I can’t think in Arabic. The language I learned first is not the language I know how to speak well. This is a source of shame for me, not because I’m slowly losing access to an entirely different and rich world of literature, but because nearly every day, someone online and sometimes offline, chastises others for not speaking in Arabic. Or when they do speak in Arabic, for those few English words that taint their entire speech. Defenders of the Arabic language online are vicious, ungentle, and their arguments are misdirected. They care not if you speak Arabic effectively, or correctly, or if you try to speak it at all. They care only that they don’t hear English.

A friend of mine sent a 2-hour long video of a Kuwaiti woman speaking about her complicated and deeply personal experience with cancer at a young age of 20-something. Throughout the video, the podcast host interjects at a few moments with stories of her own—she, regrettably, speaks a few words in Arabic before quickly slipping into English to access the vocabulary she is trying to reach. Her switch to English is scorned in the few comments on this podcast’s social media page. The interviewee, however, passed the social litmus test by speaking in a language that uses mostly Arabic words. The language she actually spoke, though, hardly felt Arabic.

It’s not that her sentences were grammatically incorrect, or that her words were mispronounced. But her ability to reflect on her experience for the podcast relied hard on her re-enacting her feelings. Feelings that, because of their complexity, are in and of themselves hard to express coherently. When you are shocked, for example, you’re left speechless. You may say things like, ‘No,’ or, ‘But how?,’ or ‘What do you mean?.’ Sentences become shorter, words frazzled. So in lieu of reflecting on how she felt during a time of torment entrenched in extremities at once physical, mental, and emotional—the interviewee substituted linguistic expression with linguistic mimicry. She performed what she meant instead of articulating it.

For nearly two hours, I heard her speak in filler words, interjections that were meant to serve as portals of communication, and in bite-sized sentences that were supposed to convey meaning. I can’t judge her use of language as incorrect. In fact, I think her use of language is exactly the way we all collectively speak nowadays, especially with the internet blasting communication into a million different configurations. But linguistic praise is undeserved; her use of Arabic didn’t do the job of portraying the difficult life that she still carries with her. On the contrary, it seemed, by her small use of English parables, her life growing up between Kuwait and France, and by her openness to speaking with candor, that she could have said so much more—had she spoken in English. Alas, she spoke in Arabic. And for that alone, the critics of the death of the Arabic language were satiated.

A language, of course, is not only its words. It is how those words work together. It is what syntax can communicate, and it is the meaning that is delivered when it all comes together. I wish so badly that I can communicate in Arabic. I can talk in Arabic, I can read words in Arabic, I can type in Arabic, I can translate words from Arabic, and like a premature artificial intelligence, I can search for references to eventually put together an idea in Arabic. But language is not a straight-forward feat. The structures of it may seem that way, given its grammatical rules, but that is a mere fraction of the vast world of language and its possibilities to communicate. Arabic has so much cultural history, and while I’m technically fluent in Arabic, my oversimplified use of it does not do anything to keep it alive. And yet my lack of its use is a point of contention among the harder heads smacking their fingers at their Arabic keyboards.

I don’t disagree that replacing one language with another can have diminishing effects. The funny thing is that people still blame individuals for the loss of a language. It’s always, “Why don’t you speak in Arabic?” and never, “What the hell has the modernity project done to the language systems of the world, which we are both affected by?” The funnier thing, which is not funny at all, is that no one will ever want to speak the language that they are shamed for not speaking—and if they do, then it is a language preserved by way of indignity… a different kind of death altogether.

Nearly a lifetime ago now, in the quaint one-story building of an MFA creative writing program in San Francisco which had a front doorbell and a garden, I sat in a small audience to Kuwaiti writer Mai Al-Nakib speaking about the book she was touring, titled The Hidden Life of Objects. Amidst an English-speaking crowd, Al-Nakib did have reason to feel obligated towards one language over the other; no one was expecting Arabic. We were geographically, digitally, and physically away from having to make that decision, yet she opened with a caveat. “I write in English,” she said, “because I think in English.”
August 25, 2023 — Yasmeen Khaja

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