Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bilingual Contemplations

I am, as you could have guessed from my name, not of an English-speaking nationality. I grew, however, to speak in two tongues – Arabic and English (almost polar differences) – with near-equal fluency, such that I was once described as having two mother tongues.

Right from age 2, I went to a British nursery, up until graduating from Year 13 from a British-curriculum school. Of course, at home, the medium of communication was not English, but it was English movies that I watched and English music that I listened to and English novels that I read.

This culminated, in my mid-teens, to a very serious campaign to better my English and the art of using it, be it speech or writing, such that I might be able to articulate as clearly as possible any idea. It seemed nearly a superpower to be able to transfer information with every attachable emotion and expression to almost everyone in the world.

This improving of my English did not go without a price; my Arabic dwindled and kept getting worse, especially my standard Arabic. I could barely go a few sentences without having to mix in some English! Nevertheless, that did not concern me, Arabic was a useless language, destined to become extinct as it is, whereas English had become the lingua franca of, well, everything.

At one point however, I saw a virtual wall ahead of me: the more I read of the beautiful work of the poets and writers in English, the more aware I was of the limitations of this versatile language in comparison with Arabic. By any stretch, the expressive capacity of the world's most common tongue failed to match that of Arabic.

I was immediately reminded of Hafeth Ibrahim’s brilliant line from his poem اللغة العربية تنعى حظها (The Arabic Language Mourns Its Luck): "أنا البحر في أحشائهُ الدُرُ كامنٌ، فهل سألوا الغواص عن صدفاتي" (I am the sea whose pearls are latent in his gut; have they even asked the diver of my shells?).

After this, I began reading more Arabic poetry and prose, as well as attempting to write and speak more Arabic. I was tossed into a world whose ability to depict portrays of various themes was infinite; I give the example of Amal Donqol’s violently stirring لا تصالح (Do Not Reconcile), Mahmud Darwish’s optimistic على هذه الأرض ما يستحق الحياة (On This Earth There Is What Deserves Life) and Abu Qasim ash-Shabbi’s  mighty لحن الحياة (The Melody of Life).

The more I read and listened, the more I realized I had bet on the wrong horse. Like a silent titan who does not engage in feuds, Arabic as a language, in its more-than-meets-the-eye way, fit the old Arabic proverb perfectly: احذر الحليم إذا غضب (Beware of the meek if angered).

1) I probably butchered the translations.
2) English refers to the language, not the people or culture of England.

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