Ready, set, go! Using CoachBot: the language taskmaster

I've been in Amman for a few months now, and my colloquial Arabic skills are still a sore point. I now find myself speaking an odd mix of fusha and colloquial, and I'm hoping that over the next few months I can practice more and switch over, and not ask questions like (true story) "Keef keep up?"

I'm excited about working on Arabic in different ways: I'm going to be doing some work on 'Master Arabic' - Alex Strick van Linschoten's upcoming (available for pre-order now!) hugely useful new book for intermediate Arabic students to get over the roadblocks in learning and advancing in the language. 

Alex has also developed a fantastic new tool for language study called CoachBot which I'm really looking forward to using as I practice Arabic (and hopefully get back to resuming my Farsi study this year.)

So CoachBot works like a task master: you pick how much time you have -- the five minutes before you're waiting for your ride, the 15 minutes off your lunch break -- and go:

I picked five minutes

I picked five minutes

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My very glamorous to-do list

My very glamorous to-do list

All of this took less than five minutes. Fantastic! There are over 380 tasks online, and more are being added every day. So the next time you're complaining about how you just can't make the time to study, remember it only takes five minutes to get back into it. 

 

 

 

City of Gold

I watched City of Gold recently. It’s a great profile of Jonathan Gold, which shows how the easy descriptor ‘LA Times food critic’ doesn’t quite fit, because Gold isn’t just critiquing food. He uses food to tell the stories of LA, the stories in the shacks and strip malls, the places where no one goes to look for food or cant quite believe good food exists.

City of Gold didn’t just help me think about food in terms of writing, but also about the impact of where we choose – and choose not to eat – has on the lives of people. Jonathan Gold, essentially, tells the stories of Los Angeles through chronicling the city, inch by inch, food truck by stall, but what I thought was incredibly compelling was how Gold’s work has changed the lives of restaurateurs across generations. That is obviously not the role of the critic, but a part of the culinary-immigrant experience that Gold chronicles so well that I really enjoyed. It also cuts at this inherent snobbery people have about food; this idea that good food can only be found in authentic, hole-in-the-wall places, or in high-end dining concepts, never the places in between.

Starting off language coaching!

As of this week, I'm starting off conversation practice for English, Urdu and Punjabi on iTalki: If you'd like to practice your conversation skills, please hop onto italki to sign up and book a lesson. 

The idea of studying a new language is difficult. The most common reasons I've heard from people is that it takes too much time, it's too expensive, and that they can't learn another language. More on that later. 

But why not build on the skills you do have? In Pakistan's Sindh province, for example, Sindhi is a mandatory subject for exams administered by the government. But - based totally from my experience - very few non-native speakers study or interact with Sindhi once they've left school, turning a skill dormant. One of the things that I am hugely thankful for is that I was able to keep up with Sindhi after school. I used Sindhi while reporting on the Sindh legislature, and as a result of continuously interacting with the language, I could read documents and newspapers, watch TV shows and do basic interviews in Sindhi. The fact that so many of us in/from the developing world are bilingual or trilingual is a great start to learning languages. Why do we let these skills go dormant?

So shake it* off and start with practicing a language you do know; whether it's your parents' Punjabi, your grandparents' Gujarati, or your school-level Sindhi, or the Arabic you learned to study the Quran. (Here's a great list of resources to get you started) These language bases are hugely important to start learning a new language: Urdu and Arabic for Farsi, English for German and so on. Think about it: that's one more skill you can add to your resume, one more edge you have, one more way to interact with a different province or region, and more importantly: get a whole new perspective.

It*: lethargy/laziness/the inability to make time yet spend hours scrolling through Instagram

You can sign up for my iTalki lessons here: https://www.italki.com/teacher/1785144 and search iTalki for tutors in any language here: https://www.italki.com/i/AbCdCG

Food on tap, farm to table

What kind of cake did you have for your tenth birthday?

What kind of cake did you have last week with your coffee?

It's quite possible that you can answer the first question from memory, down to the sprinkles. But can you answer the second question with the same kind of vivid recollection? Or can you answer it at all without looking at your Instagram feed from last week?

Of course, there's a lot to be said about the connection of childhood memories with food, and perhaps that's why you might be able to imagine the cake without relying on a dusty photo album. (Bee Wilson's First Bite is a fantastic book on childhood associations with food and how to change them.) There was a specialness to food that has been lost in adulthood and in the culture of food on tap, of everything that was once made individually and is now in vending machines and frozen packages. The ice cream cake from your favourite bakery that your parents only bought on your birthday is now available in a bite-sized version at the grocery store checkout. You can enjoy it every day, but that feeling of excitement, that surprise, has been lost.

What has struck me in Amman is the reintroduction of the idea that food is special, something to be savoured as an individual meal, and the ingredients and cuisines at new cafes and restaurants that are taken straight from farms or the food cultures of Jordan and the region. This farm-to-table concept strikes me as particularly interesting because it reintroduces the idea of "seasonal" products, which I feel has been completely lost.

Even until my early teenage years, the idea of winter vegetables persisted, or the concept that there were certain meals that were only cooked to herald the winter or spring or some such.

This idea of eating simply, eating what is available today gives food that elevated quality and transforms it into comfort food. It's why people wait for mangoes in the summer, or why it seems odd to have khichri when you're not sick.

(Speaking of khichri, I spotted this cart in San Francisco this summer. Let's Make Khichri Great Again?)

The concept of "farm to table" isn't particularly groundbreaking, and may even seem a bit Williamsburg-upon-Webdeih. But what is groundbreaking is trying to introduce this in a place where falafel and burgers and curly fries are so dominant.

The pleasure of eating something that is rooted in the place is something I am learning, or relearning, in Amman.

At Shams al Balad, it is about basics (how I love a place that can just do basics, and do them well). The bright, sunny space, the basic menu of flatbreads with za'atar and cheese, served in the heartier (may the plague that is "small plates" never visit this city) style of traditional food.

The aubergine flatbread at Shams al Balad

At WeFarm - where the produce comes partly from the creator's family farm - the parfait features berries and non-dairy milk, juices are whipped up on the spot - and nothing appears bagged and boxed.

At Joz Hind, the menu changes every day. (Something Superiority Burger in New York does really well.) This week I had black rice with squash and walnuts, pressed into a cake, raw zucchini carpaccio with melon (that was so good) and a raw vegetable salad, while an adorable cat sidled past the table.

Joz Hind's menu changes every day. Not sure if the cat is a big fan of the carpaccio.

My mother often cooked kadi pakoras - one of her favourite dishes - for her birthday. It was one of the last meals she made before she died. I remember opening the fridge after her funeral, and wishing I could freeze the dish, the last remnants of her cooking. But that isn't real life. Food is not frozen in time. It should not feel like an endless stream of Instagram images, a trend replacing the second, replacing the third. That wait for a vegetable to come back in season, the childlike pleasure of a treat for your birthday, the realisation that not everything is available 24/7: that is what makes food special.

In Amman, staring at the stairs

When I first moved to Jordan in 2007, the long stairs were one of the most daunting things about downtown Amman. They connect streets and neighbourhoods on different levels since the older parts of the city are built on hills. I still remember how difficult it was to climb up the stairs on that first day in May '07 - not helped by the fact that my lungs were in terrible shape and I was toting a ridiculously heavy laptop. (Which would give me a shoulder ache for the rest of the year.) 

I'm back in Amman after eight years away; eight years in which I've done all of the things - writing a book, becoming a reporter - that I used to think about while walking down the city's streets and the stairs. 

The stairs are crumbling in places, I've noticed. I used to walk down them confidently in strappy heels and a suit, that heavy laptop on my back, amazed by what I thought was a grown up skill.

Now I bind my feet in sneakers to be sensible.

Elsewhere, the stairs lend themselves perfectly to Instagram photos. 

The city has changed in so many ways, and yet, as I made my way from Jabal al Webdeih to my old neighbourhood of 2nd Circle via downtown and back to Hashem (which has haunted my dreams since 2008) I instinctively knew which stairs and turns to take, which lanes were dead ends and which ones opened up into the ridiculously unreal views of Amman. It's weird what our minds retain. 

Walk What Way? (Or why everyone should read Jessica Valenti's memoir Sex Object)

I went out for a walk on Monday evening. I ended up going in the opposite direction to where I'd planned to go, and I only figured it out thirty minutes in. By the time I walked back home, I wished multiple times over that the earth would swallow me up. From the creepy dude who drove around twice to offer me a lift - the euphemism for 'hop in to be raped' - to being leered at by male motorists whose heads do a full 180 degree turn when they see a woman without slowing down their vehicles, it was less of a walk and more of scene from The Exorcist on Wheels.

This is not a rare occasion. This is every day of my life. It has been every day of my life for so long that I can't seem to remember a time when someone didn't say something creepy or stare.

I don't think I've ever been able to, or ever will be able to articulate this. Which is why reading Jessica Valenti's Sex Object has been such a relief, as if someone finally put into words the exact sensation of when your brain switches over from 'hmm it's nice weather' to 'walk really fast, walkreallyfast, walkreallyreallyfast.'

Valenti describes just how it feels to be a perpetual subject of harassment, how it changes and shapes the way you act and think and perceive people and situations and relationships. It's an incredible book; one that I hope everyone reads.

This is the excerpt that I read before the book, which sums up so much of how I've felt over the years:

We know that direct violence causes trauma; we have shelters, counsellors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighbourhoods are more likely to develop PTSD. Yet we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.
When you catch a cold or a virus, your body has ways of letting you know that you are sick. But what diagnosis do you give to the shaking hands you get after a stranger whispers “pussy” in your ear on your way to work? What medicine can you take to stop being afraid that the cab driver is not actually taking you home? And what about those of us who walk through all this without feeling any of it – what does it say about the hoops our brain had to jump through to get to ambivalence? I don’t believe any of us walk away unscathed.

In Sugar They Trust: Scenes from my local Dunkin Donuts

I've spent a lot of time at my local Dunkin Donuts over the past few months. It's open early and closes late, it's cheaper than other coffee shops in the neighbourhood, and you don't have to stand around someone's table and talk loudly about how some people just won't clear out even when they've paid the bill to get a seat.

Even though I spent a lot of time at Dunkin in the past, I'd kind of forgotten how nice it can be to just sit there. A few months ago I was between appointments on Shahrah-e-Faisal, and so I ended up working out of the Dunkin there. Then I ended up at the branch in my neighborhood one evening and now I sometimes write there. Mostly I sit back, think about eating doughnuts, occasionally eat a stale doughnut and regret it, and people watch. I have learned many things during my unoffficial residency and by using an entirely unscientific approach.

- People still buy doughnuts. I'd sort of assumed that in this day and age of customised cupcakes, red velvet-everything and fro-yo (a trend that is finally over, AMEN) that people didn't buy doughnuts anymore.

- I was wrong.

- People buy a lot of doughnuts. Like a lot. After 10 pm, Dunkin is almost like an emergency room: wailing kids, guys who look like they ran out of the house in their PJs and drove at a 100mph, entire families. They all want doughnuts. They get mad when there are no doughnuts. No seriously, they're legitimately indignant when the manager informs them that the branch has run out of their favourite flavour. There are some people who ask if the other branch will still have them. There is an acute sense of desperation in their voices.

- I might have a career as a doughnut scalper if nothing else works out.

- (Why do people need doughnuts so desperately?)

- Sickly icing sells.

- At 11 pm, pretty much everything sells. People drop their demands and standards. 'Just put six of whatever's left in the box.'

- (Maybe they're all having surprise birthday parties?) 

- Lots of people send their kids in unaccompanied to buy doughnuts. In Sugar They Trust.

- Some kids are literally bouncing off the walls before they've even had a doughnt. These kids may not need a truckful of munchkins.

- Lots of people send their domestic staff in to buy doughnuts. Or they send over someone who then dials home and connects the person who is craving doughnuts (but can't leave the house) to the salesperson. These are the people who should memorise the Dunkin Donuts delivery # by heart. And also add on a doughnut for the person they've sent out to forage for food.

Amman in the Archives

One of my favourite things to do is look at newspaper archives online for coverage of cities. It’s always interesting to see the evergreen stories (or what I'd like to call 'what not to pitch'), the facts that are always mentioned, almost in a boilerplate fashion, but also the tone that ranges from the Orientalist to a genuine sense of discovery. 

Here’s Amman, Jordan in the Google newspaper archives

This reads like the opening scene of a James Bond film... 

1973: “There is only one cabaret in this Arab capital that boasts a belly dancer these days. And a visit to watch her could involve you in a gunfight.”

-     AP

1977: “There are no Bedouins now,” he says. “They’ve turned in their tents for villas, cars and color TV. If you call them Bedouins, they get angry.”

- UPI

1980: “This new-old city boasts wide boulevards, clean streets, inexpensive public transportation, a growing number of good hotels, interesting foods, plus nearby historic and religious sites to assure the most timid visitor an exciting stay in the most exotic atmosphere of an exotic land.”

- The Evening Independent

1984: “Its present and its future are the teenagers in blue jeans and sweatshirts, businessmen in three piece suits and the new Youth Sports City complex that draws as many as 60,000 soccer or tennis players or swimmers on a warm summer day.”

This is an interesting estimate. I’m rather curious on what the current estimate is. (Also, wouldn’t it be the reverse in terms of dining preferences now?)

“At the rooftop Omar Khayyam Restaurant, co-owner Younis Shaer admits that fewer than 20 percent of Amman’s families dine out. His menu features traditional Arabic foods as well as hamburgers and steaks for his Western businessmen clients.”

-       AP

The bilingual switchover

It’s easy to take being bilingual for granted, particularly when you’re studying a language with the same script. I don’t think I’d ever really thought properly before about how your brain switches over into a different language before I started learning Persian a couple of years ago. I’d start replacing “gaps” in my sentences with the language that seemed closest – in my case, Urdu. I did this with Arabic when I lived in Jordan as well, though that was out of sheer necessity since I wasn’t learning Arabic at the time.

But at Middlebury this year, the switchover wasn’t as easy. I’d automatically want to fill in the gaps with words I knew, but because this was a formal method of education I was hesitant about using the wrong word, or didn’t know if it was an Arabic word or Persian. (There was one day in class when I insisted that the word for horse was اسب because the Anki card popped up in my head.) It was only when I got to a stage where my grammar or basic sentence structure improved that all the words in Arabic/Urdu/Persian began to make sense, and I felt like there was a potential for words. This is the advantage of being bilingual. Just like learning the root of one word in Arabic can be expanded into other words, Urdu can serve as a base for learning other languages.  Especially when I began learning forms 7-10 and اسم فاعل و مفعول, it felt like a whole world of possibilities had opened in terms of language and how I could use words that were familiar and finally understood the context.

The advantage of being able to read the script is hard to explain.  It was also frustrating because my fluency with the script didn’t match up to my comprehension. It also can be a disadvantage, since I speak very fast (the word often used is incomprehensibly fast) in Urdu and the “automatic switchover” in my mind assumes that a similar sounding language must be spoken at the same speed. What’s also interesting is that one word can sound so utterly different in all languages – the stress, the pronunciation, the usage.

It was also just as surprising to learn ممنوع من الصرف, because it separates words that are not of Arabic origin. I’d always assumed names like ‘Ismail’ were Arabic words. Suddenly, the language became more complicated. The context of these words became more paramount; I couldn’t just rely on my vocabulary, now I had to think about history and geography and other languages.   

Summer 2016: The one with all the Arabic.

Theoretically, I knew what I was signing up for. The Middlebury Language School's immersive program means two months of sole instruction in the Arabic language, pledging to only communicate in Arabic, hours of work. So I took lessons on italki for a few months to prep, then switched my phone to Arabic, set up an auto-reply message asking people to only correspond in Arabic, and took a flight to California. (Middlebury's Arabic School is run out of the Mills College campus in Oakland). On Friday, I spoke English. On Monday, I spoke Arabic.

Boom.

Broken sentences, but Arabic. 

Middlebury's immersive program is an intense, straightaway crossover into the other language. Save for the very basic level, there is no instruction in English, no one translating simultaneously, no one talking you through a concept in English. 

Midway through the first week, I was uncomfortably reminded of being at school, struggling to write Arabic letters properly, spending a Saturday morning doing additional homework from my Arabic teacher because my writing was so astonishingly bad.

As I stared at my graded Middlebury homework, marked with red, sitting alone as a 31-year-old in a dorm room, I had a flashback to sitting in my bedroom as a child and my mother talking me through how to write calmly instead of scrawling over the page. (My mother's patience was tested many, many times over my struggle with the Arabic and Urdu script.) 

Middlebury's immersive program is that feeling multiplied a dozen times over. I was reminded of all of my structural failings, the hangover of a haphazard Urdu education that bypassed grammar and went straight to conversation. I knew the program was intensive; what I didn't fathom before I walked in was just how much of my day would be spent doing homework, that every day of that first week would feel like an exhausting blur of classes and dialects and confusingly long questions. It wasn't until the third week or so that I started to develop some semblance of a routine, and it was only when I woke up in the middle of a night, startled by my raised bed's proximity to the window that my first thought wasn't in English. It was in Arabic. 

Is the program difficult? Yes. Does it work? Yes. 

By the end of the summer, I had given two presentations in Arabic, recited part of a poem in public, written an 1100 word paper (and discarded many drafts) and taken several quizzes and two key exams. It wasn't just that I could read or speak fluently, and that I could understand large chunks of text and the context of words, the meanings shifting based on the theme, the "force" of the verbs. As I packed my suitcase and emptied out my desk at the end of the summer, all the homework, filed away in a folder, had led to something real: the ability to think in Arabic.