Speaking Arabic in Tel Aviv

Cultural, social and professional reasons, rather than politics, are attracting Tel Avivians to learn colloquial Arabic.

learning arabic_521 (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
learning arabic_521
(photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)
In an apartment above the Cafe Yafa bookstore on Jaffa’s Rehov Yehuda Margoza, a group of young Israelis are meeting for their first spoken Arabic lesson. Rami, their teacher, asks each of them why they want to learn to speak the language. One student, Erez, says he’s interested in Arabic for social reasons.
“I live in Jaffa, and I want to speak to my neighbors,” he says simply.
The other students give similar reasons. Hagai, also from Jaffa, admits he learned Arabic in high school but can’t remember a word, while Ella from Tel Aviv is interested in the language, but never got a chance to study it in school.
Erez, Hagai and Ella are part of a small but growing number of Israeli Jews who are drawn to learning Arabic – not the dry, literary language taught in schools and universities, but the everyday spoken language of the street.
It’s a phenomenon that one might expect to occur here, on Rehov Yehuda Margoza. This street is a seam where Jaffa’s cultures meet, where all the complexities and contradictions, the paradoxes and ironies of its social and ethnic mishmash – Jewish and Arab, East and West, Jaffa and Tel Aviv, old, young, religious, secular, working-class and bourgeois – are played out as never-ending street theater.
It’s on this diverse street, named for the rabbi who renewed Jaffa’s Jewish community in the 1840s, that Ramle native Michel Elraheb founded Cafe Yafa in 2003. An oasis of Arab literary culture, Cafe Yafa serves up traditional Arab cuisine and coffee as well as books and magazines in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Popular with local writers, artists, students and intellectuals, Yafa has also evolved into a center for teaching Israeli Jews to speak Arabic.
Elraheb’s sister, Mary Copti, helps organize and run the cafe’s spoken Arabic classes. She says there is a growing interest in the language among many different groups of Jewish Israelis.
“We get Jaffa residents who want to speak Arabic with their neighbors, students of Middle Eastern studies who want to learn the spoken language as well as the classical Arabic they learn at university,” explains Copti, a former high-school principal and educator. “We also run courses for tourists and for professionals like doctors, lawyers and businesspeople who need specialized vocabulary to communicate with patients or clients.”
Copti feels this interest in learning spoken Arabic is connected to a growing desire by local Arabs to strengthen their culture and identity, of which the Arabic language is an integral part.
“As Arabs search for an identity, they are naturally becoming more interested in their language,” says Copti. “And previously, while some [Jewish Israelis] didn’t really know too much about the other culture alongside them, now people want to know more about it.”
Though Arabic has equal status with Hebrew as one of the country’s official languages, relatively few Jewish Israelis speak it. So while Arab Israelis are adept at switching between Arabic and Hebrew, their Jewish counterparts are not.
This puts the latter at a disadvantage, because they cannot understand Arab culture.
“The bridge or gateway to understanding Arab culture is the Arabic language,” says Copti. “How can you understand a culture if you don’t know the language?”
CENTRAL to national identity (the revival of Hebrew vis-à-vis Yiddish helped create the concept of the strong, new Israeli Jew, for example), language is also exquisitely personal.
Through someone’s words, accent, dialect and intonation, it’s possible to pinpoint nationality and even the region of origin, even down to a particular town or village. And far more than just a tool for communicating ideas, a language is a blueprint of a people’s culture, embodying concepts that cannot be translated directly.
“To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words,” writes Salman Rushdie in his novel Shame, and this is most certainly true for Arabic and Hebrew. The Hebrew davka (“despite everything, in spite of, or just because”) and the Arabic taraadin (“I win, you win, and nobody lost face”) offer trenchant insights into the two respective cultures.
The local version of spoken Arabic is packed with information about the local people and their mores. In the first place, the language varies subtly from town to town.
“Arabs in Haifa or Nazareth speak differently from Arabs in Jaffa, Lod and Ramle,” says Copti. “And Druse and Beduin Arabs also have their own Arabic dialects.”
Copti also notes that Hebrew has also influenced spoken Arabic. (It’s true – if you listen closely when Arab Israelis speak, you will likely hear many Hebrew, and even Yiddish, words.) In turn, Hebrew has absorbed its share of Arabic vocabulary – notably many of our more colorful expletives, but also everyday words like kef (“fun, enjoyment” – a word that has also made its way to colloquial Russian) and mangal (barbecue).
One of Cafe Yafa’s spoken Arabic “graduates,” Tel Aviv resident Joshua Shulgasser, agrees that the language helped him understand more about Jaffa’s Arab residents and their culture.
“I came to live here in Jaffa, and that’s when I decided to learn to speak Arabic,” he explains. “So when I learned the language, I was immersed in the culture. Previously I only saw Arabs on TV, through the media. But by learning Arabic, I got to know real people. I saw things from the other side, because I learned more about the people and their identity, their narrative.”
Jaffa’s intellectual and cultural elite are not the only ones teaching Tel Avivians to speak Arabic, however. The would-be Arabic speaker can choose from a wide variety of language courses across the region, all of them emphasizing the local, spoken version of the language as a tool to communicate with Arabic speakers.
NIR PLOTKIN, an expert in Israeli Arab culture and a fluent Arabic speaker, runs spoken Arabic courses through his company Sha’ar Lamigzar (Gateway to the Sector), which advises Israeli businesspeople how to access the lucrative Israeli Arab market.
Plotkin, who describes the company as “completely apolitical,” says Israelis are increasingly interested in learning Arabic not just for social and cultural reasons, but also for economic and professional ones – after all, the country’s Arab sector is a vast, virtually untapped local market for all sorts of consumer goods and services.
While some Israeli companies – Tnuva for example – are starting to invest in marketing to Israeli Arabs, most lag behind. Knowledge of Arabic helps businesspeople reach that sector, says Plotkin.
“There is a gap between the Jewish and Arab sectors in Israel,” explains Plotkin. “To bridge that gap successfully, we need to know how to relate to Arabs. And since Arabic is a culture and not just a language, by learning the language, people can understand Arab culture, too.”
Sha’ar Lamigzar’s courses include tours of Arab towns and villages like Umm el-Fahm and Wadi Ara – places that many Israelis would not normally visit. There, students meet and chat with Arabs in their language.
The courses attract a wide cross-section of Israelis, says Plotkin.
“Some of our students are older adults, who say they’ve been interested in finding out about Arabic culture for years,” says Plotkin. “And around a third of them are businesspeople who work with the Arab sector, so they really need to know the language and culture.”
He remarks that students are rarely motivated to learn spoken Arabic by political ideologies.
“We have leftists and rightists learning together,” Plotkin says. “And our teachers are all Arab Israelis. But classes are deliberately kept free of politics. We don’t discuss the Nakba or other political topics. And our courses are not subsidized by any political group or NGO. We just teach Arabic language and culture, which is what people want to learn.”
Like Cafe Yafa, Sha’ar Lamigzar teaches the Palestinian dialect of spoken Arabic, which, Plotkin emphasizes, contains the DNA of the local Arab culture.
“We use Arabic songs, poems and proverbs in classes, not just to help people learn the language, but also as a mirror into the culture itself,” he notes.
One of Sha’ar Lamigzar’s students is Rehovot resident Oded Yaffe, who runs a plant diagnostic services company. He says his decision to learn Arabic was partly business-related, and partly personal.
“I have a lot of Arabic-speaking clients in Israel and abroad,” says Yaffe. “I work in Arab and Beduin villages, and with Arab agronomists and gardeners in Israel and overseas in places like Kurdistan. One day, I realized that I always spoke Hebrew or English with my clients, simply because I didn’t know Arabic. It didn’t seem right. So I decided to learn Arabic.”
Yaffe says learning to speak Arabic opened his eyes to what he describes as the large gap in understanding between Israel’s Jewish and Arab population.
“The students were a mixed group of Jewish Israelis, a real cross-section of the political spectrum.
Our teacher was an Arab woman from Tira,” he says. “In our first lesson, we realized we didn’t know anything about each other. So the spoken Arabic course was a bridge that connected us. We learned about each other, in Arabic.”
Yaffe also notes that since he learned to speak Arabic, he has seen a subtle but tangible shift in his relationships with Arab Israelis.
“Now, when I meet Arabs, we speak Arabic,” he explains. “Of course they can speak Hebrew.
But when I talk to them in their language, things change. We are not restricted to speaking just my language anymore. It makes things more equal between us.”
Yaffe says the reaction from Arab Israelis when he speaks Arabic has been overwhelmingly positive.
“They say, ‘Well done,’ they are delighted,” he says. “They start introducing me to all their friends.”
Learning Arabic has also opened doors to aspects of Arab culture that Yaffe says he did not know about before.
“I don’t know very much about the culture yet,” he admits. “But I know that if I improve my Arabic, I will understand more. But already, for example, I started enjoying songs by Arab musicians like [Lebanese singer Nouhad Wadi Haddad] Fairuz.”
Learning Arabic could be the key to helping local Jews understand more about their Arab neighbors, believes Yaffe.
“I’m a veteran of several wars, and so believe me, I understand completely the fear Israelis have of Arabs,” he admits. “But it’s a big mistake for Israelis not to learn Arabic. We need to understand the Arabs. I see things differently now I know their language.”
AMOS AVIDOV, an Arab expert who runs his own private language school, Diwaan, agrees that spoken Arabic can help Israelis improve their relations with Arabs. Avidov has spoken the language all his life, thanks to his grandfather, an Arabic-speaking Jew from Jaffa; he has been teaching it to Israelis for over a decade.
“We need to explain to Israelis how to speak to Arabs,” Avidov says. “Israeli Arabs feel less successful academically, socially and economically.
It’s easy for them to feel they are being treated with disrespect. Israelis need to learn how to understand Arab culture. By teaching Israelis Arabic, we’re teaching them to communicate with Arabs not just in Israel, but all over the world.”
At its permanent home in Levinsky College on the northern edge of Tel Aviv, Diwaan has created an island of Arab culture. The students’ encounters with Arab Israelis are usually an eyeopener, says Avidov.
“Many Israelis don’t know any Arabs,” he adds. “When they meet our teachers and teaching assistants, all of whom are highly intelligent – some of them are medical students, for example – they suddenly see outside of the stereotypes they are used to.”
And at the end of the course, students visit Jordan or Egypt, where they are encouraged to speak to locals as much as possible.
Diwaan teaches about 300 students each year, and some have been learning Arabic for eight or nine years (“Arabic is addictive,” grins Avidov).
Like at Cafe Yafa and Sha’ar Lamigzar, Diwaan’s students are a diverse group.
“We have taught everyone, from peace activists to settlers who want to speak with their neighbors,” says Avidov. “But we don’t teach politics here, and we won’t tolerate racism.”
Avidov believes that when Israeli Jews learn to speak Arabic, Israeli Arabs feel more empowered, because they feel proud of their identity.
“Arabs sometimes don’t feel comfortable in Tel Aviv, or when they speak Arabic on the street. But here, they feel pride teaching their language and culture,” he says.
Back in Jaffa, Cafe Yafa’s Copti agrees that teaching Israelis to speak Arabic boosts mutual understanding and acceptance, not because language classes include any deliberate, overt messages of coexistence, but because of something more fundamental and natural.
“When people speak each other’s language, it balances things out between them,” she says. “If you learn someone’s language, it’s a way to give the other person or culture respect. Learning Arabic will improve relations between Jews and Arabs.”
Perhaps that would davka be a taraadin for everyone.