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Illustration by Mahgul Farooqui

Marhaba, Shaam: Bridging Connection with Our Palestinian Neighbors

The Shaami Arabic course engages with Palestinian culture through a three day language immersion homestay. Students reflect on this experience and how it has transformed their outlook on language learning and Shaami culture.

Dec 7, 2019

Every Monday, class starts with “amthals”, the Shaami Arabic word for proverbs. Each student habitually recites their Arabic proverb and unravels its meaning in Shaami Arabic. Some are funny, some are useful and the good ones prompt a story from Professor Nasser. Yet, the admiration for proverbs in Shaami culture became clear on the first night of our Arabic homestay as we sat in the quaint living room of our host family.
“One of the students used a proverb, which led the family to ask which others we knew … After minutes of laughing, we ran out of proverbs,” described Luis Quesada, Class of 2020. “Soon the family started teaching us new sayings. I remember this as a moment in which our academic life allowed us to create a relationship with people from a very different culture, and this moment broke the ice for our entire homestay.”
Shaami Arabic is a dialect of Arabic spoken in the Levantine region of the Middle East, which encompasses Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. At NYU Abu Dhabi, the Shaami Arabic course can be taken as part of the Arabic minor and focuses specifically on the Palestinian dialect. The course is taught by Professor Nasser Isleem, a hearty man who guides the class through mountains of vocabulary with laughter and stories. Towards the end of the semester, students participate in a three day homestay with a Palestinian family living in Abu Dhabi. This weekend is designed to be a language immersion experience that allows students to deeply engage with Shaami culture.
Marhaba. We arrived on Thursday night and after some introductions, got to work in the kitchen making fresh falafel with Fatima, our host mother. With tea and coffee in hand, the evening was spent listening to the sido — the Shaami word for grandfather — list Shaami proverbs and sharing stories about our life in university and home cultures.
The homestay mirrors a typical Shaami class in that it challenges students to speak only in Shaami dialect.
“There is no other way to learn a language than by using it as much as possible,” explained Lauris Paegle, Class of 2020. “And what better way is there to use a language than with people who speak it on a daily basis at home?”
Academically, the homestay creates an environment that accelerates students’ language learning.
“Due to the back-and-forth Shaami culture, where specific sayings come with specific replies, I found it a lot easier to remember many sayings once I could link them to experiences,” explained Emma Chiu, Class of 2020.
Additionally, this immersive experience allowed for the Shaami dialect to take shape as a cultural tool, and not just an academic subject.
“Spending a whole weekend with a Palestinian family gave me the chance to use all our vocabulary in its natural context,” reflected Maria Jose Alonso, Class of 2020. “Rather than just talking about maqluba, a traditional Shaami dish, and its ingredients, I was actually asking my host mom if I could have a bit more. Although I deeply enjoy being welcomed by ‘A salaam alaikum’ every time I enter Professor Nasser’s class, waking up to ‘Sabah al-khair, keif namt?’ is a quite different and very lovely experience.”
Students inevitably reap more than Arabic language practice. As illustrated by the proverbs, the language is intrinsically tied to Shaami culture and traditions, which is often the most memorable aspect of the homestay experience. Throughout the rest of the weekend, we spent much of our time simply getting to know the host family. One could feel the comfort level rise as we settled into the language and the rhythm of the restful weekend. We ate maqluba, picnicked at the beach and helped around the house. The exchange of stories allowed our radially different worlds to collide.
“We stayed with Mustafa, a Palestinian man who had moved to the UAE with his family after experiencing conflict in both Kuwait and Iraq,” explained Walid Bajjani, Class of 2020. “He shared stories about his best and most challenging moments, allowing us to contextualize some of the issues that the Palestinian diaspora face.”
This homestay was also an opportunity to delve further into Shaami life by getting to know our own Palestinian neighbors in Abu Dhabi. As a Shaami class, we are sincerely grateful for the renowned Arab hospitality that our hosts extended to us over this weekend
“I felt very welcomed into their home and saw that they were just as eager to learn about me as I was about them,” described Sofia Delgado, Class of 2022. “The family’s focus on making sure that we were enjoying our stay was really touching and I appreciated all the lengths they went to to share their home.”
If you’re sitting in Arabic 101 endlessly tracing “ghayns” across your paper, this is a reminder that it is worth it. The hard work of memorizing vocabulary and decoding the complicated grammar of fusha pays off in the sweetest moments of connection in the course. The legacy of the homestay lives in the cherished memories of such connections and in students’ language skills that enable cross-cultural ties beyond Saadiyat.
“On our way back from a night spent on the beach, the girls were allowed to drive back with the host family's daughter and niece,” reminisced Tessa Thornton, Class of 2020. “Rolling down the windows and blasting Arabic music from the speakers, we sang to Aziz as the warm air filled our car. In that moment, the stress of forgetting words and making cultural mistakes escaped us and we just sang and laughed.”
This piece was a collaborative effort between students in the “Colloquial Arabic: Shami Dialect” course taught by Professor Nasser Isleem. To enroll in this course, students must complete at least three semesters of Modern Standard Arabic at university level (equivalent to Intermediate Arabic 201). If you have questions about this course or the homestay component, feel free to reach out to Professor Nasser at
Katie Sheng is a contributing writer. Email her at
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