Learning Arabic – Milestone 2

Milestone 2 - the rental contract

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!

Fruit Seller
Fruit Seller (credit: Fox News)

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.

Zamalek (Credit: LadyEgypt.com)

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!

Dar El Salaam
Dar El Salaam (Credit: Toujours plus à l’ouest blog)

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.

Ezbet Kheer Allah
Ezbet Kheer Allah (Credit: Al-Ahram)

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.

Rental Contract
Rental Contract

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.

Lessons Learned:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

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