Eid Mubarak! Libyan Culture and the Dilemmas of Trying to Learn the Arabic Language

First and foremost: Eid Mubarak! This past week saw the end of the holy month of Ramadan heralded by a three day holiday full of family, food and festivities of various kinds. I’ve been periodically posting pictures of the delicious looking and tasting food through updates to THIS post, be sure to check it out if you haven’t already or even if you have. The holiday is celebrated here by visiting as many people as possible and escaping the traffic of Tripoli in the mountains. The morning prayer at the mosque was crowded. Despite having seemingly massive mosques every two blocks, minarets cutting the sky visible from virtually anywhere in the city, It was full of people all squeezed together shoulder to shoulder for the prayer. The body heat alone would have been suffocating if it hadn’t been for the AC running on full blast. While prostrated the cool air felt like the refreshing breath of God.

The morning was a relatively short affair compared to some of the services I’ve attended in the United States. Directly after my uncle and I walked to see my grandfather. I’ve mentioned this before, but he is old. Very old. His skin is thin and fragile, covered with bruises from the merest touch. His hearing is largely deteriorated but he prides himself on the health of his eyesight. His conversation topics are few, varying between his age and how many different governments he’s lived to see (five). He is also incredibly devoted, a standing pillar of faith. In his age he takes comfort in reading and re-reading the Qur’an. Over Ramadan alone he must have read it a dozen times. Despite his age and occasional illness he fasted as well. He had to be reminded that Ramadan had ended and it was all right to eat again. Because of his age he commands the respect of many, both inside and outside of our family. As the day progressed, more and more people filled the house to celebrate and wish him and others well and a happy Eid.

There are a lot of people coming and going at the house. Some I recognize, others I certainly should. Even in my new souria (some traditional garb)

Common traditional clothes in Libya

I am pretty distinguishable in the crowd, a fact I am reminded of when I’m told I take after my mother. Besides my difference in appearance and despite (or more actually exacerbated by) my raggedy beard I’ve been too lazy to shave, there are a multitude of other mannerisms that clearly set me apart, not least obvious of which is language.

The Arabic language is as homogeneous as the entire Islamic and Middle Eastern world are, which is to say not at all. While all Arab speaking countries, from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen, all technically speak Arabic, each dialect is widely divergent from the next and is nearly impossible to speak with someone the next country over, despite technically speaking the same language. Some exceptions exist, notably the Egyptian dialect is more recognized because of the wide circulation of Egyptian films over the years. While a classic Arabic exists, known as Fus-ha, it is largely only used in literature and media. While it is widely understood and taught in school (most of the time) it is spoken rarely and if heard in person takes some time to process. While classic Arabic is immortalized by the Qur’an in elongated enunciation and rhythmic verses, Libyan Arabic can seem almost unrecognizable by comparison having been co-opted by Italian colonizers. Considering my experience understanding Arabic is largely limited to a few classes of Classic Arabic, this can make basic conversation and comprehension difficult. What little I do know is often met with vacant stares for a few moments before understanding creeps in and occasionally a small compliment for “knowing” the language of the Qur’an.

A writer at the Economist sums up the issue nicely:

For those who revel in linguistic diversity, this is all good fun. For those who want languages in general to “behave”, and for those in particular who want Arabic to be a single, graspable thing, this is a mess. For the language learner, it’s a daunting task. To be competent in “Arabic” means to learn one language to read and write, and a related but rather different language (like Latin and then Italian) to be able to speak. On top of that, the poor foreigner will be limited to understanding only a fraction of the Arab world.

For those interested in reading the article in its entirety (very informative for the language types, I would recommend it) they can find it HERE.

Besides making communication frustrating and at times, hilarious, it provides other cultural barriers as well. Not being able to reasonably understand members of my family lead me to often refrain from participating in conversations that are dominated by Arabic. I can’t force my language on them after all, and it is my responsibility to learn the language for myself. I do this mostly by listening, picking up on key words and asking what they mean or putting it into context.

That doesn’t always mesh well with my family.

Libyans are incredibly social people. Living alone is virtually unheard of and spending any time alone or avoiding social contact is a reason for others to be concerned. Me sitting in the corner surrounded by people I should know (at least they know me) on a holiday keeping mostly to myself is enough to prompt many to repeatedly ask me “how are you?” and “how is your family?” (usually the only English they might know) in an effort to keep me in the conversation. If I don’t willingly jump in on my own, if only to at least ask someone for water or something, then accusations of shyness are inevitable. Shyness can seem almost rude, or at least unappreciative on the part of the guest. Shyness extends to other things as well. To refuse anything, food, drink, an invitation to go out, for any reason, politely or otherwise, is usually met with stiff resistance. During Ramadan, for example, if I said I was finished eating after Iftar, I was almost guaranteed to be met with at least two or three insistent offers of more food. This was especially interesting because I would notice that most of my family members would eat less than I do before excusing themselves. This is doubly funny because one of the few things I can proficiently say in Arabic are refusals, so in these instances there is no language barrier. As far as going out is concerned, I refuse as little as possible, but occasionally liked to have a night in as constant struggles with jumping between languages and meeting strangers can be exhausting over time, and was met with more than just token resistance if I did. I find this a little ironic because going out usually involves going to the same coffee shop to hear the same people complain about how little there is to do in Tripoli.

So went Eid. Fortunately my Arabic (Libyan) has made leaps and bounds since coming at the beginning of the summer (at least I like to think so, its hard to tell just when my family is being nice). At the bequest of many I have taken to speaking Arabic when I can, which serves as good practice. I get less accusations of being shy, either because I speak marginally more or because much of my family has caught on I don’t speak as much as they do. More likely it’s a combination of the two. Language has never been my forte, so I still struggle with mixing classic and Libyan Arabic, and occasionally Spanish gets tossed up for some reason, so any progress is good progress. One of the things I regret in my life is not knowing more Arabic, so I hope that this trip serves as a proper kick in the ass, much like I wanted the last trip to and the one before that.

All in all a good Eid. For the second and third day I had the pleasure of returning to the mountains to spend time with a couple of my cousins rather than my uncle. There was camping on some of my family’s land at the foot of the mountain, where we had a barbecue and lounged for a while beside the fire. I couldn’t really take a picture of it, but the stars are beautiful even at the bottom of the mountain. One of my cousins did most of the cooking himself, sans any utensils but was somehow surprised each of the six times he was burned picking up the chicken from the grill. In a related event and on topic with my culture theme, I heard old stories about my dad from how brave he could be in his childhood. Unfortunately the Libyan “brave” can often be synonymous with the English stupid, like fighting a revolution with no shoes and a toy gun or grilling over an open fire with bare hands. I had heard the stories and brought up the lack of a distinction, and of course Libyans are also just as aware of this crazy factor, not that it makes much of a difference but in the end it’s all just part of the game. Libyans aren’t stupid by any means, not anymore than anyone else, but there certainly is a clear cultural difference around Libyan bravado than there would be in other countries. I’ll likely address this more in depth in the future.

Our camping spot

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Back at the house with my cousins

Due to a miscommunication, another cousin and I returned to the Amazigh house that I talked about HERE. Turned out to be worth it however as we got a more extensive tour and the presence of another English speaker was immensely helpful. Besides my cousin, each of the four women caring for the house this time spoke English as well and had spent some time living in the United States and Europe. Among English and Arabic, they also understood Spanish and Italian, making my own language concerns seem trivial. They even knew a bit of Amazigh, but had some trouble coming to a consensus of how to spell my name in the language. They were just as hospitable as anyone in my own family and insisted we stay for coffee and homemade shawarma (like a kebab).

While I make many complaints about language or understanding, even with my English speaking cousins, it only comes from the frustration of my own difficulty to grasp it. Despite this, I really seemed to have made leaps and bounds. Where before I would give up and admit my lack of understanding or just explain in English and hand gestures, I now manage small explanations in Arabic, enough to convey my meaning and even make jokes. The progress that comes from just a couple months in language comprehension is astounding when heavily involved in the environment. I was skeptical before of family members informing me that one year would be enough to speak like a native, but I dismissed these inferences as efforts to keep me in the country. Now I’m almost convinced it wouldn’t take nearly so much time as long as I put the work into it, but such work will have to be done Stateside.

The trip back was quiet and the country roads were mostly empty (compared to what it is usually anyway). My cousin and I headed back late and didn’t make it to Tripoli until after dark. The day, and whole weekend, had been long and exhausting, almost as much as the fasting itself. Getting back to my grandfather’s house, I was met with even more visitors trickling in despite the late hour, demonstrating how respected my grandfather is, that even after three days there are still people coming to see him (much to his own discomfort I’m sure, greeting so many people can be exhausting even for a younger man). I went to bed relatively early and have been nursing an annoying cold ever since.