On Speaking Arabic and Other Identity Stories

So where do you come from? is a question I have heard more than I care to mention. Attending school in France, my hair intrigued people, crossing the borders between France and Switzerland, my name on a French passport intrigued people, at university, I’ve been told it was my nose (true story) that intrigued people, or one of them at any rate, probably not the most brilliant specimen of scholar, but anyway. 

Hence, the where do you come from? 

I didn’t take it badly, after all people feel sympathies, or curiosity or find you exotic, no real harm done, and besides, in a multicultural place like Geneva, the where do you come from merry-go-round is more of a game than anything else, as everyone competes to prove that they do not know a single Swiss person actually from Geneva in Geneva (I myself am struggling to find one). 

What I was less prepared for, anyway, was getting the where do you come from question in Lebanon. I mean, getting it in Europe was bad enough, but in Lebanon? I checked myself for spontaneous blond hair sprouting out of my skull or delighfully thought I had grown overnight 10 meters of legs, Norwegian style. 

Alas, I had kept my very tangled, curly, unruly black hair and stout body. 

You see, the question stemmed from my Arabic. It’s not perfect. In fact, it’s so broken, mkassar, that people find it “cute”, “sexy”,”adorable” as if I were a small child learning to speak. 

Which in a way, I am, I’ll grant you that. However, that doesn’t mean these comments don’t irk me. They do. Each little comment on my accent in Arabic is felt like a tiny slap in the face, as if a little devil was standing on my shoulder, dancing evil jigs and mocking me each time an “r” is not rolled properly or when I can’t pronounce the qaf in a word. I manage it by itself just fine, just don’t ask me to put it in a word. Sadly, I can’t go around demonstrating that skill around, as roaming the streets of Beirut going “qaf qaf qaf qaf qaf” would only earn me a trip to the 3asfouriyeh. 

And don’t get me started on reading. I can read Arabic, very basically, but asking me to read a whole report is like asking me to interpret a UN conference  from Russian to Swahili. Get it? I can’t read properly. Yet. I still have high hopes that might change. 

You see, my main issue is that, having always stood out as the only Arab in a classroom of 30 non-Arab people (truly traumatizing, go explain to other people why you’re having mjaddara because it’s Friday, start even explaining what mjaddara is), I learnt to define myself as a Lebanese born in France, which I still do. I feel Lebanese, whatever that means, through and through, I absurdely love that little country of mine, and therefore I would just LOVE speaking Arabic properly. (One) of my identities, that is, the one of an Arab citizen, is intimately linked to mastering the language, all the more because there is a need to reclaim it, to move away from the languages inherited by past or neo colonial powers. Sometimes, when no one is looking, I picture myself giving out long, Nasser-like speeches in flawless Arabic, before the phone rings and wakes me up from my reverie and I stutter something in an idiom vaguely resembling the Lebanese dialect.

That people find it cute is of little importance: I find it patronizing, it grazes my heart. No, strike that, it grazes my pride and it grazes the anti-imperialist in me. 

So what is there for me to do? Go on an intensive class? Or became a Teflon woman, upon whom the remarks cutie comments will have little impact? 

Or learn to accept the hybrid Lebanese that I am, a composite item of a myriad of identities and languages and stories? After all, wouldn’t that be better than remaining closeted in a certain community or a certain party? 

And I can pronounce the qaf.  I can. Go on. Ask me. 

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