on languages

Beirut, April 12, 2016

I have just spent over half an hour trying to photograph (and edit!) my desk and plants to include in this post, just to set the 'mood' really. It seemed appropriate to create a visual representation of what the day feels like today: gray, dreary, seemingly cold but unsurprisingly gravitating towards warmth. My cup of black tea with peach besides me wafts nostalgia and reminds me of that silly little room I inhabited while I still lived in the country of highlands and coos (and subsequently of heeland coos.) Also worthy of note (because the post would NOT make sense without this crucial information): I have olive oil and lemon juice and coconut oil sporadically massaged onto my hair, scalp, cheeks, forehead, etc.

Am I writing this to procrastinate a little task that I must be doing? Maybe. But that is not an altogether true statement. For I am also writing this because I want to. (And I am killing time while the oils and the juice feed health back into my head, if only by means of placebo.)

Last night, when I went to bed, I sat (lay) there thinking about how I have been enjoying writing. Much more than before. Is that perhaps because I am now writing about my life, rather than about feminism and romance in Children's literature? Maybe, but not necessarily. I don't know.

Earlier during the day, I also reflected on how writing in the Arabic language has become a challenge to me. Globalisation is not the only culprit, for I am very much guilty of not pursuing my intellect and education in Arabic. I do not think it is too late an endeavour, however. Much like many things we learn as children, I am certain that once I begin to rediscover the language –as a clear-minded, mature adult– everything I know will come flooding back to the surface, and who knows, I might even teach myself to write texts in it again.

That also does not condemn my usage and love for the English language. Nor should it. I am proud to have reached a rather advanced level of knowledge in the language to use it for writing full essays (that also make sense!) And surely that would be commendable, if people were not so fixated on blaming you for letting go of the language you are supposed to be writing in. But here is what I think: Nobody decides for you what you should or should not be doing. This applies to everything in general, but in this particular case, to writing. I am not supposed to write in Arabic, just because I am Arab. I am not supposed to yield into the pressure of doing what others expect me to do, just because they have a preconceived idea as to what or who I ought to be.

The language issue: The issue here is not that I am adopting a language that is not meant to be mine. I do not think there is any such thing anyway. Who owns languages? Nobody. I can and should be free to express myself in whatever language I like, as long as I write clear thoughts, that can be understood and reciprocated or responded to. At least that's what I think. The issue is that my learning and dedication to English comes at the price of my knowledge and dedication to Arabic. It pains me to think that I voluntarily let go of Arabic so I can learn English. But I have not. I simply never really adapted to writing in it, because I don't recall ever enjoying the process of going through that. Is it because English was too easy? Not really. English might have been a lot easier than Arabic to learn. But that was not it.

Let me for a second consider another thought: the world has thus far built itself on a system of identities, identities that relate to the country, to the language, to traditions, to gender, etc, hasn't it? We are more often placed into categories based on who people think we are or should be, and how we should be expressing ourselves, as opposed to who we really are/struggle to be. And when outsiders (to us) learn about the general constitution of what our identity should be like, according to them, we are then given remarks that we should be (doing, writing, being) something else. Based on who they assume for us to be. It is up to us, however, to decide whether to go along with the prejudice, out of guilt, perhaps, or, on the contrary, to live with independence and self-awareness– or an altogether independent self-awareness.

For the purpose of this argument, allow me to present my identity. Or, general bits of my identity that I inherited/acquired automatically upon my birth: I am Lebanese. I am a woman. I am an Arab.

I am Lebanese because I was born to Lebanese parents. I am also Lebanese because I identify with Lebanese traditions, because I speak the Lebanese Arabic, because I have been intimate with Lebanon for as far as I can recall. I recognise who I am whilst I reside in this country. (That this particular statement is no longer true is of no use to my main argument: I no longer recognise myself in this country, but we will leave this for a different day, a different argument.)

I am a woman because at some point in my life, I was taught that my sexual organ determined my gender: that I was meant to be feminine, to love boys and to be a woman. I was taught that girls wear pink skirts and boys play with cars, and etc. (Well, I played with cars too, and I had a jolly good time doing that. Also, I know of guys who wear skirts, and they look damn fine in them (related: scottish kilts.) (These examples reduce the argument that I am trying to make to very simple stereotypical facts. Of course, the gender identity is much more complex than that. But widely, in the very patriarchal middle-eastern society in which I live, boys are still taught to be men and girls are still taught to be women. Note: I am wary of generalisations and of the weight and limitations of these statements relating to the gender identity. I am no expert and those facts are not based on any studies and I might very well be wrong about them. But I hardly think that I am. Anyway, I digress.)

Lastly, I am Arab, because Lebanon is an Arabic-speaking country and it has been home to me for a while. And in addition to having a family that communicates exclusively in Arabic (as any family hailing from this region generally does), Arabic is my mother's language, it is the language in which I learnt to say my first words, the language in which my father's name is written on his grave. Also, I think that asserting the Arabic identity (at least on a personal scale) has in a sense allowed me (and perhaps people around me who feel the same way?) to react to an Arab land (Palestine) being claimed as the promised land and rightfully given to a non-Arab population. In a way holding on to this identity allows us to uphold some form of dignity and rightfulness in the face of those who (unjustly) came to steal this identity from us by means of taking over the land and killing inhumanely those who speak our language. But I digress again and flee from discussing this issue any further as I do not have the authority to do so.

Of course, important as they may be, those are mere aspects of my identity. Elements. My identity cannot be reduced to these three elements, deep and complex as they may be, and regardless of whether or not I subscribe to them fully.

In other words, just because I am Lebanese, does not mean that I fully subscribe to Lebanese values. Just because I am a woman, does not mean I have to dress up like a woman, always-- Just because I am Arab, does not mean that I must write in Arabic. (The existence of this blog is a clear proof of that.) (I do not hope to simplify and reduce all of these concepts to the point of near-banality, but I seem to be trying to get to a point that – right now– still seems very invisible and out of reach.)

But to carry on with these fragmented pieces of my thoughts: The idea is that my identity is much broader than that. And I don't think that I can limit it to who I was (as a newborn: female, baby, Arab, muslim, Lebanese, screaming, etc) before I took the reins of my life and deliberately (but also somehow involuntarily) began to determine myself. If that makes sense. So, silly as it may sound (for being very obvious) as I continue to mature and change, so does my identity. It's almost as though I am a magnet, constantly pulling ideas, countries, people onto me, all of which somehow end up defining me. Not in an ultimate, absolute point-of-no-return way, you know? Rather, the shape of my magnet and its objects, is perpetually changing. I am Lebanese, yes. But I also speak French, and have a deep love for France and for the time I spent there, insignificant as it may be. Last year, "being a local" in Glasgow has changed me as well, for I have grown very fond and somehow possessive of the country and of my time there. And this, I carry it with me everywhere-- I can't keep my nose or my eyes in bed when I wake up, can I? The same applies for things that are not bodily organs. I also speak Arabic, and am very much a product of my school, my university and the friends that I made. I have a true passion for trees, for being around them and drawing them, for writing odes to them, endlessly. I have been neatly avoiding meat and chicken for a while now, based on a personal decision that means little to and is sometimes scoffed at by the meat-eaters around me. And the list goes on and on. My identity is as infinite as the horizon. But I must remember, I am not filling out an 'about you' section for yet another social media account.

The point of this wretched tirade, is that I am a great many things that must not be limited to girl, Lebanese, Arab and sometimes even, single. Labels are just labels. They mask the rainbows, the aurora borealis trapped within us. Or at least, that's what I think.

Which brings me to Arabic, specifically.

I speak Arabic but cannot write academic journals in Arabic, simply because at some point in time, globalisation interfered. At school, when English was introduced, we were not taught that it was the cool thing to speak. (Hollywood did that.) We were taught English, precisely because this was the international language, and we needed it in order to then get the chance to have options, whether that involved universities, jobs, or even countries we wished to travel to in the future. English was and still is the common currency that myriad cultures share in order to communicate to as many people as possible. That I learnt to love English by virtue of great teachers, great books and somehow, Lizzie McGuire on the Disney Channel is, not purely globalisation's fault. Or Disney's fault, for that matter. It is my fault. My fault, because I decided to love it so much, and to invest in it so much. (But is it a fault, really?) Because this challenge to read the language, to become better at it, made me want to read Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë and John Keats and Shakespeare and many more. Would I have done the same thing with, let's say Italian, if it had been my third language? I don't know. Maybe not. Maybe yes. I don't know.

Certainly, it jeopardised practicing my written Arabic and French. But to the girl that I was, who, at twelve years old could not speak a word of English, English was cool. French and Arabic, not so much anymore. I needed time and books so I could become good at English. That was then. Looking back, perhaps it had been a way to differentiate myself, to break away from-- well, from Lebanon. It is strange, because now, a lot of people I know speak English or French instead of Arabic in Lebanon. Or, we mix everything. Which is an altogether different problem. Or issue.

Right now, I have a tremendous love for English Literature. I must quench my thirst for discovery, for stories, for words, for ideas from far away lands. I am proud of the fact that though English is not my first language, I can still excel at it. Arabic, well, I suppose I took for granted. Arabic is the friend that I always knew would show up, the friend that always listened but never spoke, that never expected anything from me. But now that that friend is slipping away, is no longer showing up, I am beginning to feel guilty. I suppose that I am using this blog post to explore this, 'guilt'. And now that I am becoming more and more aware of this reality, perhaps that is when I go back. Not necessarily to excel at it. No. Simply to be grateful to it, to show it some respect. Some love. To make sure that as a part of my identity, I have not entirely let it go so I can frolic in English meadows, or Scottish glens and lochs with highland cows. Or even in the French campagne.

Anyway. Thoughts thoughts thoughts. (I have not really written 'coherence' in the prerequisites for this post. Therefore I accept its imperfection and glory in it, even.)

A little bit of gossip: Many parents now choose *not* to teach their children the Arabic language, especially if they do not live in an Arab country (and sometimes even when they do). I do not fully endorse that choice. Children are entitled to learn about their heritage, through the language that has accompanied this heritage. As parents, teachers, influencers (of which I am none, yet) we are meant to present to our children a full idea or image of who we are, and of where we came from in order for the children themselves to then decide upon the path they choose to take, of whether they would like to adhere to this image or not. What with a French mandate (that ended over 70 years ago), and an educational system that relies far too much on the French educational system, it does seem like the format of teaching at schools has lost its sense of direction. Why is it that here in Lebanon, we teach the curriculum in either french or english when the language that we speak is arabic? I cannot answer that.

But for some people –who live in certain areas of Lebanon– Arabic is not fancy enough for their taste. So they carry out their conversations in broken French or English, and you will often find these very Arab families opting to keep Arabic out while communicating with their children, because it just isn't cool enough. I personally do not know what to make out of these people. On the one hand, I think they are free to do whatever they choose to do; more importantly, who am I to criticise them for this choice, when I am a monumental hypocrite here, writing my blog always in english, right? On the other, however, I understand that there is a distinct difference between us: I am as proud of my heritage as I am attached to is. They are neither. I still speak Arabic, willingly, with my parents and am constantly making a conscious effort to revive it in my existence, whereas these families are (very possibly) merely ashamed of Arabic. And to that, I say: let them be. Arabic might be too good for them anyway. Again, I remind myself: things are not absolute. They are not black or white. They are endless shades and we make out of our lives whatever we wish to make out of our lives.

At the end of the day isn't the most important thing our ability to communicate? To understand one another? Sometimes, that comes in gradual stages, or needs time. But that's okay. I write this, having the non-English-speaking cultures –ones that often struggle to communicate with English speakers– in mind. And it is not as though these people must always learn English, especially when sometimes their own language is overlooked or belittled by those who do not speak it. But I always think that despite not sharing a language, people can still find ways to communicate.

As for Arabic, are we afraid of losing the language completely? That cannot happen, and will not happen. The Arab world abounds with writers and thinkers who express their art through the language. My world also abounds with people who are conscious about the importance that Arabic constitutes to them. I may not be as fluent today in written Arabic as my twelve-year-old self once was, but I know deep down that I wish to hold on to this language, to keep it in my identity. And there are people like me, people far better, far more fluent, far more expert in the language, who will also be there to keep it going. To maintain its survival within the community.

Until then, I will keep writing in English, because I am fond of it. And I will make space for Arabic in my life (and future). Because I want to.

Does the post glue together? I hardly think so, but I will end it here anyway.


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