I was walking across campus during Community Day and I had just picked up an Arabic quiz from Olin in which I proved to absolutely no one that I was proficient at the jussive tense and it was sunny and all these children were running around and I saw a Muslim family but I wasn’t sure they were Arab until the mom calls over to a four-year-old with a head of cloud-like brown curls with a phrase that immediately brings warmth to my body, spreading from the pit of my belly out to my toes and lashes until I’m positive I could melt ice—
The child’s name was Noor which means light and how fitting that in the wake of hearing it I’m glowing for the rest of the day. My heritage often makes me so deeply sad: the way it always seems to be behind me, like a history I studied in books, full of cities that don’t exist anymore and names I’m unsure how to pronounce. I inherited a lot of things from my mom—her dark eyes, her disdain for violence, her attention deficit disorder—but I didn’t inherit her first language. Whether this was because of my non-Arab father, my mom’s long work days, or because it made her deeply sad to talk about her childhood and family, I don’t know. All I know is it left me resenting her when she wasn’t around and missing her when she was home.
So there’s a longing. I cry at hearing a particularly emotional Arabic song because it feels familiar yet distant, like a nice dream you wished you remembered the details of. I used to be ashamed of the idea of learning about my heritage in school. The thought made my cheeks burn and confirmed my fear that it was too late to be authentically Arab. I had missed the deadline, forever being an imposter claiming a connection to a people I didn’t know.
But I also smile when I recognize a word or two, and I’m reminded that I’m not as clueless as I was even two years ago. I listen and I know that I can find traces of my mom’s culture in my most intimate moments with her, from the lullabies she sang me to the breakfasts she’d prepare, citrus fruits and pita bread and za’atar and Nabulsi cheese, the way she treated guests like kings and danced with her hips at weddings. I know I have a home outside the one I grew up in, a place that was once so tight-knit a stranger on the street could tell my mother’s family name from the shape of her nose. A place where, as my aunt put it, my great-grandfather’s bones are buried. There are a thousand years of family history written in a language I cannot yet read, but my yearning to learn it is stronger than my embarrassment that my mother never taught it to me.
It gives me the energy of a quest, and I am a devoted adventurer. It says seek me in the present and in the future. So I do, all the time, through the cheesy soaps I watch on Netflix, like “The Secret of the Nile”, and the “Palestine Sounds” playlist I listen to on Spotify. My ears are attuned to Arab names, my classes are mostly about the Middle East, and when my aunt sits chain-smoking on our balcony, telling stories of our family’s history, I listen. When it starts to pay off, I am deliriously excited, doing cartwheels in my head when I connect a word to its meaning without thinking. Like a natural. The way it feels when I try to speak it, as if my very breath is arcing around dramatic ayns and deep khas and breathy wows, like life, like family, like history, like things that can’t be killed because they are everything, and everything is in their shape.
And yet, I think I will always have an accent when I speak Arabic. I will never fully be able to speak it with the same fluidity and command as I do English. It’s oddly symmetrical: my mom will never sound fully at home in my language and I will not sound fully at home in hers. When I hear my voice in class or try to pronounce names the Arab way, I cringe at the roundness of my vowels, my inability to remember precisely how some verbs conjugate. I use the wrong prepositions and forget irregular plurals.
But I realize my mom does the same thing in English. If she spoke English “perfectly,” any evidence of her journey would be gone from her voice. This semester, most of my professors happen to possess Middle Eastern accents: my Turkish econ professor, my Jordanian politics professor, and my Lebanese literature professor. I like how their sentences adjust themselves around their tongues the same way shirt collars are buttoned, sleeves rolled up, jackets pulled tighter, whatever one needs to do to make the words fit as best they can. It’s a foreign language made comfortable, more lush and complex, textured like embroidery on linen.
I write in English, but one day I’d like to be able to write in Arabic as well. I could fear the mistakes I make, the way they betray my background, my accent or sentence structures heavy with the weight of my mother tongue. Or I could see it for what it is—evidence of my journey.
It can also be soothing to the ears, to the eyes. Once my mom wrote me a poem and I forget when she wrote it or exactly why, but it reads precisely like this:
“Once I promised Ava
to write a poem about her she got all excited
what she did not know she is the poem
with its rhythm and melody.”