Menu Close

Dispatches from Linguists: Sailing with Al-’Arabiyya – The First Journey

By Omar Auf

This month’s dispatch from Omar Auf, explores what native languages are and how language and identity are linked so closely.

I don’t know where I’m going, nor where I came from, but the wind is in my hair, and I’m sailing.

Ever moving onward, towards a destination at the very beginning. Seeking what? I do not know.

Learning a foreign language is one thing, but learning your own is another thing entirely. It’s like finding little pieces of yourself with every new word and phrase, or belonging to a people who used to be in the range of sight but not of touch. Such an experience becomes all the more cathartic, and confusing, when you don’t even know what your own language is.

This matter haunted me for a good while. Am I a native Arabic speaker? What does that even mean? Is Egyptian Arabic my native language, which is what I grew up speaking at home? Or is it English, which is the language I have the strongest command of? It certainly isn’t formal Arabic, Fusha [fusˤħaː], as nobody is a native speaker of Fusha.

It may be odd, but I truly wanted to consider myself a native Fusha speaker. I considered it to be my language, regardless if it were anyone else’s. The fact of the matter is, having done all my education in English, I was terrible at formal Arabic. And it was precisely because the language felt so foreign that I felt so attached to it; it felt as though a part of my identity was missing, as if I wasn’t whole.

I grew up to more English cartoons than Arabic, and then more Hollywood movies than Egyptian. I was fascinated to find out from a neighbor that at the age of five I spoke English with a “perfect American accent” – not to mention the fact that my entire education was in English. So throughout my life, people would often mistake me for a foreigner, most likely from Syria, because of my appearance, combined with the fact that I didn’t sound entirely like a native Egyptian. Granted, a Syrian grandfather and English grandmother explains the vaguely-foreign looks, but I spoke nothing but Egyptian Arabic at home, yet my native tongue was not quite native enough. Having others question my identity since childhood led me to do the same as a teenager.

The first time I picked up a proper Arabic book was when I was 16. It was then when I began sailing through dark oceans and unknown seas, trying to find a lost treasure, a language, and in turn, myself as I ought to be.

And indeed, the language was lost in pages of literature which called to me in broken voices. The waves were cruel with words unknown and the winds raging with contempt for wasted beauty. I couldn’t sail as I did not even know how to raise or lower the mast, yet the winds carried me in their rage, and contempt seemed to be mixed with joy.

So I struggled, and looked up words, and struggled, and reread paragraphs, and struggled, and slowly went through books I didn’t entirely understand – all as if I was learning a foreign language. Then I started writing bad poetry in broken Arabic. It was then that the sun rose, and I saw the horizon I was looking for – I wasn’t sailing aimlessly through the night, though aimless many a crooked poem seemed; I was headed towards something I did not see, but could feel in my heart, so when eyes and heart aligned, the latter began to sing.

Writing poetry is often a very personal affair. I always had trouble expressing myself and saying what I really meant or wanted to say, so poetry was an outlet from the depths of many unexpressed emotions. Writing it in Arabic, as bad as it may have been, was so significant because it became part of me, and I was beginning to reclaim an identity I never had. Looking back, I realize that the treasure isn’t buried at the end of a journey which has no end, but it is the journey itself, shaping my identity as someone who belongs. Because perfection is not a prerequisite to belonging, nor is exclusivity. By seeking a definitive identity through Arabic, I began to understand the complexity and beauty of language learning, dialect formation, bilingualism, and empowerment through self-identification. I realized that even though my Arabic skills did not reflect that of people’s view of a native, I was still a native Arabic speaker, as I wanted to be. I grew up speaking three fourths of a language and because I now choose to embrace it, I’m strengthening and reasserting my identity.

Now, what “native Arabic speaker” implies is still quite vague. I’m mostly focused on being more comfortable with Fusha, which also helps my comfort with the Egyptian dialect, and with it my sense of belonging. Yet, while I feel the most immediate relation with people from my country, my sense of belonging through Arabic encompasses something much greater. Besides, to tell you the truth, I don’t really like the Egyptian dialect that much – but these are discussions for another time.

The journey is still long ahead. At times I still have to look up words, reread paragraphs, or miss out on some things in a book. But I still write bad poetry, and, now in less broken Arabic. Sometimes, I even think, not just in Egyptian, but in Fusha as well.

The day is young, the mist has yet to retreat, and it certainly feels like the wind carries my destiny. Yet it also feels like I chose to sail, knowing that I’ll go exactly where I go. I feel a deep calm and electrifying excitement by this perpetual state of certain uncertainty. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? It’ll definitely be something.

From the moment I began my journey, I had reached my destination. The road ahead will always be long, and I will never be able to tell where I started from. Was I destined to learn and speak Arabic in this way? Did I choose this path for my own?

I don’t know where I’m going, nor where I came from, but the wind is in my hair, and I’m sailing.

1 Comment

  1. Alice Smeathers

    I really enjoy your articles. Please don’t use the expression, ” not to mention”. It begs the reply, well then don’t mention it. It makes as much sense as, ‘it goes without saying’, and ‘needless to say’.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.