When it’s time to break the fast at the end of the day, everyone is downstairs by at least ten minutes before maghrib (the maghrib athan is what signals the end of the day’s fasting). On each placemat, there is a bowl for soup, a glass, and a spoon. The plates of sambousa are in the middle of the table.
As we migrate toward the table, each person busies himself or herself in setting up their place. Soup goes in the bowls, glasses get filled. Somewhere on the table, there is a bowl of dates, and each person chooses several dates and piles them up next to his soup bowl—an odd number, partly because eating an odd number of dates is sunnah, and partly because an odd number is always a step more than an even number, and dang it, we’re hungry.
We sit. I take one sambousa and peel off the crispiest, pointiest parts before handing it to Lavender. She starts gumming the sambousa as she watches the scene.
Sometime during the beginning of this Ramadan, my father-in-law decided that it’s high time for me to learn Arabic. Now, up until this point, my father-in-law has been the person most dedicated to translating for me when I find myself in the midst of a rapid-fire family conversation in Arabic. Everyone else usually gets caught up in the discussion and I get left behind, but he always takes time out to do his best to translate everything for me, which I find terribly sweet.
But now, it’s been two years since I moved to Riyadh, and while my Arabic has improved during that time, I’m still pretty bewildered when I’m in the middle of an intense conversation. So every night before iftar, he has been busy teaching me words (even words I already know), having me repeat them, and giving me commands to follow in Arabic.
“Mendeel,” he says, pointing to a box of Kleenex.
“Tissue,” I say, to show him I know the word.
“Mendeel,” I say.
This continues with various other words. Except there’s just one thing. My father-in-law pronounces his S sounds in an unorthodox way…like, he doesn’t exactly have a lisp, but when he makes letter sounds in the S family, they sound very thick, if that makes any sense. And in Arabic, there are two letters in that S family—seen, which makes the same sound as an English letter S, and saad, which is like an S but is made a bit further back in the mouth and has more emphasis. These two letters sound basically the same to a native English speaker (at least, a native English speaker who is also an Arabic language learner), which is part of the reason that Americans never pronounce Saleh’s name totally correctly, because in Arabic, his name begins with the letter saad.
Anyway, I can pretty much distinguish between those two letters now, except when my father-in-law says them. So it makes it a whole lot harder to understand when a word he’s having me repeat has one of these two letters.
After I attempt to repeat the word he is teaching me a few times, getting it wrong each time, someone—usually my brother-in-law—says the word, so that I can understand it clearly, rolling his eyes at how my father-in-law is trying to make me speak Arabic. In response, I say eagerly, “No, I really appreciate him teaching me!” Because it’s true.
“It’s not that,” my brother-in-law says. “You’re never going to learn that way. He’s speaking to you like you’re a plumber from Pakistan.”
“What?” I say, confused as to what Pakistani plumbers have to do with this.
“He’s talking to you like you don’t speak Arabic or English,” he clarifies. “He’s speaking very bad Arabic, the kind of Arabic that people pick up from other people who speak very bad Arabic, so you can understand him better. But you’re never going to learn that way.”
While I’m having this conversation with my brother-in-law, my husband is scolding my father-in-law for using nonstandard Arabic with me, and they are heatedly discussing (in Arabic, naturally) what is the best way to teach me. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are also offering their input. After my brother-in-law finishes explaining to me what’s going on, he jumps into the conversation between my father-in-law and my husband.
As the minutes until maghrib tick by, my mouth is watering, and everyone is choosing a few sambousa to pile up next to their soup bowls. I grab a few of my favorites as the Arabic debate continues (to hear it, it sounds like they’re in the midst of a very serious disagreement, but at this point, I know they’re not. Like my mom told me when she first met my in-laws, “When they talk, it sounds like they’re really arguing, even when they’re talking about the weather!” I see what she means. In Arabic conversation, there’s very little concept of waiting for your turn to speak, as in English conversation. No, in Arabic, everyone talks at the same time, and you listen and speak at the same time).
The athan on someone’s phone goes off. “Athan,” my sister-in-law says, picking up a date, signaling that it’s time to eat.
“La, barra,” my father-in-law says. No, outside. He’s saying that it’s not officially maghrib until we hear the athan being called from the mosques outside. As soon as this is settled, the boys go back to discussing Arabic.
While I stack up my chosen sambousa in preparation for the sound of the proper athan, my mother-in-law holds up a plate and says over the din of the arguing boys, “Nicole, do you want laham?”
“Eywa, jubna!” says my father-in-law proudly, taking a break from the debate when he hears me speaking Arabic. Another athan sounds, this time on someone else’s phone.
“Athan!” my sister-in-law says.
“La, barra!” my father-in-law insists.
My mouth is watering and I want to eat so badly and I’m so close. Why, oh, why hasn’t the athan sounded barra?
“I think you need to say, ‘Ahob al jubna,’” my brother-in-law says. “’I love the cheese.’ That’s what you’d say in English, right? Because you like the cheese sambousa?””
“No, she can say ‘I love cheese,’” Mr. Mostafa insists. “That makes sense, too.”
My father-in-law jumps in with his own assessment of the cheese quandary. Soon everyone at the table is offering their input, still all in Arabic, of course, and the volume of the discussion rises so that we can just barely hear the sound of the athan outside.
“Athan! Barra!” my mother-in-law calls, but the cheese debate rages. I don’t want to be the first one to eat, but I’m holding a date to my lips, waiting for someone else to take the first bite.
Finally, the cheese question is sufficiently settled for my father-in-law. He bows out of the discussion and eats a date. I follow suit.
And then we’re all eating.
And I am learning Arabic.
And it is glorious.