arabic hellos; sabah il kheer

Let me begin with a brief introduction and summary of the past 3 months.

I sometimes go by Aaysof.

I identify as an Egyptian-American born and raised in Houston, Texas.
My mother moved from Cairo to the States with her family when she was 18 and in her 20s married a first generation Hungarian man; however, he is very detached from his roots.
Growing up, assimilation was a general theme.
In 2005, I received a BS in psychology and a BFA in photography/digital media. Currently, in Cairo im teaching English and, inshallah, will begin a masters program in gender and women studies with a North African concentration.

On may 1st I moved to Cairo, Egypt.  Texas and Egypt was created to track my journey as truthfully as possible.

The following is an excerpt of a letter/vent written to my father about why I didn’t learn Arabic growing up. It was never sent due to it’s unfair harsh quality.

Growing up, I remember your negative comments when Arabic was spoken in your presence. I remember remarks that indicated how rude you felt it was for mom and her parents to speak their mother tongue with you around.
How is it that you would marry an Egyptian woman then do nothing to embrace her culture?
I can imagine you felt quite left out- and believe me I understand how it feels to be left out of a conversation due to a language barrier- I experience it on the daily here, and I experienced it growing up.

Since you never seemed to embrace Arabic, I can only naturally assume you didn’t want me to pick it up as I was growing up.
Is this the case? Is that how you felt? And now that I am 25 and deliberately trying to learn Arabic in order to speak it with mom, grandpa, and grandma, does it piss you off?
You had 30 years to learn even the most basic words, but you didn’t even learn how to say “aywa” and “la (”“yes” and “no”). That pisses me off.
“Speak English! You’re in America” you used to say.
You didn’t want me to learn it cause you didn’t.
And now, do you understand how important Arabic is for me?
And how frustrating it is to hear the question “Why don’t you know Arabic?”
It is part of who I am- where I come from. It’s about relating to my mother and grandparents in their language- knowing them in a way I’ve never known them before.

i will leave you with a meal eaten in khan il khalili. This dish is called fateer. it can be eaten plain, with meat, veggies, or sweet ingredients on the inside. for tourists, egyptians market this meal as an “egyptian pancake”, although it’s nothing like a pancake.
fateer


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About Guest: A.H.M.K.

A.H.M.K. is part of Feministe's 2007 Summer of Guest Blogging.
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15 Responses to arabic hellos; sabah il kheer

  1. QLH says:

    While hoping that someone will come along to address the actual point of your post, I can’t help but address the picture.

    Honestly, that looks delicious. What would the “sweet ingredients” be? I may have to go look around for a recipe or something.

  2. Nandini says:

    Hi QLH, I think the point of the post is this portion, A.H.M.K may correct me if i am wrong.

    “How is it that you would marry an Egyptian woman then do nothing to embrace her culture?”

    and yes the food does look delicious.

  3. sabah il noor! Looking forward to your blogging here. I tried to learn Arabic last year, but really struggled – I needed to pay more attention to the alphabet! It is a beautiful language.

    My father’s family is German in origin and my father’s parents refused to let him learn German at school – they wanted him to do Ancient Greek instead. He picked up German at home as his parents spoke it to each other, but his German could be a lot better. Again, it was all about assimilation, I think – his parents left Germany in 1937 to come to England, and it was advisable to be as assimilated as possible during WWII.

  4. micheyd says:

    marhaba! I am learning arabic too, though it’s not in my background. I just think it’s fun and a great challenge.

    I guess I can’t understand the mentality that you should totally, 100% assimilate to the culture you’re in and forget your roots completely. Learning a language post-childhood is immensely more difficult, why close that door when it presents so many opportunities? What was your father afraid of – discrimination? that he would be excluded from a connection you shared with your mother’s side of the family?

  5. Autumn Harvest says:

    QLH, I’m not Egyptian, but they look very much like a Chinese dish, “Green onion pancakes.” I’ve found that the recipe here works well for me. They’re delicious, but rather time-consuming to make.

    A.H.M.K., I’m not trying to defend your father, but I do think that for many older people, assimilation was important in a way that’s difficult for younger Americans to understand. And while I’m roughly your age, being 100% assimilated (I’m Asian-American) was actually pretty important to me growing up.

  6. SC says:

    Sabah il noor! I usually lurk, but this post hits close to home for me. I have an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and began studying Arabic a few years ago. In my program I knew quite a few people like you. People who, for one reason or another, did not learn Arabic even though one or more of their parents spoke it. They successfully learned the language, and inshallah, you will too!

    It is interesting that your father was also from an immigrant family but was “very detached from his roots” and didn’t encourage you to learn Arabic. Or Hungarian. Its interesting how “assimilation” played out differently between your Arab and Hungarian sides of the family.

    Unfortunately, I think that assimilation is still a major theme for some Arab immigrants to the US. I am married to a Syrian immigrant. Because of my background, I am 100% for making sure our children will one day learn the language and culture of their father. But some Arab-American couples I know aren’t this way. A few American partners in these couples have confided in me that they are intimidated by Arabic being spoken in their presence, they don’t like the food or music, and they are fearful of traveling to the Middle East. It is hard for me to understand loving someone and sharing a life with them, but not accepting a huge part of who that person is.

    In the context of larger current events, some people find this hard to do. In fact, I know people who were born and raised in the US to Arab parents and have rejected their Arab identity as adults. I know Arab immigrants who routinely denigrate their own countries. My own husband dropped his first name and went by his more Western middle name for a while after September 11th. He has since switched back. Navigating identity as an immigrant seems to be a complex process that does not stop with the first generation. As the spouse of an immigrant, though, I feel I need to make an effort myself to embrace his culture since he has so fully invested himself in my dominant culture and country.

  7. SassyWho says:

    This is one of the most tragic things about culture in the U.S., so much is lost.

  8. Henry says:

    Chances are, he intentionally kept you from learning arabic because he didn’t want you to identify as Egyptian-American, he wanted you to identify as American. That’s not exactly unprecedented. My great-grandfather spoke gaelic and english when he arrived here, but he never taught gaelic to his children because he wanted them to be seen as Americans, not Irish. Of course, the family never fully got away from some traditions, but his main thrust was successful.

  9. exholt says:

    Growing up, I remember your negative comments when Arabic was spoken in your presence. I remember remarks that indicated how rude you felt it was for mom and her parents to speak their mother tongue with you around.
    How is it that you would marry an Egyptian woman then do nothing to embrace her culture?
    I can imagine you felt quite left out- and believe me I understand how it feels to be left out of a conversation due to a language barrier- I experience it on the daily here, and I experienced it growing up.

    A.H.M.K.

    Thank you for writing this post. I’ve known many fellow Asian-Americans classmates whose parents completely neglected to teach them their familial language because they wanted their children to assimilate 100% in American society. As a result, most end up being completely ignorant of their heritage. Some who want to learn more about their roots struggle to learn the language and culture when they start college. Moreover, the pressure parents and American society puts on complete assimilation causes many Asian-American and other children of non-Western immigrants I’ve encountered to develop a deep shame and even antipathy towards a part of their cultural heritage. Constantly hearing over simplistic and ignorant commentary on how the non-Western cultures of their parents are “backward” and “retrograde” gets old and tiresome after a while.

    From my experience, the vast majority of children of non-Western immigrants who make such comments tend to be woefully ignorant of their familial culture beyond overly simplistic mass media stereotypes and what they learn from their families which is often impeded by language, cultural, and generational gaps. I am thankful to have parents who insisted on speaking mandarin at home. The mandarin proficiency I picked up from childhood has facilitated my efforts in learning more about a part of my heritage beyond what translated texts on the subject could provide. It also feels good to not only not be left out of conversations with mandarin speakers in and out of the family. I do sympathize with those who are left out as I’ve heard complaints about this from many cousins and Asian-American classmates/co-workers whose language skills are limited to speaking American-English.

  10. Mezosub says:

    I’m married to a Lebanese immigrant and I have the opposite problem. I wouldn’t let him keep me from enjoying Middle Eastern food and music, because those were things that I could access on my own, without someone “native” to help me understand them.

    Art and language, however, have always been a challenge, because even when he is around Arabic-speakers, he refused to respond to them in Arabic. When they would speak Arabic to him, he would reply in English until they got frustrated and switched to English. While I confess that I found it rude for his parents to converse in Arabic in my presence, I found it even more disturbing that he refused to teach me any Arabic words, stating, “I don’t want Americans to think you’re Middle Eastern and discriminate against you the way they discriminate against me.”

  11. Older says:

    Older immigrants suffered a lot of discrimination for just being immigrants and many tried to prevent their kids from suffering by denying them as much as possible the chance to identify with the culture of their ancestors. My ex-husband speaks no Italian, in spite of having been largely raised by his non-English-speaking Italian grandmother.

  12. nadia says:

    i’m happy to see you posting here habibti! you have a great blog and a wonderful story to tell. i hope everything is going okay. take care!

  13. rebecca m says:

    sabah innuur. except it’s evening, so I should really say tisbah ‘ala heer, right?

  14. Eurosabra says:

    Yemenite immigrants to Israel brought with them a very similar dish called Melawach. There is also Jachnoun, which is a very, very dense crescent roll. Melawach is often eaten with ground meat, tomato paste, and onions on top or plain with za’atar and oil, Jachnoun is often accompanied by a hard-boiled egg. Feta variants are commonplace.

    Savory circular pastries of the Middle East unite!

  15. Anthony Jones says:

    Saba lkhir,

    The Fateers look damn good indeed.

    I was wondering if you ever tried http://www.speakitall.com for Arabic. It’s a really interesting online language system with a instructor on the other side.

    I did a couple of programs with them and it really helped me out.
    It’s for a fee though, something like $180 for 10 sessions.

    I recommend it and wish you the best with your Arabic.

    Regards,

    Tony

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