It’s nice here.
But this is Cairo from the perspective of two eyes—literally—so let it not be the final sight.
Arabic is of two kinds all over the Middle East. There is “fusha” (formal) Arabic and there is “a’amia” (colloquial) Arabic.
Formal Arabic is the Arabic of the books, newspapers, politics, religion, academia, and so on. In its ancient—and pure form—it is the language of the Arabs of the time of the Prophet (pbuh). Colloquial Arabic is the Arabic of the people, and it varies from district to district, country to country, sometimes even town to town, in certain areas.
So Egypt indeed has its brand of Colloquial, and is it ever different from the formal variety! One could master formal Arabic, yet feel like a foreigner to the same language’s informal variety. As soon as you leave the campus setting and try to purchase some chicken at the local market, you will find yourself entering a different world, where little makes sense and you are left to fend with hand gestures and partial grunting (that last one is an exaggeration).
But worry not you future traveller to Egypt, fortunately formal Arabic is widely understood. This may have much to do with Friday sermons at mosques which are usually carried out in Fusha. Knowing formal Arabic will get 50 per cent of the job done, but here is the catch – don’t expect the favour to be returned. A meagre amount of Egyptians can communicate in Fusha: generally the well educated. Ordinary Egyptians will attempt to reply to you in what little they can conjure up after a great amount of effort, and yet you are still likely to understand little of it.
Knowing A’amia pays (literally sometimes). If your expected stay is long, snuggle into learning A’amia. This requires for the acquisition of an entirely different way to asking questions and expressing ideas, but rest assured, the vocabulary is not as extensive as, say, you trying to decipher the Quran or Abu Hanifa’s books.
More to the point, it particularly pays to know Egyptian A’amia as it is the most widely understood throughout the Middle East. This is because of the point previously made: Egyptians love TV – and also making it. Egypt is the programming hub of the Middle East. It controls some of the most watched anything in Arabic programming. It has the best soap operas, the best movies, best series’, you name it.
Interestingly, an Egyptian travelling to Iraq, for example, is like the learned speaker of formal Arabic coming to Egypt: comprehension goes one way. They will understand you but not vice versa. For this reason, Egyptian colloquial is the most widely taught form of colloquial within classrooms of the West.
In many ways it’s akin to a North American going to the suburbs of Australia. Their slang is near incomprehensible to our ears. Try it sometime. On the flip side, hearing perfect Fusha being spoken to you as a local Egyptian is akin to hearing someone speak in rhymes: it’s just plain funny. In fact, they will laugh at you. Try it sometime.
For the student of Arabic, Cairo is one of the hottest places, along with Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. A handful of Westerners roam the streets of Cairo, and many of them know each other. The programs here are excellent and largely inexpensive by Western standards. A summer job’s worth of money can pay for approximately a year of study and residency, given that you live like the Egyptians. And private tutoring is easily available at around five dollars per hour, and its intimate setting is the way to go when it comes to learning Arabic.