My Davidson | A Student Blog Like an Apricot: A Language’s Highs and Lows
Brody Bassett ’25 reflects on his summer in Egypt where he immersed himself in the formal “high” and informal “low” dialects people there use. Zoom lessons with an Egyptian-born tutor, and countless hours studying vocabulary, phrases, and idioms led to colorful connections with everyone from restaurant servers to shop keepers to taxi drivers.
Mithl al-Mishmish (Modern Standard Arabic)
Zay a-Mishmish (Egyptian Colloquial)
One of the most popular sayings we learn early on in Modern Standard Arabic is: Mithl a-Mishmish. This literally means: “Like an Apricot” and indicates something that is short lived.
Why “Like an Apricot”? That’s because summer’s apricot season is very short — in Syria it lasts just two weeks. Across the Arab world, the season creates much drama and fanfare as people frantically gather as many apricots as possible to make jam preserves, fruit rolls, candy, and other sweets to last all year round.
Knowing this expression and others specific to a country is essential to understanding and shows how different dialects can be. In Egypt they would not say: Mithl al-Mishmish but Zay a-Mishmish.
I double major in history and political science at Davidson College. This summer, I’m fortunate to intern at the American Chamber of Commerce in Cairo, Egypt. I’m immersing myself in Arabic and pursuing my career goal of working in the foreign service.
I’ve come prepared: For the past two years at Davidson, I’ve taken Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) classes with Dr. Rebecca Joubin. MSA is standard literacy in Arabic; however, there are specific dialects for different countries in the Middle Eastern and North African region.
Dr. Joubin told me that the more I learned Egyptian colloquial before departure, the more successful my time there would be. The differences and similarities between MSA and Egyptian colloquial are a prime example of diglossia (two varieties of the same language).
In Egypt, children grow up learning colloquial at home and MSA in school. MSA is the language of the media, high literature, and the Quran. In Egypt, as in other Arab countries, people shift between “high and low.” Colloquial weaves through literature and pops up in media conversations and other places where MSA traditionally dominated. Students studying Arabic who use MSA in Cairo are often asked: “Hey, are you from the Quran?”
Learning like a Local
To prepare for Egypt, Dr. Joubin connected me with the Charlotte-based Horse Education Group (HEG). No, they do not sell horses; they are a personalized language program that makes learning fun and follows each student’s pace. I met the CEO, Olivier Giraudo, who connected me with Peter, an Egyptian-Arabic tutor from Alexandria, Egypt.
For 16 weeks, I took lessons over Zoom, making connections between MSA and Egyptian colloquial. Peter, now an English teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been extremely helpful. During summers he travels back to Alexandria, where he enjoys seeing his family, the local seafood, “gambery” (shrimp), and soaking in the city’s vibrant culture. The city’s many treasures include the new Library of Alexandria — a commemoration of the original — and the Citadel of Qaitbay.
In Elementary Arabic at Davidson, we learned a popular song by Lebanese singer Fairuz: Shat Askandaria (Beach of Alexandria), which helped me imagine Peter’s home. Throughout our lessons, Peter has supported me when I make mistakes, and insisted on repetition. He helps me differentiate between MSA and Egyptian Arabic. In MSA the critical verb, “I want” is pronounced “areed,” but Peter corrected me to say “ayez” because if I said “areed” in Egypt people would not understand. I’ve continued taking lessons from Peter in Egypt, including one over a meal in Alexandria.
I have learned many colorful Egyptian sayings. One is Mafath, which means “open your eyes,” — as in, be aware of what is going on around you. Another is “haya hat wa takhod,” or, “life gives and takes,” meaning there are good and bad experiences, and each come at their own time. I also learned the saying, “Han shoof,” meaning “we will see.”
Connecting Cultural Cues
Last summer, Dr. Joubin, a few other Davidson students and I saw Wadi Rum, the stunningly beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site in Jordan, together. I was excited when Dr. Joubin met me in Cairo this summer. She introduced me to an Egyptian painter who was very happy to hear me utter the local phrase “gamed owie” (very cool). He appreciated my efforts to learn his local language and gifted me a beautiful abstract painting. Dr. Joubin and I explored the maze of Khan Khalili, learning about cultural icons like Um Kulthum and Naguib Mahfouz. It was incredible to see a place I had written about in Arabic class.
I’ve learned to communicate in other settings, specifically at markets. I learned sayings like “bkum da eh” which means “how much for this?”, and if I do not like the price, I can say “dah kateer,” meaning it’s too much. Then I practice my bartering skills. I’ve also learned how to communicate about food. If I want to buy fruit dates, I need to specify a weight. When I go to a restaurant, I use sayings like “lazeeza,” which means the food is really good.
To help make sure I say “lazeeza” after a meal at a restaurant, Peter taught me the different ways food is cooked in Egypt and how to order it. Peter’s favorite way of preparing a dish is “fi el foorn,” which means oven baked. Another, “makhli,” means fried. “Makhli” is similar to fried food in the United States and is my favorite cooking style. If I tell a waiter I want my chicken “meshwayia” then it will be grilled. I’ve sampled and enjoyed all three cooking methods this summer.
In Jordan last summer, I enjoyed using different sayings with taxi drivers because they had the best reactions. I’m now using these new sayings with taxi drivers in Egypt.
I am a huge Kora Alkadem (soccer) fan, so whenever I am in a taxi, I ask the question “Do you like soccer?” Usually, the response is an enthusiastic “yes!” The next part is tricky because in Egypt there is a massive rivalry between local teams: Zamalek and Al Ahly. I proceed with caution as I ask, “what team do you support?” and have learned to always support the driver’s favorite.
I’ve learned there is an unspoken language essential to understanding cultural cues. For example, if someone produces the sound “tut tut,” similar to “tisk tisk” that means “no”. When someone uses their index finger and points at both their eyes, the person agrees with you and is willing to help. These cues help me communicate with the people I meet in Egypt.
This learning journey has empowered me to delve into the richness of the Arabic language and its dialects. As students, we often read about diglossia in certain languages and how the different varieties are used. Experiencing this in person has been a gift. It’s another reminder of the wonderful travel and international opportunities open to Davidson students.
- August 14, 2023