Twice during my youth, I spent the school year in Jerusalem, Israel with my family while my high-school teacher father was on Sabbatical leave. I turned 7 the first trip and then celebrated my 15th birthday the second time. Although my father taught my younger sister and me basic Hebrew before that first trip, we learned the language in earnest by being immersed full time in an Israeli school. There’s nothing like learning a foreign language as a child because your brain is more malleable and not bombarded with other, competing information.
On our second trip, I was entering the 10th Grade, which, back in the day, was the first year of high school. Because I needed to transfer my credits to the high school I’d eventually graduate from in Los Angeles—though more so because taking physics or chemistry in Hebrew was out of the question—my sister and I attended the Anglican Church School, the only English-speaking high school in Jerusalem. My experiences there were unique and enjoyable in many ways, primarily because of the diversity of the student body.
While I rubbed elbows with ambassadors’ kids and children of UN personnel, many of the students hailed from East Jerusalem: Arab, Greek and Armenian, a mix of Christians and Muslims. As far as I remember, except for the Head Master and Head Mistress who were from London, no one else at school was a member of the Anglican Church, but it didn’t matter. Our commonality was we all spoke English and our parents wanted us to learn all our subjects in English. It was an exceptional experience that shaped my life and world view and I’m forever grateful for it.
In the process, I was able to pick up words and expressions in Arabic from my classmates. Although vaguely related to Hebrew (some similar words, both languages are written right to left, and both have no written vowels), Arabic’s pronunciation can be tricky. Lots of sounds are produced in various parts of the throat and can be difficult for native English speakers to enunciate. Then there’s the Arabic alphabet, or Al-abjadia. Daunting to say the least and not remotely related to Hebrew. For obvious reasons, I never tried learning to read or write it. Until last week.
One of my dearest friends from the Anglican Church School was Henriette Nasser. She was a Christian Arab, whose family dates back generations in Nazareth. She was also the kindest, smartest and hardest working girl at school who, incidentally, spoke four languages fluently (Arabic, Hebrew, English and French). I always envied her knowledge of French, which I took for three years, but never achieved an advanced level. She taught me common words and phrases in Arabic, and I always thought, one day I will study her native tongue. After trying to tackle it on my own years ago and giving up too quickly, I made a vow last month to find a teacher and learn Arabic.
My reason for studying Arabic now of all times, at an age where my brain isn’t as receptive to new words, never mind a foreign language, it’s that I want my brain to remain sharp as I age precisely by learning a new language. I want to create new pathways in my brain while challenging myself with something difficult. It’s not an endeavor I’d recommend for most people—pickle ball or Wordle seem to be more fun and much easier to learn—but it’s a feat I have been wanting to undertake for a long time. To fulfill a goal from long ago.
Noura to the Rescue
I found a terrific native speaker, Noura, who lives in the Atlanta area, through an online language school and I am dedicating two, one-hour lessons a week. It’ll be a slow process, but what’s the rush? She’s a lovely, patient lady who reminds me a lot of Henriette, who, coincidentally also lives in the Atlanta area. Although Henriette and I had lost contact with each other for decades, she found me on Facebook 15 years ago. I texted Henriette last week about my new endeavor, and while she wasn’t surprised—knowing I love new challenges—she said she was very proud of me. That made my day!
Well, it was all her fault, anyway. For teaching me those Arabic expressions all those years ago.