Category Archives: Arabic

And the [Arabic] Oscar Goes To…

As a wonderful way to begin to close out the year, those of us that do not speak Arabic as a first language and are taking Arabic lessons put on a play for the students… in Arabic.

We wrote the play with our wonderful Arabic teacher, Lina (who is younger than I am!), who actually wrote most of it and put many hilarious cultural jokes that we did not know were hilarious until we performed them. The play consists of four scenes of Americans getting into tricky situations because of language difficulties (like accidentally paying a cabbie 3000 JD instead of 30 JD, confusing everyday words in a conversation between students with words for drugs and smoking, and accidentally ordering a pigeon at the grocery store instead of getting directions to the bathroom – the Arabic words for the two are “Hamam” and “Hammam” respectively). I got the lucky role of being the old-man narrator who also sings a short song after every scene with the moral of the story, an Arab Oompa Loopma. Earlier in the year, I danced in front of the school, and now I can add “Sing in Arabic to an entire school in Jordan” to my running list of things I never could have conceptualized I would be doing in the future.

For 10 minutes of glory, the room itself was just bursting with laughter and applause. I was really not expecting the reaction to be quite so enthusiastic, but they absolutely loved it. I have been fending off compliments left and right from students and faculty, and some have suggested that they stop speaking to a lot of us in English because they were so impressed with our Arabic accents.

Though you wont be able to understand the dialogue, its worth checking out the video on the play (posted on my Facebook wall) just to see the students’ reactions to everything. There’s a girl in the background of the video straight up belly laughing the whole time, which in turn made me laugh a lot when I saw the video. [UPDATE: the friend who posted it has privacy settings so you can’t see it unless you work at King’s…. working on getting a different version posted]

I have really noticed a marked improvement in my Arabic over the course of the year. Last year, at the end of the year, a few students made a Rube Goldberg machine as an extra credit project and including a lengthy dialogue in Arabic. I remember watching the video and understanding the gist of it but not really the details. I showed the same video to my classes this year and I was shocked at how much more I could understand now. Guess those Arabic classes are going to good use!

P.S. I know that theoretically you would win a Tony not an Oscar for a play, especially a musical (I was singing), but I’d rather have an Oscar.

Interviewing People for ABC News

It sure is an interesting time to be living in the Middle East, especially in Jordan, which sometimes seems like a little island of stability from which we can watch what’s going on in the region. During the Egyptian Revolution, I got questions from so many people about what was going on in Jordan, and I always answered basically “not much.” To be honest, I didn’t really have much more information that someone outside of Jordan couldn’t get too, and I wasn’t really basing my pronouncement on anything but my general take on the political situation here and intuition…. until I hit the streets with ABC News.

A close friend lived in Jordan last year and moved back to the US to pursue a career in journalism (Molly Hunter), starting out in New York working the graveyard shift with ABC News. She had a trip planned to return to Jordan anyway to help out with the non-profit she ran over here (Reclaim Childhood), but she had the luck to have it coincide with the fall of Mubarak. Because of this, ABC decided to keep her in Jordan for a week and have her report a bit about what is going on here. Though Molly’s “Marhabas,” “Shukrans” and Arabic counting skills are pretty awesome, she needed someone who could speak some more Arabic to accompany her to downtown Amman to put together a piece about Egyptians living outside of Egypt and the general feelign of Jordanians. Camera in Molly’s hand, and a list of questions that I pre-translated in mine and off we went!

Now, I could literally name about 500 people who would have been better for this job, but my Arabic is good enough that I was able to ask the questions that needed to be asked, and generally understand the gist of what they were saying to ask further questions. We talked to the juice man, the keffiyeh seller, and roamed around the Tailor Souk (a little alley that is just filled with people outside of their shops sewing’mending suits). People were friendly, excited to be on camera, generally willing to talk,or at least willing to point out people who could. I asked questions about the revolution, life in Jordan, democracy in general, and  anything else I could think of that I could say in Arabic.

The general sentiment:


  • We (as Jordanians) support the people in Egypt in their revolution, but Jordan is a totally different beast. We love the King!
  • If the economic times were better, we (as Egyptians) would move back home to be with our families, though we do get to visit a few times a year. The revolution is great, but that’s not the key to me returning.

The final product: After an hour and a half or so of interviewing, we went back to Molly’s place and watched the footage to pick out the good parts so that Molly could send those to a real translator…. all for what was I guess a short 10 second clip that aired somewhat late at night on ABC news. So if you saw a random shopkeeper in Jordan speaking Arabic on ABC News around February 15th, I’m the goofy, super excited foreigner right outside of the shot asking the questions. And as another final product, my general feelings about the political state in Jordan were now supported with some nice sound bytes from real Jordanians. What’s going on in Jordan? Not much.

This was all probably pretty much “another day on the job” for Molly, but I had an absolute blast.  I think I may have found something to do if I quit my day job…

A Man of Many Names

There is something about my name that affords itself very easily to nicknames. Maybe it’s the fact that it is chock full on short common nouns, or that it already has man in it, a common element of many nicknames. It all started in seventh grade… back then my older brother was going through a brief phase where his friends were calling him Dickie, which left me with the unfortunate younger brother derivative Little Dickie. Since then, I’ve been Bo, Bubbles, Bobo, B-man and even Mandick (taking the middle part of BowMANDICKson). Whenever I go somewhere new, I tend to accumulate a few more nicknames. Here are a few of my favorites from my name at King’s, of course in addition to my Arabic name, Rami:

Bomaly is the Arabic word for pomelo, which is some sort of large citrus fruit that I don’t think I have ever seen (though you may recognize it from this somewhat well known picture of cat with a pomelo rind on its head). The guards at the gate of the school are somewhat notorious for messing up some of the ex-pats names (though certainly no worse than how badly some ex-pats massacre Jordanian names). I guess they heard Bowman and tried to make it into something that they recognized, so Bowman became Bomaly. This has stuck with a few of the Jordanian faculty here, as they found this story pretty amusing. I’m a fan of this one, though I need to get my hands on a bomaly to see what all the fuss is about.

As a bit of an Arabic nickname in and of itself, one student decided to give me some good Arabic sounds for my name, so he added a “kha” in the middle, which sounds like the hard throat clearing k/h end of loch in Scottish. He uses this name almost exclusively for me. It has a nice ring to it.

On a recent trip that I chaperoned to my favorite pirated DVD spot in Amman, Hamoudeh, my insane buddy who works there named Thaer was causing his usual ruckus, trying to peddle random crappy shows, proposing marriage to people, pretending to make deals even though everyone gets the same deal etc. He was trying to get my attention from a bit of a distance but still doesn’t know my name (I guess weekly trips and hundreds of movie purchases aren’t enough) so the students told me he was shouting for Mahmoud, a pretty random typical Arab name. I’m not sure why he picked that or why he thought that I would have an Arab name, but now a small group of senior girls call me Mr. Mahmoud.

And then many of the rest of the senior girls just call me Bowman. If you’re 17 and too sassy for your own good, there’s no way you are addressing the 23 old dude in a lab coat and a bow tie with “mister”. Last year, I had  only 7 female students out of 35, so I didn’t get much exposure to the population of female high schoolers. This year my classes are about 50-50, so I teach around 30 young women, and I am actually having a very different year. I still haven’t decided which are stranger, high school boys or high school girls, but my experience with the newspaper this term has been tipping the scales toward the girls. This term, I have something like 15 senior girls working for the newspaper, and then like 3 or 4 others. They play this game during meetings called “Let’s see how many times we can get Mr. Bowman to blush.” They are very good at this. During the most recent one, I was working with someone else when I head one of the girls say very loudly “Would he rather hold your hand, or hold your ass?” They were making a Cosmo type quiz in which you answer questions about your boyfriend and add up points to get some sort of result. There were just so many things wrong with the situation that I had no clue what to do but turn completely red. Senior Girls – 1, Mr. Bowman – 0.

Arabic Victories/Defeats

Arabic classes are in full swing – a large group of the ex-pat faculty is taking classes four days a week, a huge commitment when you teach four periods a day. It is very much worth it though. Even after only a few weeks I can feel myself getting better and better instead of just stagnating in our English dominated environment. Better yet (but don’t tell my Arabic professors from college yet), the formal Arabic is starting to fade from the tip of my tongue and the spoken Arabic is taking its place, something for which I have been struggling for two years. Here are a few recent Arabic victories, and one defeat.

1. Though I don’t like cutting my hair now that I need to treasure every bit of it before it falls out, I was way past due for a haircut by my terms last week. I went to the same guy I always do, Nasri, the same one who once lifted me on his shoulders in a restaurant, but sadly he wasn’t there. There was a number on the door to call, but I was too nervous because I hate speaking Arabic on the phone – it is so much harder! I walked around and looked for another barber, almost committing high treason, but I must have picked a bad time because no one was in their shop (surprising because it seems like some dudes spend almost all of their waking hours at the barber). So I went home. The next day, I returned, and BAM, same thing. No Nasri. But, I really needed a haircut, so I got up the guts to punch in the numbers and call him. I explained to him in Arabic that I was outside his shop and really wanted a haircut. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was a pretty cool moment for me, as I didn’t feel as helpless and stupid as I normally do. He trotted out and we ended up having a pretty exciting hour and a half long haircut. Now, as I have griped about previously, it’s not like I have much hair, so that’s not why it took long. I decided that I wanted to talk instead of sit there awkwardly like I normally do, but the problem is that Nasri talks with his hands (especially to the dumb foreigner) and thankfully does not try to cut hair and talk with his hands at the same time, so every time he told a story, the haircut would get the pause button, and I would sit there somewhat mangled while he would confused me with stories. But we talked about some really cool things, and after telling me that Jordanians in his income bracket lie all the time to pay less income taxes, he pulled out his store’s tax folder (all in Arabic) and went through it with me. It was a really cool experience, an interesting insight into the inner workings of the country. I love that dude, even if he sometimes gives me a bit of a comb over (though that might be my scalp/genetics fault not his).

2. The guy who cleans my apartment, Lo’ay, left me a really nice note the other day wishing me a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, happy new year for the rest of my life, holiday wishes and lots of other things (it took up a whole page even though it was only pleasantries). He knows I can read Arabic because I went back and forth one time with him when he broke one of my mugs and felt awful, and I kept writing notes saying I could care less. The note is proudly displayed on my fridge, and I am going to get around to writing him back as soon as I get a breather in my schedule. I love interacting with the housekeeping staff at the school because they are always so surprised and happy when a honky like me can speak Arabic, and seem very appreciative that they are being treated like peers at the school, not underlings.

3. Which brings me to my defeat though. At the end of the day I say my favorite housekeeping friend, Muhannad. He is such a friendly guy, always smiling, always asking me how I am. The other day, we went through the usual pleasantries and I asked him how he was, and he responded “not good”. I asked him why, and he obviously wanted to vent. The week before, a few students had purposely stolen his cell phone as a malicious prank (even though they certainly have a BlackBerry or iPhone or both). He knew they knew what they were doing because he had someone call the next day and they picked up. Somehow he managed to get back the battery, which he was holding in his hand as he was talking. He vented for a good 3 or 4 minutes, and was really upset because he has gone a week without his phone and can’t afford a new one (the housekeepers don’t make much money). I was happy that I could be there for him and listen, but I was very upset by the whole situation. This guy is the same one who told one of my colleagues that he could make more money working somewhere else but really likes working for King’s because he likes the idea of working for a school, and being a part of something good. I kept apologizing, because that’s all I could really say. He seemed happy to be able to tell someone this, but really affected by someone dumb kids who had no clue how this would make a great person like Muhannad feel. I guess with learning the language you become privy to not only the good but the bad too.

Good or bad, let the Arabic continue! I can’t imagine leaving this place without developing some solid language skills and I finally feel like I’m on the way!

Sir Bowman Dickson The Respected

One of my fellow teachers from last year is getting married in a week and I was lucky enough to be invited to the wedding. I feel pretty lucky to be invited, especially because I will be one of the only non-native Arabic speakers there. I will have to let my dancing skills speak for me. The wedding invitation is one of the coolest things I have ever received though. It is addressed to “السيد بومان ديكسون المحترم (El-Sayyid Booomaaaan Deeeeksoooon El-Mu7taram) which basically translates to “Sir Bowman Dickson The Respected”. That title is definitely a first for me.

The Airport: Where I Obtain Friends

We’re starting up Arabic classes for the ex-pat faculty on Wednesday and I’m so excited! It is amazing how quickly a foreign language fades when you don’t have consistent exposure (which I don’t get inside of our English bubble). Add the growing rustiness to the fact that I speak this strange combination of colloquial and formal Arabic… I can’t wait to continue my formal Arabic education, and especially add to my functional Arabic, which can be pretty hilariously slightly off at times.

Take for example a recent Arabic slip up at the airport. There are many places in Jordan where they have checkpoints along the road, which usually consist of a police officer asking you where you are going. They barely listen to your answer before saying “Okay, go ahead.” Very tight security. The funny one is at the road that leads into the airport (and goes nowhere else). Where are you going? Uh, the airport… Okay, go ahead. Well, I tried to be fancy one time and speak to them in Arabic. I was going to pick up a friend coming back into town so I tried to express this to them with my rusty language skills. I couldn’t think on the spot a word for “pick up” so I tried “get” but the “get” word I used was a more formal Arabic word which means more “to obtain” than to get. So, what I said was “I’m going to obtain friends at the airport.” They immediately began laughing, and corrected me. When I got into the airport, I thought about making some new friends just so I would have been telling the truth 10 minutes earlier.

Pumped for classes to start. I would love to come home from this experience with solid language skills.


Putting My Arabic to the Test

Parents’ Weekend, just like last year, was quite an experience. It has a pretty stressful lead up, with the nerves that come with having parents in your classroom and conferences with D-student families, but always ends up being a very affirming experience. I left feeling very much appreciated by the parents and their students alike. I also left with a bit more confidence in my Arabic after two great experiences.

First, we had our first swim meet last Friday, which was quite an experience in and of itself – I showed up and learned that I was not only the coach but was going to run the meet (register all the swimmers for the events, find and organize the timers, be the starter for all the events etc). The only kink was that the coach for the other school did not really speak much English. Without hesitation, we switched into Arabic, and did the whole deal in Arabic. I learned lots of great new words (like relay! tatabi3 تتابع) while registering the other students and negotiating various items with the other coach (who insisted on changing lane assignments for his swimmers for no reason at all). The other school brought their high school girls and middle school boys to race our high school boys, but thatdidn’t stop our guys from grunting and cheering when we  beat them in relay.

Then, the next day, we had a day full of parent teacher conferences. Most were fairly uneventful, but one student came in with his parents and cheerily said “Mr. Bowman, you can do it in Arabic, right? Or would you like me to translate?” Again, no hesitation, I just went for it. I stumbled over my words, had trouble expressing myself, solicited words I didn’t know from my student, but I expressed my main ideas in Arabic. I mean, the student is one of the easiest to talk about (it would have been much harder had I not been saying “he’s wonderful” in many different ways), but I still felt so proud that I could do something real with my Arabic skills instead of just read Arabic Harry Potter and understand high schoolers swearing.

I don’t get many experiences like this on our compound in the middle of nowhere, so I value every one so much. I’d love to bring on the real world more often than our infrequent parents weekends.

Will Um Bassam Eat Me Before I Leave?

I’m pretty sure Um Bassam is not a fan of Ramadan. She keeps telling me I shouldn’t fast because I’m too skinny. “It would be one thing if you were fat…” One of her favorite past times is to try to feed me as much as possible, which has certainly been limited while I fast during the day. She uses tricks and ploys to lure me into sitting next to her and eating whatever she desires, while we discuss mundane things, like the time when she told me she saw the renter downstairs completely naked, and then made fun of him because he’s Asian (turns out that grandmothers are racist everywhere).

This pastime has led me to believe she’s trying to fatten me up, perhaps to eat me. One time early on I was sitting on my bed reading when Um Bassam popped up in the doorway holding a large box of cookies of some sort. [in Arabic] “RAaaamiiii??!? Would you like a cookie?” Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I said yes, and she immediately retreated out to the main room, beckoning me to follow and to “Oud” (the command “sit,” her trademark phrase)… Ah, the catch. Something in my childhood fairytale education warned me not to follow the short, grinning old woman offering me sweets, but I did. Many, many cookies later (somewhere around 15, I lost count), and many, many crazy stories later, I was finally released from her sweet iron grip, fatter and perhaps more delicious?

My suspicions were aroused again when I came home to find her sitting completely in the dark, with no fan or TV or anything else turned on. “El-Kahruba’ maqtoo3a?” Is the electricity cut off? “La, oud” No, sit. Okaaay…I dutifully followed her instructions and she proceeded to cut a few apples up into slices, peel them one by one and then feed them to me, while I told her how much various world currencies were worth in Syrian Lira (in the dark). “Shukran, shukran, yaslamo” Thank you, thank you so much. And then (and now here’s the kicker) she took the same knife and started peeling off what I thought was dead skin from her fingers. Like, I’m talking using force to dig the knife into the top layer of her finger – actual finger, not the fingernail – and to peel off layers of happy goodness. And then (okay, maybe this is the kicker) she went back to the apple, and used the same knife to peel some pieces to gobble up herself. This was when I decided that even politeness has its limits and refused any further offers.

It took some fighting through the language barrier to figure out that she had been using glue earlier in the day and was trying to get the glue off of her fingers, not trying peel off her outer human skin to reveal the beast beneath. Or so she says. All I know for sure is that Um Bassam may or may not be a fairytale witch. I will see tomorrow whether the cab (which she arranged – !) takes me to the bus station or to her secret renter cooking lair.

Jokes aside, I will certainly miss my new 73 year-old friend, but I am happy to be leaving this 108-degree-Fahrenheit-no-air-conditioning-intermittent-electricity land for the comforts of my own home. Ma’a Es-Salaama yaa Syria! مع السلامة يل سورية

Conversations with Um Bassam

Um Bassam told me when I moved in that we need to drink coffee together every morning… to which I replied “I don’t drink coffee”, though I left out the “for the 21st time” floating around in my head. So I drink tea and eat cornflakes while she sits and watches me eat and we talk. A sampling of the conversation this morning (keep in mind this is in Arabic, so sometimes comprehension isn’t 100%):

  • She told me the story from Christian folklore of St. George slaying the dragon, which lasted about 15 minutes. I had no clue it was so complicated. George’s Arabic name is Jiryis.
  • We talked about the neighborhood and she said it had everything, and everything to her meant an internet cafe (which I doubt she’s ever been in) and a doctor.
  • Then she told me a story about a man from her town (Ma’lool) who accidentally swallowed a bunch of nails (still a little confused about the details of this one). He went to the doctor for X-rays and the doctor told him he would die. But then he went to the monastery and drank some oil (?) and then when he went back to the doctor the nails were in his hand instead of his stomach. Miracle!! I think I am definitely missing some details there.
  • And then I showed her Jordanian currency, which she had never seen before, despite living about an hour from the Jordanian border.

So far, she’s been far more helpful than the tutor… and definitely more interesting.

Um Bassam

Upon arriving in Damascus, I stayed a night at a sweet hotel called Al-Rabie before moving into my more permanent housing for the next two and a half weeks. My tutor (Hussein) set me up with a creepy skinny-legged, chain smoking landlord man (Tony) who showed me around a few places in the Old City before I settled into my sweet digs at Um Bassam‘s house.

Um Bassam is this tiny little, frail old Syrian women who rents out the extra rooms in her little apartment to people staying in Damascus for some reason or another. When I say tiny, I mean like 4 feet tall (though part of the shortness is the hunched back), and when I say old, I mean old (Tony kept describing her as “tired” which is very accurate). There are three extra rooms (and really not much else in the apartment), one of which holds a college student from Northern Syria, the second, a lawyer also from another town in Syria and then me. The apartment is in the heart of the Old City with it’s maze of streets and courtyards, a truly magical place.

Um Bassam has sweetly been helping me practice Arabic. It helps that the other language she speaks isn’t English, but rather Aramaic, which I don’t speak because I’m not from 4 BC and I’m not Jesus (if you remember your Mel Gibson Jesus movies well, you would remember that Aramaic is the languge of Christ himself). Less than 400,000 people in the world are native speakers of Aramaic, which makes it crazy that I am currently living with one. If Jesus returns some time in the next 20 days or so, I’ll be golden because I will have someone to translate for me.

And I think she would tell him that I’m a pretty cool dude. She seems to really like me – she already has asked me when I’m returning to Syria after I go back to Jordan, which took me a while to parse out in Arabic. I’m glad I don’t drink coffee because she offered it maybe 20 times just the first day, including once when she came into my room with a tray all prepared despite my refusing her offer the first 19 times. I love how she calls for me with my Arabic name (Ramiii??) and beckons me to sit and watch Arabic TV shows with her (last night was some strange tribute to poetry on Oof TV – I didn’t really catch much of what was going on…) and I love how she calls me “ShaTir” (smart) when I speak Arabic. I think she’s a pretty cool dude too.

All of the charm from the situation caused me to overlook some details about basic living standards, like that the toilet seat is held together in front by a large wire and partly covered in tin foil, with no toilet paper to be found, and that the bed has sheets but no other blankets, and that the kitchen is a little, well, nasty, and that there is a bit of a strange smell in the whole place… I asked my friend Nadeem what American stereotypes I uphold and he told me that Americans tend to get REALLY EXCITED about dumb things just because they are different or culturally interesting… This guy is guilty as charged.  I mean, that’s like 85% of this blog. I’m a camel-loving, keffiyah wearing American living in the Arab World, and my American excitement got the better of me when assessing the situation with the apartment. Instead of being like “that bed is only about 5 and a half feet long” I was thinking “COOL! I had to walk through a COURTYARD to get into this house!” or instead of “it’s like 90 degrees in here and there’s only one rickety ceiling fan” I was thinking “COOL! The Lord’s Prayer in Arabic written on a huge cross is hanging on the wall.”

All in all, I can’t complain, and will come away with some sweet stories if nothing else. If I figure out a way with these internet cafes, I will post a picture sometime of my new best friend and me.