My only shame with Arabic— not speaking it

Published May 3rd, 2016 - 06:09 GMT
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was booted off a Southwest Airlines flight for speaking Arabic. The controversy, latest in a series of these incidents, tipped many to debate this shame/ guilt culture surrounding the Arabic language. (File photo)
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was booted off a Southwest Airlines flight for speaking Arabic. The controversy, latest in a series of these incidents, tipped many to debate this shame/ guilt culture surrounding the Arabic language. (File photo)

"Arabic, the language of Islam’s scripture and the one used by the terrorists, is deemed a language of forensic interest, if not outright criminalized."

In the wake of student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi’s ouster from a Southwest Airlines flight – just one in a series of incidents involving Arabic speakers running afoul of zealous airport security and policing passengersSinan Antoon makes the point so expressively that you are guilty by association, when you speak Arabic, of linguistic crime or, at the very least, suspicious.  Yet it is not the grammar police to whom you become a person of interest, but air marshals and vigilante plane passengers.

The shame culture surrounding Arabic speakers and others ‘caught’ speaking their politically tarnished languages in the West is profound. God forbid one should drop an ‘Inshallah’ or any of the everyday series of ‘Allah’ expressions, terms tainted by terror. Many speakers are doubtless self-censoring to account for the sensibilities of their non-Arabic communities. That is, those that have other linguistic options at their disposal.

For shame, I’m not one of those Arabs speaking out in indignation at the forced ‘guilt’ climate surrounding our language in today’s post 9/11 consciousness. Not because I approve of criminalizing mother tongues, or because I am ashamed of Arabic. But more because I was spared the stigma: My relationship with the language of my parents is both intimate and remote. I was reared on a laissez-faire asymmetric dialogue of colloquial Arabic. My parents spoke it to me, but I spoke it only if I fancied. They accommodated this muted, almost silent form of Arabic of mine from a young age, in our adopted country, far from the epicentric Arab Middle East and the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer.

The fact that my Arabic ability plateaued and never caught up to my ‘native’ English helps me sidestep Arabic’s linguistic aura of shame, now spurring public discourse. However, after six years of living in Arabic-speaking countries I find myself breaking into spells of my deep-seated colloquial language  more than ever in my adult years. And finally, I find myself floundering for English equivalents of Arabic’s valuable, evocative and totally untranslatable idioms.

But I was cocooned from the shame that might surround this language, guttural and harsh-sounding to some foreign, and even familiar, ears. *A shame that, for the record, predates 9/11, as Arabs were hijacking planes and losing their frustrated battle for Palestine long before 2001; Beirut was burning and all the Middle Easterners on TV were angry Arabs or pissed-off Persians. (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hebrew -- same difference, all sound hostile, don’t they?)

My parents’ instincts let us off the Arabic-speaking hook, though to our benefit we imbibed the language of our Levantine forefathers through the scoldings, the cuddles and the childhood script that comes of an Arab upbringing. It was a dominant language in our household —the husband-wife lingua franca–– and we were addressed in it, even if we did not respond in kind. Our parents did not have a secret language to use against us. The difference was that we had none of those house-rules that some immigrants enforce (“English/or other passport tongue outside but under our roof our language rules!”) and my sibling and I did not need to learn to make the switch of tongues so deftly deployed by bilinguals to suit their audience. My parents had the foresight to forsake their heritage, for a linguistic immersion in the Queen’s language no less, to the endless incredulity of relatives and Arabists alike.      

Our parents saw bilingualism as a potential encumbrance (unlike in the fashionable, avant garde, circles today who would endow their young with as many languages as instruments, sports and dance forms as they can). They worried that a bilingual upbringing might yield kids with two weak languages rather than one mastered one. And they wanted us not to be disadvantaged by our foreignness. This was the early ‘80s in a very provincial England where otherness and differences were not a child’s best friend. For better or for worse, they did not push Arabic on us as other proud parents might have.

To the untrained ear, Arabic might sound ridiculous, or even distressing. Even native speakers will opt for the relatively dulcet tones of the Lebanese vernacular given the option.

Returning to the shame I suffered, less hands-on, or from my own mouth so to speak, it was still there lurking in the corners and corridors of my childhood.  I can’t say my brother and I didn’t live in constant dread that my parents would erupt in impassioned Arabic exchanges while we had friends over. Arabs sound combative when they are simply exchanging pleasantries, so the mildest parental bickering seemed like all hell had broken loose. 

But it’s not all bad news for Arabic. It has been rehabilitated in certain circles at least.  And the vanguard of this fashion are the gap-year kids and language transfer students flooding into what remains ‘safe’ of the Middle East.

Of course my sibling and I have since questioned our parents’ approach and dared to suggest that they made a mistake. We are in an age that celebrates the polyglot. Both of us have careers in the media, and neither of us is blind to the marketability of experience in the Middle East. But we’ve soon enough dropped it, and accepted with maturity that they did what they thought best in 80’s England. Arabic did not come with the social cachet of French or violin skills.

Even though my brother still struggles to pronounce his (3)ain, and I stumble into hot water each time I say things no self-respecting lady ‘this’ side of the streets of Beirut would say; my parents unwittingly by their passionate and animated upbringing instilled in us an appreciation and attachment to this language of the Dhad and all that it brings, and must be borne, to keep it alive and alarming.

By D.D.

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