A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Arabic in public

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 26, 2008

Thanks to a last-minute email and blog check before I headed off to work this morning, I was that person on the subway who makes everyone nervous. You know: the one who keeps bursting out every so often with a few chuckles.

Ordinarily, this happens because I am reading something funny. But today I had no reading material – I was kept busy enough by the task of balancing over-stuffed handbag and rolling luggage. So you can imagine that the sight of one solo traveler – with two bags full of who-knows-what – might cause alarm.

I blame snarla for it all. It was her comment on my Dubai post that I saw just before powering down, and it was her comment that made me giggle my way from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

When you are traveling by plane, she wrote, are you ever compelled to write something in Arabic in the margins of the in-flight magazines? I am. But I haven’t done it yet.

Loooooooooool. I have never thought of this, but imagining it now makes me laugh out loud. Of all the totally mechant (yet ultimately harmless) ways for the country’s Arabic-speakers to carve out a bit of retaliatory space for the racial profiling they face in airports and on planes, this is the best I have heard. I can definitely see writing city names on the “where we fly” maps towards the back, or a “to-do” list on a full-page ad. Too, too funny.

Snarla’s comment also made me think about an issue I do face more frequently: that of reading, writing, or translating Arabic in public places.

For the first two-three years after 2001, I never took Arabic texts with me on a plane – and if I did, I certainly didn’t pull them out.

When I did start working with Arabic in public, it was on public transportation: the subway. A friend had told me that he used his subway rides to review Arabic words using flashcards, so I decided to do the same. At the time, I was taking a medieval Arabic class – far exceeding the boundaries of my professional interests, but it was the only one available at my level – so the words and their usages were fairly esoteric.

But pulling out hand-made flashcards with Arabic words on them made me an instant hit with my fellow subway riders. On every ride I took, someone began asking me questions about Arabic: what I did with it, how long I had studied it, where I had traveled, it. It was great public outreach, but it wasn’t particularly conducive to learning.

More recently, I have become a bit blase about working with Arabic in public places. I am currently working toward a professional certificate in Arabic-English translation (news that may frighten Houssam and others who disagree with my translation in yesterday’s post 🙂 ), and this past weekend was sufficiently pressed for time that I completed my entire translation assignment on the plane back to New York.

And … no one looked at me funny. No one looked at me with interest. In fact, no one paid the slightest bit of attention to me. And while I didn’t mind the lack of scrutiny, I did miss the celebrity status of my 2004 subway flashcard days. So snarla’s suggestion may have come at the perfect time 🙂 .

One Response to “Arabic in public”

  1. Andy said


    A very interesting story. Bookmarked.

    My blog is http://myarabicstories.blogspot.com


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