Struggles of the “Maafi Arbi” phenomenon

Guest Post - by Sana Zubair


“Maafi arbi” … I replied, repeating my pet sentence to the lady sitting beside me in the hospital. Being clad in hijab, I was often mistaken to be an Arab. People would start a conversation with me in Arabic until I clarified. But this time I said it with a heavy heart because she looked worried and disappointed. All kinds of thoughts started hovering over my mind, was she asking me something, does she need any help, should I ask her to repeat herself and maybe I can figure something out by her body language and context. But I decided not to further trouble her, the “language barrier” took its place firmly, as always.

I wish a wish, a wishful wish

Residing in the UAE from the past 5 years, there had come across many such instances where I wished I knew the Arabic language. Its richness and diversity had always been something of great inspiration to me. Soon after, I finally mustered up enough determination to plunge into it but I found myself struggling. Struggling to find the right resources, material, channels and spaces. When these fell well into place, I found myself struggling to cope with my household responsibilities and motherhood demands. I was envious of my sister living in my home country who had family to help her through motherhood. If only I had this royal opportunity at hand, I would have turned my heart’s desire of learning Arabic into an accomplishment, a reality! That is how I stalled my own progress. It is only now that I have realized that I need to stop whining and get things moving, giving in my best within my own circumstances. I reflected over my blessings – the ease I had of learning this beautiful language not even at my doorstep – on my lap! The comfort of virtual learning is indeed heaven-sent! I have heard accounts of people in the past whose thirst of learning the Arabic language made them travel huge distances get access to the natives, facing every hardship be it weather or provision. Here I am snugged cozily in my couch attending classes with a hot cup of coffee beside me! How much more “handy” could it have been for me! Tweaking your point of view makes you feel blessed!

The conversation barrier

As the classes took pace I realized what I lacked to supplement my efforts. Despite studying well and having a sound foundation in grammar, I slacked when it came to conversing. Why? Because learning a language doesn’t only demand knowing the grammatical rules well, it needs its regular application and practice in a favorable environment. How can we speak, read and write our mother tongues/first languages fluently today without being explained any of its morphology or syntax? Certainly, because we grew up in the environment where the language was spoken and heard and, we spoke it ourselves. Speaking and listening to a language as much as we can play’s an instrumental role in gaining command. Despite being surrounded by countless native speakers, our social circles are either very limited or confined. We either don’t interact with the natives or when we do the common mode of communication is English. For some, the embarrassment of erring gets the better of them. Thus, we deprive ourselves of so many opportunities that come our way which eventually leads to our impaired language skills. In my opinion, whatever little or however little you know, no matter how much you fumble or how little you stumble, just vocalize. Whether you run into a friend, a neighbor, an acquaintance, the person at the counter, or a shopkeeper, anyone you meet in a casual setting or a day to day dealing – just converse. Express yourself in the language. Even if you are not able to get your message across, you will definitely benefit yourself and gain the confidence. Of course, acceptance of the struggle is equally important. I am struggling but I am trying, I am an amateur but this is my road to perfection! It might even result in your friend trying to help by teaching the correct way of a certain expression. That’s all it takes to learn a language. Hearing them use vocabulary and phrasing sentences and then trying to emulate would help grasp the intricacies and subtleties. So, with little initiatives, that I call baby steps, the journey ahead can become enjoyable – by practicing and in other words complementing what you learn.

The blessed bubble

I remember when I had visited Saudi Arabia for Umrah (Holy Pilgrimage) Alhamdulillah, I wondered how the non-native speakers of Arabic managed to get around. The road signs, landmarks, shops and other places of utilities were in Arabic language unlike the UAE. In fact, the struggle started off at the airport. It was rather challenging to find staff who spoke any second language which was for me a stark contrast coming from UAE. It was only after returning that I realized that I had grasped a lot more broken sentences and words of Arabic in that blessed time of a fortnight than I had in two years! Because you are not left with much of a choice there, Arabic is the only mode of communication. As I highlighted earlier, it’s the environment and company that stimulate learning.

Among the many beautiful things that happened there to me, was the yearning for learning the Arabic language. I was tired of standing unmoved, untouched in Salah while the Imam and those around me sobbed bitterly reciting Ayahs. During the Friday sermon (Khutbah) which is meant to be a source of reminder, I sit blankly wondering why no one else around said “Ameen”. It jolted me from inside being in the House of Allah completely oblivious to the Book of Allah, the language of the Beloved (SAW) of Allah. When we focus on such grounds, learning Arabic turns into a passion! A rewarding experience, an icing on the cake! Where the reward turns manifold for each effort and every endeavor. So, when the morale goes down and you find yourself overwhelmed, refresh your intention, revisit your motive and hike up because with Him – every bit counts!


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