Arabic lessons

No, this is not the title for a spin-off for Vikram Seth’s wonderful novel A Suitable Boy, though it could be. And maybe should be. Maybe some day? Meanwhile, here’s the story that set off this post:


Out shopping at the spice market last week, I needed to get some dried coconut. Now, although I’ve been here for three years, I have to sheepishly admit that my Arabic is not very good and though I’m able to get by at the markets, I rely a lot on visual communication, body language, pointing, hand-waving and even pure guesswork to get the items I need. In my defense, once I do find the item, I always ask the guys for the Arabic word for it. Invariably I’ve forgotten it by the next visit and I have to enact the entire pantomime again, but some of the words do stick and over the years through tiny, very tiny increments my vocabulary has grown. In this instance it was the Indian husband. Which is the literal translation of the Arabic word (or at least the of Egyptian dialect, Ameya)  for coconut, Goz el-Hind. Hah! the next time someone asks me why I’m not married (and believe me, even now some people seem to think that such intrusive personal questions are fair game if you’re Indian and single) I should probably tell them I already have an Indian husband at home. After all I wouldn’t be lying would I?  I usually do keep a stock of dried coconut at home… in my freezer.

Jokes aside, this is a great mnemonic because coconuts do feature prominently in wedding ceremonies back home. In fact, as I remember, a coconut is even used as the proxy for the man in certain ceremonies if the guy for whatever reason can’t be there. Coincidence, or does this tradition (or the perception of it) lie at the foundation for the Arabic word? Maybe a factoid worth researching, but that’s a subject for the Rhetoric and Composition class I am teaching this semester.

p.s. Coconut photos courtesy of downloads from Google Images


Schizolingual is a new word I coined to describe my state of speech when I’m trying to speak a foreign language – anything other than Hindi, English or Tamil, it seems. With those three there’s simply a tendency to switch and mix at will, but with the others… boy has it been funny.

It seems as if whenever I’m trying to speak in a foreign language, German here in Austria and Arabic back in Egypt, my brain accesses the most recent unfamiliar word for a word I’m trying to say. For instance, when I first started taking Arabic lessons I found myself frequently using the word “aber” (Deutsch for “but”) while chatting with my teacher. One of the correct words is “lekin” which is also used in Hindi, so it should have actually been easier to remember, but my head is ever the contrarian. And similarly, here in Austria, despite the perfect simplicity of the word Ja (Yes) I find myself saying Aiwa or Si (Arabic and Italian respectively). Definitely Schizolingual! or schizo-something at any rate.

But my truly scariest experience of schizolingualism came about at about 2 am one night when on a cab home from my summer schoolmates’ dorm. I was giving the cabbie instructions in German but said some crucial words in Arabic. (unfortunately can’t quite remember the sentence that slipped out, but it went something like this… Bitte jetst gehen sie shemel). Guess what? The guy didn’t need any translation or explanations.He was an Egyptian who’d lived here in Vienna for many years, and so I guess had had linguistic experiences similar to mine. Go figure! All he did was laugh, ask me where I was from and then proceeded to prove his Egyptian-ness (and especially Egyptian cabbie-ness) by asking about Bollywood and Amitabh Bacchan! So not only was he schizolingual he also proved to be cosmocultural!

Ciao, See y’all spater. I’m sure you have work to do and ana kamen muss arbeiten.

Ah the joys of learning a new language. One lives in trepidation of saying something that might be rude or offensive in the new tongue just because of the wrong inflection or emphasis. But I found myself experiencing quite the opposite here with one of the first expressions I learned here.

Fee fakkah?

Contrary to expectation this expression has not the slightest connection to its oft-used homonym in the English language. Fakkah simply means loose change. Fee fakkah? = got change? The correct answer to this by the way is “mafeesh fakkah,” which means “I have no change,” which is what a taxi driver always claims in this country. The counter to that, when you are on the the receiving end of that claim, by the way, is “mafeesh faloos,” which means no money. A cab driver, the most likely other participant in a conversation about faloos and fakkah, is usually rattled when faced with the threat of losing a fare altogether or wasting time waiting for you while you go to the corner store to make change. (This a tip from Jack). Meanwhile in all this I get to swear with impunity 😉

Enough on money matters. Sailing on to the next f on the list: felucca. You may have seen pictures of these graceful sailboats.


For my money, a felluca-ride is one of Egypt’s best tourist attractions. For just 50 LE (Egyptian pounds) you can rent one for an hour – by yourself or with a host of friends, it doesn’t matter. The price is the same. A few second later you are adrift in the Nile, your face fanned by a gentle breeze and the bustle and noise of the honking cars recede into the haze. Sweet bliss.

I’ve known of students who’ve rented them to take naps. One of our welcome dinners at AUC was hosted aboard (several) fellucas. I’ve even graded midterms and assignments aboard a felluca. Its all good. Just make sure you carry some fakkah in your pocket so you can tip the boatman as you disembark.