Staring Down the Language Barrier

Elmaz Abinader


The first language I heard was Arabic. I am sure of it although I don’t actually remember. I do know the endearments toward babies, ill children, old people, and pretty women had always been delivered in my parents’ tongue. My mother cuddled infant nieces cooing, “ya eaynay, ya ruhi, habibti.” They proclaimed a gentle and awed rapture at seeing the baby—my eyes, my soul, sweet darling. Nothing in English could equal the loving list of endearments, and those words of connection. MY heart, MY eyes… Arabic was not only chosen to honor the child, but the phrases also elevated them. 

Surely when my parents, aunts, and uncles, and my Sitti Marwa gazed at my translucent chestnut eyes and inky black baby hair, they must have poured the same words on me. I was the fifth surviving child of my parents, named after my father’s mother, Sitti Elmaz, the family matriarch who lived on a mountaintop in Lebanon. I couldn’t imagine not being embraced with the famous litany in Arabic delivered in a sing-songy voice. 

I heard those words, I heard Arabic. I didn’t learn it. And that was mostly deliberate.

The words I was taught as a toddler, and the sentences I put together were always in English — perfect immigrant-conscious-English — lacking contractions, keeping the hard “g” on every participle, I am going to school; involving very few exclamatory words; and spotted with the mandatory please and thank you. We spoke as if English were our second language, formal and careful, mindful of grammatical rules, precise with the hope of deceiving the people around us, that we fit in. We were proper, not sloppy, or sentimental. That was saved for Arabic.

After a while, when I was beyond adoring, Arabic wasn’t delivered like a kiss, 

it was spoken at us. Not to us. Or with us.

As kids we were met with words of scolding, of anger and shame in Arabic. You gypsy, ‘ant ghajari; when my blouse came out of my waistband; haram aliki, shame on you, when I erased a hole into my homework paper; and sharmootah, you whore, when I turned around in church and was punished in front of the whole second grade class. Like love, nothing in English could equal the curses in Arabic. The words were rough, came out volcanic and abrasive. As were the beatings that accompanied them…hard stings from my father’s belt or the smacks on my thigh by my mother, that left a pink image of the wooden spoon decorating my flesh.

Many times, Mother tried to coax us toward some facility in Arabic. She waited until we were captive — in the car or in the basement and started her lessons. At the end of summer and early fall, we spent evenings in the cellar, canning our garden’s yield of fruits and vegetables: piles of beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, bushels of pears, quince, and grapes. Sitting around an old large table, we chopped apples, peeled cucumbers, and ground tomatoes into paste. Mother drilled us on vocabulary as we moaned through the repetition of the labor. Learning food was easy: bahdounis, parsley, warak inhab, stuffed grape leaves. And kitchen implements too, tundrah, pot, jaht, platter. We were taught how to ask our sick grandmother what she needed when she wandered around the house looking for her dead husband. Sitti, biddikh shee? And we played a version of one-potato, two-potato in Arabic. Hroonkus, broonkus.

Arabic was our family language, only spoken at home and when heard by others, somewhat embarrassing.

My childhood coincided during the age of assimilation. No school had ethnic studies; no theater held international dance festivals. Appropriation was exotic, fun, colorful. We dressed like Arab princesses and belly dancers for Halloween. Post-colonialism was yet to be part of the vocabulary, and Lebanese were classified as white before historical events, profiling, and the Homeland Security Act said otherwise. 

When my parents’ generation came over in the forties, kinfolk changed their names: Hassan became Sam, Yousef, flipped to Joe. The first store my family owned in the US was named Nader’s and although that was a family name on my mother’s side, my father and we were Abi-Nader. And of course, my name, the one that was bestowed upon me from my grandmother was Americanized to Elma. All indicators told us that English would keep us safe from discrimination, violence, and harassment.

Arabic didn’t have a chance of survival in my body.

Trying to assimilate and learning another language seemed contradictory, but admirable. I bragged about my father’s ability in five languages at least. When he was young, he had traveled halfway around the world living in Brazil and Bolivia. My father also consumed history and philosophy books, and wrote poetry, without ever having gone to school. Those were superpowers beyond me. My history with Arabic convinced me that languages were hard and that I, in particular, couldn’t learn them. 

At college, I met rich kids who had spent their study year abroad and spoke another language. Many sprinkled their conversations with phrases in Italian or French. A result of their privilege, I reckoned. Like learning to ski or play tennis, it was something that would never be available to me. Je ne sais quoi.

At the time, I didn’t foresee my adulthood filled with travel to places where people spoke Arabic and to places were other languages were spoken, French, Mandarin, Portuguese. In my own studies, I chose Spanish, which felt to me like the other language of the US. To learn it, like my father, I went to where it was spoken. In an immersion program in Antigua, Guatemala, I sat with a personal tutor each day, drilling, conversing, and filling out sheets of grammar exercises. Surprisingly, my facility came easily, enough to pass my Princeton exams for my PH.D. And to take graduate literature courses in Spanish. But it was not a muscle I exercised enough for true fluency like some of my friends who could switch back and forth without an in-the-head translation. 

One thing this ineptitude has saddled me with is the need to constantly apologize. I know how it looks when an American, even an Arab-American, approaches a local resident with “do you speak English?” In so many ways I do not fulfill the Ugly American stereotype: I don’t intrude, make demands, criticize food, snap pictures of locals without permission, wear inappropriate clothes to holy places, whine when there isn’t an English menu…but then again. When I try to pronounce the language of the region, I fumble and stutter, and am embarrassed. Even with Spanish, I am self-conscious and hesitant. The world has been patient with my attempts to spit out a sentence, to mime a question, to praise with a smile, or bargain using my fingers and gentle head shake. 

In my twenties, I spent almost every summer traveling with my sisters to Italy, Spain, Guatemala, Ecuador, the Caribbean. We divided up the necessary skill sets, one would navigate from our place to a local museum, another would calculate the currency exchange, and one would figure out what to say to get us a room, some food, and public transportation. That was usually me. I had dictionaries, and lists, and the handy glossary from the back of the Lonely Planet Guides. I could get those questions out, pretty convincingly. But I rarely understood their answers.

After my first big book was published, around 1993, the USIA, a cultural wing of the state department (now defunct) invited me to go on “cultural” tours of Arab and African countries; then countries in Europe and Central America. Free travel. How could I resist?   I would be staying in hotels, not pensioñes. I would have a driver, a fancy hotel room, an agenda that promised people would listen to me. My identity would not be grad student American trying to do the $10-a-day tour. Dream come true.

Travelling as an Arab woman, even to an Arab country is complicated, but we won’t go there.

I performed in embassies, schools, universities, cultural organizations; met with local writers, was interviewed for newspapers and television, participated in workshops, and led some too. In each of these visits, I was assigned a translator, an eager local student or professor who worked adjacently with the American Embassy. Because the schedules were always packed, because some questions came up over, and over, the translators became super familiar with my life and my ideas. I could never tell exactly what they were saying, but I smiled trustingly, sitting in a long skirt, with my arms covered.

In Yemen, the enthusiastic audience of several thousand who came to hear my poetry, yielded people asking the same question. “If you’re parents are from an Arab country, why don’t you speak Arabic?” They were serious and angry at me. It hurt my feelings because I always expected the open arms, “daughter you’re home!” reaction. I answered the first few inquiries politely, narrating the sense of displacement in my small Pennsylvania town. As the question was repeated, my translator, Muhammed Shurrafadin, began to answer for me without waiting, because he had heard repeatedly about my family’s attempts at assimilation and the subsequent experience of discrimination; it was beginning to sound Blah blah blah as the night wore on. I hated that story and still do.

The other discovery I made traveling through Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria was the Arabic I had learned, tundrah, bahdounis, was the dialect of the tiny region where my family was from in Lebanon. No one understood my Arabic after hello, how are you. Faces scrunched in confusion when I tried to ask where the post office was, or how much the mangoes were. If I had used English instead, they would have understood me better. People who served the public stockpiled phrases in many languages. A seven-year-old Bedouin girl in the Sinai offered me a package of her mother’s bread in German and then in English. Because I don’t look obviously American, a vendor might try Portuguese or Italian before I open my mouth and give myself away. 

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, I quit the cultural tours. I was scheduled to present at Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid. When I walked by the venue the day before my performance, I saw my face on a poster outside the building on Calle de Alcalá, I was excited. Pedro Almodóvar appeared there the day before. I loved his movies. It was a thrill to be in Spain, to follow Almodóvar in this space, to share my work about displacement and occupation. Then the next day, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq to begin, and Madrilenes filled the streets, millions of them, objecting to the US action. It was the second biggest protest in the world. 

When the cultural officer picked me up the next day, he said we might not have the audience we expected. At the news of the invasion and the protest, my body deflated. Suddenly only the American part of my identity felt present, and the Arab receded in grief. When we arrived at El Circulo, my poster had been spray-painted black and knocked down. I had to be hustled into the building with officers surrounding me. I felt as if I were invading Iraq. Inside, a few people sat waiting for me around a conference table instead of in the auditorium. It was clear staffers had been recruited from their offices to fill the seats. One man fidgeted and flipped his walkie-talkie around in his hands. I could see a woman proofreading a document. My treason was evident, although I didn’t know whom I betrayed but my Arab self and Arabic trying to situate itself in my rib cage.

I refused to go on any more cultural tours, to align myself with a government invading a country in the Arab world.

My travel did not stop, however. My new scheme, brilliant, was to attend art residencies outside the US. As a working writer, I would be given a time and space, and oftentimes, meals, to make progress on a project, exchange with local artists, explore territories that were off the tourist maps. The minimum stays were a month which allowed me time to learn the community around the residency. I wanted to be a visitor, not a tourist, and in my month in the new space, I shopped at farmers markets, ate street food, went to concerts in school halls, and collected phrases of whatever the local language was. Afterwards I travelled outwards, knowing more of the country than other American tourists. 

Until the pandemic, I had a residency almost every year. Over time, it was less necessary to push myself to hear new words, to gather phrases to glide into social situations and political conversations. More and more, the world was bending toward English. Street workers, train station personnel, the guy at the grocery school pulled out their English to help me out. Convenient for me in Sweden, in Macedonia and Brazil where I could grasp only a little of what was said to me. 

The language barrier is riddled with gaps in its surface which are widening into passageways.

When I went to China in 1995, only government tour providers who spoke English could escort us from the Lost City to the Great Wall. In 2002, on a trip through France on the way to Algeria, I stood in the streets of Paris trying to ask locals, in English, the way to the train station and no one would talk to me. In 2015, in Macedonia, most of the young people knew English which they picked up from hip hop and movies. And they were eager to practice. With me. I was sneaking through the hole in the fence between my voice and theirs. 

It troubles me that I’m getting away with this. My father learned Portuguese because in the backwaters of the Amazon where he and his father did rubber trading, he had no choice. Actually, I don’t want to be let off the hook either. It smacks of the same arrogance and privilege I accuse ugly Americans of. It’s being a tourist. Translation tools are conveniently available on our phones, menus are translated with a click of the camera, websites transform when I select the icon of the American flag in the corner of the home page. 

It feels all too easy to pass, but always isn’t.

At this moment I am sitting on a bench in rural France, in a small town of 400 inhabitants, mostly farmers. It’s where La Chambre d’Eau is located, who is sponsoring an arts festival which I am covering for a magazine, focusing on the work of Anne Brochot. Hardly anyone speaks English, even the younger hip artists who bring their funky urban style to the forest and field where the festival and the works layer into the landscape. After easing through Paris, I am a little comforted that the whole world hasn’t’ given in to the rage to speak English. However, it’s difficult to be a responsible writer without being able to have sophisticated conversations with the producers, the artists, and musicians. When I conduct interviews, my subject and I cobble together charades and my minuscule French and their slight English until one of us gets exhausted.


Years ago, when I first visited France, I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me when I spoke in English. Now I am met with an apology. “I am so sorry, my English is terrible,” says Réjane. No, I’m sorry. I had a chance, many, to have a second language, a third and a fourth one, but took a pass. And I still do, as I open my Deepl translation tool to read an article on the festival.

English’s move toward world domination shouldn’t excuse me either. It’s as if I have refused to see the possibilities in my own voice. Or I’m comfortable staring at the barrier as perforated as it has become. Am I a co-conspirator to this language imperialism? Does being limited in my languages mean I am also limited in my ideas? Am I missing the best words to express taste or music? Alternatives to beautiful and horrible? Am I losing the opportunity to find metaphors and new descriptions that come from language slippage and overlap? If don’t learn other languages, how can I know how many ways there are to love a baby?

Elmaz Abinader

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Elmaz Abinader’s recent work has appeared in Michigan Quartely Review, Prism International and Mizna, and the anthologies, Essential Truths, Minding Nature and Beyond Memory. Her poetry collection, This House, My Bones, was the Editor’s Selection 2014 from Willow Books. She has a memoir: Children of the Roojme, A Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and and book of poetry, In the Country of My Dreams…winner of PEN Oakland. Elmaz was a co-founder of The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices).


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