A Note on Arabic Slang

The first slang term that I learned when in Jordan was telling someone “أنا عمك” which means I am your uncle. My host brothers used it all the time when joking around with each other and I didn’t get it at first, but  I eventually caught along that it was just a way to roast someone. However, I brought it up in class to my teacher, and to my host parents multiple times and they had absolutely no clue why I would say that. So for younger people, this term is a good joke amongst your friends, but you would never say it to someone older.

The second slang word I remember using was “زلمتي” which loosely translats to my man (but it can be used for girls too (or at least my host brothers did)). This is something that we would just all use around the house to yell at each other, so we used it quite a bit. This is something that both my host parents and teacher understood when I asked them about it, but they said that they themselves wouldn’t use it. So once again this seems to be a pretty youth based word.

Generally Arabic is an interesting language because everyone speaks in what could technically be referred to as “slang.” There’s modern standard Arabic (MSA), which is what is primarily taught to non-native learners because every Arabic speaker usually has at least some base knowledge with (it it is called “فصحى” in Arabic which means “eloquent.” But in day to day conversation everyone uses عامية which is the regional dialect that varies depending on which part of the Arab world you’re in. People in the levant use different words than people in Egypt, who use different words than the people in the former French colonies, who use different words than the Gulf countries, etc. My host brothers even told me that when they’ve talked with people from Morocco or Algeria they often can’t understand them unless they both switch to MSA because the regional dialects are so different. This also adds an extra challenge to being an Arabic student because having a textbook knowledge of the language doesn’t do you a whole lot of good when they use entirely different words for things depending on what region you’re in. For example, when with my host family or if i was talking to someone on the street I’d use the words “ليش (laiish (why?))”, شو (shoo(what?)), and وين (weyn(where?)). However, in the classroom where we have to use MSA, you would get scolded for using those words instead of “لماذا (limaadha (why?))”, “ماذا/ما (maadha/maa (what?))”, and “أين(ayna (where?))”. So really everytime you have a normal conversation you’re technically using slang because the regional Arabic dialects differ so greatly, to the point that it sometimes becomes a problem for native speakers.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jordan

An old topic that has gained more attention recently has been Jordan’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Jared Kushner recently meant with King Abdullah to negotiate what Jordan would find acceptable in a potential peace agreement. Jordan plays a vital role for many reasons such as the incredibly large Palestinian population in Jordan, Jordan’s proximity to the area, and it’s role as one of the Arab countries that have formal relations with Israel.

I sat down and talked with my host family about this issue and what they would support. Most host parents both agreed that at the very least there should be a two-state solution with an officially recognized Palestine. They firmly believed that the land ultimately belongs to the Palestinians and that the Israelis were given the land because other countries felt bad following World War II, which was not the fault of the Palestinians in any way. They also want Palestinians that decide to remain in their homes within Israeli territory to be treated equally. Right now they are discriminated against in terms of housing, jobs, and many other ways.

My host brother (19) had a more extreme view and said that in an ideal world all of Israel would be given back to the Palestinians, and this is something that he hopes will still happen. He said he didn’t have anything personal against the Jews as a people, but he believes they had no right to the land. It was just given to them without any consultation with Arab/Palestinian leaders, and ever since then, they have continued to treat all Palestinians and Arabs without respect. He thinks that Israel is also used as a base by other countries to separate the Arab countries (both geographically and politically) from being more of a united force. He said that if people really wanted to give the Israelis a land, why weren’t they given a place in America or a place in Europe? They weren’t because no one wanted to deal with the issue, or the places were viewed as too anti-Semitic, so instead, they made their problem the Arabs’ problem and washed their hands of it.

I would say that the parents’ views are almost directly in line with what the Jordanian government is taking. They are firmly stating that the Palestinians should have some formally recognized state, and should be treated much better in Israeli borders. My host brothers point of view may sound radical, but it’s fairly common from what I’ve heard from others. Jordanians don’t have any personal problems with Israelis, but they have serious problems with things the country has done. Palestinian refugees/immigrants made Jordan’s population increase by almost 50%, a load that took a heavy toll on a small economy and limited natural resources. This meant that there were more people, and fewer jobs, meaning that Jordanians were harmed too.

With my background, I didn’t realize how sore and deep-rooted of an issue the Palestinian-Israeli situation was for all Arabs. I feel that they are often vilified and portrayed to be attacking Israel when in reality many people wouldn’t respond in the nicest way if a new country was made in a land that already had people in it, and those people were then treated like second-class citizens. It reminds me of how colonizers treated Indians in some ways. We now look back on that as a shameful time period, or series of actions and I think that once/if this issue gets settled, people will realize how raw of a deal many Palestinians got. It is important to note that I don’t think the Israeli’s bear too much blame for the origin of the problem either, although both sides have not helped by treating each other so poorly. Truly, the problem lies with Western countries (the allies post-WWII) deciding to dump one of their problems onto someone else. In doing so they created a much bigger problem that is still the source of a lot of tension and violence today.


The Role of the US in the Middle East

I sat down with my host family and talked to them about their perception of the US and its foreign policy strategy in the region. There was a wide range of opinions concerning the US and other countries around the world. For some background, my host father was born in Jordan but lived in the US during his college, postgraduate, and even some of his professional years when he taught. He also spent time with the US military as a translator and has dual citizenship. My host mom grew up in Syria and has lived in Jordan ever since she married. And my host brother (their son) has lived in Jordan his whole life but is very familiar with American holiday traditions thanks to his dad.

I talked with my host brother (19, college student) about the issue first and had talked to him about political issues multiple other times since I had been here. To be blunt, he is very anti-American concerning their approach to foreign policy. He believes that for the most part, America has always exploited Arabs for their resources while keeping them weak enough to ever organize themselves to be a legitimate power that can be less reliant on foreign powers. He alluded to past coups that the US has supported, and US support for oppressive government regimes.  He even went further to say that he would prefer that Arab powers ally themselves with Russia if they had to pick a side. He said that Russia would be more likely to take stronger action against Israel, put some restraints on the Saudis, and be less suppressive in general because they aren’t as strong as America. Despite these views, he still wants to go to America to work and study one day. He likes Americans and has made many friends with the ones that have stayed at his house. So while he dislikes the government and their decisions, he is not against the people or the country as a whole.

Next, I talked with my host father (55, self-employed translator). He was much more pro-American, which makes sense given his history with the country. However, even he does not support a lot of American foreign policy in the region. He thought that Iraq was a waste of young men and time, which left a ruined country. However, he is very wary of growing Russian influence and would never want any connection with them. He also has strongly disapproved of government policy more since the election of Trump. He views him as a racist bully that doesn’t care about any of the Arabs and views them all as the same. If I had to sum up his views it would be that America treats the Arab states with more respect and meddles less, but still wants to maintain a close relationship with America.

Lastly, I interviewed my host mother. She didn’t have a lot to say about the topic because she admitted she wasn’t too educated on it. But even this gave me an insightful view of how the passive bystander views America. She just generally associated American foreign policy with increased violence in the region and thus was generally against American intervention. However, she also thought that any other big country would have similar interventionist policies and that it’s not solely an American problem.

I was most surprised by my host brothers position that he believed that the American government specifically was a problem. I understand the host mothers position that most other world powers would have similar interventionist policies, but I did not expect to hear that another power such as Russia (or anyone else) would be a better alternative. This really has made me give serious thoughts to the issues the US government will have to address in the region especially if the autocratic regimes in the region should fall. While there has been a trend of democracies liking each other and being close allies, I think that Middle Eastern democracies would tend to buck this trend. I think the two governments (ME and US) would be “friendly”, but it’s pretty clear to me that if it were left in the hands of the people, Middle Eastern states would not be pushovers. They would probably give more resistance than they give currently, and could be a rogue “thorn in the side” of a purely self-interested US government.

First Taxi Rides

So I’ve arrived in Amman and have settled in my homestay. I’m in a really nice area that has a mall, shopping center, markets, and tons of restaurants nearby. The only downside is that it’s about an hour-long walk from where my classes are. So, since I have 8 AM classes, I decided to take taxis. One thing you learn very quickly in Jordan is that most people are very curious and don’t have the same “boundaries” concerning what is or isn’t appropriate to ask. So on my first ride, as I was shaking off the rust of not practicing Arabic for a month, I ended up having a mini conversation about my ethnic origins! When I said I was from America the driver responded with, yeah what about your parents? I told him that they were both from America too, and then he asked where they were originally from? At this point I figured out that he was trying to figure out what my ethnic origins were and when I told him that my dad was African(-American) and my mom Irish, he was then confused about why I’m brown, insisting that all Irish people are white. After this we began talking about how he was from Palestine (Bethlehem!) and how he had moved to Jordan with his family. There has been a growing Palestinian population in Jordan over the past few decades with a country of originally four million growing to six million. He explained that while Palestinians aren’t treated as second class citizens exactly, it is very rare for them to get government jobs as Jordanians want Jordanians in their government. In addition to this, there has been a growing number of protests against the current Israeli-Palestinian situation. My host family has told me that most of these are because Jordanians want the problem solved so that Palestinians can go back, not only because it’s their homeland but also because they want fewer people in the country. I would kind of sum up the treatment of Palestinians as a “charity” case in a loose sense. Jordanians feel an obligation to take them in, but they definitely don’t want it to be a permanent situation, and they won’t afford Palestinians all of the same benefits as Jordanians. All this has given me a cool insight into the culture and the importance of origins in defining who you are in Arab and Middle Eastern culture