WHAT DID YOU SAY? By Stephen Dockery


his past summer I received the Yabroudi scholarship and worked as a reporter at The Daily Star, the English news- paper in Beirut. My work at the newspaper came at a critical time of Lebanese state building, as I arrived shortly before the June 7 parliamentary elections. The results and post-election phase of this election are proving to be decisive in the ongoing post-civil war reconciliation process. On Election Day I covered 3 of Lebanon’s 25 districts. The assignment took me to the Shi’ite and Christian mountains of Jbeil, the Maronite district of Batroun and the Greek Orthodox area of Koura.

I went to many of the polling places and talked with supporters from both the March 14 and March 8 coalitions. It was heartening to see the festive voting atmosphere on that Sunday in June. Whole families turned out with picnics and tents to celebrate the day of voting. There was little animosity between party supporters in my three districts; rather, strangers were welcomed with a small cup of coffee and smiles. I wrote the “wrap” on the peaceful voting atmosphere in the districts for Batroun and Koura. Across the nation, other than a few minor incidents, the whole day of voting went surprisingly well and may mark a turning point in Lebanese politics.

In all I wrote over two dozen articles for The Daily Star. I covered events relating to the European Union and NGO’s in Lebanon, as well as topics of everyday life in Beirut. Each of the stories I got to write introduced me to a little slice of this country I grew to love. In the free time I had left I also enrolled in a twice-weekly Arabic class. The Saifi Arabic school taught mostly Lebanese Arabic, an invaluable tool for navigating the crowded Beirut streets. Below is an excerpt from the blog that I kept while living in Lebanon:

What did you say? • Posted: July 21, 2009 at 7:43 pm

It can be wildly frustrating to learn Arabic. I’ve studied the language part-time for about 2 years now and situa-

tions like this can play out on a regular basis:

I’ve got 20 minutes to get to someplace in Beirut for a story, but I’ve rehearsed the phrase I needed for a week, I’ve been practicing the “hah’ the “gha” and the “kha” and this is my chance to use it. I walk up to a taxi and ask him my question...and it ends up having the same effect as speaking in gibberish, he has no idea what I’m saying. Sometimes I get angry and I just want to yell “I’M SPEAKING ARABIC.” But it’s obvious it’s not his fault, it’s mine.

It gets discouraging when that situation repeats itself again and again over the course of weeks or months; you can feel like you will never learn enough to speak to anyone in a meaningful way. That’s why run-ins with people like Joseph can be so special.

I was on my way back from work after 3 hours of Arabic class, a trip to a press conference at the Indonesian embassy and writing 2 stories. I was doing my Arabic flash cards, but didn’t feel much like talking to anyone. That’s when I got into a cab with an older taxi driver named Joseph.

After the initial how are you’s, Joseph was incredibly excited to learn I spoke Arabic. We talked about where I study Arabic, what I did here and about Beirut. He talked about living abroad for 20 years, moving back two years ago and being an Aounee (supporting Michel Aoun). He spoke slowly and clearly and corrected my pronunciation, when I didn’t understand words he explained them to me by using other Arabic phrases, not speaking English. The whole conversation probably didn’t last more than 10 minutes but it was probably the most encouraging conversation in Arabic I’ve had in a year.

You can read more at http://sharqawsatee.wordpress.com