I finished “40 Rules of Love” by the Turkish author Elif Shafak last week. The book is named for the 40 Rules of Love formulated by Shams of Tabriz, a famous Sufi (Muslim mystic). He was most famous for his relationship with the poet Rumi, another Sufi, who began the tradition of the whirling dervishes.
I say I finished the book, but I really mean that I read through the English translation; I’ve just started it in Arabic. I’m a full 9 pages into the Arabic version, which may not sound like much, but I’m proud of it.
Arabic is a difficult language– it’s commonly accepted as one of the four hardest languages for native English speakers to learn, in fact. Some days I stare at a page of Arabic conjugations, realize that I’ve forgotten to shorten a long vowel to a short one on a third-person irregular feminine plural, and curse my younger self for not choosing Spanish or French. But if you gave me the chance to go back and pick again? I’d stick with Arabic, because I really do love it (even if the grammar is a wee bit obnoxious).
Being in Jordan has shown me just how much more I have to learn. It’s easy to get into your fourth or fifth Arabic class, start reading news articles, and think, “Man, I’ve learned so much!” But the day-to-day struggle to direct taxi drivers or order coffee is a stark reminder that I’m not even close to where I want to be. Not yet.
It’s also made me more committed than ever, though, to reaching that level. I’m constantly exposed to new, beautiful aspects of the language and culture, which inspires me to learn more. I’m finding new reasons to learn Arabic every day– a book I want to read, a beautiful song to play, or a really neat person I’d love to get to know, but can only do so in Arabic.
Thankfully study abroad is the sink-or-swim of language learning, so I get a little bit better every day. I’m also better able to appreciate the skills that I do have– and being 9 pages into a novel, believe it or not, feels like an accomplishment.
I understood all 9 pages. Sure, I had to look up quite a few words… but I didn’t have to look up any sentence in its entirety. Arabic grammar is different enough from English that occasionally I’ll know every single word in a sentence, and still not be sure what it’s saying; that hasn’t happened so far. 9 pages in, and I understand what’s happening.
It’s 8 weeks into my time here, and I’m starting to feel the same way about Jordan. I’m still occasionally confused by something, but overall I know what’s going on. I understand the world around me. I can read the street signs well enough to navigate home if I’m not sure where I am, I now generally have pleasant chats with people I meet. I feel comfortable here. It requires more effort than being in the US, but it isn’t exhausting, it isn’t overwhelming, and it’s incredibly rewarding. I’m genuinely enjoying day-to-day life here.
I’m also really enjoying this novel. I liked it in English, and the prose sounds even more beautiful in Arabic. I’ll be sad to finish it, when I make it through it the last 493 pages (so, um, maybe in like three years?). Before that happens, though, something else will end: my time in Jordan. I’m already starting to worry about the fact that I’m halfway done– half of my days here, my short and sweet four months, are gone.
But I shouldn’t worry. The whole point of the novel, which draws heavily on Sufi themes, is that we only have now. We can worry about the past or the future, but– in this instant– neither one exist. I only have myself sitting in the afternoon sun writing about this book, and you only have yourself, right now, reading my words.
It’s a lesson I’m trying to learn by heart this semester, enjoying each of my days here, but not counting. Maybe I don’t have two more months– maybe I’ll get struck by lightning and die today (knock on wood) or maybe I’ll return and be in Jordan for years in the future. It’s impossible to know. But today? I have today in Jordan, today to enjoy sunlight and reading and maybe even a lazy weekend nap. It’s very in-line with Arab culture, which is slower than at home, less concerned with where you’ll be in five years, more about enjoying where you are right now. So I’m going to take some deep breaths of the sandy Jordanian air, and think about the 28th Rule of Love: “The past is an interpretation. The future is an illusion… If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.”