During my scholarship stint in Egypt it happened to know a foreign course attendee who had previously been in China to learn the language; one day, in Cairo, he looked discouragingly at me, and after a deep sigh, he said: “You know what Bruno? Arabic is more difficult to learn than chinese language…
Yes, Arabic language looks quite eerie to a westerner eye as it envolves three distinct difficult aspects: reading, writing and pronouncing it; and to learn it properly, without forgetting the words in a matter of months you gotta writing it – from right to left – by hand too.
I was though advantaged by my Sicilian origin which presents in its dialect many words of arabic origins and by my father who, when he was young, had been for almost ten years in Libia. Another link which I had inconsciously deemed as having distant relations to my DNA, was the fact that Cairo had been founded in 969 by the sicilian born warlord jawhar As-Sahili: Sicily had been conquered beginning from 827 AD, in a span of more than a century by the Fatimid empire.
But let me give you a note of optimism: Arabic was very difficult to learn some decades ago; today, instead of laboriously squinting your eyes on the Hans Wehr traditional paper dictionary you can be speed your learning by Apps, like the Cave Arabic Verb Conjugator. It has a steep price, but after having used it for many months, I can still say that buying it was worth all that money. Once you download the app – which weighs some 300 Mb – you can use it without connecting afterwards to the Internet.
Arabic language it is based, as other Semitic languages – like Hebrew – on consonantal roots, most of them tri-consonantal.
On a traditional paper Arabic dictionary you will not therefore find the words in alphabetical order, but according to their roots, that is, the first form of the third singular person of the Perfect Tense. In the same list you will also have the other verb forms – mainly up to the tenth form – which are linked together in a sort of mathematical meaning variation.
For example, Kasara, Perfect Tense first form, means to break – here by general agreement translated as Infinitive – while the second form, Kassara, which always represents an increasing of the meaning of the first form, means to smash. You will also have in that same list, the relevant substantives, adjectives, participles with prefix, and so on, such as: kisra (fragment, chunk, slice); Kaasir (ferocious); maksuurun (fragmented). A text sample has been posted hereunder, also in its cursive variation, coupled with its transliteration from Arabic, and its translation into English.
A note: on newspapapers you will not find in the words the vowels (three of them: a-u-i) which the reader will have to add; in other terms, as the word “newspaper” would appear “nwsppr”. But in the long run this will become very intuitive for the foreign reader as the process is ruled by a strict language sintax. Only old texts, such as the Coran, are vocalised.
The short tale below comes from the book ‘Writing Arabic’, by Terence Frederick Mitchell, Oxford University Press, which I bought at the time and found very useful; it’s still available at Oxford UP website with a steep price (£ 49). Hereunder I have also added the relevant Mp3, recorded in Cairo – while I was enjoying the afore mentioned scholarship – ‘starring’ Nabil, a cultured Egyptian friend of mine. The text is read by him twice; in the second one – referring to the handwritten sample – Nabil had increased his speed.
Sample of ‘Writing Arabic: A practical introduction to Ruq’ah script’:
Ahmad asked a sailor: Where did your father die? The sailor answered: “On a ship he was sailing on the sea”. “And when did your grandfather die?” “He, too, died on a ship he was sailing on the sea”. “And are you not afraid to sail a ship after that?” Then the sailor said: “Where did your father die?” “In his bed”. “And your grandfather?” “In his bed.” “And are you not afraid to sleep in a bed after that?”
Below, the poster of the movie titled Ayyamna al-helwa, ( أيامنا الحلوة ) Our Best Days, 1955, Director Helmi Alim ( حلمي حليم ) and the leaflet of the movie, where, on its right side you can see a young Omar Sharif (عمر الشريف ) whose interview made by me in Cairo can also be read here.
The main actor were: Abdel Halim Hafez (عبد الحليم حافظ ), actress Faten Hamama ( فاتن حمامه ), and Ahmad Ramzy (أحمد رمزي ).
On the poster on the left, as also on the movie leaflet on the right – whose originals can be bought here – you can see samples of the attractive calligraphy in Ruq’ah (or Riq’a) style, which is one variety of the Arabic script.
Hereunder two smartphone screenshots of the Cave Arabic conjugator above related to two forms of a verb: kasara and kassara – to break and to smash.