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.


  1. Its good to know several languages. I know some Yiddish because my family was from Germany.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  2. Absolutely love this post!! I wish my family had some rule like this, my thought process is so bilingula ://

  3. And this makes me so sad :( I can't speak my native tongue. I can understand it, for the most part, but the words just don't fit in my mouth. My parents, raising me in Oz, spoke mostly English because I think they wanted us to do it better at school. But they still wish that we spoke Tamil, and I still wish I could too. I don't even need to read it or write it, I'd just like to speak it, and understand it completely, and... just... be... a little authentic, as it keeps coming up in my English essays -_-'

    But I'm glad you've held onto more than I ever could, so that you can even read just the one book a year :) Hold onto it tight, Ghadeer, don't ever let it go :')

  4. Oh wow, thanks for teaching us a new kind of poetry. Thanks for sharing your history. I can relate to that last sentence.

  5. Oooh, I know how you feel! I feel more comfortable speaking, writing and thinking in English even though Urdu is my first language. As a child I was always weak in Urdu at school, and got told off a lot by my grandparents and other aunts and uncles (even though they were great in English too). Thank goodness I'm past the stage where speaking in Urdu was a great discomfort for me. Being bilingual is cool!

    And wow, Arabic is such a beautiful language, I took Arabic lessons once and learned a little but forgot it within a year :(

  6. The Namesake is one of my favourite Indian novels. I had trouble getting used to the present tense narration, but I warmed up to the story eventually. After all, identity crises are universal.

    I have plenty of issues with being bilingual. One of them is that there are tons of spoken dialects in Malayalam, but for your written work to be accepted your language has to be 'standard' (read: posh and flowery). I managed to get acceptable scores, but chose Additional English instead of Malayalam in High School. I continued reading Mal, but my writing came to standstill.

    Recently, when my mother asked me to copy down some recipes from a magazine, I was horrified to find that my hand shook when writing in my mother tongue. The curves were shaky, the letters all squiggly. I resolved to write at least one page in Mal so that I wouldn't lose touch with the script.

    I wish I could say 'don't feel guilty' but I know it doesn't work like that. I feel the same twinge of guilt every time I write a poem in English and that annoying voice reminds me that I have zero capability of writing an equally good one in Malayalam.

    Beautiful post, Ghadeer.... and sorry I rambled so much in the comment :D

  7. I have watched this movie. I don't know about the book but since you are giving good reviews then that's next on my book shelf now ;) :)

  8. I've always wanted to learn Arabic. Being from an Arabic descent must be helpful :D
    An Urdu and English speaking me is learning Arabic from a teacher these days, am on the very basics.

  9. I feel so left out when I read the Quran in Arabic. We learned to read Arabic but never understood the meaning. They told us that there is power in Arabic language and we can ward off evil spirits by reading verses from the Quran. Each one of my siblings, my cousins and my children have read the Quran in Arabic but never learned the meaning. I am now reading the translations and they are beautiful.

    English language has it's own beauty. I cannot imagine not being able to read English.

    Namesake is a very good piece of literature. Enjoy!

  10. Same problem here. I tell myself that it's fine being more comfortable with another language but it's not.

  11. This reminds me of my time growing up in the States. We didn't exactly have a rule in the house that we had to speak Arabic, but my siblings and I always spoke to each other in English, and to our parents in Arabic. I think if my dad hadn't sat me down and forced me to learn to read and write, I would probably only know how to speak. I can relate to your preference for English menus, I'm pretty much the same with any written material.

  12. Its ironic how we always want to trace ourselves back to the past. When, we can always give ourself a newer definition, without filling one self with any regret.

  13. We're in an even worse situation. Our mother tongue is Punjabi which the elders speak in, we use Urdu at home and English in the outside world. But thought comes easy in English whereas Punjabi is nowhere close. We're losing that part of our culture. But sometimes you can't help it: novels in Urdu are related to just the favorite pastime of Pakistani women, and Punjabi we're not even aware of. Sometimes a language helps you form your thoughts and opens world to new avenues of thinking while your own just pulls you down, down, down. Its sad but true.

  14. that looks beautiful! honestly I have never enjoyed any of Lahiri's work :P


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