Despite being surrounded by it for my entire life, I am not entirely fluent in Arabic. There has always been a twinge of shame underlying that fact, breeding a strange sense of inadequacy in me. No matter how much I’d like for it to be different, my proficiency in the language is capricious at best. I grew up immersed in my family’s colorful Algerian dialect, utilizing it to communicate with my grandparents or decipher the occasional scolding I received from my mother. Beyond that, I’d always felt that what was supposed to be my “mother tongue” sat awkwardly in my mouth like dead weight. It fumbled the pronunciation of Arabic words, distinctly marking me as an imposter when communicating with my friends who spoke the language with ease. They watched as I struggled with the complex inflections that the language demands, unable to muster the skillful “-kh” sound or achieve the masterful rolling of “r”s with any believable intensity. A red flush crept across my face every time someone discovered my descent and asked “Inti bthakee Arabi?” (Do you speak Arabic?), as I knew that my response would have to be a feeble shrug or a lackluster “kind of.”
That ambiguous “kind of” was qualified by a sizable inventory of words and phrases I’d collected throughout my life, furtively stowed away in my mind and ready to be wielded at any moment that required me to prove my validity. I’d learned enough Arabic to navigate family situations or conversations with strangers, but never enough to gossip about a teacher with my classmates. Just enough to get to claim the identity, but never enough to claim the language. Despite the looming presence it had in my life, Arabic remained largely foreign; any interaction I had with it left me feeling like a tourist in what was supposed to be my own home.
For a long time, I felt such a strong disconnect between myself and my identity — one that I was convinced only fluency in the language could bridge. I hated the way I sounded “American” every time I attempted to slip into Arabic pronunciations or the way that words clashed in my throat in frenzied discordance. As I grew older, I gained the ability to understand most of what I was hearing but could never respond with the same ease. I coveted the beauty of the language, the way it melted in mouths like butter, effortless like silk or honey or true belonging. But with each syllable and stressed note dying in my mouth, I settled for the silence and languished in the listening.
While I viewed my lack of fluency in Arabic as a deficit in the later years of my life, this was never the case when I was a child. Rather, I was enamored by the mystical nature of the language, deeming it a world of opportunity and never considering myself to be condemned from its gates.
I was particularly enraptured by watching members of my family perform the five daily Islamic prayers, a beautiful language in their own right. When I was old enough to begin praying, I learned by mirroring my mother’s movements; I followed each graceful bow of her unwavering frame, eagerly awaiting the next cue: a triumphant rise, a humble bend, an imperceptible yet controlled sway. When it came time to attach holy words to those movements, I had to resort to learning the sounds of each Surah (prayer). Unable to understand the words, I internalized the way they rose and collided against each other like waves, committing their dynamic movements to memory. I prayed through mimicry, reciting a series of noises that had yet to have any perceivable definition underlying them.
Everything about these daily prayers was steeped in an indescribable divinity, a sacredness that was just out of reach despite its warmth feeling unmistakably close. I continued to pray, reciting the sounds from memory, moving through the motions with a learned knowingness that was tinged with a shadow of doubt about the efficacy of my performance. Beyond that doubt sat an even darker fear: Does this count? If I’m just repeating from memory without knowing the weight of the words I’m uttering… am I truly praying? Being a stranger to Quranic vocabulary, there seemed to be an insurmountable cleft between the words I was whispering and the sanctity of the meaning they held. I feared that I would fall into that dark chasm separating practice and understanding — a fate that no amount of mimicry could save me from if I didn’t possess an inherent grasp of the language — dooming me to remain suspended in my own muddied sense of self.
I knew that this fear felt traitorous and undeserved; Arabic itself had never made me feel scared, only safe. It was the language that wafted through my home, perfumed with the wisdom of my grandmother and tenderness of my mother. Knowing this helped diffuse any trepidation that may have tainted such a meaningful part of my life. I convinced myself that praying meant trying — it was having faith in the words I didn’t know and trusting that they would still be heard and understood. Through reconfiguring what prayer meant to me, I began to fill the gaps left by language on my own; I didn’t know what my hums and recited whispers meant, but I knew that they meant something.
Kneeling at a prayer rug, the language stopped feeling foreign. While there was still a gnawing sense of yearning for the concealed meaning tucked between the unfamiliar words, there was also a whisper of satisfaction in the fact that I did know them — that I could conjure them with my own breath and make them come alive on my tongue. They did not have to be inaccessible or arcane; they could still be mine.
As I’ve gotten older and gained comprehension and ability in Arabic through experience, the language gap still remains. However, I’ve learned that I can fill that language gap the same way I did during my daily prayers as an 8-year-old, constructing my own meaning from the pieces I’ve collected. I am not yet fluent in the Arabic language, but the grasp it has on me is unequivocal, inspiring a familiarity that could only be felt by someone who has known it their whole life and in all their lives past.
I am fluent in the comfort that engulfs me anytime I hear the athan echo over a loudspeaker, blanketing its listeners in resonant warm drones as it calls them to prayer. I am fluent in the way my ears perk up when someone says my name correctly, letting the crisp “s” hiss in their mouth and the drawled “-een” reach their teeth completely, rather than using surrogate syllables to ease pronunciation. I am fluent in the knowing glance exchanged with every elderly Arab man who greets me at a local gas station, Subway or bakery with the same warm phrase: a welcoming “Hi Khalto!” shouted over a counter, doling out a term reserved for family with unrestrained benevolence.
I am fluent in the way that my family speaks with unapologetic animation, expelling all of their energy into their storytelling. Their laughter is so shrill and all-consuming that it can almost be mistaken for inconsolable sobs, racking their bodies and demanding to be heard. Their boisterous wails and cries to God as they struggle to suck in sharp breaths rattle the frame of our home and the walls of my soul, the sweetest music I’ve ever known. I am fluent in the nicknames my mother has graced me with, doused in the sweetness of her voice and safely nestled somewhere in the corners of Arabic that I do know. There lies the language that raised me, and that has somehow managed to encapsulate something as boundless and incomprehensible as my mother’s love into a few neat syllables: “I love you, umri.” My world, my being.
I relinquish the fear that my attempts at speaking Arabic would do a disservice to the language, as I recognize that there is nothing that could diminish the impermeable beauty that it holds. It is a language of resilience and history, poignancy and poeticism, stirring intensity and serene tenderness. I trust that I deserve to bask in its lyricism without worrying about how I sound in the process. My language does not isolate me, but rather it grounds me in an enduring connectedness maintained by the passing of stories, memories and time. If praying means trying, then my apprehensive pronunciations are holy utterances, grasping at this connection with every sacred, staggered syllable.
My mother tongue might be hesitant and timid, but it is still mine — shamelessly and miraculously so.
MiC Columnist Yasmine Slimani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.