Signing the Contract
(If you haven’t read Milestone 1 – A Cup of Tea, this post will make more sense once you have read it).
My first year in Egypt was spent immersing myself in Arabic. I was determined to make the most of what I thought would be a single year here. My plan was to take in as much Arabic language learning as I could in as many ways as possible.
Five days per week, I was in class at the American University in Cairo.The program was intense – five hours a day of instruction.About 3/4 of the class time was spent studying Modern Standard Arabic (فصحى) and 1/4 of the time spent studying Egyptian Colloquial (عامية).The teachers were for the most part good, and some of them were excellent.One of my favorite teachers was Abbas Al-Tonsi, co-author of the famous Al-Kitaab books for Arabic language learning.He revolutionized my thinking about learning vocabulary, even though that was not the main focus of the course I took with him. More on vocabulary in a later post.
In addition to class time, we had 2-3 hours of Arabic homework per night, on average.On top of this, I decided I was going to spend as much time speaking Egyptian Arabic as possible.Learning Arabic was my priority. I was unconventional.I made friends with a fruit-seller on our street named Ibrahim, and sat on a chair next to him for 1-2 hours per day, at least 5 days a week.I would talk with him in Arabic (he spoke no English), as well as with all kinds of customers that came by.It was only after I had been doing this for several months that I learned from other people that in Egyptian society, this was seen as strange.I was not concerned with that!
So all in all, I was spending something in the range of 8-10 hours/day learning Arabic.Eating, breathing, sleeping… lots of Arabic.
Progress was relatively fast.From my first days of wanting to order tea, I was soon doing all kinds of every-day things reasonably well.I could tell the barber how to cut my hair.I could buy groceries.I could play sports.I could take busses and trains anywhere I wanted.I could sell fruit! That was REALLY strange for people on my street to see a 21 year old Canadian boy manning the fruit shop from time to time when Ibrahim stepped out!I had a blast.
As the end of my first year drew close to finishing, I felt like I was not done.Originally my plan was to be in Egypt for 1 year.I could see that my Arabic was just really starting to take off.I couldn’t think of any really pressing reason for me to get back to Canada and graduate faster.So I decided to stay a second year.
But I wanted to change one thing.The place I lived.I was living in a very nice neighborhood of Cairo called Zamalak.It’s actually an island in the middle of the Nile.I loved the Nile, and spent many evenings sitting in a coffee shop watching the boats go by.
But I had my eye on a different neighborhood, where no one spoke English.I wanted to live in what we call a “sha3by” area – حتة شعبية – sometimes translated as a “popular area”.What it really means is an area that is lower on the socio-economic scale.In Cairo that means crowded, noisy, and for me at that time – amazingly fun!
Through a friend of a friend, I found an area called Dar el-Salaam, south of the center of Cairo.It was a sha3by area.It bordered on a very poor area called Ezbet Kheer Allah (عزبة خير الله), and this was the place I really wanted to live.I found a family with a 3 level building, who was willing to take me on as a renter.They would build me a 2 room apartment on the roof, where the chickens and goats were kept.No running water (that was brought up from street level), but with electricity.Perfect.
Which brings me to milestone 2 in my Arabic learning.On a warm night in late May 1992, I found myself on the roof of the building where my future apartment would be built, sitting on a mat, drinking tea, and signing a rental contract.In Arabic.I have put a picture here of a rental contract that is not actually the one I signed, since the one in the picture only came into law in 1996.But it would have been similar.
How did I understand the contract?Well, my year of intense learning was paying off.I could understand about 80% of it.I could read that I would pay 60 Egyptian pounds per month, with a downpayment of 12 months that would be used to build the apartment over the summer while I was back in Canada.I wasn’t entirely sure what the other 20% said, but said a quick prayer, signed the paper, and handed over 720 pounds!
When I came back in August, the apartment was ready and waiting.That’s a future story.
Would I want to live in that area now?Probably not!Would I recommend signing a contract that has 20% unknown content to me, knowing what I know now?Definitely not!But am I grateful for the crazy fun year I had living in 3ezbet kheer Allah?Oh yes.
- Learning Arabic takes prioritization.It’s really the same as any language.Although 8-10 hours/day is not realistic for most people, whatever amount you can set aside for it is absolutely crucial to your process of becoming functional.
- Immersion in Arabic is one of the keys to success.Lots of exposure to native speakers.Face to face is awesome, but exposure to video and audio is also a great way to accomplish this.
- Don’t be intimidated by the parts you don’t understand.Go with what you do understand!Don’t sign contracts without knowing all the details, but do take small risks asyou use the language!