Speak Arabic, they cajoled. Speak your mother tongue: Once it flows, it will flow like the sweetest honey.
For the first six years of my life, I was fluent in Arabic. I embraced it because I knew no other way, to the point of driving my family crazy.
“You loooooved speaking ‘Arabi,” my sister shared. “You’d even go around eavesdropping on conversations, on the prowl for words in English. If you heard one, you’d rush to dad and let him know we weren’t speaking Quran.”
I smirk shamefacedly when I hear that story. I remember crouching on the carpeted steps near the bedroom, craning my neck so that I could be a part of conversations. Part of me longed to be included, and the other part wanted to make my dad proud.
It was that ingrained for me. Albeit, I was annoying about it, but I never questioned that another language would would betray me. I never once thought that my beloved ‘Arabi would soon feel like a old, but familiar friendship, the kind where the imprint between you never fades.
Instead, my tongue was stuck. It was blocked by the charm of English and how the words fit together without any hesitation. In elementary school, I already stood out in my handmade floral print dresses and covered hair. English was a promise that I would one day fit in. I worked my way through ESL, only needing tutoring on the side, and soaked in the words that came so easily to my older siblings.
As fast as I was learning English, I was slowly chipping away not just the words, but the memory of words in ‘Aarabi, and they seemed to be lost forever. My mother would speak to me in mother tongue and I’d respond with the classic mixing of languages– “Yama, I was solee-ing (praying) I promise.”
Add an “ing” to a word and I could pass for bilingual. I was at the point where I could absorb spoken Arabic and seamlessly translate it. Understanding the language felt like enough, back then. I was determined to succeed in school and thought it would be my ticket to advancing in life.
Then I fell in Love. With books (certainly, no boys were allowed). I gravitated towards libraries and books became my sanctuary. My siblings and I trekked to the big brick building, black garbage bag in tow. The bag was filled to the brim, almost surpassing the monetary limit of books you could borrow. I was hungry and during the summers, all I had was time.
Back then, I read books blindly, never judging or noticing the characters for not acting like me or looking like me. I just wanted to escape to their world and read read read so fast that the plots began to blur.
Soon, English became the best way I could express myself, written and verbal. When I reverted to speaking ‘Aaabi (mostly out of necessity, when my extended family would speak to me) I felt frustrated that I couldn’t just say what I wanted to say. I wasn’t understood, and I’d never have the nuance to express the complexities of what I was feeling.
Still, I read. Over time, I became fixated on stories where characters grappled with two worlds, cultures, and languages. I felt deeply connected to them, as I struggled to make sense of my identity. Julia Alvarez felt like a soul sister and I collect her books like relics, proudly displaying them in my home.
I’d go through phases of trying out Arabic again, but quickly fall back into my usual pattern. There was always time in the future.
That time came for me at 25 when I made a three month trip to Palestine to volunteer teach in Nablus. More than ever, I wanted my mother tongue to know it was home, that the future was now. I felt good about ordering falafel, exchanging pleasantries, and that I could roll my “r’s”. It was easy enough to teach young students English, but harder to make them care about learning it. They preferred to ask me questions about America, convinced that I personally knew famous wrestlers.
But I digress. About one month in, I was asked to teach a class at Nablus University. They not only wanted me teach students about Psychodrama, but to demonstrate the techniques in such a way that the students could also teach it. This was no intro class. I was confounded by the idea of teaching a subject foreign to me, let alone teaching it in Arabic.
I panicked, feeling incapable. When I walked in the room, the student’s energy immediately calmed me. They were long time friends constantly joking with each other and they were passionate about counseling. Between my broken Arabic and some student’s limited English, we worked together to lead class sessions.
The class required all of us to be open, as we had to participate in role plays that often centered around family and relationships. One role play enacted a story of lost love that ending in unexpected tears. They were quick to support one another, embracing vulnerability and the spirit of the class.
They showed themselves to me in a way that did not require language and I knew then that I needed to borrow some of their bravery. To open my mouth and stutter and halt, to try and put letters together that seemed so clear and easy to pronounce in my head. The fear I felt at falling short was so minimal compared to the fear felt in Palestine; theirs was an everyday fear, as subtle and loud as a heartbeat.
Slowly, I became more comfortable. After class, I would stop in little shops (think: bodega) along the way home to pick up water and a treat. I had practiced the tactic of talking minimally to see if I could “pass.” I wanted to blend in, but my American-ness and my faltered language still betrayed me.
“Ah, I knew you weren’t from here.” The store owner sat in his plastic corner stool and offered a kind smile. As I looked at him over the dusty goods on the shelf, part of me shrank. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed of my Arabic, but from the realization that I didn’t belong here, nor there. I could be fluent and never truly belong.
Within that thought was a sadness and relief. I wanted to let go of some of that yearning and just be where I was without worry of judgement or having to choose a side. I looked forward to the visits to the shops and talks with the locals. Truthfully, they didn’t care where I was from. They welcomed me with open arms. Now, I just had to do the same for myself.
From Palestine, I went to Jordan to study Arabic more formally in a classroom setting. I improved my speaking, writing, and reading skills just slightly faster than a snail’s pace. Conversations became easier, and I finally started understanding the grammar rules I neglected in Sunday school as a child.
The teacher in Jordan would giggle at some of my Arabic word choices “You speak like you’re from a village!” she said.
“That’s where my parents are from,” I responded proudly, laughing with her and not sharing my concern over this added obstacle. I adjusted some of my language, but kept the original shape of my mother’s mother tongue, the one that raised me.
I immersed myself in the culture and language as best as possible. At the same time, I was agonizing over my decision to not wear hijab for consecutive weeks at a time. It was an electric and odd experience to speak Arabic in a predominately Arab country, without hijab. I was used to it setting me apart in other countries, no language needed. In Jordan, my brown eyes, brown hair, and “keef al hal” was almost enough to blend in.
Finally, I could get around town comfortably. My notebook of vocabulary words was filling up and I loved being a student. I was confident that it would propel my Arabic in the right direction. When I returned home to the United States, I settled the notebook on my desk to keep it close.
Soon, it made its way to my bookshelf, hidden in the back with old photos and odd jewelry that weren’t worn down enough to throw away.
Recently, I read a post calling for Arabic translators to come to the airport to help refugees and immigrants being detained because of the Muslim Ban.
I wish I could say that I was ready, that I could help. Instead, I felt hopeless and knew that my unpracticed Arabic would fall like dust, gently and uselessly.
To this day, I mourn the grief that resulted from the ban. I mourn the divisiveness, the border that doesn’t belong, and the wall that speaks ‘welcome’ in all the languages, but who was told to remain silent that day.
From that pain and consequent desire to help my community, I renew my ongoing promise, the one I keep breaking. I will start over again and again, until the Arabic flows.
I owe it to my mother, to my mother tongue.