prose// arabic-less

I was flipping through my class notebook from last year and found this written a midst my philosophy notes:

“My arabic is the beginning of my shame. It is emptiness.”

I do not speak Arabic. My father does and my grandmother does and so do my aunts and uncles and cousins whom I have not seen in nearly a decade. When they call, we never get beyond the same three questions: How are you? “Tamam” How is school? “Tamam” Where is your father? I place the phone on the counter and call upstairs. It is infuriating, speaking in circles, speaking like strangers, speaking so rarely. I have so much to say and do not have the words to say them. Every letter is painful and every day in Arabic class is so terribly bittersweet.

Not being able to speak Arabic is what leaves me feeling the most fraudulent in spaces where I mention I am Sudanese. I do it slowly, let my mouth feel out the sound it makes on my tongue and I swallow the nagging aftertaste that tells me it is not mine to claim.

Lots of people study Arabic just like me, in a secular university classroom, pouring over Al-Kitab and shuffling between google translate and the online Hans Wehr Dictionary downloaded on my computer. Lots of people want to learn the language, people who want to do international business or go into foreign policy. Arabic is trendy these days, it is lucrative, it makes sense, it is a language that has shaped the world and people here like to shape things and so it makes sense why the classroom looks the way it does. Some Muslims take this class to learn to read, they want to feel more authentic in their faith, they want Arabic to connect them to God and His book and His messenger.

I am Muslim and I do not want to know Arabic for holy or sacred reasons. I am simple and I am selfish, I want to be able to speak to my family. I want to be able to call my uncle and not wait for my father to come down the stairs and save me from the rest of the agony of our shallow conversation. I want to be able to laugh and respond at the Sudanese community events, I want to be able to teach my children this language so that they will never feel this stinging shame the way I do.

Being Arabic-less is a part of the way I am in the world. I wake up in the morning Arabic-less, I brush my teeth and wrap my hijab in the mirror and I drape my broken vowels over my shoulders to take with me as I turn out the lights and pull the door. I walk through campus Arabic-less, I eat my lunch still fumbling between past and present tense, I study my Psychology textbook aware that my Arabic handwriting is still scribbly and tired.

I come to Arabic class worn out before I reach the door. I sit down gratefully, it is exhausting to carry around this burden the way I do. I try and I read and I can recite and I can speak to my white classmate who smiles at me through his American accent and I wonder if that is how I sound to my grandmother when I spit out a sentence: sweet, good hearted, but so starkly foreign.

My friend shows me YouTube videos in Arabic. I have been studying this language for 12 years now and I cannot understand a word they are saying. She translates and smiles and I want to burst into tears. I watch the girl’s face through the screen, study her lips, they move fast and quick and she doesn’t speak slowly and dragged out the way I do. Arabic pitter-patters off her tongue like rain and I still haven’t learned the word for storm yet and the longing feels like too much in my chest.

Sometimes I wish I could let myself give up. Come to terms with the gruesome reality that this language is too fast and too quick and too much like a hurricane for me to ever be able to get it. I try to convince myself that it is okay, that I am not a failure, that I do not need to know how to read Arabic poetry to be able to call myself a poet. But it doesn’t work. The pain is too much to bear and I want to be healed and float and shed this shame. I want to conquer Arabic, to hold it, to claim it as my own and no longer feel like an imposter when I say my name out loud.

This language is an ocean and I am drowning and I cannot form enough sentences to stay afloat. I watch others sail by in ships seared together with all ten verbal patterns and dusted in their mother’s accents and I am filled with desire. I have words that I desperately want to hold in my mouth and not cry-out, in pain from the weight of the bite, or in anguish as they slip from my lips. I want to be able to know my own heritage, not through translation, or subtitles gifted to me out of pity. I want to hear it in its own sound, raw, real, and so incredibly beautiful. And I want to be able to reply to it. In my own voice. In my own words. In Arabic.

2 thoughts on “prose// arabic-less

  1. Salaam Mona,

    I liked this piece a lot. I can relate to the sentiment of feeling unable to communicate in my mother tongue or feeling like a stranger in the language of my parents. My love of Arabic also had me feeling similarly for many years, but like you said, you just have to push through the wall of what’s possible for you and get closer and closer to your goal of mastering the language. The feelings of doubt will always be there, but what’s more important is that you can see the beauty through the learning and growing pains.

    Also, check out this piece about another persons story of leaving their mother tongue:

    With love,


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