The first vivid memory I have of Arabic class was plotting how to skip it; my last memory is being talked out of the Thanaweya Amma language exam by a friend.
I sat the test anyway, ran a ball-point pen over cheap paper and bounced a leg when I couldn’t scrape meaning off the words I was seeing. My mother hadn’t forced me, but her winded, heart-broken arguments had. She couldn’t fathom how I’d muzzled my native language in favor of English: a colonial tongue neither of us had been born knowing. Sitting in that beat-up public school, taking an exam I could hardly read, didn’t humble me. It infuriated me.
There was no reason to be there, not when privilege had given me English.
It’s the worst kept secret in Egyptian private schooling: Arabic proficiency was for those who could not afford to speak any other language. It was for the children in blue-grey public school uniforms and the kiosk owner with the Sa’idi accent, it was for the sharp-tongued sailor from Banha and his three teenage boys. It was for everyone other than us. Arabic was not a choice, certainly not a pleasure.
We’d all used it at the time, in the way all ditzy foreigners do: with the swagger of those who only understood swears and slang. One word we knew particularly well was baladi – and I wonder how likening something to rural Egypt became a derogatory statement we used generously.
The divide between students was more segregation than it was organic; there was a vain, ideological split, a new breed of classism among teenagers at the same school. Having a handle on Arabic put students at a social disadvantage; they were baladi.
For me Arabic, until that point, had been a begrudging necessity – a stepping-stone to graduation, to a life abroad led fist-first by English wit and Eastern worldliness. I’d passed my hours looking out of a classroom window, more taken by the ducks and farmland than the strident, desperate voice of my teacher.
I pictured a future without my native tongue and I got it.
Though, just as I’d abandoned Arabic, it would soon abandon me.
“You sound like a f*cking gringo.”
Said to me over food by a Venezuelan friend, it wasn’t meant to be a compliment. Clement Taffin had a cynical streak, a penchant for soft-anarchy and feminism. We’d met in the Netherlands, both of us far from home for university, taking to ritual after-class dinners. To me, her accent was perfectly American, though she never allowed it to remain that way through conversation; she made sure to roll every r and curl the l in ‘Latina’.
Deliberately, she inserted her identity into every word she could. I didn’t quite understand why, but I enjoyed it. She gave a colorful voice and personality to Latin America, radiating confidence as she did so.
I forgot about the incident until it happened again. Walking home months later with Valerija Denaitytė – a Russian-Lithuanian – we tossed jokes back and forth about trendy Westernization and cultural erasure.
“I always worried about sounding American,” she laughed off-handedly, “I’m glad I don’t sound anywhere near as American as you do, though.”
Although inexplicable, her own Eastern European lilt was a mark of belonging. Both interactions made way for doubt inside me. It was as though these people tapped lightly on the exterior of my identity and proved the inside hollow.
The need to prove myself a true Egyptian had begun to grow, but the tools for that were missing.
I wasn’t able to recommend Arabic songs when asked, and I wasn’t able to swiftly translate book titles either. My neglect for Arabic had become a social handicap, ironically, in a place where it was never used. I watched people bloom in accordance with their own cultures and languages, as I sat at the sidelines of my own. Europeans boasted their tilting accents as they switched out French for German, going from Italian to Dutch. They never once voiced their pride, but the unveiled, untainted way they spoke said it for them.
I had strained excuses for why I wasn’t fluent. I told these foreigners that I could speak Egyptian Arabic, that Traditional Arabic was a beast of epic proportions, unnecessarily contrived. They’d nod along, curious of, but ignorant to, the reality behind my words.
As the years abroad stretched on, my tongue became heavier and heavier when I tried to speak. Sparse trips to Egypt were hardly enough to keep my Arabic intact, and the phone calls home didn’t do much to preserve my vocabulary. The feeling of being a fraud had finally taken hold of me; I wanted to be Egyptian, the way Clement was Venezuelan. I no longer wanted to be an Arab shell enamored by the West.
I was embarrassed of the accent I’d come to rely on, but I had nothing else to use.
A British exchange student, who I’d never spoken to, felt the need to ask me where I was from. “You sound American – but you don’t sound as American as Chris [Californian]. How come?”
I didn’t possess a response that wasn’t pitiful.
A trip home to Cairo sealed this insecurity as a permanent one. My schoolmates, who were once so fond of my English, were teasing me for my use of it, for my inability to communicate without it. In my absence, they’d grown closer, fonder of their home and I had lost mine entirely.
Bilingual Tango & Missed Opportunities
Language became a struggle, and all the jokes I couldn’t understand were milestones that seemed impossible to reach. Though I had come to terms with it, the workplace forced me to actively rediscover what Arabic meant to me. Between European vacancies that mandated “two or more languages” to a missed opportunity at the Egyptian Ministry of Information’s UNESCO collaboration: I needed Arabic more than it needed me.
Filling out these applications felt like lying; I was a native Arabic speaker but I wasn’t a fluent one. My Arabic had become so impoverished after graduation that it took me years to earn it back. Dreams of studying Middle Eastern culture, of research, and journalism, and academia, were prematurely put on hold until I was able to truly and confidently develop my Arabic. My media research was a flurry reading subtitles and using translation apps. Thanaweya Amma hadn’t humbled me, but having my manager put together a hard drive of Egyptian movies for me because I “needed help” certainly did.
It took me years to realize that there’s a strange, self-imposed loneliness in knowing the world, but not knowing the street-signs of one’s own hometown.