Yesterday was the first survival Arabic lesson, during which our teacher went around and tested each of us. After the first run-through of the Arab alphabet, several students were tested. Our teacher, Riham, held her hand in front of my mouth to make sure I was pronouncing the letters correctly. Two of the letters, kha and ha, are very close, but the former is a more throaty sound, while the latter is more breathy. She described the sound of ha as the sound made when pronouncing Helen. After several attempts, she told me “mumtaz,” which means very good. Whew, what a relief.
After going through the alphabet, we moved on to greetings. First was “marhaba,” which means hello. The response is marhabtain, or ahain. This lesson came in handy as the day progressed and I met my host family. Mama Munira showed up at the School of International Training (SIT) a little bit after 3pm with her husband, Albert. Munira came into SIT and greeted me and Ryan, my roommate. I said “marhaba” and she asked if we were ready to leave. I was surprised at how well she spoke English, though it was a nice surprise. We went outside and her husband Albert helped us to load our luggage into the trunk. We were then on our way to their home. The drive was mostly quiet, with light Arabic music playing out of the speakers. About 20 minutes later, we arrived at the family home in Shmeissani. The building is light tan with a short entranceway and 3 stories. Some of the apartments are rented out to students, and my host parents live on the top floor. Ryan and I were led into apartment 4 on the middle level, where an elderly lady with blonde curly hair was sitting. She told us to call her Auntie, and spoke English as well.
Mama Munira taught me how to say “keef halak,” which means “how are you?” and is usually said in conjunction with marhaba. She was very kind as she welcomed me into her home, calling my “habibi” (sweetheart) and telling me about her family. Two of her sons live in the U.S. with their wives, one in Connecticut and the other in New York. Both are expecting sons this summer. Her son Edward lives in one of the apartments downstairs with his wife Rita and their sons. (I got to meet Matthew, the infant, this morning. He is adorable.) After learning about her family, Mama Munira told me that I could go outside and enjoy the garden. So, I walked downstairs and to my surprise, the garden was quite expansive. Maybe it’s because American cities are less green or because of the extremely dry climate, but I was not expecting such an abundance of plant life. There is a blueberry tree which reaches all the way up to the highest balcony. Throughout the garden there are 5 or 6 rose bushes, 2 cherry trees, a few small fig trees, a grapevine and 2 lemon trees. All along the right side of the house is fresh thyme, which smelled wonderful.
All of the fresh plant life reminded me of home, where my grandfather used to grow a lemon tree. We had 4 fig trees, 2 of which are still alive and produce fruit every year, and a grapevine that my brother and I are trying to nurse back to life. I felt very at home there. After about 20 minutes meandering in the garden, Mama Munira called from the balcony that dinner was ready. I went back upstairs and Ryan and I were served a fresh spaghetti meal with bolognese with a glass of cold water. I was expecting a more traditional meal along the lines of the food I have eaten, such as falafels or hummus, instead of what I consider an Italian meal. Nonetheless, it was a savory meal. After dinner, Mama Munira made hot tea for everyone and introduced me to her son Danny. Danny was very kind and directed me to an internet cafe that is in their neighborhood. The next blog post will be published from there… stay posted.