I'm in Amman this summer courtesy of Uncle Sam; the U.S. government, quite reasonably, wants Americans who speak Arabic, and so is generously paying for folks like me--that is, 'advanced' Arabic students--to live in the Middle East and improve their language skills. (I'm serious about the "generous" part: my entire studio apartment in California could probably fit into my courtesy-of-your-tax-dollars kitchen here.) I feel very lucky to have stumbled into such a good deal--I mean, what could be better than getting paid to go to two hours a day of class and then spend the rest of the day bumming around the streets of the city, eating hummus and falafel and fuul and tabouleh and occasionally practicing my Arabic. (I'm getting pretty good at, "Excuse me, may I please have some more hummus?")
The catch? I am not, in fact, an advanced Arabic student. A few years ago I was--upon returning from Egypt I tested to the advanced-mid level by the Foreign Service Institute's scale, good enough to earn me 0.5 bonus points in the State Department's hiring process--but, given that, until a week ago, I hadn't spoken a word of Arabic in slightly over three years, and given that in that three years I've studied four other languages, nearly reaching fluency in one, you can imagine what my Arabic retention was like: nil. I could remember most of the grammar rules--that's the fun part!--but had absolutely no vocabulary, and therefore couldn't speak or understand even a simple sentence. (To illustrate, I found, a little while ago, a video of myself, speaking Arabic, in a documentary I was in a few years back. The freakish part? I couldn't understand myself.)
In the few days I've been here, though, I've been surprised at what I'm starting to remember: words bubble up from the depths of my memory, words I haven't thought of in three years, and I find myself confidently answering when someone asks, "How do you say 'trash'?"(zibaala) or "What's the plural of 'daftar'?" (dafaatir). It's a totally bizarre feeling, especially since remembering a vocabulary item often comes with remembering the context in which I learned said item, meaning that I'm constantly remembering things about Egypt I hadn't thought of for years. (The lady under the stairwell who used to narrate for me what was happening on TV: "They shot him. Now he is dead. Now they are burying the body." The giant sign near my school that said "Alexandria is a love wave on Egyptian land." The carriage ride I took where the driver insisted on telling me about the size of an, ahem, certain part of the horse's anatomy. The large fox/wolf/dog that terrorized the streets of Alexandria for a few weeks. How an Egyptian friend, who attended a military camp every summer, tried to persuade me that Pepsi stands for "Pay Every Penny for Saving Israel" and Coca-Cola, read backwards in Arabic, says "No Mohammed No Mecca." The hurricanes that blew through the city in November. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.)
Much as I'm freaked out by the way my brain is supplying me with Arabic words--randomly! never when I need them! but startlingly well!--I'm happy with it: my two years of Arabic in college were not a total waste, and I haven't lost all my Arabic, just misplaced it for a bit. So everyone can breathe a sigh of relief: I did not, in fact, totally mislead Uncle Sam because I just might possibly belong in an advanced Arabic program. If only that translated to an ability to do more than just ask for more hummus.