The British Museum‘s exhibits can delight a layperson, a history buff and a museum junkie at the same time. One of its more impressive exhibits is a set of stone panels known as the Lachish Reliefs. In its original form, the Lachish Reliefs (700-692 BC) would have been vividly painted. But the soft sepia tones that the frieze has acquired today (and enhanced by the lighting in the room) makes the viewer feel that is watching a documentary, albeit one etched in stone.
Lachish (present day Tell ed-Duweir) is about 40 km south-west of Jerusalem. In 700 BC, Lachish was a heavily fortified hill town in the Kingdom of Judah and was strategically located on an ancient trade route that linked Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and the riches of Egypt. At the end of the 8th century BC, Hezekiah, the King of Judah, rebelled against the Assyrians, who had built an empire that stretched from Iran in the East to Egypt in the West, and who controlled the region. Naturally, this rebellion did not go down very well with the Assyrians, whose King Sennacharib led and won a campaign against Lachsih.
I love languages. I love everything about them—their sound, grammar, script, variations across regions, its provenance, accents, colloquial usage, swear words… everything (and no, SMS language is not included here!). It’s no surprise then that languages were my favourite subjects in school.
My fascination with languages continues even today long after I have finished school and college. But somehow I did not attempt to enroll for any language course, Indian or foreign, after my formal education. There were a couple of failed, informal attempts to learn Urdu, but they never really took off.
Around the time I started working, I got interested in calligraphy art and through that I got introduced to the beautiful Arabic script. Its flowing script, the fluid patterns it made, not to mention that it was written from right to left only fuelled my fascination for and the desire to learn the language. My attempts at trying to find an Arabic teacher in Mumbai were not really successful, in the sense that I did find teachers willing to teach me Classical Arabic (which would have helped me read the Qur’an), but not Standard Arabic (that is everyday Arabic), which is what I wanted to learn.
Then one day, in August 2008, the opportunity to learn Arabic literally arrived at my doorstep, or to be more specific in my inbox. I won a scholarship to do a Master’s programme in a London-based university. Among the various information packs that I was bombarded with received from the university, before I left for London in September 2008, was one on studying a foreign language there. And guess, which was one of the languages being offered? ARABIC:-)
After I had registered for the Arabic language course and on the eve of my first class, the long-awaited anticipation of learning Arabic wavered due to some serious doubts about my own ability and expectations. Learning a language as a child and learning it as an adult are two entirely different processes. Would I be able to manage? Would I have a good teacher? Would I enjoy learning Arabic? What if I hated it?…
A quote that I use quite often is, “Just when I knew the answers to all of life’s questions, they changed the questions”. The reason is, now and then, the quote comes true for me—especially when I am feeling a little smug and contented with life—shaking me out of a self-induced “all iz well” feeling. One such change in life’s questions happened about two years back, on a cold windy day in January. It disturbed me then, and it disturbs me even today, and will probably disturb me for a long time to come.
I was studying in London at that time. Winter break was nearly over and I was waiting for the second semester classes to resume. I was also looking forward to meeting my classmates, especially Erab, who had gone home to occupied Palestine for the winter break. While she was there, Israel had launched an offensive against Gaza, and though Erab was not a resident of Gaza, I was still concerned about her safety and that of her family and friends. Though I had kept in touch with her through emails and text messages, I wanted to see her and reassure myself that she was fine.
Erab returned safely to London and I met her the day classes resumed. As I hugged her with relief and asked after her family and the situation in Palestine, she started crying. She told me that she had received a text message from a colleague in Gaza that morning about the bombing of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society Hospital leading to several casualties. We couldn’t talk any further as the teacher walked in, and we scrambled to take our seats.
After a round of “hiya” and “how was the vacation”, our class of 32 students from 18 different countries settled down to some serious teaching–learning. Or at least tried to. Erab had retreated to a corner of the room and was crying softly. Though this obvious distress did not go unnoticed, neither the teacher nor the other students intervened. The class continued and after a while Erab composed herself. Even after the class got over, no one went up to Erab and asked her what was the matter or how she was. A week passed, then another, and before we knew it our class settled back into the punishing routine of lectures and assignments, normal for a postgraduate programme. Erab never showed her distress in class again, though the situation in Gaza continued to be grim.