Reading (and rereading) the ‘60s guide to single life

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 Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962. I first read it last year, and every few months I get back to it. I reread books a lot, but this isn’t the book I read to kill time before an appointment or eating alone. This is the book that I read when I feel uninspired and sad and in the opening-last-bag-of-chili-chips throes of misery, and every time I read it, I go away wanting to do better, be better, dress better, and to just get to work.

Sex and the Single Girl was revolutionary when it was published. But there’s still something about the book that feels startlingly different: that it doesn’t consider as strange or unnatural to build a life as a single person, a life for yourself, a life that celebrates the idea of independence, a life that is fun. The reason it feels new, still, is because it’s so imbued in practical advice. This is an actual guide; not the glossy version of single life, not the cliched parts, but the parts of SATC that were about the hustle.

Of course, Brown’s book is mired in the idea of getting — or at least, being appealing to a man — singledom with a view to getting somewhere. There are archaic, stereotypical views — particularly of gay men — and parts that will make you cringe.

But it’s the everyday routines where Brown’s advice on what to wear, how to decorate, how to spend, how to focus on work is absolutely fantastic. Sometimes I wish I could go back to my 18-year-old self and hand her this book. Brown’s advice is so different from the notions of indulgent self-care – sure, you should indulge in self care, but also do well at work. Brown is brutally honest – and right – about so many things, like byob – who wants a party where you have to bring things at? Or the merits of chilled rose – so far ahead of the last few years’ rose and frose trends. Or the joy of creating a jewelbox of a tiny, cheap apartment — more people, she writes, will say “That girl has the most divine apartment” than they ever will about a divine husband, which I would get inscribed on a t-shirt if I could. Brown doesn’t think it’s a compromise to live on a miniscule budget, but to feel pride in living within your means and having a career and to not feel shame or guilted into entertaining or dining out when you’d rather save it for the Balenciaga coat of your dreams.

Cupboards, she writes, should be almost bare: “Who are all these other people you’re feeding?”

Brown describes how she’d turn her ennui – once not being invited to a shower by a girl she’d apparently slighted – into opportunity, entering a competition (which a friend of hers had won previously, making her jealous) Brown doesn’t pretend to be immune from all the feelings that plague us – envy, jealousy, loneliness, exhaustion, weight. But she teaches something more important: that a single life is a great life. The fear of missing out is real, but don’t let being single — or being poor — make you think you can’t enjoy brunch. It is the life that other people should and do covet, not the other way around. And this is a lesson that’s perhaps even more important today, in a world of faux #goals (a word I have happily muted on Twitter and would on Instagram too, because in the immortal words of Chrissy Teigen: 

Brown’s book is a compelling get your life together spiel. So: Why are you sitting around feeling sorry for myself? Why don’t you condition your hair and go out for a walk? Why don’t you drink a glass of cheap something and study up on your French? (Or Arabic or Farsi or whatever it is you’re doing?) What excuse do we have for sitting around and waiting for things to happen?

Dust, danger, and the TV trolley

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If you’ve ever owned a TV in Pakistan, you might have also owned/encountered/been told to dust a TV trolley. 

What is a TV trolley? It is the fancier iteration of the stationary shelved TV ‘rack’ and the wood glass-fronted cabinet to place the TV on. But the TV trolley was really the same cabinet but on wheels. It held the VCR, the VCR ‘cleaner’ tape – a scam if there ever was one – the protective plastic cover for the VCR, and the selection of video cassettes you were lucky enough to own / “forgot” to return to the video rental shop, and the TV rested atop it this edifice. Despite the wheels, the TV – and the trolley – was/is never really mobile and is usually restricted to one vantage viewing point, only ever moving if you moved house (revealing the rusty wheels’ marks on the floor) or when the TV had to be sent off for repairs (99% of the time there’s always something wrong with the ‘tube’.)

TV trolleys, as it turns out, are also dangerous. According to this study, of the 55 kids taken to a Karachi hospital ER because of injuries caused by falling objects – 40% were injured by TV trolleys (!!!). 71.4% of the 55 were admitted to the ICU, and the most common injuries were to the upper limb and head -- leading the researchers to conclude that injuries caused by falling TV trolleys were an important home safety issue in Pakistan.

(Even though I’ve never owned a flat screen and abhor TV trolleys I have been unable to KonMari them out of the house. I have tried. They remain, rusty wheels and all.) 

 

Crime v. Terrorism

This is a great piece in the LRB on how one defines "credible fear" in order to establish eligibility for asylum.

The complexities of women’s lives can be overlooked by the legal system. But the more time I spent at the detention centre, the more I saw it was systematically prone to the dynamics of evasion and rhetorical slipperiness of the phrase ‘credible fear’. The name ‘Family Residential Center’ is disingenuous, too. Owned by a private prison company, the centre – a collection of pre-fabricated huts – is surrounded by mirrors, surveillance cameras and coils of barbed wire. US immigration policy is based on an irrational fear of the people detained here. There is nothing credible about it.

The nature of legal definitions - and the impact they have on someone's life - reminded me of the challenges with defining terrorism in the Pakistani anti-terrorism court system and the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Reema Omer at the ICJ had an excellent op-ed recently on the vague and inconsistent ways in which the definition of terrorism has been interpreted by the courts in Pakistan. 

In order to establish whether an alleged crime is an act of terrorism, the prosecutor has to prove that it matches the definitions in the Anti-Terrorism Act, one of which includes that it must have affected society at large. This can and is very arbitrary: is there a barometer for what shocks society, and how does one judge that? In the Rangers-Sarfaraz Shah case, the prosecution presented a witness who described how her children were traumatised at viewing the video of Shah being killed.

But what differentiates a crime from terrorism? As Omer points out:

 While there is no agreed universal legal definition of terrorism, international standards clarify that laws related to terrorism must be clearly and precisely formulated, and they must be limited to countering terrorism, as properly defined. This means that the ‘action’ must be a serious crime such as grievous physical violence, and the intention with which it is carried out must be to provoke a state of terror in the general public or a segment of it, or to compel the government to do or abstain from doing something. The definition of terrorism under the ATA falls foul of these standards: it is vague, overbroad, and allows even acts driven by reasons other than spreading fear or coercing governments to be considered ‘terrorism’

Where does one draw the line at what cases should be heard by the regular courts v/s anti-terrorism or special courts? This isn't always dependent on the law, but also on perception, 

There was - for a considerable period in Karachi - a palpable sentiment that cases be sent to the ATC because they were theoretically assumed to work faster [while in reality, there was a considerable backlog] This seems to have been blurred further by the introduction of miitary courts; with a bevy of "high-profile" cases sent or transferred out of the ATC to military courts. 


A reading list of reporting, on reporters.

Around the world, journalists have long struggled to report against hostile governments, in times of censorship andand war. But what does it mean to be a writer in a place where being a journalist can feel like being public enemy number 1, 2, and 3, where there is often no institutional support and funding, little acknowledgement, and where as "local journalists", there is little of the prestige or awards or opportunities that writers in the U.S., for example, often can access. Local journalism, after all, is mere fodder, local journalists merely bring the great color and quotes that end up being shared as part of someone else's work.

Here are some stories about how journalists work, and what it means to contend with challenges that can seem unfathomable to the world. And while I was writing this up, I thought about how striking it is that one can actually find reportage about reporters abroad, but little of their own work in some? most? international media outlets. There's so much to be said about how utterly broken the system of pitching, commissioning, and writing is, but that's for later.

“Bodies of Evidence” (Laurent Gayer, Nida Kirmani and Zia ur Rehman, The Friday Times, February 2017)

In Pakistan, photojournalists work the morgue circuit to get grisly mugshots of dead criminals. This story peels back how they do this – and why there’s a culture of printing macabre photos of corpses in local Pakistani newspapers.

“Bangladesh war: the article that changed history” (Mark Dummett, BBC, December 2011)(Original piece: “Genocide”, The Sunday Times, Antonio Mascarenhas, June 1971)

In 1971, the journalist Antonio Mascarenhas traveled with the Pakistan Army as it stamped down on dissent from the country’s eastern wing – East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh – and saw the military’s planned campaign of brutally eliminating dissent in force. The story is an incredible piece of reportage, and the story of how Mascarenhas managed to write it and evade arrest – and save his family from reprisals – is testament to his commitment to tell the story.

“It’s Always the Fixer Who Dies” (George Packer, The New Yorker, September 2009)

Journalists Sultan Munadi and Stephen Farrell were held captive while reporting in Afghanistan; Munadi was killed in a raid while Farrell survived. George Packer’s lament for Munadi – the interpreter who died while his colleague was freed – is bitter and knowing, and strikes at the deeply unjust imbalance between the lives of journalists and the fixers they depend on.

The unique burden of covering climate change in the Middle East” (Mark Schapiro, Pacific Standard, August 2016)

Reporting on climate change in the Middle East means contending with the intersecting forces of government and powerful figures in the economy, but investigative journalists are trying to bring out the stories of polluted rivers and emissions in a region where journalism practices itself are subject to censorship – and self-censorship.

Kidnap, rape and ‘honor’ killings: on the road with a female reporter in rural India” (Snigdha Poonam, The Guardian, March 2015)

An immersive look at how a newspaper covers rural India through a feminist lens, and how women investigate stories that impact women.

“Woman’s work” (Francesca Borri, Columbia Journalism Review, July 2013)

An Italian freelance journalist in Syria tries to report on one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history. She gets paid $70. The piece is a brutal indictment of how news organizations use freelance journalists; Borri wrote a follow-up piece in the Guardian about the response to her account from freelance journalists, and why the conflict itself had been forgotten in the conversation.

Unbylined (Roads & Kingdoms, ongoing)

This is an excellent series of interviews with fixers from around the world on how they report, the demands made of them, the challenges and the reporting credits.

"The Dissenters,” (David Remnick, The New Yorker, February 2011)

David Remnick profiles the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and the challenges it faces as it tries to balance idealism, reportage on the conflict with Palestine, and the polarization of society.

A dinner from Herat, via Beirut

While in Beirut recently, I went to Makan - a lovely space that does global cuisine events - for its three-night western Afghan set menu [apparently prepared by a Sri Lankan chef!]

Herat is beautiful, but I visited in 2013 in the dead of the winter and don't recall much of the food, other than eating a massive heap of rice and chicken one afternoon that I could barely make a dent in. Though I consumed enough bolani and mantu in Kabul to last a lifetime. [Also, people: "Kabuli pullau" is not what we think it is]

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All the things.

Everything was delicious, though the kheer turned out to be more firni-like - and sans carrots - which was great because I don't like gajar ki kheer or halwa, and I was actually rather surprised to see it on the menu since I didn't know gajar ki kheer was an Afghan dish [though I know fairly little about Afghan cuisine] The salads reminded me of how great kachoomar tastes and I really should make it more often. I didn't eat the lamb stew because I can only eat red meat if it's minced/spiced and cooked to death. The khichri was like all good khichris should be: comfort food at its very best - generous.

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oh, hello.

The highlight of this meal was the bichak.

Why did I never know bichak existed? I could have eaten half a dozen of in a single sitting. It's one of the things I like best about discovering a new cuisine: a single item that makes you slightly obsessed and searching for places to have it again.

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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.