionist pioneer songs, with rousing choruses; others reminded me of Red Army Choir music, with heavily orchestrated sections. We listened to Egyptian singer Dalida’s Helwa Ya Baladi, in which she sings of “memories of the past, remember my beautiful homeland?” and I think back today on my own homeland, which will always be England.

In one of the final classes, someone brought a song by a Jewish singer whose family came from Morocco. Although sung in Arabic, it had a note of familiarity, a Hebrew flavour I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was the Hebrew intonation. After class, I listened again while waiting for the bus back to my daughter’s apartment in North Tel Aviv. Then I listened to a song in Arabic and Hebrew, Layla Layla, sung by a Bedouin singer, produced by an Israeli with Arabic roots, and I liked that too.

I sat on the bus as it weaved through the seedy neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. I looked at the Arabs and Jews, my fellow travellers, clutching shopping bags, staring out of the windows. On journeys like these, I occasionally catch words of Arabic I learnt back in that class, mundane words that take on new meaning as I turn them over in my mind. Amal, hope, dayman, always. Bet, home. My home, bayti. It’s almost the same for Hebrew as it is for Arabic. Surely that means something.

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