Category Archives: Arabic

Back! But relocated temporarily

Well, I’m back in Arabia and pretty pumped about life, though I’m in Syria instead of my beloved second home of Jordan. I did stop by Jordan for a few interludes – after spending a month in the states I came back to pick up students to go to India (many blog post quality stories from that for sure) and then stopped by again for another short period before making my next move up North one country… and even though I’m not in the region for all that long because I’m going back to the states at the end of the month for two weeks, there’s already so much that has happened in just a day and a half that I am itching to write about, so I figured I would start back up again.

THE POINT OF COMING TO SYRIA: I spent four years at UVA toiling over Arabic to come out with a frustratingly little functional language skills (I might do better analyzing a famous poem than asking for directions on how to cook a sheep) and then have spent the past year in an English speaking island located in a sea of people who speak better English than I speak Arabic (all year I would try to talk to people in Arabic only to have them respond in English, and less because I have bad Arabic but more because they have good English, from the gas station attendant to the supermarket cart collector)… so my Arabic, at a very incomplete stage with many gaps needing filling, has plateaued. I’m frustrated to say the least – which is the impetus for this trip 4 hours North to a place that is more conducive to learning Arabic.

THE PLAN WHILE I AM HERE: I am really excited about this and hope that it really propels my Arabic. I am taking 45 hours of one on one instruction over a course of about 2.5 weeks (which is intense, about 3 hours a day). It’s costing me some moo-lah, but I think it will be well worth it (and besides, I don’t have any babies or puppies to pay for yet, and DVDs are only $1.40 in Jordan, so it’s not like my salary has anywhere better to go). On top of the formal instruction, I will have ample opportunity to practice with people here who generally speak much less English than Jordanians (and a little bit more French – do you know your Middle Eastern colonial history?). Already, I stayed up until about 2:30 am exchanging proverbs and idiomatic expressions with the guy who worked at the hotel I stayed at for one night (in Arabic, when your leg falls asleep, it has ants all over it, cool!) and I keep seeing more opportunities like this pop up all around me.

So, basically, great decision for me and I’m totally pumped. I have so much to say already, but I will save it for other blog posts. Tomorrow, I’ll write about my accomodations…

Teacher Moment #6: Inappropriate Nicknames, oops

One of my favorite students keeps tricking me into calling him really inappropriate nicknames, and it makes me feel really old and stupid because I just totally don’t realize that they are inappropriate until weeks later. Or maybe it’s not because I’m old, maybe it’s just because I am foreign – like when we would always get the Japanese exchange student in high school to say really nasty things to our math teacher. 

Well first, he friended me on Facebook (request denied) and his middle name is listed on there as “Parliament”. I thought that this was some strange nickname having to do with the government, or perhaps that it was some sort of nickname like a professional wrestler, so I started calling him that. Turns out that Parliament is a brand of cigarettes  – the last thing that our students need is more people encouraging them to smoke…

Then, somewhere else on Facebook he had written his nickname as Abu Henry” (replace Henry with the actual name of one of the other students in my class), which translates as “Father of Henry” which I thought was really funny because oh look these guys are pretending to be each other’s sons and fathers…. but no. When an idiot high schooler say Abu [someone’s name] they are saying it because they are insinuating that they may or may not be sleeping with the other person’s mother. Fool me twice, shame on me.

And lastly (and this is the worst one): he and another student in the class were working together on a lab, and they are supposed to write their lab partner’s name on the top of their lab next to theirs. So this guy wrote “Susu El-Mutawahish” for his friend, which means “SuSu the monster” and then the other guy wrote “Abu Mreij” for my inappropriate friend. Well I didn’t know what that meant, but I started writing it on his paper thinking it was something innocent like Susu El-Mutawahish (which p.s. I hope is innocent). Then I mentioned this to another student and he was too embarrassed to tell me what it meant (red flag!)… I eventually got it out of this other kid that “Mreij” is masturbation. Again, Abu means “father of” basically… so Abu Mreij is the Arabic way of saying King of Masturbation (there’s a cocktail party fact for you). Fool me thrice…

Physics as a Second Language

One of my dorm buddies gifted me his old Physics book so I could see how they teach Physics here in Jordan… in Arabic. I now have even more respect for what my students are doing, learning all this really tough and abstract stuff in their second language. I got the book and looked at the cover, which just says Physics in Arabic (Al-Feeziya’, الفيزياء) and I thought to myself “Huh, so that’s how you spell that.” Nevermind when I started to look through it to see words like electromagnetic induction (الحث الكهر مغناطيسي if you were wondering) and concave and convex mirrors (المرآيا الكروية – المقعرة والمحدبة).

People ask me sometime what the students are like, and how they are different from American teens – if they are (which really in some ways they are) it’s something that I totally don’t even notice on a day to day basis. To me, there doesn’t seem to be this crazy huge cultural divide that I think everyone pictures in their head. It’s easy to forget that my students are named Mohammad and Yousef and Ahmed instead of Charlie and Mike and Spongebob, and that most are studying Islamic Theology at school instead of… well, no religion, and that many hail from “random” countries that strike fear in the uneducated of the US (I have 3 Saudis, 5 Syrians, 1 Kuwaiti and 1 Palestinian from Gaza) instead of from random states around the union that strike fear in those of us from normal states (Oklahoma, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Utah etc.).

The only times I really remember that it’s a different game we’re playing is when I give a quiz and 5 kids through up their hand “What’s a wrench?” or “What’s a dam?” or “What does quadruple mean?” It amazes me because they honestly have 100% perfect English in my mind, but it sucks because this difficult material is just that much harder when your language is 99% instead of 100%, and it sucks because they will be taking the same SAT, the same AP, the same everything as American kids, where will always be little things like that there to trip them up.

And it also sucks because it makes me realize how long it will be before I have the same level of fluency in Arabic (but if the Arabic Physics exams had any Arabic swears on them, I would be GOLDEN).

An Arabian Birthday

Today is my 23rd birthday, exciting. It was pretty fun celebrating my birthday as a teacher. The Science Department threw me a little surprise shindig, the highlight of which was the cake which said Happy Birthday, Rami in Arabic (عيد ميلاد سعيد رامي)… remember that Rami is my Arabic name. See the cake to the left along with the tweety bird happy birthday sign that our copy machine dude made me.

Then, my classes all sang happy birthday for me, which was fun, and one even brought me muffins and chocolate. All the students asked how old I was now – I said “guess” and most of them said “26!” “27!” When they realized that I was 23, someone goes “Then why do we call you Mr?” (Good question…)

And now, I’m off to Damascus, Syria for a fun filled weekend with two other teachers, which should be an absolute blast! I have wanted to go to Damascus for a long time, so what a great treat for my birthday.

Overall, a different (usually I celebrate with Bowmessica’s Birthday Box Social…) but wonderful Arabian birthday. 364 days until the next one…

Mohammad Mix-Up

Some of you may have learned from Superbad that Mohammad is in fact the most common name in the world. It should come as no surprise that since our school is in the Muslim world, Mohammad is in fact also the most common name in our school. There are no less than fifteen Mohammads. That’s way more common than the even the most popular American name.

Most go by their last name to avoid confusion, but this doesn’t always work. For example, two Mohammads with the same last name applied to our summer program one year, one who was a phenomenal kid and one who was a terror… but they accidentally called the awful one to tell him that he was accepted to the program and couldn’t go back on their word. Both ended up coming and the terrible one made it about a week before getting kicked out for breaking the glass on all the fire alarms in the dorm.

I had my own Mohammad mixup recently. There are two Mohammads in my class, both seniors, both live on my hallway, good friends with each other. One asked me to write a recommendation for him, so I did and sent it off to the college counseling office. The next day, the other Mohammad came up to me and said “Thank you so much for writing me a recommendation!” – turns out the college counselor had received my email and mentioned to the wrong Mohammad that she had received my recommendation. It took maybe 45 seconds of a blank, confused look on my face to figure it all out, but eventually we did.

Now, this wouldn’t have been a huge deal, except that this other Mohammad had asked me earlier to write him a recommendation and I had politely advised him that perhaps he should not get a recommendation from a teacher in whose class he has a D… Long story short, now I’m writing a recommendation for the other Mohammad! Honestly, I am happy to because he is one of my favorite kids in the school (he’s the goofball that I talked about in a much earlier post), but if you have any ideas how to express that to a college that you are recommending a student without going into detail about the whole this-kid-has-a-pretty-bad-grade-in-my-class issue, I’d love your thoughts…

Inshallah ya Habibi

I often get frustrated with the fact that the human race speaks so many different languages – we spend so much time, effort and brainpower trying to learn each other’s language, imagine if we could put all that effort into figuring out everything that’s messed up about the world?

But that was mostly before I started learning a second language. Arabic is really a beautiful language. Some people might not think so because there are some strange sounds in Arabic that aren’t in other languages, and one or two of them aren’t really all that sexy. But the language itself really has a wonderful grammar structure and is incredibly expressive. With a set of roots and patterns, you can use one word to easily make ten more.

And Arabic really has some great words and expressions that are somewhat untranslatable into English, or at least we don’t use their translations in nearly the same way, which makes me realize the usefulness of having multiple languages to be able to express more exact feelings. Some I find more confusing than useful (like there are different words for maternal uncle and paternal uncle) but some really are gems. Here are a few of my favorites.

Insha’allah (ان شاء الله) – Actually means “If God wills it” or more often translated “God willing” and Arabic speakers use it all the time. A lot of times it’s used as we would in English as more like “I hope that happens!” but has a much broader usage in Arabic. Will the rental car be ready by tomorrow? Insha’allah. No, but I need the car tomorrow, will it be ready? Yes, insha’allah. I don’t care if God wills it, just give me a yes or no!! I have learned that 40% of the time Insha’allah actually means probably not.

Habibi (حبيبي) – Habibi is a great word, it’s the ultimate Arabic pet name. You could translate it as dear, sweetheart, honey bunny, anything you want, but nothing in English really comes close. I call my students habibi, my co-workers might call me habibi, you would certainly call you spouse habibi, really anyone who is dear to you. I think it’s a word very emblematic of Arab culture because relationships between people are really strong and important here. It’s also a great word to know because it’s in every single Arabic pop song, without fail. If you know that, how to say “love”, “heart” and “I love you”, you can understand 80% of Arabic pop music.

Haram (حرام) – Literally means “something forbidden”, but it used a little bit more widely. True, you can say “haram” if someone punches an old lady, but you could also say it in many other situations, like I like to say it if someone plays a really good card while playing cards or when expressing displeasure about something in general.

Wallah (والله) – The Arabic equivalent of “I swear to God” but again, much more common, and much less sacrilegious. You can phrase it like a question (like “really?”) or use it to express that you are indeed telling the truth, or use it as almost emphasis. The student translation of wallah is a little different though – it usually translates roughly as “I’m lying to you right now”. I left my homework in my dorm, wallah; I wasn’t the one who threw the food, wallah; I’m going to do better next term, wallah…

I feel like there are so many others, but I’ll leave it at that for now…

Rami Es-Sahem

One thing that a lot of people seem to find amusing is when I introduce myself with my Arabic name, Rami.

Bowman, as I hope many of you know, means “archer,” and an archer in Arabic is a Rami Es-Sahem (رامي السهم). That literally means “thrower of the arrow.” Luckily, Rami also doubles as a pretty common Arabic name, so thus I officially dubbed myself Rami. Now some of the students even call me Ustaath Rami (Professor Rami). And that totally rocks.

Don’t tell the Jordanian government that I have yet another alter ego though…

You are rock

I think I’ve figured out that 9th graders are actually tiny little entertainers. When I get bored, I just find a little 9th grade dude to hang out with. Some of them here are around 70 pounds and absolutely hilarious. I was chatting with a couple one day (they were teaching me some Arabic), and one of them keep saying “You are rock” so I had to figure out what he was saying.

“You are rock, you are rock”.
“Uh thanks? But what does that mean? Int hajar?” (that’s “you are a rock” in Arabic)
“You’re American, you should know!!”
“Oh, you mean ‘You rock’?”
“Oh right… you rock!”
(fist pound)

So hilarious. Now, okay, you might be thinking that I’m a jerk for making fun of his English skills (he actually has awesome English, everyone does), but I’m here making the same mistakes in Arabic too. Like when I was trying to say “I’m a genius” (= Ana 3abqari) but instead said “I’m a scorpion” (= Ana 3aqrab) – how ironic. At least my little 9th grade buddy wasn’t trying to say he was smart when he made his mistake…

Arabic For Your Everday Life – Majari (مجاري) = Sewage

As in, I heard a girl sitting around before class shout out to her friend out in the hallway that my classroom smelled like “majari”. The only reason I somehow knew that word and understood her was because a few summers ago the kids had taught me how to say stupid little insults like “bitashrab majari بتشرب مجاري (you drink sewage) (see post “The Sunglasses are in the Potatoes“). I was slightly offended because I didn’t smell a thing, but then I remembered that this girl is a little crazy. When I asked her to stop talking one time in the middle of class she turned to me and said “But SIR, we’re only human!” Yeah, but you’re a 17 year old human and you can sit through a 45 minute class paying attention and not talking. If she says my classroom smells like sewage again, I’m just going to bust out the insult that I learned and tell her that she drinks sewage. That will teach her.


Majari = مجاري = Sewage

And now you know some Arabic for your your everyday life.

Arabic For Your Everday Life – Teneen (تنين) = Dragon

P8211127Amman is a city of cafes. A lot of people like to go out and smoke hookah (that’s the American word… actually called Argeelah, or Sheesha, or Hubbly Bubbly). I always feel like a Dragon when I smoke hookah though, thus I had to learn Dragon in Arabic. And now you know.

Dragon = Teneen = تنين

(I’ve decided to do a series called Arabic for your everday life, in which I will share Arabic words that are completely random but have somehow come up in my everyday life.)