‘Oh, you’re going to have an advantage over me,’ the white woman says with a wide smile. We’re the first two to arrive for Arabic 101. I make a sound and the sound dies between us. I would describe it but I don’t know what it was, having never made it before nor since. If I were to imagine what it was most like sonically, I would say shame. I am the 29-year-old son of Lebanese and Turkish migrants, my father and mother were born in Turkey and Lebanon respectively, so they learned English in addition to their own languages, and yet I have only one tongue today. One tongue resting on slivers of everything my family have said and that I never understood as clearly or as deeply as I understood Josephine, the white woman in class that day. Our teacher, a Palestinian author and academic who grew up in Beirut, agreed with her, saying in the thick accent I know better than any other, ‘Yes, colloquially, he will have advantage.’ Though they used largely the same words, they were saying different things, and they were both wrong.
In that first class, surrounded by various kinds of white people as well as one other brown guy, and a black man—a Nigerian Muslim who whispered to me that his name was Abdurrahman, but to call him Toli because ‘people hear Abdurrahman and think, you know, it’s so hardcore’—I learned how to spell my first Arabic word, baab, which meant ‘door’. It was appropriate, if a little on the nose, to identify first the means by which you can enter and exit a room, a house, a life. Every word acts in this fashion, not just literally as a signifier for an object or material reality, a way to hold the world in your mind, but also as a portal to other words, both adjacent to it—as in doorway or frame—and back from it, as in dur, the Proto-Germanic term from which dore, dure and eventually door emerged. I heard baab, spoke it like a sheep with the rest of the class, and stepped through what opened.
I’m a Casula boy, born and raised on Tharawal country. We moved several times when I was a kid, but always around Casula Primary School. The door that opened was the library door. I was around seven or eight, a gangly boy with a big head, and I was sitting on the floor with my classmates watching an educational video on the small box TV that was wheeled out for such occasions. The librarian, whom I can no longer remember but who exists in my mind as a pale shade with ringlets, tapped me on the shoulder then beckoned me away from the group. I was instantly annoyed, the spell of the TV had been broken, placing me firmly back in my body where I never wanted to be. Worry followed. What had I done wrong?
I got up and went with her to the front of the library where a small Arab boy waited beside another librarian. His cheekbones poked out of his darkly golden face, and his eyes were sunk so deep they looked hooded by bone. The librarians beamed at us, said he was a refugee. They wanted me to talk to him, little Leb to little Arab. He said something to me in Arabic. I just stared at him. I was familiar with the sounds, but the meaning slipped through my fingers. The crushing weight of this unforeseen expectation blanketed my mind, my heritage—a background noise until this moment—was in focus, was being tested, and I was failing.
The boy looked at me, frustration seeping into his voice. ‘Seeyorra,’ he said, and again I knew the word, and again panic ate it before it reached my tongue. I shrugged, helpless.
‘Sorry,’ I said. He was clearly confused, and the librarians were disappointed. I was asked if there was anyone else who might help and I gave them the names of two other Lebs in class. I slunk back to the group, disgraced. I tapped Hanna’s shoulder, a curly-haired girl with a fat nose and big laugh whom I had a crush on, so even in the moment I felt a thrill alongside my shame.
‘They want you,’ I said.
‘What?’ she squawked. ‘How come?’
‘Just go,’ I said, not wanting to spell it out in front of the others, who were watching curiously. She got up and waddled to the front, where the Arab boy waited for someone who could understand him. A minute later she came speeding back as if dogs were nipping at her heels, and her eyes were wide with the same kind of horror I knew must have been painted on my face. She shrugged at me, helplessly, and tapped Ahmad on the shoulder. ‘They want you,’ she said, and now Ahmad, the last line of defence for our Arabness, went up to meet the boy and a minute later, happy laughter and excited chatter announced his success. I was no longer watching the TV, I was watching Ahmad, with his small serious face and buzz cut, lead the new boy to the automobile section. Seeyorra rose then from the depths like a Camry dredged from a lake, black waters gushing out the sides. Of course I knew that word. Why couldn’t I access it when I wanted to? Language was buried in me, like an old catchy song I didn’t know all the lyrics to, but could still hum the hook and shout the occasional jubilant refrain. It was always there, somewhere beneath the surface murk.
• • •
In Arabic 101 I can feel the speculation of others whenever I am interacting with the teacher, or repeating with them aloud, and it’s true that I do know these words, hello and how are you and peace be upon you, I have the inflections, the sounds exactly right, but this is a paltry thing to cling to especially since spoken Arabic, like English, can be said any number of ways, as determined by the shape of a mouth, the speed of delivery, and the class or education of the speaker, to say little of regional dialects. Whenever insecurity hunts for authenticity within I feel like a pauper king, a royal nothing decked out in papier-mâché, my legitimacy beholden to the wind.
It’s a trap, one I know well, but that doesn’t stop me from falling into it. Sometimes I wonder if the familiarity of it acts as a lure, the anger and pride inherent in claiming a detested heritage is welcome in anxious, uncertain settings, a phrase that describes both my life and my country at virtually every stage. That is to say I wanted to sit there and feel different, feel superior, to these soon-to-be tourists of the Arab world, but I wasn’t and couldn’t because that world is equally unfamiliar to me, albeit in the way of a child meeting a relative they never knew or a man waking from a long coma.
I let the bitter currents flow, and fade. It’s not their fault that I am here, and they can’t know that I am haunted by past classrooms, like the after-school Arabic I used to attend as a boy with my brother and cousins. I remember watching one of the teachers, an old hijabi, screaming as she chased my brother out of the room with a broom, or maybe he was the one wailing, or they both were, as she beat him with it in the corridor. When my mum found out teachers hit us often, she took us out and, just like that, severed us from our homeland, ensuring we would forever be little Lebs at home in western Sydney and nowhere else, a thickened English in our mouths peppered with Arabic curses and prayers. If I seem less than appreciative of her bold action, it’s only because my mother beat us more often and more harshly, as did our aunties and uncles, so really it was less about the tenderness of our bodies and more about reasserting her dominance over them, her divine blood-right to do whatever she wanted to us.
As a consequence, I grew up in a household where languages both familiar and strange swished around my small body. I knew the sound of the azan as well as my own name, I could recite the Fatiha flawlessly, and I could operate within the home as a domestic drone, able to recognise a certain amount of commands—go to sleep, get up, shower, hurry up, bring us tea, walk, run, pray, come inside, get out, be quiet—and a certain number of insults such as idiot or donkey or dog, but I was never asked to speak; in fact, I was discouraged from it, and so even these fistfuls of words are like rough bricks in my mouth. It was never a problem until my teyta, a mountain who dwindled into a hill as we aged, tried to speak to me. Every failed conversation with her sank into my bones, the deep sadness that would come into her eyes when I couldn’t respond or had to look to an adult nearby to translate. She was the only one who wanted to hear what I had to say and she might as well still have been in Lebanon for all the good it did us. For her part, the only English words she knew were ‘I love you’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Excuse me, please’ and, randomly, ‘Friday’, which she called Freeday.
My grandmother, Allah yerhama, passed away several years ago with the gulf between us never bridged. In the end, cruel irony robbed her even of Arabic, by way of dementia. She didn’t recognise any of us, and when she spoke it was in a sing-song babble, like she knew her mouth needed to issue sound but not how. It is only now, looking back, that I understand why she might have valued my voice. My jido, her husband, never asked her to speak and treated her like a domestic drone, a being that existed to serve his needs. I remember her sitting next to him in the lounge room of their tiny flat, watching TV, and offering a comment, only for him to bark at her to be quiet. She lost her memories and her tongue in the end, had a swollen hip and a gangrenous leg, but still, when he sat next to her, she would grab her walker and try to hobble away. There are no words for this kind of damage, no language for a loathing beyond memory.
I always intended to fix my language problem, plug the gaping hole, even without a clear idea how. I could blame class, that we were poor, or displacement—that my mother and her siblings, coming of age in a new country with languages both familiar and strange, unskilled and uneducated, didn’t know how to be parents let alone how to raise bilingual children—but the truth is I was scared to learn. I couldn’t do it when my grandparents were alive. It wasn’t just the shame or the expectation, it was fear of what they would say, what they would demand of me if I could understand them. It was and remains easier to hide behind English, to have a whole life they couldn’t dissect or direct. Recently this strategic incomprehension came to my rescue yet again when one of my aunties accosted me by the door (I was trying to escape before she could begin), to lecture me on my failures as a Muslim, and all I could do was nod my head at whatever she was saying, catching only one in every five words. My uncle laughed at her, saying, ‘Leave him alone, ya. He doesn’t know.’
• • •
The second word I learn to write is bābā—father—and this opens a door to his grave, a door to the uncle who raised me, and one to my mother, which is where every door invariably leads because I fear her first and last, love her first and last, for better or worse. My father the Turk spoke English, Arabic and Turkish fluently. Arabic he learned while studying the Qur’an in Kuwait. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if he hadn’t abandoned me to my mother, who abandoned me to her sister, whose husband, my uncle, hated having to raise a child not his own. He was a large man, big and bald and brown, with a voice as powerful as the law and a presence as violent. He would play with my cousins in the hallway, their laughter piping shrieks ping-ponging off the walls, and I could only watch. Not a single beating he gave me ever came close to hurting as much as that. The smallest act of exclusion can wound as much as any fist, at least, it is to this first-remembered harm I return the most. My uncle died when I was still a boy, not long after my aunty kicked him out for cheating on her. I still wish he hadn’t, still wish he would smile at me the way he smiled at my cousins, who I love as brothers and sisters.
I met my father when I was 15, at a café in Parramatta. I remember being impressed that I was in Parramatta, and in a café no less, having never been to either before. My life until then had been largely restricted to the area from Casula to Liverpool. He ordered seared salmon, something I couldn’t imagine eating. I can’t tell you what was said, I was focused on his fancy food, his brown fingers, the shining cutlery in his hands. He was a king to me already, right until he slipped me $100 when we hugged goodbye, along with a note that had his number on it. As if I had a phone with which to call him. There was something so cheap in the action that, later, when my mother called him in a fury to scream that ‘I’m his mother, his best friend, and his father too, fuck you!’ I felt a vicious satisfaction, even though it came as news to me, and was easily the nicest thing she’d ever said.
Ten years after this meeting, I stood in my grandmother’s unit in Mersin, Turkey, listening to my father play a recording of one of his poems. He held the phone to my ear, we stood as close as brothers in the hallway, his breath brushing against my cheek as his smooth deep voice rolled out. ‘It’s a love poem,’ he said. I didn’t need to speak the language to know that or to feel how hard he was trying to connect. In those ten years, our worlds reversed. I had two degrees and was travelling the world, while he was unemployed and living in his mum’s flat in Turkey, trying to concoct schemes to revitalise his fortunes. He did not succeed in this before his death in 2017.
• • •
I call my mum after class to tell her I’m finally learning how to speak back. ‘Why bother?’ She snorts. ‘It’s too hard as an adult.’
‘Yeah, well, whose fault is that?’ I grit my teeth when she doesn’t answer. ‘I want to go to Lebanon next year. See where you and everyone grew up.’
‘Go to fucking Kiama then,’ she says. ‘It’s just farms and shit.’ Scott Morrison would be thrilled to hear this, I think, but I say nothing. Some of my younger aunties and uncles, having an unbroken and uncomplicated connection to their culture, take it for granted to the point where they’re contemptuous of any desire to be more involved. My older uncles and aunties, Turkish and Lebanese, make more of an effort to visit their homelands. I don’t seem to belong anywhere or to anyone, so I scramble after every shattered fragment of my name.
In that first class of Arabic 101, I learned there are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, and each letter has four shapes, depending on its position in a word, and each letter can be pronounced in 13 different ways. I learnt how to write two words, and that there was no way I could progress in this course at the same rate as these indifferent students, as if I didn’t have a history and a relationship with every sound, every word that summoned its echo in my memory, threatening to drown me with demons best left forgotten. In the second class, a white woman confuses me for the other brown guy in the cohort, asks me to explain the language to her. I skip the third, and by the fourth, I drop out. In a way, my mother was right.
• • •
I haven’t told you yet why I finally started to learn my mother tongue. My grandparents, after all, died years ago. I could point to late June 2017, a week after my father’s passing, when I was in Mexico City as a guest of an international poetry festival. My friend Najwan Darwish, until then a man I spoke with and knew only via Skype, was also present. As we headed to our first reading in a strange old building filled with statues of decapitated angels, it rained a hot muggy rain, and he told me in the thick accented English I was so familiar with that I was one of millions of lost Arabs. Part of a diasporic generation deprived of their ancestral country and language. ‘The software is there,’ he said. ‘It just needs updating.’ He urged me to return, just for a little while, and I promised I would.
Certainly this moment was a dramatic turning point. From it I wrote the title poem of my new poetry collection, and it’s as good a scene to point to as any. It was only one spark of many, however. Another is more ordinary: I was on a train in Sydney, on the Bankstown line, sitting in the front carriage. An old Arab man and an old Arab woman sat next to me. A large Arab man got on at the next stop, his thick fingers gleaming with fat rings, a cane in hand. He looked to be in his forties and he started a loud conversation with the two beside me. I had my headphones in but I could hear the Arabic still. They were finding out where their families were from, and how many children each had, how many boys and how many girls, mashallah, their conversation punctuated by the large man’s hacking coughs. After a few minutes, he turned to me and asked if I had a pen, first in Arabic, then in English. They wanted to stay in touch and none of them had phones. I gave him a pen. The old man then asked if I could speak Arabic, and his wife answered before I could, a look of pained understanding written on her lined face: ‘Schway.’ Little.
I signed up for an Arabic course that night. All of these things have led me here, to learning my first language as my second. This is neither a story of triumphant reclamation nor failure. I haven’t given up, only determined to find a more suitable path. The class was moving too quickly, where I was stuck on door, and on father, words given only as throwaway examples. I realise now this will be the work of a lifetime, not something I can achieve before I visit Lebanon. I will go as a tourist, brimming with untranslatable memories, hand-me-down stories. My friend’s father, from Tripoli like my own family, has agreed to take on the task of teaching in the meantime. He grimly promised that we would spend months on the alphabet alone, before we even thought about words. I smiled with pure relief. •
Omar Sakr is an Arab-Australian poet. His new book is The Lost Arabs, available from University of Queensland Press. His debut, These Wild Houses, was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Calanthe award and the Kenneth Slessor Prize.