Unique opportunity to explore Arabic language and culture in Oman
For the first time ever, three participants from Lithuania, two students and their teacher, took the language course at the Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic to Non-native Speakers in Manah. The rich education programme covers both the Arab language and a broad cultural context.
Maritana Larbi, the lecturer of Arabic language and culture at the Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies of Vilnius University, and two third-term students of the same Institute, Domantė Dudutytė and Deimantė Slavinskaitė, speak of their stay in Oman where they spent almost two months, between early March and early May.
How did you learn about the course?
Maritana Larbi: I have to say the long-established ties with Mrs Boleta Senkienė, the Honorary Consul of the Sultanate of Oman in Lithuania, were vital to make it happen. Thanks to her, we received grants to cover our tuition fees, therefore we only had to buy tickets to Muscat.
Domantė Dudutytė: I was very keen to improve my Arabic and, on the other hand, to experience the Arab culture firsthand. I had not ever been to any Arab nation before.
Deimantė Slavinskaitė: I did not hesitate a second when I heard about the course in Oman. And now I feel I got much more than I had expected.
Was it difficult to become members of the programme?
DD: We had passed an on-line language test to establish our fluency level before traveling to Oman, and we took one more test upon arrival in the college. We had qualified for the intermediate level but eventually “downgraded” ourselves to the upper-beginners to make the most of the entire course.
ML: This, in my opinion, shows how flexible the program is. For the lecturers, comfort of the students is the primary concern. They are ready to do almost anything to meet your needs. I know this because I also attended classes every day. I have to confess that seeing how benevolent and responsive our teachers were, I found it almost impossible to miss a single class, even if I felt a little unwell.
What were your classes like?
DD: We had two lecturers, one for spoken language and the other for grammar and written Arabic. Each week we would read and analyse texts aimed at helping us learn more new words, for instance, parts of human body, nature and weather, and many more.
DS: We have enriched our vocabulary using a variety of methods, from reading texts and discussing them to playing charades and other games. This motivated us a lot, because everybody wants to win, yet to be the best you have to learn as many new words as possible.
DD: We were often surrounded by the atmosphere of individual competition, but it was all about inspiration rather than rivalry. Yet the grammar was another matter as these classes were rather tough and demanding.
ML: As a lecturer myself, I admired the way of teaching the language. I am more than convinced that interaction is the most effective method to learn languages, and that’s what I experienced at the Sultan Qaboos College. Our classes were never strict in terms of duration. If a lecturer feels we are tired, he may end the class earlier and if he sees we are ready to go on, he would work with us a bit longer.
DD: We were surprised by how smoothly everything was run at the College which, in a strict sense, is not an academic institution. And, let’s be frank, there is a stereotype that people in the south are too relaxed and usually do things late. I would not say we had not witnessed this at all, but at the College everything was well-structured and orderly.
DS: Each group consisted of nine to eleven members. In our group, Domantė and me were the youngest, while the most senior colleague of ours was an 82-year-old man. People from different cultures are naturally used to different dynamics, and this would sometimes cause minor misunderstandings, but the lecturers were always ready to resolve them. That’s remarkable, because I think it is almost impossible to be good for all in such a diverse environment.
ML: As a member of the most advanced group, I had a number of opportunities to see different institutions and improve my language skills during discussions on various topics. We visited several schools, the Oman Industrialists Association, the College of Law and other organisations.
Did the Omani dialect cause you any trouble?
DD: Dialects exist in every Arab-speaking country, but our lecturers, surely, spoke fus-ha, so we were quite comfortable. But outside the College, while driving a taxi for example, we sometimes struggled to grasp a word of what the driver was saying. On the other hand, we met many Omani people who also spoke their dialect yet we could understand almost everything. Evidently, this kind of dialect was much closer to fus-ha.
DS: I had been to Morocco and I felt myself helpless there for I could not understand a word of their Arabic. It was much better in Oman, yet occasionally we still had to use our smartphone language applications to sort things out.
When did you first realised you wanted to learn Arabic?
ML: As a student of Islamic culture in Bonn, I had to choose either Farsi, Turkish or Arabic and my choice fell on Arabic.
DS: I was about thirteen when my parents started traveling abroad. Apart from the rest, they visited Tunisia and Egypt and from what I had heard from them, the curious and mystic picture of the Arab world began developing in my mind. While still a schoolgirl, I read a lot about Arabic culture and different Arabic countries. After finishing the school, I dreamt of studying the Arabic language and culture and was very happy to take it on at Vilnius University.
DD: By the end of my schooldays, I knew I wanted to study languages, but neither Arabic nor any other Oriental tongue was on my wish-list then, perhaps except Japanese. This was despite my passion for Lost, a TV-series where Sayid was my favourite character. But eventually I decided that Iraqi-born Sayid was much closer to me than the Japanese language and chose to study Arabic in Vilnius.
DS: Very soon it turned out this was probably the best decision yet in our lives for both of us because we are the best friends now.
And do you often speak Arabic between yourselves?
DS: Oh yes, especially when we do not want our parents eavesdrop us.
DD: Or when, for example, I notice something curious on a bus and I can’t help gossiping this with Deimantė on the phone.
Do you find the Arabic language difficult?
DS: This is what our teacher Maritana keeps on telling us.
DD: And we have realised this quite clearly by now.
ML: Almost all the key elements of the Arabic language, from grammar and phonetics to sentence structure and morphology, are completely foreign to the speakers of Indo-European tongues. You have to learn to grasp and pronounce a number of entirely new sounds and to get used to a sort of mental acrobatics in order to compose a sentence in Arabic. Even if you know and employ all the rules, your Arabic might sound weird to native speakers, because stylistic nuances are also important.
During the two months in Oman, what was it that surprised you most?
DD: I had heard from some of my friends that Arabs were quite officious. You are a foreigner and they will want to sell you something or will at least ask you a question or two. And I remember us visiting a market in Oman for the first time. The locals would say hello and offer you tea or coffee, but if you refuse, the story ends there. If you ask something, they will reply. Nothing even distantly resembling intrusiveness.
DS: And the unbelievable hospitality. We became friends with a local man who took us to many places with his car. He was always ready to show us something new and we often felt almost embarrassed. We bought candies and other presents to thank him, but soon we realised he was traveling with us just because he wanted us to explore and enjoy his country. We are simply not used to this kind of friendliness.¬¬¬¬¬¬
ML: On the last day of our stay, I decided to spend the last five rials I had I my wallet. After I did so, I realised I also needed some halwa for my friend. I wanted to pay with a bank card but the small shop did not accept cards. I got a bit upset. The owner must have noticed it because he gave halwa to me as a present.
During one of three visits to different schools, I was surprised to see the girls busy designing robots, while the boys of the same age were drawing. For me, it served as a partial destruction of stereotypes.
Have you experienced what is sometimes termed a cultural shock in Oman?
DD: Not really. We knew the rules regarding proper dressing, so we had no problem with that. In fact, we bought ourselves abayas and felt absolutely comfortable wearing them.
DS: What was quite shocking was the heat. I had never experienced temperatures of forty degrees Celsius and above. There were moments when I thought, this must be what it feels like in hell.
ML: The heat helped me understand why there were almost no sidewalks in towns and cities and why we were advised to take a bus even for a two-minute ride.
For me, the greatest shock was seeing some of the foreigners who studied with us and did not seem to bother to accept local dress codes and other norms. I can not understand why some of those students showed such disrespect to the receiving nation which had covered almost all of their costs.
Do you want to come to Oman again?
DS: We have an invitation to a wedding party there in October from a girl who was our conversation partner and who has become a very good friend of ours.
DD: And we have not yet seen large parts of the country, further from Muscat and Nizwa. So, there’s still a lot to discover.