Are you talking to me?

In these troubled times of ongoing terrorism and fear, do people still want to engage with “the other”?

Social media apps Twitter and Facebook [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Social media apps Twitter and Facebook [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In these times of texts and tweets, it’s not likely you’ll find yourself saying anytime soon: “Today I wrote a letter to my mother.” However, if you do articulate that sentence in Hebrew, it will sound like this: Katavti hayom michtav le’imi. And in Arabic: Katabt elyom maktub la immi.
That’s quite something, no? Our moms sounding the same in our mother tongues, our languages so similar, yet our lives so very, very far apart.
STUDYING LANGUAGES in Israeli schools is a big concept. I remember when my children had the choice between learning French or Arabic, my husband, fluent in French, was adamant that they choose a language spoken in our part of the world. Instead, my girls took French – and don’t remember much.
Had they listened to Martin, they would have now been able to read and write in Arabic – but not say a word. That’s because of the diglossia that is inherent in Arabic; the written language has very little overlap with the spoken – pupils learn to read quite complicated texts but not how to say “How are you?”
Gilad Sevitt, a young student of anthropology and sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is out to change all that. He believes that talking to anyone in his or her own language can only foster understanding and make a difference. Yet, he concedes, even this apparent no-brainer is complicated in our crazy neighborhood.
“Many people become fluent in Arabic so they can use it in the army,” explains Sevitt, who himself brushed up on his semantic skills during his IDF service. “So the language itself becomes a ‘combat weapon.’ For this reason, some Arabic speakers immediately resent being spoken to by ex-army Israelis in their mother tongue. We need to depoliticize the whole subject and teach at least basic conversation.”
After his post-army trip to India, where he spoke Arabic to Muslims without the overtones of conflict bumping into sentence structure, Sevitt returned to Jerusalem and started giving free lessons to his friends. Soon, he expanded his classes through the Internet and his Madrasa (“school” in Arabic) website. Today, there are eight lessons up and running – each half an hour – teaching basic vocabulary and grammar through acted-out conversations.
So a good-looking youngster asks another, “Kif halak?” The viewer learns that kif means “how,” hal is “situation,” and ak is the masculine “your.” “Kif halek?” is how you inquire after a female’s health; it’s not to be confused with “Kif khalek?” which would mean “How is your maternal uncle?”
Bewildered? No need to be. The joyful, fun energy of Sevitt’s podcasts carries students past the pitfalls of grammar and punctuation into real communication. And if a whole lesson is initially too much for you, try the little tasters: two to three minutes on telling time, for example.
Learning like this is stress-free: no tests, no assignments, no financial commitment. Because there is no registration process – just a simple click and start – it is impossible to know how many students are actually taking the course, but Sevitt claims that the site has thousands of views.
A Facebook group of 1,500 students chat together in Arabic; sometimes they even organize face-to-face activities. A Saudi Arabian girl is learning Hebrew through the site – by listening to the explanations. And an 83-year-old woman told Sevitt that she and her husband were learning a new language together for the first time in their long lives.
Many of the students are religious Jews living in the West Bank who feel they need to know how to communicate with their neighbors, not just in matters of war and peace, but for daily conversations about the price of bread and how to cope with the holy month of Ramadan or with a hamsin. Many are second- or third-generation Jews from Arab lands, where Arabic was the native language of their parents and grandparents. Although Hebrew is older, it developed in parallel with Arabic for hundreds of years, as both are Semitic tongues, notes Sevitt, who adds that we need to “know how to say it” in both languages.
But what about money? Sevitt is determined not to take any payment for lessons. However, making videos and hiring editors and cameramen require shekels in the bank.
“We were so naïve in the beginning,” he admits, “that when people offered us donations we said we had no bank account.”
Today, Madrasa is a registered nonprofit, with a bank account and donations. Each NIS 5,000 facilitates the uploading of another lesson. The goal is to have a bank of 20 lessons of general conversation and an additional 10 at a slightly more advanced level. Specialized lessons are also in the pipeline, for example one targeting builders and people in the construction field.
“Please pass the hammer” might not be the first sentence that springs to mind for most people, but for a project manager, it’s pretty basic stuff.
El haje imm el ichtera, as they say – necessity is the mother of invention. As the needs of the Madrasa community grow, the website tries to accommodate new demands.
“We are now creating self-assessment tests and practice exercises,” says Daniel Dotan, lawyer and advocate for refugee rights who represents NGOs in the Knesset, and one of the founders and co-managers of Madrasa. “The idea has a natural momentum and just keeps growing.”
Growing or not, the question is unavoidable: In these troubled times of ongoing terrorism and fear, do people still want to engage with “the other”? Are we still interested in learning each other’s language for the sake of real communication and understanding, as well as all those concepts that seem more warm, fuzzy and La-La-Landish with each day’s attack somewhere in the world?
Dotan believes that fear and racism feed off each other in a vicious circle, which Madrasa wants to try to help to break.
“Research has shown that over 90 percent of terrorist attacks are perpetrated by men,” he argues. “So should we say that men are ‘the other’ and not trust any of them? Should we give up communicating with half of the world’s population?”
It’s a point to ponder.
Shabbat shalom and Jumma mubarak to us all.
For more information: and The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.