Knowing in Arabic: Reflections on Language and Identity

Monday, October 21, 2019 - 6:55pm

As my 3-hour seminar on Modern Middle East history came to an end, a classmate approached me about some comments I made in class. Of course, nothing about that was inherently unusual. What made the encounter memorable was that she chose to address me in my native tongue, Arabic.

After fumbling with my words in conversation, I explained to her that I’m not used to speaking my language here. Maybe back in Jeddah, the city I grew up in, but not here in a classroom at an American university. Since I moved here four years ago, Arabic has been a language that belongs strictly within the confines of my household. In my history courses, colonialism wasn’t isti’mar, it was colonialism. Economics wasn’t iqtisad, it was economics. Belonging wasn’t intima’, it was belonging. University simply turned the Arabic vocabulary of my household into a jumble of indistinguishable sounds, replacing them instead with their English counterparts.

I left class that day thinking: what else have I buried away at home? What secret knowledge have I kept away from my day-to-day life at the University of Michigan? And why have I unconsciously decided that some knowledge belongs at home, while other knowledge belongs in the classroom? I answered all of these daunting questions when I took a second look at what brought me to that seminar on Modern Middle East history to begin with.

I decided to study history at the University of Michigan from a desire to learn about myself and how I relate to the world around me. Three years ago, I did not feel confident talking about my own peoples’ history. I did not understand why the biggest socio-political occurrence of my childhood — the Arab Spring of 2011 — had occurred, much less why it had descended into violence in my homeland in Syria. I came to this institution in search of these answers — and now, I’ve realized that I was, only partly, looking in all the wrong places.

Students of color and otherwise, largely understand “academic” knowledge to be the knowledge in books -- the knowledge passed down to us by our faculty in the form of academic articles or textbooks. The gatekeepers of this knowledge are the academics with “mastery” over a given field: they’ve read every last piece of literature on the subject.

Subconsciously, I aspired to be one of those masters of knowledge. I wanted to know everything there is to know about my people and I thought the way to go about doing so was consuming all this literature, doing my homework, writing my essays and getting my grades. I’ve learned quite a great deal through doing so — and yet, I can’t seem to speak about all that I’ve learned in my native tongue, the language I dream in, the language I yell at reckless drivers in, the language I use to play with my 5-year-old brother.

I realized that I had internalized a hierarchy of knowledge: the serious “academic” knowledge of my classes, juxtaposed against my family traditions, the stories my grandparents tell me and the jokes my middle school friends and I shared in Jeddah. To my mind, learning about who I am meant unlearning the latter, and honing in on the former. It took a conversation in Arabic about class material for me to even recognize what I had done.

To be clear, I don’t believe we ought to uncritically accept our own lived experiences wholesale as “universal.” Rather, I want to invite fellow students of color, particularly immigrant students, to join me in taking our own lived experiences, communal traditions and unconscious knowledge just as seriously as we take what we read in the classroom — which, for the record, is not “universal” either, as much as it often pretends to be. My biggest moments of personal growth at the university have been moments in which I put my personal experiences in conversation with what I learn about systems of power, other identities and narratives that differ from my own.The mental exhaustion of struggling to speak my native tongue at the University is well worth the reward –– I am finally one step closer to learning who I am.