Thursday, December 20, 2007

Visit to Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo

My good pal Chin Chia paid me a short visit in Cairo in mid-Dec 07. Finally, I found a companion to explore the Old Cairo (also known as Coptic Cairo) and Islamic Cairo. In Old Cairo, we visited the Hanging Church, Monastery and Church of St George as well as the Coptic Museum. The walkabout the tranquil neighbourhood was a nice departure from the noisy downtown. Through the various artifacts, we also gained a deeper understanding of the spread of Christianity in Egypt. I will definitely revisit this part of the city regularly during my stay here.

Islamic Cairo is quite the opposite of Old Cairo. The noise level was much higher and very crowded indeed. Seeing our foreign faces, touts kept tugging at us trying to lure us into sales traps. We refrained from buying anything to save us the trouble. We started off with coffee and local breakfast staple (fuul & taamiyya) at the famous Fishawi's Coffeehouse at the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar. We trailed off the beaten track into the heartland mingling in the local thoroughfare.

Click here to see the photo album.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Level 1.5 - Modern Standard Arabic

Continued from Level 1 (Part B)

MSA Level 1.5 began with revision of the key concepts taught in Level 1 such as adjectives, prepositions, nominal sentences (plus negation), idafa constructions, demonstratives and interrogative (making questions). My vocab was rather weak at this point in time and my tutor prompted me to quickly devise a systematic way to commit new words to memory. I tried different approach like making pictorial cards with words on the back and drilling with the MSA Vocab Clinic software I bought. The process was painful but I made some progress. Recalling my experience in learning Chinese, I believe that the most effective way to build vocab is to read widely. However, this could only be done after I have attained a minimum standard of the language.

Using the Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary

The first new concept/skill taught in Level 1.5 was the use of the Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary. This was my first insight of the foundation of the Arabic language and suddenly I sensed hope of grasping the language. Arabic words can be basically categorised according to their root and words of similar nature are derived or morphed from the same root. For example, the following words relating to the basic concept of writing with the root ﺐ ﺖ ﻚ:

كتب to write
كتابة writing
كاتب writer
كتيب booklet
كتاب book
مكتبة bookshelf/library
مكتب desk

So, the key to using the dictionary is to identify the root of an Arabic word in order to know which page to turn. Well, things are not always straightforward as there are always exceptions and for beginners like me, some of the conjugations are not immediately clear. Under the root, which is normally the verb in perfect tense, there are up to 10 common forms of verbs that can be derived from the root. There are more detail classification guidelines for each verb type but beginners like me will not need to master all the verb types at this level of study. The verbs are followed by nouns and adjectives relating to the root. As in the above example, the root is presented in كتب (kataba) which means "he wrote". The conjugation rules to derive the present and future tenses would only be taught at Level 2. Nevertheless, armed with the newly acquired skills, I went on to read more text with new words requiring me to look up the dictionary. The search process also helped improve my memorisation of the new words.

For English-Arabic translation, I use the online dictionary at, which is user-friendly and comprehensive.


The rest of Level 1.5 dealt with the major topic of duals and plurals. The importance of gender and the type of cases is manifested through the way plurals are created. In Arabic, there are special grammar rules governing duals. To create masculine duals, such as two pens, the suffix "ﻦﺎ" will have to be attached to nominative words. For genitive and accusative words, the suffix "ﻦﻴ" will have to be attached. For feminine words, the ta marbuta "ﺔ or ﺓ" will be changed to "ﺖ" before the suffixes are added. The following table provides the summary:

There are three more rules to note for the duals. Firstly, the "ﻦ" at the end of the dual word will be dropped if the noun forms the idafa construction. Secondly, the adjectives and demonstratives describing the duals will also have to take the same suffixes. Thirdly, all duals take the kasra as the case ending.

Sound Plurals

The grammar of plurals in Arabic is much more complicated than duals. There are basically three classes of plurals: sound masculine plurals, sound feminine plurals and the broken plurals.

Sound masculine plurals apply only to nouns related to the words describing male human beings and majority of occupations such as male doctors, male engineers, male teachers etc. Similar to the duals, a suffix is attached to these nouns to make them plurals. "ﻦﻮ" is attached for nominative words while "ﻦﻴ" is attached for genitive and accusative words. All sound masculine plurals take the fatha as the case ending. Hence, it is possible to know if a word refers to a plural noun by its pronunciation. That's why this class of plurals are called "sound masculine plurals".

Sound feminine plurals apply to most words describing the female human beings, all occupations undertaken by females and also certain non-human nouns. Again, suffixes are attached but unlike the feminine duals, the ta marbuta is dropped entirely before attaching the suffixes. "ﺖﺎ" is attached for all words but with different case endings. Nominative sound feminine plurals take the damma while the genitive and accusative take the kasra. Similar to the masculine duals, the "ﻦ" at the end of the sound masculine plurals will be dropped if the noun forms the idafa construction. The following table provides the summary:

Based on the above rules on duals and sound plurals, I was drilled on converting nouns to sound plurals and vice versa. I was also tasked to spot the duals and plurals with a cut-out from the recruitment page in the newspaper.

Broken Plurals

If you find sound plurals difficult, the broken plurals are a worse lot. A good majority of Arabic plurals are broken ones and they are formed by modifying the structure of the noun by basically adding or removing vowels at different positions in a word while retaining the root. There are purportedly over 15 patterns that broken plurals can be formed. However, applying the patterns is not a straightforward exercise like the duals or sound plurals. For example, there are at least three patterns that can changed words formed by three consonants into broken plurals:

قلم > pen(s) > ﺃﻘﻠﺍﻢ
ﺐﻠﻛ > dog(s) > ﺐﺍﻠﻛ
ﻲﻨﻏ > rich(es) > ﺀﺎﻴﻨﻏﺃ

The word "pen" is changed to plural "pens" by adding " ﺃ " before the first consonant and " ﺍ " is added before the last consonant. However, for a similar 3-consonant word like "dog", the plural "dogs" is created by simply adding " ﺍ " before the last consonant. In the third case, which is a adjective, the " ﺃ " is added before the first consonant and " ﺀﺎ " after the last consonant to create the plural.

Given the complexity of broken plurals, I decided to learn these plurals by treating them as new words. As I progress and build up my vocab, I hope I will be able to internalise these patterns and apply them instinctively like the native speakers.

Plurals and Adjectives Agreement

Unlike the duals where the adjectives will take the same suffixes in order to agree with the nouns, adjectives do not agree with plurals all the time. For non-human plurals nouns like objects or concepts or ideas etc., the adjectives will always take the feminine singular regardless the gender of the nouns. For human plurals, the noun and adjective have to agree in all aspects.

Most of the broken plurals also take the usual nominative, genitive and accusative case endings and indefinite nouns take the "tanwin". The three case endings are called "trip totes". However, there are some broken plurals that do not take the tanwin and the genitive case for the indefinite words. These broken plurals are called "dip totes". There is no definite way to identify these words except that they are formed by at least 3 syllables where one of which is a long vowel. These words are marked with "2" superscript in the Hans Wehr Dictionary.

End of Level 1.5

The subsequent exercises mainly focused on the recognition of broken plurals, converting sentences into plurals and adjusting the agreement of the adjectives. At the same time, more new words were introduced to build up my vocabulary. There were also some exercises on the negation of nominal sentences with plurals as well as making questions involving plurals. At the end of the text, I read a few short passages providing descriptions of various countries like Switzerland and Egypt and I composed a short simple passage on Singapore.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Love is in the Sky

This is an unsually photo of a "heart" formed by clouds in the clear blue sky off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The photo was taken during our trip onboard Superstar Virgo in May 2007.
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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Level 1 (Part B) - Modern Standard Arabic

Continued from Level 1 (Part A)

Tanwin and Case Endings

The "tanwin" and case endings were the next new concepts taught in Level 1. The pronunciation of Arabic words involves not just the sounds of the consonants and vowels in them but also the sound of the case endings. Basically, the last letter of an Arabic word carries a specific vowel depending on the nature of the word in a sentence. The damma is added to nominative words, the fatha to the accusative words and the kasra to the genitive words. If the word is not definite, the vowels are "doubled" in the pronunciation with the "tanwin", which causes the word to end with a 'n' sound. These pronunciation rules definitely compounded the difficulty in learning the language. For beginners, we were expected to know these rules but I had to put aside these rules for the time being as they hindered my progress, especially in learning new vocab.

In order to know the case endings to pronouce when reading Arabic text, I have to identify whether a word is nominative, genitive or accusative. Generally, nouns in isolation, the subject of sentences, the predicate of a nominal sentences are all in nominative. Nouns preceded by a preposition are genitive and so are nouns that come after the first noun in an "idafa" construction. Accusative case is much more complicated as they deal with verbs which are taught Level 2. At Level 1, we only learn to form non-verbal sentences, i.e. sentences without verbs like "do", "play", "run" etc.

Idafa Construction

Idafa construction is a basic grammar for identifying possession. For example, the man's dog in Arabic will be "كلب ﺍﻠرجل ". By the way, Arabic text is read from right to left. In this example, كلب is dog while ﺍﻠرجل is the man. Literally, it means dog of the man, the possessive word "of" implied by the construction of an indefinite noun followed by a definite noun. This construction can involve more than two nouns but the final noun must be definite. The whole string of nouns forming the idafa is considered definite. Besides nouns, adjectives can also to added after the last noun to describe the noun, only after the idafa not in between the nouns. This rule poses difficulties for novices like me to link the adjectives to the correct nouns. For example, "the short key of the big door of the small car of the tall man" is clear in English. But in Arabic, the sentence will look like this:

"مفتاح باب سيارة ﺍﻠرجل ﺍﻠقصير ﺍﻠكبيرﺍﻠصغيرة ﺍﻠطويل "

The four adjectives (in red) have to be placed after the last noun "the man" but it is not clear whether "short" describes the key or the door or the man. However, it is clear that "short" does not describe the car because the adjective did not have a feminine ending to agree with the car, which is a feminine noun. The adjectives also have to be attached with the definite article ﺍﻠ otherwise a sentence will be formed instead. To know which adjective is describing which noun in an idafa, one has to read from context or make a guess or split the idafa with "ﻞ ". The last technique allows an adjective to be placed immediately after the noun they described in an idafa construction by first making that noun definite with " ال " and adding "ﻞ " to the next noun in the idafa sequence.

Nominal Sentences

The order of [indefinite noun][definite noun] in idafa is very important because by swapping the positions, it will mean "the man is a dog" i.e. " الرجل كلب ". There is no verb-to-be in Arabic and the "is" is implied by the construction of a definite noun followed by an indefinite noun. This is the simplest form of nominal sentences. In the above example, ifقصير (short) is placed at the end and without the ﺍﻠ the sentence will mean "The key of the big door of the small car of the man is short."

"مفتاح باب سيارة ﺍﻠرجل ﺍﻠكبيرﺍﻠصغيرة ﺍﻠطويل قصير "

Idafa and nominal sentence constructions are the most substantial topics in the second half of Level 1. Through the exercises, I learned new words and formed simple nominal sentences with the words I knew. Besides forming nominal sentences by the two constructions, one can also replace the idafa or definite noun with a proper name (e.g. Egypt or Ahmad) or with pronouns (e.g. he, she or they) or with demonstratives (e.g. this, that, there, here) or by joining nouns or idafas with prepositions (e.g. under or on). At this juncture, we were introduced to the preposition "ﻞ " which can be attached to definite nouns to indicate possession. This preposition is the Arabic version of "to have" of English.

Nevertheless, there are always some exceptions that fall outside these standard constructions. For example, we cannot use any of the above to form the sentence "Ahmad is the President" as both the nouns are definite. In this case, a pronoun must be added in between the two: "Ahmad he is the President." The requirements were to be able to recognise the different constructions, differentiate between phrases and sentences and make simple sentences.

Making Questions

After learning the techniques of sentence making, forming questions was the next topic. The techniques of questioning are not very different from English or Chinese with the standard question words like who what when where why and how. In addition, there are the interrogative particles "ﻞﻫ" and "ﺃ " for yes/no questions. As usual, exercises were given to drill me on the concepts. With a slightly broader vocab base, I was given simple text of short paragraphs containing nominal sentences to read.

Negation of Nominal Sentences

As I was "verbless" at this stage, I could only make nominal sentences which were restricted by the extent of my vocab. The next concept taught naturally was the negation of nominal sentences so as to expand the use of my limited vocab. I was taught how to negate "The girl is beautiful." to become "The girl is not beautiful." This is useful when I need to negate without having to know the word of the opposite meaning or when I need to give negative answers. The "not" of English in Arabic is "ليس ".

However, the use of this word is not as straightforward as "not" in English where it can be placed before a noun or adjective without being grammatically wrong. ليس , if used at the beginning of a sentence negate the predicate and there are a few rules to follow. First, the predicate negated has to be changed from nominative case to the accusative, which means the words in the predicate have to be pronounce with the fatha. Second, if the subject is feminine, ليس becomes ﻟﻴﺴﺖ. If ليس is used in the middle of a sentence, things get complicated as it has to conjugate according to the subject in gender and number - that means 12 different forms of ليس. This is a preview to verbs which conjugate in a similar fashion.

At the end of MSA Level 1, I was able to read Arabic script with vowel markings but given my limited vocab, my level of comprehension of external materials was near zero at this stage. I took 28 hours of private lessons over 3 weeks to cover Level 1.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Level 1 (Part A) - Modern Standard Arabic

This is my seventh week in Cairo and the going is getting tougher in my study of the Arabic language, in particular the Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). After taking 64 hours of lessons, I regret for not keeping a diary of my progress to summarize the heavy textbooks and help in my revision. It's still not too late to take stock and start blogging about my progress.

The Arabic Alphabet

MSA Level 1 started with the introduction of the Arabic alphabet, which comprises of 28 letters. Most of these letters take four different forms depending on the position of the letter in a word, first letter, in the middle or the last letter or standing alone. The basic requirements were to recognise the letters in the various forms, to pronouce each letter and to pronouce simple words formed by the letters with the voweling. Recognising the letters was the easiest task among the three. Pronoucing the sound of each letter proved to be more difficult than in English or Chinese. Unlike the latters, pronoucing Arabic requires the use of the lips all the way to the back of the throat. There is no easy way out as the meaning of each word can change by the sound of a letter. I am still having problems with the "kh - " and the "gh - ".

Vowels of the Arabic Language

There are basically three vowels in Arabic - "a - ", "i - " and "u - ". They are known as the fatha, kasra and dumma respectively. The three are also letters of the alphabet and they normally give a long vowel in words that contain them. Each letter of an Arabic word may take one of the three vowels or a sokon which indicates the pronunciation of the letter without any vowel. The challenge is that most Arabic script are written without the vowel markers. So the "f" in a word can be pronounced as "fa" or "fi" or "fu". But if the next letter is one of the three vowels, the preceding letter will take the same vowel. For beginners like me, I will need to mark the script with the vowels in order to read the words correctly.

Unlike languages like Chinese, which are based on pictorial characters providing no hint at all to the sound they make, the Arabic script can be understood simply by reading the words according to the sound they make plus the vowels. An interesting part of the lesson was the reading of a passage of Arabic script which were essentially English if read.

Building Vocabulary

Building vocabulary is the key to attaining proficiency in any language. Knowing the grammar rules is as important but without the vocab, it's impossible to make significant progress. Besides picking up new words from the lessons, I also bought the Modern Standard Arabic Vocab Clinic® from to help build up this key foundation. I also bought the clinics for Egyptian Colloquial Arabic® as well as the MSA Verb Clinic®. These software were really useful for my self-study at home as I could listen to the pronunciation of words by authentic Arabic speakers and record my own pronunciation. The software enabled me to compare the waveforms of the two pronunciations and help identify my errors. But memorising new words quickly and internalising them proved to be challenging.

Nisba Adjectives and Gender

At Level 1, I was only learning to make sentences without any verbs. So the words were limited to nouns and adjectives. One special form of adjectives is the Nisba adjectives. There is grammar for converting certain nouns into adjectives, for example, industry صناعة > industrial صناعي, Egypt مصر > Egyptian مصري. That was the time when one of the most critical aspect of the Arabic language was revealed - gender. Every noun is either masculine or feminine. Feminine words normally end with a "ta marbuta" (or ) but there are exceptions. Gender is important because adjectives have to agree with the nouns in gender and number. If the noun is feminine, the adjective will have to take its feminine form. The issue of plurals will come later.

Demonstratives and the Definite Article

Demonstratives "this" or "that" were next and they too come in two different forms, feminine and masculine. Demonstratives helped me make simple sentences like "this is a chair". In Arabic, there is only one definite article "ﻞﺍ" or in transliteration "al" or "il" or "el" depending on the map you are holding. This article can be attached to any noun to make it definite. This is just one of the many ways we can make definite nouns. Prepositions like behind, in front, on, under etc. was next and by using them to connect two nouns, I could make more sentences like "the cat is under the table".

The above basically summarized first half of the 138-page text of MSA Level 1. Tomorrow I will continue with the other half.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

City Stars in Heliopolis

I spent almost my whole Saturday exploring the City Stars in Heliopolis. City Stars is a mixed development comprising of a huge shopping mall, the biggest of its kind in Egypt, two international hotels (Intercon and Holiday Inn), residential apartments and offices.

I went in the morning about 10am by taxi which cost 30 EGP. There were not many shoppers around but the crowd began to trickle in after 1pm and the place was swarmed with people by the time I headed out around 5pm.

The mall is huge and there are plenty to shop and eat. There are seven floors filled with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, bowling alley, children arcades and large anchor stores. The variety is wide with many familiar brand names like Benetton, Timberland, Levis, Guess, Mango, Mothercare, Springfield, Samsonite, Nike, Puma etc. etc. The prices are generally higher than Singapore by about 20-30% so I do not think I really want to buy apparels here. Surprisingly, I did not come across any of the luxury brands like Chanel, Gucci and Armani which are standard features in the shopping malls back home.

Electronics like computers, LCD TVs, printers, cameras etc. are also more expensive compared to Singapore. The anchor hypermart is Spinneys which is located on the 1st floor. It's as big as any Carrefours I had visited and one can practically find anything they need in there, all under one roof. Virgin is the only bookstore I came across and it also has sections selling DVDs, games, music CDs, computer accessories and electronics like TVs and cameras.

Well, I can go on and on about City Stars but in essence, it is not very different from Vivo City in Singapore or the Taipei 101. I guess City Stars will be a regular shopping destination when we start our stay in Cairo next year.

Like most guys, I don't really enjoy window shopping and the four hours there is now causing severe aches in my limbs. At the end of the day, my trip to the City Stars was rather uneventful. However, my return taxi trip made the day. I got into a taxi off the street after some haggling. The guy asked for 40 EGP but I insisted on 30. I got my way and off we go. The taxi driver, Ayman, was quite a nice guy and we chatted along the way, giving me a chance to practice my patchy Arabic.

As we were going through a long tunnel, the left rear tyre of the taxi was punctured and Ayman had to replaced it. I got out to help direct the oncoming traffic to the remaining lane on the left so as to prevent any car from hitting Ayman. Fortunately, Ayman changed the tyre in 10 minutes flat and we were off the road again. In the end, I paid Ayman 50 LE to help him offset the cost of the flat tyre. I thought it would be a good gesture to help out the poor man trying to make a decent living. Ayman was appreciative and he readily gave me his mobile number and told me to call anytime I need a taxi. He made my day.

Friday, December 07, 2007

My First Haircut at an Egyptian Barber

I have been in Cairo for over six weeks now and I finally got myself a badly needed haircut at an egyptian barber a stone throw away from my apartment. While I don't really find the outcome desirable, I quite enjoyed the service provided. The barber gave me a quick wash first and brought me to my seat and offering to serve me a cup of hot coffee or tea.

They took a while to get the much needed hot tea to me, I appreciated the warmth the tea provided in the cold evening. Like all barbers I have been to, he wrapped a small towel on the back of my neck before pulling the cover over me. I was prepared to head straight home to bathe after the haircut as I expected bits of hair all over my body. Surprisely, that did not happened and I did not find a strand of hair slipping through my neck during the haircut. This was mainly due to the piece of disposable elastic band the barber used to secure the cover around my neck. Unlike the barbers in Singapore who use clips to secure the cover, the elastic tape works wonders without subjecting me to suffocating clips.

The barber only used scissors on me, no cranky electric shavers at all. I am not sure if he just wanted to impress or it could be due to the texture of my hair which is quite different from the natural curly hairs of Egyptian men. He did however used the shaving knife not very skilfully though. This is my main complaint as the process and the immediate after effect were slightly painful. No shaving cream was used and the barber basically scrubbed off the edges without really understanding my discomfort.

Well, I quickly forgave him after experiencing the quick facial he rendered before the whole visit ended. He sprayed a cooling liquid cleanser over my face and followed by a nice facial massage. Then, a hot towel was pulled over my face for minute followed by a cold one. I was completely refreshed and I paid the 30 LE (S$8.00) for the haircut happily. Surely I will not wait long before going for my second haircut but I will probably try out another barber further down the street.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Visit to the Great Pyramids of Egypt

Yesterday, 1 Dec 07, I visited the Great Pyramids of Egypt sitting on the plateau of Giza in Cairo. The trip was organised by my language school Kalimat. This is the second of the old Seven Wonders of the World I have seen so far. The first being the Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

The architecture is simply amazing and I really wonder how those huge stones, each weighing 2.5 tonnes, were stacked up to hundred over metres above ground. No wonder many people still hold the belief that they were the creation of extra-terrestial beings.

After the tour around the pyramids and the Sphinx, we went to a nearby stable where we rode horses into the setting sun. It was my first horse ride and I managed to keep my balance on the steed. Take a look at my photo album in my Facebook.

Music Nournishes The Soul & Mind (Chinese Songs)......