In the course of learning belly dance, you tend to pick up a smattering of Arabic words and phrases. Hafla, baladi, habibi, Saidi, maqam, as well as a plethora of other music and culture-related words. I’ve always found the language beautiful. I remember that when I was in college, we had many students from the Middle East in the Engineering and Education departments and I enjoyed listening to them speak to each other in the cafeteria or the hallways, even though I could not understand them. There’s just something musical about Arabic that always intrigued me.
I’m not exactly bilingual, but I’ve always had a knack for picking up language and sounds that aren’t native to English. I had a strong interest in linguistics in college, which I would have minored in if they offered it. I learned to write in the International Phonetic Alphabet during a Phonetics class. We had several Arab students in that class as well, so we were able to learn about some of the sounds found in their language that weren’t found in ours.
I’ve gone down the language learning road before. There’s the obligatory language class from High School that we all had to take. I ended up taking German because I have German ancestry, and it seemed easier than Spanish (although Spanish would have been 100% more useful). I can’t say I made much headway then, as there wasn’t much interest. Last year, I picked it up again, using Duolingo as my primary learning tool. I brushed up enough that I could probably survive a trip to Germany and not die if no one spoke English. But, I have to say, there’s no real passion in me for that language.
I had considered trying to learn Arabic before. I can’t remember when exactly, now. We, as dancers, are encouraged to learn the meaning of the music we dance to. Some say we should learn the language or at least acquire translations for our songs so as to avoid inappropriate interpretations or accidentally dancing to a vulgar song for a native audience. I don’t know that there were many online resources at the time I was looking then. It was before I’d started brushing up on my German, and I found the Arabic alphabet thoroughly intimidating, being so different from what I was used to.
This past month, however, I’ve found a new wave of motivation to give it a go. I attended Sahra Saeeda’s Journey Through Egypt level 1 course in February, which sent my anthropological interests into overdrive. I want to understand my music and this beautiful language, so that I can learn more about Egyptian culture, both related and unrelated to dance. With my phonetics background and the knowledge that I can master a new alphabet, I’ve jumped headfirst into this new endeavor.
I picked up a textbook on Egyptian Arabic last month, and in the last couple of weeks, I’ve picked up some beginners workbooks to help me along. My phonetics class utilized a workbook, and I really like that style of learning. Duolingo doesn’t have an Arabic course yet, but they have one due to launch in August, which you can most certainly bet I will be using heavily.
I have to say, however, the most amazing resource I’ve found so far is the YouTube channel of Dr. Imran Hamza Alawiye, the author of the Gateway to Arabic series, Arabic from the Beginning, and a number of other Arabic language learning tools. He has a series of video lessons that walk you through some of his books as if you were taking a live class with him. I haven’t purchased his books yet, but I’ve already learned so much from the few videos I’ve watched, that I’ll certainly be grabbing them in the future. I’ve almost mastered the alphabet already because of his videos. His teaching method is wonderful and I highly recommend his materials if you are interested in learning the language.
I think this time my studies won’t taper off, because I feel far more passionate about learning this language than I did German. German was mostly just a way to pass the time when it got slow at work, but Arabic is an integral part of this dance that I love so much, and that will keep me motivated.