Arabic for Beginners

Ariela Freedman

March 2017

When Hannah accompanies her husband and small children to Jerusalem for the year, she becomes fascinated with a group of expat women at her son’s daycare, as well as a young Palestinian woman named Jenna. As she grows close to Jenna, she starts to question her own marriage and her relationship to Israel. A novel of domestic and political ambivalence, Arabic for Beginners is about marriage, motherhood, friendship, nation, and the complicated ways we think of home.

WINNER of the J. I. Segal 2018 Mona Elaine Adilman English Fiction and Poetry Award on a Jewish Theme.

Ariela Freedman was born in Brooklyn and has lived in Jerusalem, New York, Calgary, London, and Montreal. Her reviews and poems have appeared in Vallum, carte blanche, The Cincinnati Review and other publications, and she was selected to participate in the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s 2014 Mentorship Program. She has a Ph.D. from New York University and teaches literature at Concordia’s Liberal Arts College in Montreal, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Arabic for Beginners, her first novel, was shortlisted for the QWF First Book Prize and named one of Quill & Quire's Best Books of 2017. Her second novel is forthcoming from LLP.

“Freedman brilliantly captures the existential and alienated state that mothers of young children inhabit. Freedman's work is reminiscent of Rachel Cusk and Deborah Levy.” —Heather O’Neill, author of Lullabies for Little Criminals

"Arabic for Beginners brings into sharp relief a young mother’s sabbatical year in Jerusalem in the era of the Gaza war. This is a brave, intelligent and impressive literary debut.” —Elaine Kalman Naves, author of The Book of Faith

“This account of a Canadian family's year in Israel is a study of tensions both national and interpersonal, and of the reasons relationships survive or fade away. Freedman's subtle, graceful prose spans the large and the small, the wondrous and the quotidian, as it explores the question of how certain places—and certain people—come to feel like home.” – Abigail Deutsch, winner, Shattuck Prize for Criticism

$18.95 | ISBN: 9781988130330

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$ 8.95 | ISBN: 9781988130354

$ 8.95 | ISBN: 9781988130361

What they say


Ariela Freedman's wonderful first novel, Arabic for Beginners named one of Quill & Quire's Best Books of 2017

"In Arabic for Beginners – her affecting, polished, and deeply confident debut novel – Ariela Freedman presents the Middle East conflict as we’ve rarely seen it, through the eyes of an ambivalent wife and mother. Freedman’s prose is so fluid and flawless that I felt I could trust her, paragraph after paragraph, to take me wherever she wanted to go." – Mark Sampson


The Quill & Quire review:

"It would take a very good writer, in the opening pages of her first published novel, to distill the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a symbol of two children fighting over a toy dinosaur at a preschool in Jerusalem. Imagine it: the moms – one Jewish, the other Arab – chatting amiably with one another and trying to become fast friends while their young sons give in to a mindless, primordial possessiveness over a plastic tyrannosaurus, and then having those moms try to broker a shaky peace. It would indeed be a mightily impressive metaphor, if a courageous author were able to pull it off.

Ariela Freedman is an exceptionally good writer. In Arabic for Beginners, her affecting, polished, and deeply confident debut, she executes this and other lively feats. Freedman presents the Middle East conflict as we’ve rarely seen it, through the eyes of an ambivalent wife and mother brought back to Israel (she had spent time there when she was younger) by her husband’s academic posting. She now has the time and inclination to see the country’s strife through fresh eyes.

Freedman’s protagonist, a struggling Jewish grad student named Hannah, makes friends with fellow mom Jenna (who sometimes goes by her more Arabic name, Jannah, or even Yanna), and begins studying her language as an act of cultural transference. Along the way, Hannah meets an entertaining assortment of bored housewives – mostly spouses of career diplomats – who invariably grumble about, resent, and cheat on their working husbands, all while trying to navigate the tightrope of heightened socio-political tension that permeates so many of Jerusalem’s streets.

This novel engages with multiple aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, and through her friendship with Jenna, Hannah learns a thing or two about the privilege she enjoys as a Jew in this land. The novel also deals with Hannah’s devolving relationship with her husband, Simon, and her struggles with the drudgery of parenting two small children.

The ending is unexpected and pleasurable, as Hannah and Simon decide to press on despite their uncertainty toward each other. They return to Canada feeling as if Jerusalem and all its complexity had visited them in a dream."

Mark Sampson in Quill and Quire (June, 2017)


The Globe and Mail review

"Almost halfway into Arabic for Beginners, Hannah, furious with yet another instance of casual racism, asks, "How could everyone pretend that living like this was normal?" "This" is her life in Jerusalem, having returned to Israel for the first time since a teenager, now with young children in tow as her husband takes a year-long university appointment. The story then jumps to one of Hannah's memories from New York: a young black man whooping and kicking on a subway platform, fellow transit-goers forming an invisible cordon sanitaire around him, wary of someone they presume violent. A damning comparison: How could anyone pretend living like this was normal? After Hannah befriends Jenna, a Palestinian woman, another friend accuses Hannah of being "an anthropological friend, a perpetual voyeur," but Hannah, though a sharp observer of hypocrisy and paradox, is hardly disinterested – she's implicated. Freedman allows her character little leniency in navigating the unease this arouses – a fine debut novel of home, family and nation worked through a story of personal entanglement.

Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail, June 9, 2017.


Shelley Pomerance thinks this is "a superb novel" -- Montréal Centre-ville, June 2017.

Here's what Claire Holden Rothman has to say about Ariela Freedman's novel Arabic for Beginners in the new Montreal Review of Books!
Ariela Freedman's "book is a nuanced and penetrating exploration of life in Israel today. Billed on its cover as a novel, Arabic for Beginners reads more like a memoir than fiction. But whatever the genre, it’s well worth reading." -- Claire Holden Rothman


LLP authors Ariela Freedman and Elaine Kalman Naves are featured on an AELAQ Inside the Frozen Mammoth podcast!

April 6, 2017, 7-8:30 p.m. Montreal author Ariela Freedman's first novel, Arabic for Beginners, is launched at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly. Free admission. Refreshments. We look forward to welcoming you.




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