Saturday, September 28, 2013

Bil 3arabi

I am reading Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake these days. I fell in love with this book from the first page- a pregnant Aashima struggling to adjust to her new foreign world. Ashoke's uncompromising elegant suits and polished shoes. And their son, Gogol, stuck with a name he despises. He tries to strip himself off it, stuck in between Bengaliness and Americanness- speaking this and that, forever conflicted with this identity crisis.

We had a rule at home when we were kids. No English at home. English is for school, only. At home, we speak Arabic. That is your language. A non-negotiable rule. Once a trip to the theme park that we'd been planning for days got cancelled. This is so fun! somebody had said. The No-English rule was like a soapy hand trying to grab on to our threatened Arab identity. It managed to hold on sometimes. But other times, it slipped. Uninvited English words made their way into our carefully constructed Arabic sentences. They invaded our thoughts, visited our dreams. They were the first to arrive when I put a pencil to a paper, the first to come in mind when I opened my mouth to speak.

At gatherings, my uncle tells us of the family history we never witnessed. Of my grandfather and his generation, and the lives they led, an ocean away from the kind I do. On their daily conversations strewn with couplets of poetry invented on the spot. On the recital contests between them that entertained them on lazy afternoons. On the letters they wrote each other- eloquent letters in complex Arabic, ones I'd need a Google translator to decode. On the odes written for the important marriages and births in the family. Personalized ones, with symbolic use of the names in question. They're called a taareekh because in the last couplet, the numbers corresponding to each alphabet that appears add up to the date of that event in the Islamic Calendar.

On my last trip to Baghdad, we stayed over my great-aunt's house- a home that housed the scholar of her husband. I was brushing my teeth at the sink when I noticed a part of the wall by the corridor protruding. It's a library, they said. We slid the wall and the smell of old books whipped me. Books filled shelves from floor to ceiling on all four sides and in the middle as well. I didn't go to sleep pleased with this sight but disturbed, because a thought kept nagging me: You'll never be able to read and appreciate the books that make up your family's libraries.

Maybe the No-English rule couldn't stop English becoming our first language, but I am grateful it existed. I may stumble upon some Arabic words, use them in the wrong places, but at least I speak it at home, talk to my parents in the language they gave me, recognize it as mine. I may not fully comprehend the works of Al-Mutannabi, but at least I can read them, grasp its feel, appreciate the beauty of its rhythm. Maybe I whizz through dozens of English novels, and snail-pace through a Naguib Mahfouz once a year, but at least I try to stay loyal to my language.

A couple of days ago, I was out for lunch with a friend. The waiter brought an English menu for her, an Arabic one for me. English menu too, please, I say. You'll pick quicker in English, Ghadeer. You know how awful it is trying to decipher transliterated dish names, I justify in my head. But as I look through the English menu, I can't help picturing this. My ancestors looking in at this scene. Being told, 'That's your daughter, there, pushing away the Arabic menu, looking through a foreign one and blabbering away in English.' It saddens me, that I am more comfortable in a tongue that's not mine.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dear New-born Babies of the World

Welcome to our planet! Home of the egocentric, the presumptuous, the hateful, where the rich are bowed to, the ugly ignored, and not an era goes by when some country is not at war with another. The shape your life takes will vary, perhaps depending on where on the planet you were born, to whom, and how the genetic instructions in your deoxyribonucleic acid molecules are patterned. But typically, it will go something like the following.

A few years of laziness and zero responsibilities that will flash by in a wink, during which the systems you're subjected to kill any creativity you hold inside. Another few years that shake everything you thought was true about your identity, beliefs, and the infallibility of adults. Just when you are recovering from confusion you will have to decide what it is you want to do for the rest of your life. And you will have to make that decision quick. Once you, or more likely, other people, have made that decision for you, you will go through a brief period of solace where your only duty is to get educated. Most likely, you will come up with many ambitious plans during this time and aspire to do a great many things. If your life takes the typical path, though, you will get caught up in other things and achieve nothing of your dreams. Maybe you will even forget them. Or change your mind. Anyway, you will get up everyday, go to work, eat to carry on, sleep to recharge, and then get up the next day to do it all over again. You might get married and have children, and your spouse and kids might add colour to your life, or darken it, but in any case, you will often find yourself not having enough time to spend with them. Eventually, you will grow old, begin to forget things, and need help to walk and bathe. Maybe you will be lucky enough to have someone take care of you, maybe not. Your system will slowly shut down, and one day, you will leave this world. It doesn't matter how.

Wait! Stop crying. I have some good news too. Do I look that much of a sadist to you?

Some day everything that can possibly go wrong will, and you'll weep your heart out to your mother and spend the rest of the evening a spoiled prince/cess. And you will know there's a mother's love out there worth living to have. Some day you will fall sick and just when you're on the hospital bed feeling dejected, a bunch of friends come in, dripping wet from the storm they had to walk through, or stretching their limbs because of the hours of traffic they were stuck in. And you will know there are kind souls out that are worth living to meet. Some day your kid will run to you from school with a crayoned drawing of you. It'll look like a scribbled blob, but you'll stick the masterpiece to the fridge and know that your kids are worth living to watch grow. Some day, you'll have a really good laugh about something entirely silly. And then you'll realise how seriously you're taking life and spend the rest of the day feeling chilled and awesome.  Some day you will look back at something you wanted so bad at one point, and realise with a jolt how grateful you are that it didn't happen. Some day, when you least expect it, you will create something that changes lives without knowing it: maybe start a business, design a home, write a book, make a movie, click a photo, bake a cake or simply say a few words, and you will realise how much everyone has to contribute to this world. And how you will make a difference without trying too hard. Some day you will talk directly to God. It could be when you're on the prayer mat, on a bus ride, in an office meeting, having breakfast or during a walk on the beach. You will feel the response in your heart, and finally be One and in sync with the Universe and all of creation.

Life is beautiful, babies. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

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