The 1 Surprising Reason Why I’ll Never Stop Studying Arabic

My story with Arabic is windy and wonderous and woeful, but the moral of the story is this:

You’re only one or two ideas away from a complete transformation of your life (and by extension, your Arabic language learning experience.)

Just one or two. That’s it.

Take it from me. Before I started mastering the self-study strategies that I preach on Marhabtain, I almost quit Arabic completely. I was spent. For years, I’d been stuck in the purgatory of the “Perpetual Beginner”. In truth, I’d become a “Professional Beginner.” I’d mastered basic conversation, but still couldn’t speak from my heart. And that bothered me.

I’m here to tell you: No, you’re not stupid. No, Arabic isn’t hard. No, you’re not a bad language learner. You just might not know how to learn the language. Before starting to use the self-study strategies I talk about on this blog, I didn’t either.

These days, what bothers me is thinking of all of the people who give up on Arabic too early simply because they didn’t have the tools they needed to thrive. So, here’s my story of how I found the tools for Arabic fluency, after many years of Arabic failures.

Hopefully, you’ll see that if I can bounce back. You can too.

So here’s my story with Arabic, told in a way that I’ve never quite told it before.

Part 1. Looking for Home

Recently, a lot of people have been asking me why I love learning Arabic and have continued all these years. For months, I didn’t really know how to answer. And that was odd. Because I can tell you exactly why I love yoga, exactly why I love dance, exactly why I love travel. Yet, for the thing I spend every day doing and thinking about for many hours a day, the thing that has grown from a college elective to a hobby to a self-imposed part-time job, I came up with nothing, ولا شي. And then, like a gust of wind that knocks you off your feet, I remembered. I started Arabic because I wanted to major in Near Eastern Studies in college, but I’ve pursued Arabic all these years because I was looking for home.

I grew up in two cultures that I didn’t really feel that I fit into. My parents are from Nigeria and so, in our house, we were raised to be ideal Nigerian children. Yet, I grew up in the small, majority-Black town in South Carolina. So at school, I was socialized as a Black American, a Southerner, and an American (in that order).

My story is the typical immigrant story, but I didn’t know that growing up. I didn’t know that not feeling “Nigerian-enough” or “Black American-enough” or “Southern-enough” or “American-enough” is just the burden we first-gen kids have to bear. Even if someone had told me what I was going through, it wouldn’t have changed much about the loneliness and disconnectedness that I felt. I always had great friends at school, but I could never quite be one of them. I had a family, hundreds of members strong that spanned the globe, and yet, I couldn’t be one of them either.

I remember in 3rd grade, a teacher asked us: If you could choose another name, what would it be? I said, Kiesha. It didn’t even sound right coming out of my mouth. A few years later in Nigeria with cousins, they jokingly called, me “Onyeocha” or “white man”. I grew up feeling like I existed in a liminal space between Keisha and Onyeocha.

So when Arabic came along during my sophomore year in college, I was looking for home. I wanted someplace to call my own, where I could embed in the culture, and just be anonymous. My parent’s never taught me my own native language, and our home life was so fraught that I wasn’t sure I’d ever go back there to learn it (I went off to a boarding school at around age 15, and then kind of just peaced out for ten years…), so I was looking for anything to fall into. Enter: Arabic.

I could tell this story in an entirely different way. I could talk about the noble reasons I chose Arabic over other languages. This story, if I told it, would be true. I would tell you that 9/11 shaped my childhood and made me understand the depths of xenophobia in our country. I would tell you that I was an anti-war kid who published political op-eds in my local town newspaper. I would tell you that when I was forced to choose a major in college, I was confused about most things in my life, but I did truly believe that we needed “good Americans” (enter: me) to learn Arabic and build cultural bridges instead of military bases. I could tell you this whole story, and I might come off seeming noble to you, or even naïve, and it would all be true. But it wouldn’t be the most honest telling.

Honesty, I was searching for home. And I was searching for one far away from my own. I could’ve chosen Kazak or Welsh or Telugu or Patois, but my university didn’t offer those languages. With this perspective, I don’t know if I found Arabic or if Arabic found me. But when I met Arabic, I burrowed my heels into it until I was stuck.

Part 2. The Burrowing Years

By my senior year of college, I was exhausted. And I hated Arabic. Or did I just need a break? I didn’t know.

I call my Sophomore thru Senior years of college, “The Burrowing Years”, because I really burrowed into life as an Arabic student, by doing the things I thought students were meant to do. In those 3 years of study, I:

  • Spent hundreds of hours in Arabic class
  • Studied abroad in Morocco and Jordan, traveled in Egypt, researched in Palestine
  • Lived with local families and volunteered with Iraqi refugees
  • Made dear friends who I still know even today, or think of fondly

Despite those memories and tons of photographs from the bright red digital camera I owned at the time, two things happened that impacted the way that I came to understand those years. Firstly, my Arabic improved at a snail’s pace. I talk about this experience in detail in a post that has become very popular on this blog, called: My One Year Update: Why I Broke Up With “Traditional” Ways of Studying Arabic and Why I’ll Never Look Back. But in short, after all those years of work, I felt discouraged. After 3 years, I wasn’t much closer to finding home than I had been when I started learning Arabic. Secondly, while studying abroad in Jordan, I face an unceasing stream of sexual harassment that left me numb, broken, and depressed. I talk about that experience in detail in my post: Study Abroad Almost Killed Me and My Love for Arabic. Why I Don’t Recommend You Go… At Least Not Yet. And after that time in Jordan, I didn’t even want to step foot in the Middle East anyway.

As college came to a close, I was a wanderer again. In truth, I think that I felt scorned on an existential level. I felt like God had a vendetta against me, and that this was my lot in life — to wander from locale to locale, language to language, burrow to borrow — looking for a place to receive me.

I exiled Arabic from my life and moved to China after college.

Part 3. From the Middle Kingdom back to the Middle East

In Mandarin, China is actually pronounced “Zhong-guo”, which translates to “Middle Kingdom”. As much as I knew about other parts of the world, I knew nothing about China when I arrived in Beijing in 2014. I heard that there was smog, so I brought my inhaler. That was it. I never thought I’d end up there or that my life needed to root down into the Middle Kingdom, so that I might find my way back to the Middle East. But that’s exactly what happened.

I talk about my experience in China in detail in this post, but to put it simply, I’ll say this. Sometimes you just need to get your groove back. I needed to get my groove back. And the energy and community in Beijing allowed for that. You have to understand. After college, I was tired. And not just because of Arabic. I went to a very demanding university and to be honest, most people around me seemed more exhausted than energized. If we were energized about anything, it was that we felt eager to graduate. For me, that exhaustion hit my self-esteem hard. Sometimes, I felt like a failure, other times I just felt numb. And to be honest, if that’s the energy you’re carrying around with you in your life, you’re not likely to get much done anyway, let alone learn a language.

With that in mind, Beijing was the perfect place for me. There’s something about the spirit of China. I’ve never been in a country so determined to build and grow and work together. That energy was electric boogie woogie woogie. I got involved in the arts, ran fundraisers, curated galleries, helped run businesses, and learned to speak Chinese to a conversational level using a lite version of the techniques I talk about on Marhabtain.

Healed and energized, I returned to America wondering what was next for me. What I did know for sure was that I’d worked through a lot of my anger and sadness regarding my first experiences with Arabic. And that I was ready to start re-learning on my own terms.

But when?

I set a New Year’s Resolution for 2020, and then the pandemic hit.

Part 4. You’re only one or two ideas away from a complete transformation of your life.

Despite a few COVID-19 scares in my family and friends, I remained healthy throughout the pandemic. This was coupled with the fact that as a high school teacher, our school went virtual, and so I didn’t have to leave my home except for grocery shopping.

So I sat. I stared. The walls stared back at me. I arranged my furniture. And when nothing worked to relieve my boredom, I decided it might be time to re-arrange my life around Arabic.

Before quarantine began, I’d started to immerse in Arabic through music, mostly, while I was in my office and didn’t have other work. Now that I was in my apartment alone, I decided to try out a full-on immerse experience, using the techniques I outline on this site.

Immersion was the one idea that truly transformed my Arabic experience. Arabic became my best friend — and so I spent hours a day with her in music, movies, tv shows, and radio programs. I began to understand that I didn’t need to go to the Middle East to learn Arabic and I didn’t need to go to class. Instead, I could bring the Middle East to me, and immersion became my schooling.

When I fully grasped this concept, everything changed. Most importantly, in one year alone, my Arabic abilities went from — not being able to hold simple conversations to being able to watch full TV series’ without subtitles. In all of my years of university and of traveling in the Middle East, this is something I’d dreamed of doing but had written off as impossible. Now, I pop on a show, lay back, and relax. As a matter of fact, I’m going to do that as soon as I finish this post.

So why is this blog called Marhabtain, anyway? Well, Levantine Colloquial has many fun ways of saying hello, and one way is through call-and-response. So one person says Marhaba (hello) and the person responding says Marhabtain (two hellos)! I love that warm welcome that the word “Marhabtain” provides. It’s that same warm, welcoming feeling that has drawn me back into Arabic after all of my highs and lows. And it’s the same warm and welcoming feeling that I hope you encounter as you read this blog.

Where am I with the “search for home”? Well, I’m not sure the feeling will ever go away per se, but I’ve accepted it. I believe that the obstacles that we face in our lives connect us to our purpose. And that our purpose helps us uplift others. Without my childhood experiences, I would have never found Arabic. Without Arabic, there would be no Marhabtain. Without Marhabtian, you wouldn’t be here. So, you see? The cards of life are stacked in the favor of fate.

Perhaps it’s the teacher in me, but these days, a main reason I don’t want to stop learning Arabic is so that I can help you keep going. I don’t want you to waste the years that I wasted. I want you to feel encouraged and energized, and in return help someone else.

Marhabtain isn’t just a blog where I share the strategies I use to learn Arabic. At its best, I hope this blog is a way for me (and eventually, you!) to pay it forward.

I’m so glad you’re here. مرحبا.

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I want to hear your Arabic story! What has your journey been? Where are you now? Where are you going? Let me know in the comment section below!

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  1. Dominique deMar - Umilai

    Hi Sister,
    My name is Dominique but I like to go by Umilai. I’m originally from France and am still fluent of course but I moved to America almost 50 years ago.
    I have wanted to learn Arabic for years. My father was from Tunisia although he was not an Arab. I never knew him as he passed when I was two.
    Seven years ago, I moved to Northampton, Mass, and I lived within walking distance of Smith College. As a senior, I can audit classes in most universities.
    I talked with the teacher who was an energetic young man who had spent some time living around the Levant. He accepted me and treated me like a full student. It was a hard class (daily – 5 credit hours) and I worked my tail off for two semesters.
    I had so much fun! I love the calligraphic art in reading and writing Arabic. The puzzle and decoding effect of the letters enchant me.
    I signed up for year two, but my health took a downturn. In the second month of year two, I had ​surgery and spent three long months in recovery in a nursing home lying down at all times 🙁
    I lost the little I learned and did not feel ready to go for the challenge of going for year two after a year off.
    I moved to Seattle last year and feel very much at home, alhamdullila with peace in my heart and started working my Arabic with Duolingo – the free version. I’m proud to say that I’ve been working at it every day for the past 108 days.
    I have to do it, and it makes me feel wonderful. I would work on it all day long if I could!
    I don’t have any one to practice speaking with yet, but that’ll come in time.
    I’ll be checking out your stuff and inshallah participate. Thanks for being out there. I really enjoyed your story; except for your experience in Jordan which sounded like a nightmare.
    I get the marhabtain now: fun fact!
    Best to you,

    • Uchechi

      I loved so much of you wrote here. You’re truly an inspiration to be pursuing this dream later in life. I loved the line: “I have to do it, and it makes me feel wonderful.” That’s the energy we must have in this life! Alhamdullilah you are enjoying Seattle! And I love that you just figured out what “Marhabtain” means. 🙂 Peace and blessings to you! Keep going!


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