Being an Arab/American is an odd, sometimes disconcerting experience.
I am a "western" person but I am not "of" the West. That's why I often use the slash instead of the hyphen to describe myself. Because I don't feel like both terms have equal weight, and linking them with a slim hyphen seems like a wasted effort, since the "Arab" pulls the "American" so far out of its orbit that the general sense of it is lost. Even to people who should perhaps know better these terms seem oxymoronic, so it is not entirely possible to truly be both because the associations attached to "Arab" do not dovetail with "American" in the western imagination. My family, like many of the Lebanese Christians who immigrated to America as the 20th century turned, certainly tried. Of all the flavors "Arab" comes in, the peoples of the Levant, largely fair skinned, and even possibly blue/green/hazel eyed, have come closest to leaping the chasm that separates East from West in the United States (unless, you know, they are Palestinian). My family's journey is typical of this attempt at assimilation. And one of the key strategies they employed in this effort involved language, both learning and forgetting.
My grandparents, who spoke Arabic with one another, forbade their children from speaking it so they lost the language. My Aunt, who can still sometimes understand Arabic, but has not spoken it since she was a child, tells a story: One day in the 1930s when my grandparents were in their store, my grandfather said something to my grandmother in their language and a customer-- a stranger-- turned to them and hissed, "Speak English!"
And so they did.
Subsequently, Arabic did not make its way through my family, the way other immigrant tongues do. It was consciously left behind as something that marked my family as "foreign" and "Other" and specifically Middle Eastern. As an assimilation strategy it worked. I often think that the reason I am not "read" immediately as an Arab by some has as much to do with my western comportment and perfect, un-accented English as the shape of my nose, the shade of my skin or the color of my eyes. So when I decided to study Arabic as an adult I wondered how my family might react. They'd amputated the language to fit in, survive and thrive in a new country and I was aware that by studying Arabic I was consciously reversing that process. My Father and grandparents, all long dead, were not available to weigh in, but I wondered what my Aunts might say... and they surprised me (as they often do) with their sophisticated responses. They were simultaneously proud, wistful, pragmatic and unapologetic. Not that they have anything to apologize for: Because of who they chose to be, my life is possible. I owe my position as a western artist with a couple of advanced degrees to the choices they made a generation earlier, so I could not judge them even if I wanted to. I am standing on their shoulders.
My experience is that Arabic is challenging to learn as an adult not because the grammar is so obscure (although everything flows in the opposite direction than I am used to), or because the alphabet is so strange (the lovely, curling letters make words that are entirely phonetic, which is handy) but because the vocabulary is seemingly limitless. There are Arabic words for concepts that do not even exist in English, and the fineness of the distinctions between them lend themselves to the poetic in a way that makes English seem utilitarian and coarse. But it can be daunting to move from one way of thinking to the other.
We have seen how Arab identities disturb the western imagination just by existing. And that power to disturb through eastern "foreignness" is embodied in reactions to Arabic, whether it is spoken or merely written. Of course the ridiculous over-reaction of the airline Jetblue to Blogger Raed Arrar's anti-war t-shirt with "We Will Not Be Silent" on it in Arabic (which I'll blog about another day) is a key example of this irrational fear sparked by Arabic. But often the negative associations attached to the language are not as blatant as in the Jetblue fiasco. In looking for narratives of other people studying Arabic as adults, I came across an essay by Robert F. Worth in The New York Times but his eloquent ruminations on the difficulties and rewards of Arabic study were, for me, marred by the Orientalist tone that runs throughout his observations.
It turns out that the Arabic speaker who inspires Worth's linguistic breakthrough was Ayman al-Zawahri, "Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, (who) was threatening to slaughter large numbers of Americans." It seems incredibly odd to me, given the vast universe of cultural products emanating from the Middle East-- cinema, poetry, theater, songs, etc., not to mention academic and scholarly texts-- that Worth's breakthrough would come listening to a speech made by an Arab insurgent. No wonder Arabic sounds "angry" to his ear, the only Arabs he ever listens to are yelling.
Worth endures the rigors of Arabic study, underwritten by his bosses to facilitate his job as the The New York Times Beirut Bureau Chief. He writes, "The scattered (Arabic) phrases I knew seemed only to underscore my ignorance: Wayn alinfijar? I’d say ('Where’s the explosion?'), or Shaku maku? ('How’s it going?'), and I’d get a condescending pat on the back." Again, I am struck that an American who spends his work life in a country where most people also speak English (Lebanon), in a city which has as rich contemporary cultural scene (Beirut), would only ever talk with the locals about violence, and second-hand at that. Perhaps he is mis-reading the reason for their condescension?
After months of language study Worth reports that he "began marching into the Arabic markets on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn" to test out his textbook Arabic phrases. "Generally I was met with a confused look and then a smiling apology: 'We don’t hear too much fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) around here." He clarifies, "Linguistically speaking, what I had done was a bit like asking an Italian for directions in Latin. Modern fusha... is a modified version of the Classical Arabic in the Koran. It is the language of public address, and of any newscast on Al Jazeera and other Arabic television stations." But he also qualifies, "It... corresponds to the written language, and any educated Arab can understand it." So, in other words, in another city filled with Arab intellectuals and artists (New York) Worth manages to find only uneducated shopkeepers to speak to? To, not with. Although he probably overstates the ignorance of the shopkeepers he pestered with his rudimentary Modern Standard Arabic phrases in any case, as colloquial versions of Arabic are different from the Modern Standard version and these vary greatly from country to country. Guttural Moroccan Arabic sounds so different from the liquid Levantine version I am used to that it seems to me a completely different language. But... so what? The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a gigantic expanse and the variations in language only underscore how culturally different it is from place to place, unlike the monolithic stereotype.
Still, Worth is articulate in describing the ups and downs of learning Arabic. He writes, "The language is not so much hard as it is vast, with dozens of ways to form the plural and words that vary from region to region, town to town. With every sign of progress it seems to deepen beneath you like a coastal shelf." He also makes an important point about the "poisonous ideological garb" Arabic often wears in the United States as an impediment to learning the language itself. For Worth, divesting Arabic vocabulary from western ideological preoccupations is a necessary step in learning the language, an astute observation. "Once you begin to do that," he writes, "American attitudes toward the language itself, along with all things Arab and Muslim, can begin to seem jarringly hostile and suspicious... One has to wonder whether these attitudes have inhibited our ability to train more Arabic speakers." Worth alludes to "many" other reasons for this failure (although he does not enumerate them) but nevertheless asserts they are "inseparable from the Arab world’s long history of troubled relations with the West." And therein lies the rub: It's disturbing that an American journalist would posit the "history of troubled relations" as flowing only in one direction, from Middle East to West. This trajectory obscures the long history of western colonial intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, a phenomenon which continues in Iraq and Palestine to this day.
So my reaction to Worth's essay is complicated. On one hand, he describes the challenges adult Arabic study poses for someone raised with English in a way that resonates. And he discusses the politicization of particular Arabic words such as "Jihad", whose range of meanings has been flattened as a political exercise, and even the harmless "madrassa", which means simply, "school" but has sinister implications in right-wing discourse. Unfortunately, he also perpetuates some of the stereotypes he seems to be speaking out against, which suggests that de-centering the entrenched fear, hatred and desire of the West for the East is more difficult than he may think. And it is this mixed bag of understanding and objectification that characterizes so much of the way we-- Arab/Americans-- are in the United States. There is always something that must be finessed, ignored or forgiven in the ways we are portrayed.
Even after a century as Americans we are continually forced to pick and choose, to learn and forget.