Reflecting on the Summer


Now that I’m back in South Bend and missing all the life and color of Beirut, there’s been a lot of time to think back on my goals for the summer, the insights I’ve gained, and where I plan to go from here.

More than anything else, this summer reminded me that the purpose of language is communication. It’s okay if I make mistakes and sound a little ridiculous as long as I’m out there engaging people in conversation and broadening my worldview. My tendency had always been to learn as much Arabic as possible on my own before going out into the world and trying to apply it. Textbooks, apps, podcasts, YouTube… these are all great tools. But learning a language without extensive interpersonal dialogue can reinforce bad habits and make you sound mechanical. Speaking off the cuff, messing things up, and having people correct me are the things that caused the most noticeable improvements. By the end of the summer, I could hold simple conversations in the colloquial language, fairly sophisticated conversations in the standard language, and I produced a 1,000 page research paper in Arabic (of which I was quite proud). Still, I underestimated how much the divide between colloquial and standard Arabic would slow down my progress, and I still need to put in a lot of work to improve my listening comprehension and become more comfortable initiating conversations, moving out of my comfort zone, and taking risks with the language.

The Arabic program that I took part in was especially rigorous, and the level that I tested into (High Intermediate) happened to be more demanding than other classes in the program. This left very little time for anything other than class, homework, and sleep. Taking advantage of the many events happening in the city would have required me to bail on my homework, and I couldn’t bring myself to do that. For the most part, I was okay with this. I had already traveled extensively around the Middle East and visited Lebanon last summer, so it wasn’t my first encounter with the culture. The language took precedent for me. Still, I did not feel that I was fully immersed in the language, because I was mostly surrounded by other students and had limited opportunities for meaningful engagement with Lebanese. As much as I appreciated the rigor and improved my Arabic, had I known more about the structure of this program, I may have opted instead for something that prioritized conversation over grammar and vocabulary. I would encourage those who are considering an SLA Grant to think about the kind of experience you are hoping to have. What type of cultural exchange do you want (e.g., organized class trips or free time to explore on your own)? Is your primary goal to learn how to engage in casual conversations, or do you want to focus on perfecting the mechanics of the language and using it in formal spaces? Thinking carefully about these questions ahead of time can help you select a program that adequately meets your language goals.

It’s difficult to know exactly what the future holds for me in terms of further Arabic study and the application of it. My current dissertation plans would bring me back to the Middle East for at least six months, during which I would be able to continue formal language training alongside my research. As I grow in my field, I hope to continue working with local partners to develop and implement programs that provide psychosocial support for youth that have been displaced or otherwise affected by political violence in the region. In the meantime, I will continue to study Arabic here at Notre Dame and seek out opportunities for practicing conversation. As a move forward, I will focus more heavily on improving my colloquial Arabic and finding spaces to build on the wide array of language skills I gained from this past summer.

مع السلامة // With peace


The Courage to Speak

Finding a taxi in Beirut is the easiest thing, especially for someone who looks like a foreigner. Without fail, every taxi driver that passes me as I’m walking down the street slows down, honks at me, and pauses for a beat to see if I need a ride. Most of these taxis can operate as either a private taxi or what is called a service taxi (pronounced “serveece”). The latter continues to pick up and drop off other passengers on its way to your destination and costs significantly less than a private taxi – usually about 2,000 Lebanese Lira, or $1.50. If there’s a lot of traffic or the destination is especially far (traversing East and West Beirut, for example), then it will cost “service-ein” – which translates to 2 services or 4,000 L.L. The availability of service taxis makes movement around the city incredibly easy and affordable.

Not long after I arrived to Beirut, I worked up the courage to speak to a driver in Arabic. As the car pulled up to me, I mustered all my confidence and said, “Service-ein a Gemmayzeh?” The driver glared at me, responded with a brusque “no”, and drove away. I remember this incident very clearly, because I stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes feeling completely shamed before finally deciding to avoid taxis and trek across the city on foot. For the rest of my stay in Beirut, I either walked to my destination or allowed my friends to negotiate with the taxi drivers. It’s such a stubborn thing to do, and I’m not egocentric enough to believe that his decline had anything to do with me or my abilities as a student of Arabic. Still, the more I reflect on it, the more I realize how frequently this pattern has emerged over the course of the summer. It has to do with the vulnerability of learning a new language and the ways I tend to struggle against it. I read an article not long ago about exactly this topic, and it was comforting to know that I’m not the only person running into these issues.

Biking Beirut

Whenever you start something new, no matter what it is, it’s likely that you won’t be very good at it right away. Maybe you’ll defy the odds and discover that you’re a prodigy, but most of the time it will take a lot of practice before you reach proficiency. And maybe you’ll never get there. I think we have all, to varying degrees, recognized and accepted this. And it’s fine, really. For a lot of hobbies, it’s easy enough to wait awhile before sharing your talents with the world. If I’m learning to play the violin, for instance, I could practice in my room until I reach that point where the screeching begins to resemble music. If I’m learning to draw, I can hide away my scribbles until I produce something that I’m proud of. But learning a new language doesn’t work the same way. It is necessarily an interpersonal and intercultural endeavor. It’s not a skill that can be learned well in isolation.

Language learning requires a period of time when you are going to pronounce letters incorrectly, mess up the grammar, and use the wrong words. You are going to say things that don’t make sense, and sometimes people will misunderstand you or revert to English to avoid the hassle. There will probably be cultural missteps, and at some point you will ask someone to repeat themselves over and over and over again, still unable to comprehend the words. And sometimes the way you speak will cause people to laugh at you. Practicing a language requires you to accept the fact that you are going to look a little silly from time to time. This isn’t something I thought about when I first decided to learn Arabic. It never occurred to me how often I would feel a bit foolish, or like a child, or like my personality has been stripped from me as I stand in an awkward silence, unable to express myself or understand those around me, making a mental note to learn how to say, “I swear, I’m not as incompetent as I seem right now.”

There are a number of students in my program who seem to be comfortable with this vulnerability. They show no fear or inhibitions as they converse in Arabic with as many people as possible, always looking for opportunities to practice, always forcing themselves to keep speaking. What’s incredible to me is that some of these people speak truly horrible Arabic. I stare in awe as they enter into conversations completely untethered, bumbling through their words and butchering pronunciation. When the person they’re speaking with laughs or corrects them, which happens frequently, they just smile and keep on going. These people are my heroes.


While I aspire to be this kind of learner, I more often fall into the category of people who obsess over grammar and carefully map out each sentence before speaking it aloud, making sure that it has been constructed perfectly. This has served me well for homework and exams, but it has proven to be a major hindrance to spoken communication. Before asking a question or making a comment, I find myself repeating it over and over in my head until it’s burned into my memory and can be reproduced exactly as I had practiced it. Even within the safety of a classroom I often end each comment with a raised intonation as if to check-in with the instructor and make sure that everything has been correctly stated and the intended meaning has landed. As if to signify, “I realize that there might be a mistake somewhere in this sentence, and I just want you know that I am already aware of it.” I can tell you with certainty that this is not an effective method for progressing in a language. I have been working dutifully all summer to try and break these habits.

As the weeks passed, I have definitely improved. Somewhere around Week 4, something clicked and I was suddenly able to follow along in class. The repertoire of things I am able to say without pausing to think first has probably tripled. And there is a small subset of Arabic words that I can now hear and immediately register without having to translate them. This has been immensely encouraging and has made it easier for me to stick with the work and keep going. Even with all this progress though, I am still trying to grant myself the freedom to look stupid. To happily make mistakes and laugh them off. I keep hoping that this is also something that will “click”. That one day I’ll suddenly be open and relaxed, shrugging off errors and putting myself out there. I am never going to see most of these people again, so what does it matter anyway? And do I really think that waitress in Hamra noticed or cared about the way I pronounce my ayins? Of course not. So let’s just vow to get over this. Language learning is not for perfectionists.



The Great Debate: Fusha or Ammiya?

In a previous post, I had briefly mentioned the separation between colloquial Arabic and formal Arabic, as well as the difficulties this separation poses for students who are trying to learn and apply the language. It has long been a debate among those who teach Arabic whether it is better to begin with Fusha (standard) and move into Ammiya (colloquial), or whether it’s better to move in the opposite direction. Even during my placement exam for this program, I had to write a short essay in Arabic about which side of the debate I agree with. As with most debates, there are solid and convincing arguments for each side.

By learning Fusha first, you can learn the mechanics of the language – the roots and patterns in each word, and the way they can be manipulated, almost mathematically, to help you infer and conjugate an array of nouns, gerunds, and verbs both active and passive. For the academics among us, the formal language can help us to read books, poetry, research articles, and newspapers in Arabic. It helps us to communicate in scholarly and professional settings, and it endows us with the bare bones needed to navigate across any country in the Arab world. Using Fusha, I can generally get by (with varying degrees of ease) whether I am traveling in Lebanon, Tunisia, Oman, or Sudan. Knowing only Ammiya restricts us to a specific locale and makes it difficult to apply the rules of Arabic to infer new words and verbal constructions. For these reasons, I often find myself arguing in favor of the “Fusha first” contingent.

Pomegranate Tree

A pomegranate tree in Deir al-Qamar. Interestingly, the Arabic word for pomegranate (ramman) is the same word for grenade.

Yet, my time in Lebanon has had me questioning this position. It’s true that Fusha is useful for the Gulf countries, as their dialect is incredibly similar to the formal style. In other countries (e.g., Iraq, Palestine, Jordan), the education system places a great amount of importance on teaching Fusha in primary and secondary schools so that most of the population can understand and speak the formal language when necessary. However, Lebanon does not fit into either of these categories. Their education system operates almost entirely in English and French. Even in higher education, universities like AUB and Lebanese American University teach their courses in English, while Université Saint-Joseph teaches in French. Ammiya is used for almost everything else. Even in the Summer Arabic Program, many of the classes and lectures have fused Fusha with Ammiya in such a way that it was necessary to learn a certain degree of both languages just to follow along.


Here is a graffitied elephant statue that I first saw on AUB’s campus in Summer 2015. I happened upon it again this past summer, stored in what looked to be an abandoned parking lot on the opposite end of the city. A month later, I saw it again outside of Beiteddine Palace – which is an hour’s drive outside of Beirut. I don’t know why this elephant and I keep meeting in new places, but I’m starting to feel bonded to it.

Knowing the local dialect helps you to immerse yourself in a given context and learn the culture, regardless of which Arab country you happen to be visiting. And in a place like Lebanon, Ammiya is not just a helpful tool for cultural immersion; it is a fundamental requirement for it. If you want to avoid English and French, the dialect is necessary for interacting with people in any meaningful way. Fusha may be the language of classical literature and politics, but Ammiya is the people’s language – the language of ordering food at restaurants, of asking for directions, and negotiating with taxi drivers. It’s the language of asking someone how their day has been and how their family is doing. You can’t know Lebanon without learning Ammiya.

The divide between these two forms of Arabic has led me to reflect on my language education during the program – particularly the frustration that, yes, I can have conversations about any number of topics spanning history, religion, violence, and politics in the Middle East. But I cannot explain to the health center why I’m not feeling well. This is a realization that has been sitting uneasy with me this entire summer, and something that I will need to revisit when deciding next steps for my Arabic education.

Unexpected Friends // Cats of AUB

Everyone in Hamra has seen them, I’m sure. Strolling along the pathways, lounging on benches, or hiding in the bushes making the most of their stealth superpowers. I’m talking, of course, about those beloved, pampered beings of the Internet: cats. The army of felines currently residing at AUB is one of the most notable things about the campus. And I’ll be honest, it’s been one of the major highlights of my summer. The cats feature so prominently here that the university created its own webpage for them, which outlines AUB’s policy on cats, guidelines for students and visitors, and a donations page for their maintenance.

Guideline #5 clearly states that it is prohibited for any person to dump cats on campus, yet this is exactly how the “Cats of AUB” phenomenon began. Nearly a million people left Lebanon during its 15-year civil war, which lasted from 1975 until 1990. Before leaving the country, some people abandoned their pets on campus with the hopes that they would be fed and taken care of. This small colony grew over time, and AUB still maintains its policy of providing them with humane care and management. It is difficult to estimate the current number of feline residents, but I would venture to guess that it’s upwards of 200. And despite the university’s noble efforts to ensure the cat population is spayed and neutered, their numbers continue to grow. Even during my short stay here, I happened upon newborn kittens on multiple occasions.

Although these cats have been generally tolerated by the students, many have also complained about the university allocating a portion of their tuition for veterinary care and daily feedings. I’ve heard a number of people commenting on the health risks they pose, and sometimes it does seem like there is an actual cat infestation on campus. For example, the sign below is posted on the Center for Arabic and Middles Eastern Studies door in order to prevent cats from getting into the office. It’s like one of the plagues.

Kindly Close Door  Do not feed the cats

To me, the cats have a certain charm about them that brightens my study breaks. I have been trying to balance this attitude with a sensitivity for the concerns and frustrations of those who live here, but I admit, it has been tough. The idea that interacting with animals helps to cut down on stress and burnout is quite realistic, and – perhaps unwillingly – these feral cats have served exactly that purpose. I can’t count the number of times I left class with a splitting headache, feeling exhausted and utterly incompetent, only to sit on a bench and have one of these cats curl up next to me and show some affection. At one point, I thought of creating a #CatsofAUB Instagram account to document all the cat friends I made during my studies. It never happened, so I’ll share a few of them here to commemorate the furry friends that helped me through the summer.

One of the most recognized faces by those in the Summer Arabic Program has been Margaret, the sassy calico that lives on the wall outside our building. Sure, she may look angry, and she hasn’t quite learned how to control her emotions yet. But I assure you, she just needs some love. Don’t we all?


I found Ambien – named after the sleep drug – napping in four different locations throughout the day. Shortly thereafter I met Walnut, who was an extremely tiny pal with the size of my palm and a constant purr.

Ambien  IMG_20160725_135715

While rushing to prepare one of my short presentations for class (we were asked to choose an Arab country and talk about its history and political system), I was distracted by the most gracious tabby cat who was so sweet that I named him Moosh Moosh – the Lebanese word for apricot. That same day, I heard a noise coming from the trashcan and discovered a grouchy four-legged vagabond digging through the rubbish. He earned the name Oscar.

Moosh Moosh  Oscar

A rather aloof white-haired mutant became known as Mu in honor of a pretty deformity that left her with two different eye colors. Walking home from class one day, I heard the most desperate cry coming from the top of a hill and found 3 newborn kittens stumbling inside a cardboard box. These 3 firecrackers came to be known as Lock, Stock, and Barrel.

Mu  Lock, Stock, and Barrel

And to round off the list, a particularly itchy cat that insisted on jumping into my lap was baptized as Pulgoso (the Spanish word for flea-ridden).


This is only a sampling of the many unexpected cat friends that I met in Beirut. In the end, these cats reminded me of the city itself: colorful, diverse, full of personality, and a bit rough around the edges. And although they carry a reputation of caution and uncertainty, they have an awful lot to offer once you get to know them.


North of the City

One of the more difficult aspects of this program is that the pace has not allowed time for unfettered exploration. There are so many things packed into this tiny little country, but carving out a time to travel and sightsee would require me to push aside my coursework, and I haven’t been willing to do that. Perhaps for this reason, the administrators organized two weekend trips to sites and spaces outside of Beirut and hired a tour guide to speak in Arabic so we could escape the campus without wasting precious language time. The first of these trips focused on three areas just north of the city: Jeita, Harissa, and Byblos.

Our first stop was the Jeita Grotto, a system of two interconnected limestone caves that stretch nearly six miles and contain the world’s largest known stalactites (27 feet long). The entire upper cave is walkable, allowing people to meander along a path lined with stalagmites, stalactites, ponds, and an array of giant crystallized formations that resemble mushrooms, orchids, and chandeliers. Our guide pointed out a particular formation in which many people see a resemblance to Buddha. It reminded me of those people who see visions of the Virgin Mary in their toast. I suspect that the entire cave could serve as a Rorschach test. In the lower cave, we had to board a small boat for a brief u-tour of the excavation, as most of this section is filled with water. No photos were allowed in either cave, but here’s a peak at what the upper grotto and lower grotto look like inside. Truly, this place is the cave of wonders. Definitely one of the more spectacular sites I have visited.

The trip through the Jeita Grotto was my first guided tour in Arabic. Even though our guide spoke as slow as humanly possible – enunciating clearly and pausing after each word – I understood surprisingly little of what she said. Not for the first time, it put my ego in check and reminded me that my Arabic vocabulary is not as large as I think it is – especially when it comes to monologues about ancient history, archaeology, and the chemistry of geological formations.

The teleferique to Harissa

Our next stop on the trip was Harissa. To reach this village, you either have to drive up the mountain from Jounieh Bay or make the journey using a creaky gondola lift called a “teleferique.” At the top stands a giant statue of Mary named Our Lady of Lebanon (Notre Dame du Liban) that belongs to the Maronite Church. As evidenced by the swarms of people spiraling up the tower of the statue and visiting its shrine, Harissa serves as a pilgrammage site – not only for Christians, but also for Muslims and Druze across the Middle East. It was my third time visiting the statue, and even though the crowded shrine and cheesy photo ops render this site as something less than peaceful, I have been struck each time by the power of the view. The towering statue looks down the mountain toward Beirut with her arms outstretched – gesturing for me to just pause a minute and absorb it.

A view of Beirut and Jounieh Bay    Notre Dame du Liban

For the final stop of our trip, we drove a bit further up the coast to a city with multiple names. In Arabic it is typically called Jbeil, but in English we usually refer to it as Byblos – a mangling of its original name, Papyrus. The letter ‘P’ doesn’t exist in Arabic and often becomes a ‘B.’ If you were to attend a Lebanese picnic, for example, you might see people drinking a Bebsi or eating a bag of chibs. So Papyrus became Babyrus, and over time morphed into Byblos. Wikipedia informed me that Byblos was also referred to as Geval in the Hebrew Bible and Gibelet during the Crusades. Whatever its name, this city is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with people living there as early as 5,000 B.C. Others might argue that Damascus has been inhabited since 9,000 BC, but in my opinion, the difference is irrelevant. They are both unfathomably old.

Byblos Beach

Unfortunately, we were unable to see anything that bore evidence of Byblos’s 7,000 + years of existence. I did, however, visit a magnificent beach and eat one of the best meals I had during my time in Lebanon.The ancient Phoenician temples and archaeological sites will have to wait for the next visit.

Up the Mountain to Tarshish // إستراحة من المدينة

A few weeks have passed since the program began, and the pace has increased considerably. The bulk of my time has been spent in the library laboring through my hefty grammar, reading, and vocabulary assignments – not entirely unlike my grad student life in South Bend. Despite this, there have been scattered opportunities to break free from campus. The first of these little excursions happened during Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic celebration marking the end of Ramadan. Coincidentally, the celebration occurred just as we finished a lesson in our textbook that included extensive reading assignments about Eid traditions in Damascus. So we had plenty of newly acquired, relevant vocabulary to use in our broken-Arabic conversations.

During the month of Ramadan, I could see the streets of Hamra filling up with people each evening as families piled into nearby restaurants for the Iftar meal. They gathered around tables jam-packed with plates of hummus, labneh, fattoush, tabouleh, falafel, grape leaves, shawarma, and other traditional Lebanese foods – waiting for the call to prayer to ring out so they could break their fast. Because Eid al-Fitr is a national holiday in Lebanon, our program gave us two days off when the holy month came to an end.

As great as it would have been to stay in the city and participate in some of the traditional Eid celebrations, I decided to spend the holiday visiting a Lebanese friend who lives in Zahle – a city close to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. He recently bought a chunk of property nearby, in a small municipality up in the mountains called Tarshish. We spent the first day of Eid far removed from the noise and bustle of the city, hiking through its relatively cooler and much quieter trails. Tarshish, as my brief Google-searching discovered, is known for the cultivation of apples, plums, chestnuts, walnuts, cherries, beans, and other crops that extend through the area. This was immediately evident during our hike, and we stopped every so often to pick a handful of cherries or white mulberries (“toot”) before continuing on our way. After passing the rows of fruit and nut trees, we veered off-trail – climbing up and down steep hills and maneuvering across massive rock formations to get a view of the landscape and escape from the sun.

 Taking a break from our hike to watch the birds   The rocky terrain of Tarshish

I was hoping to use this hike as an opportunity to practice speaking colloquial Arabic with my friend, but I found this to be surprisingly difficult. We are used to speaking with each other in English (and of course, his English is far superior to my Arabic), so I never managed to speak more than a few rough sentences in Arabic before we reverted back to English. Despite all the vocabulary and grammar that I have learned over the past two years, I still can’t get my speaking to “flow.” This is partly because I tend to pause and think about the construction of each sentence before I say it, and partly because I still struggle to pronounce certain letters. And then there is the issue of my near-total lack of confidence in speaking. For all of these reasons, most of the Lebanese people that I meet assume that I know much less Arabic than I do, and they often proceed to “teach” me very basic things (e.g., a taxi driver tried to teach me how to count in Arabic last week – something I have been able to do for a few years now). It’s a bit discouraging, but something that I am trying to work through while I’m here.

Sunset_in_Tarshish   Toot_Berries

?? ??????? // With peace


Tasharrafna ya Beirut! // Nice to meet you

During the last couple of weeks, I have been studying Arabic through the intensive summer program at American University in Beirut. I initially chose this program over others in the region, because it was promised to be one of the most rigorous. In this regard, the program has not disappointed. In fact, the term “intensive” has been quite an understatement as we were immediately thrust into an all-day, all-night whirlwind of classes and homework. We begin class each day at 8:30 in the morning and finish around 3:30 in the afternoon with enough homework to keep us busy until bedtime. It has been mentally exhausting, but my progress is already visible.

Still, learning a new language is such a funny thing. Even as I progress, it feels like the distance I need to go before reaching proficiency keeps growing. It reminds me of that learning model, the “Four Stages of Competence.” When setting out to learn a new skill, people typically begin at the stage of ‘unconscious incompetence’ – blissfully unaware of their deficits. As we move into the ‘conscious incompetence’ stage, we become aware of how little we know and how much we have to learn. I have been idling in this stage for a while now, and I hope that the hard work of this program will propel me into the ‘conscious competence’ stage where I know the language and I’m able to demonstrate this knowledge with deep concentration. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll reach ‘unconscious competence’ – speaking Arabic with ease. Insha’allah.

Sunset over the Mediterranean from AUB's Campus

Watching the sun set over the Mediterranean from my dorm room on campus

One of the most difficult things about learning Arabic has been splitting my attention between standard Arabic (الفصحى – FusHa) and the local dialect (العامية – Amiyya). The differences between the two are vast in terms of grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Essentially, we are learning two different languages. Though I am beginning to feel comfortable speaking in FusHa, this is only used on the news and in official or academic settings. Many Lebanese – especially younger generations – are educated in the French or American systems and do not learn FusHa. Some people appreciate the effort, but speaking in FusHa most often results in confusion, laughter, or a response in English. So as I mentioned, there’s still a long way for me to go.

A glimpse of Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and St. George Maronite Cathedral from the reconstructed downtown of Beirut

As part of the program, we dedicate three afternoons a week to cultural activities: a lecture, club, or field trip. During the first week of the program, my class watched a Lebanese film called Asfouri which explores memories of the civil war in Lebanon, and the changes that followed it, through the lens of a local family and their building renovations. The post-war changes in Beiruti architecture and real estate have been much politicized and often controversial. The film gave me a better sense of how individual experiences and memories interconnect with the landscape of Beirut, and it helped contextualize some of the construction sites I’m witnessing during my walks around town. An intriguing film.

My class also participated in the “Dabke Club” during this week. As we learned, the Dabke is an Arabic folk dance that originated in the towns and villages of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. Specifically in Lebanon, the dance evolved from changes in the weather and its effect on people’s homes. The roofs here used to be flat and made of tree branches topped with mud. As the weather changed, the mud would begin to crack. The owner of the house would call out to his neighbors, “Al-Awneh” (“Let’s go help”), and they would all climb on top of the roof, hold hands, and stomp their feet on the mud to re-adjust it. The dance has transformed quite a bit since then, but you can see from this video that all the dancers still hold hands in a line and make rhythmic “stomps.” Our own attempts were a bit of a disaster, but the uncoordinated flailing began to resemble something like the Dabke by the sixth or seventh round.

AUB Summer Arabic students practicing the Lebanese Dabke

The upcoming clubs will give us a space to learn more about Lebanese cooking, music, and calligraphy. I anticipate more progress and discovery in the coming weeks.

مع السلامة // With peace