First of all, I would love to write an elaborate story about my last summer at Saifi Institute and Beirut. From the very beginning: from my selection as a scholarship winner until my last moments at Beirut international airport, I can tell you a fairy tale full of excitement, effort, joy, taste, friendship, the magic of the Arabic language and even romance. Or I can write a travel guide type of passage, like western younger bloggers about what a “crazy city” Beirut is.
Or stereotypically I can doodle something about the internationally renowned Lebanese civil war, and the bullet holes on the walls of the neoclassical buildings of Beirut. Alternatively, I can give you dull “information” about the sectarian structure of Lebanese society: how different sectors surprisingly (!) live in harmony and “peacefully”.
I can talk about a new and unique kind of tourism which started to appear in Lebanon after the 2000s which I call “sectarian tourism”. I met wide variety of western people who wanted to make daily excursions or “safaris” to Burj Hammoud to “see” Armenians or to the mountains to “see” the Druze or to Trablous to “see” the Sunni as if they were exotic fruits or vegetables.
But no!! I won’t do what I listed above. My aim here should be to provide you with an educational ethnography about what is really going on in a typical Saifi Lebanese Arabic Class. Yes, the Lebanese way of Arabic…According to my personal research, Saifi institute is the only place in the world where they teach a colloquial language (the linguistic term is variety) officially and seriously. For political reasons varieties of standard languages (no matter how big the speaking community is) are not recognized or considered as a “language” and are often ignored all around the world. Did you ever hear about a course which teaches Creole English or Black Sea Turkish or Kanake German? Fus7a, or modern standard Arabic language is the official language of 22 different Arab countries. But you feel confused when you don’t really hear it in the streets. One of the Facebook followers of Saifi Institute wrote something like: “Trying to survive with Fus7a in Lebanon is like trying to survive with Shakespearean English in New York”. I don’t know if the difference can really be exaggerated that much but I am sure that if you really want to communicate with people, using the Lebanese dialect is a must.
Being aware of this reality, a smart graduate of an Arabic language school Rana Dirani not only opened Saifi Institute but also lit the fire of a linguistic revolution, teaching Lebanese officially with books and classroom materials. This may just sound “hmmm interesting!!” but this is not that easy to accomplish. Because daily colloquial Arabic and Fus7a are so deeply embedded within each other, you have to analyze and filter what is colloquial and what is standard and make a successful grammatical and lexical synthesis of 3ammiyeh (the ‘dialect’) and Fus7a. It is very obvious that good in-house training was given to the language instructors because they are really experts in their field. They know how to dance with Arabic very well. Let’s start with one of these outstanding teachers: Majid Balkis.
Majid, an intellectual and a self-disciplined guy, was my main course teacher. Five days a week, three hours a day (including the cigarette breaks on the balcony overlooking the highway) he was with us. We were approximately 10 in the class from different countries (students, anthropologists, translators, psychologists). Majid was a very well-trained teacher and he knew all the latest methodologies, approaches, and techniques of language teaching. He was very skillful at providing warm-up sessions to make us wake up in the morning with culturally specific – sometimes cold though ☺ – jokes and facts. He was able to switch from a warm-up to reading and grammar session artistically. His aim was to spice up complex Arabic grammar with a communicative approach. He frequently used question and answer techniques and role play to make us internalize the language. We even played memory games in Arabic – I was the winner all the time ☺. He was so strict about homework that I remember staying up late very often to finish long never-ending pages.
At the end of the term Saifi gave me 10 hours of additional private Arabic course as a present included in the scholarship. I was lucky to receive these because it took five days and shockingly I started slowly to express myself in Arabic even on philosophical issues. I was able to talk about politics, society, and books mostly in the target language. We even translated the songs of legendary singer Fairuz (Shta2tillak, Bint al Chabiyah etc). To be honest we never got in touch after I left Lebanon but he will always be the one that I would recommend to someone who wants to learn Lebanese Arabic.
Three hours of speaking class, two days a week in the afternoon was also included in my scholarship and my tutor there was a very humorous and lovely woman Sara. Sara was a graduate of Arabic literature and she even has an MA degree. Sessions with Sara were refreshing after the long hours of learning language rules in the mornings. She was the kind of teacher who kept herself updated all the time with new techniques in speaking. She never ever used a word of English in the class. She constantly pretended to be deaf every time we tried to switch from Arabic to English. She was very careful with pronunciation and always gave us instant corrections. But for Sara I would never have consolidated the difference among h, kh, and 7 (I don’t have them in my mother tongue). She used real material in every lesson (newspapers, magazines, and objects etc.) and made us put everything we had learnt into practice. We even prepared “Fattoush” (Lebanese salad with fried bread- khobz me2ly) when we covered the fruits and vegetables unit. Sara was quick to make jokes about Lebanese society and politics. She even made us discuss social issues like poverty and corruption in Arabic. Sara enjoys sports a lot and she is a mother of a very cute boy.
Mustafa DİKTAŞ (29)