A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Learning Hebrew in Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 5, 2008

I was at AUB, the American University of Beirut, earlier this week for a meeting – a total non-event in terms of blogging interest. But what I saw while I was there was fascinating:

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Hmmm, I thought. That sure looks like a familiar language – from television coverage of events in Gaza. I can’t believe I’m seeing it on an AUB chalkboard.

There were a few students in the room, so I asked them about it.

Its Chinese, one of them said.

Really? I asked. It doesn’t look like Chinese to me.

Oh yes, the student said, clearly wondering why I was making such a fuss. People take Chinese here.

I’m sure they do – but not in this class.

I asked a few professors about the chalkboard, and they confirmed that AUB does offer Hebrew, although with some caveats. Its offered occasionally, through the Arabic department, and it is Biblical Hebrew rather than the contemporary Israeli kind – which helps explain the sentence below (the one in English – the Hebrew is anyone’s guess):

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Personally, I am delighted that AUB teaches Hebrew – and not only because I know someone who would like to learn.

I admit that the goofy part of me is amused by the idea of would-be muqawimeen taking the class, heading south and speaking to their counterparts across the border in the Hebrew equivalent of Shakespearean English. But mostly I am delighted because when it comes to Israel, most of the Arab World has chosen to stick its heads in the sand – while Israel churns out fluent speaker after fluent speaker of modern Arabic.

And I am delighted because the languages are so close, and I feel that there surely must be some way of building on that closeness. Do you see the Arabic letters on the chalkboard above? I don’t know for certain, but I believe they are there as examples of equivalences – that the saad has a Hebrew counterpart, for example.

Even the words are similar. In Arabic, “Hebrew” is العبرية. And “Arabic” is العربية. Almost the same word: same letters, same form, with only the “baa” and “raa” switched (al-3ibryia vs. al-3arabiya).

Good job, AUB – and bravo to the students enrolled in the class. I imagine that here in Lebanon it takes courage to say: I’m taking Hebrew this semester.

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8 Responses to “Learning Hebrew in Lebanon”

  1. Hassan said

    LOL, when i read this

    “that the saad has a Hebrew counterpart, for example.” i didn’t realize u were transliterating. i thought u meant someone called Saad 😛

  2. LOL indeed Hassan – TOO FUNNY! If I were as witty as I think I am, I would have made something better out of that sentence, like:

    “that the saad has a Hebrew counterpart, called Mossad”

    next time I’ll be funnier 🙂

  3. nicolien said

    not to be obnoxious, but there are quite a few Lebanese people who are fluent in Hebrew – for example, some of them work for Al-Manar, translating Israeli news into Arabic. ‘Understanding’ each other’s language doesn’t always lead to becoming closer…

  4. Nicolien, you aren’t obnoxious at all – and you make two very good points. I do think the languages are close, but I meant that more Lebanese should learn Hebrew for its political utility than for peace-making. I’ll write more clearly next time – and for now I’m simply grateful for your very good comments!

  5. intlxpatr said

    The languages and customs are so close – it’s a family fight over inheritance, and there is no fight as bloody or heated as a family fight.

  6. nicolien said

    Thank you for the reply. In Dutch we actually have two different words, which I think very accurately describe the difference:

    ‘verstaan’, which means to understand a language, &
    ‘begrijpen’, which means to understand what someone is saying (and implies an understanding of why they say/do what they say/do)

    So even when someone speaks to me in my own language, I will ‘verstaan’ him, but not necessarily ‘begrijpen’ him…

  7. Hi khalti! yes – definitely a family fight!

    Nicolien – fascinating! and what a useful distinction to have! In English we have “understand” and “comprehend”, but I am not certain that the same precision separates them. Understand can be used to refer to emotions, while comprehend is more for intellect – but those are more vague.

  8. Serge said

    But mostly I am delighted because when it comes to Israel, most of the Arab World has chosen to stick its heads in the sand – while Israel churns out fluent speaker after fluent speaker of modern Arabic.

    In fairness — not only are 20% of Israelis Arabs who attend school in Arabic, about half of the other 80% come from Arabic-speaking backgrounds. There are a few more challenges for Lebanese.

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