Why do you Write in English and not Arabic?
I think I’ve been asked this question more than the “How long did it take you to write the book?” one. My response is different each time; I make it up as I go along. But I decided that it’s about time to dig deeper into this issue, and have a coherent response for this question. And the only way I know how to is by writing through it. So why on earth have I taken up a language that is foreign to me as my writing language?
The answer to this is very personal, and maybe even a bit painful, and I guess this is why I’ve been walking around it, avoiding it. So here it goes: until the age of 8, my only language was Slovak, as I lived with my family in former Czechoslovakia. My father taught me a few Arabic words here and there, like habibi, kan ya ma kan, and a short sentence about a bulbul singing on the windowsill. Then, at the age of 8, my world was taken away from me, replaced by a new one. My family and I came to live in Haifa, my father’s birthplace and home. It was December, and I was just put in the second grade, without knowing the language. I don’t remember these first few months, other than a lot of silence. My mind was confused by three new languages at the same time: Arabic, Hebrew, English. Things got even more complicated with the different Arabic taught at school and the spoken Arabic at home and on the street. At first, I would try the new fusha words I learned at school with family members at home: cousins and kids outside in the neighbourhood. I got laughed at. I was trying so hard to learn this new language, with its new sounds that came out all wrong on my tongue, so I could somehow fit in and find my place. But it never happened. Arabic language became my enemy. It refused to settle inside of me and on my tongue. But I kept trying. I drew the letters backwards, opened my books from the wrong end. The Arabic language for me was all like the skies turned upside down. So I just learned to somehow manage. Just barely.
Somewhere along the way, I found solace in the much easier, familiar English. The letters were the same as in Slovak, and it was written in a direction I was used to. It became my running-away language. Until today, I don’t get along with fusha Arabic. I still make efforts, I write simple poetry, I read a little, with a dictionary next to me, and it’s always challenging. At work, I always ask my colleagues about the meaning of words I don’t understand. Sometimes they smile, but they know it’s not my mother tongue and are patient with me.
My history with the Arabic language is not a dichotomous love-hate history, but rather encompasses a much deeper array of feelings. It’s about the longing to belong in childhood, giving up during my teenage years, running away to English, and, in recent years, coming back to it, embracing it with all the challenges and difficulties it poses, and immersing in a lifelong learning process.
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