I speak Arabic.
Not very well, unfortunately. If someone were being particularly generous, they might say that I sound like a seven-year-old child. If they were being honest, they would be more likely to say that I sound like the village idiot. But after almost 20 years of beating a rich and nuanced language into simplistic, infantile submission, I don't care. It's still mine.
I learned to speak Arabic when I was 27, despite the fact that it was my father's first language. Having immigrated to Canada in his 20s, my dad experienced the unvarnished prejudice of 1960s Toronto where, as he liked to remind me, immigrants kept to themselves and pizza was an exotic food. So many years later, I am still awestruck by the fortitude that must it have taken for him to uproot and plop himself down in the land of hot turkey sandwiches and unpronounceable names.
Our words explain who we are, with our many complexities, to others.
My father never spoke much about that time, but I know that those years must have been pivotal to his decision not to speak Arabic at home. Better to have us fit in. Better to be Canadian, whatever that meant. At that time, in that place, it wouldn't have been wise to highlight the invisible weight of our hidden identity: Palestinian. It would be easier to just ignore it.
Except it wasn't. I found that instead of a complex and layered background, instead of a web of relatives, stories and legacies, I had a void. I didn't care too about it much when I was younger and all I wanted was for my family to be "normal," but by the time I was out on my own the void had become a gaping chasm: I could not decide who I was, who I wanted to be, without knowing where and who I came from.
In 1997 I went to the West Bank to study Arabic. Once there, I found that many of the students in the program were, like me, half Palestinian, and were there as part of an attempt to discover their roots. Nineteen ninety-seven seemed like as good a time as any for a journey of self-discovery: the Oslo accords had been signed in 1993, ending the first Intifada and supposedly ushering in a new era of peace and reconciliation.
There was a definite sense of optimism in the air that summer, and I met several Palestinian families who had uprooted themselves from somewhere else in order to return to the West Bank. Looking back, it was the closest the state of Palestine has ever come to a honeymoon period.
Before I left, I hadn't thought much about how language defines who we are, or what happens when the languages we use to build our identities are rendered useless. We all have our own unique language, defined by the words we use, the way we pronounce them, and the cadence of our sentences. Our words explain who we are, with our many complexities, to others. To immerse oneself in another language, then, is to strip away that identity and start over anew. It is the existential equivalent of the dream in which we are running around naked, darting and weaving behind trees and shrubbery, in hopes that no one sees us at our most raw and vulnerable.
My grip on the language represented my finding a place in the world where I belonged, at least marginally.
At the university, my classmates were from the United States, Italy, Germany, England, Holland and Finland. They were bright, curious, and idealistic. Our instructor was a patient and earnest man, who took great care to pronounce our names correctly and explain local customs to us. Once, during the summer, a member of his family died. A group of us decided that we would pay our respects by attending the funeral.
That morning, we loaded ourselves into the servees taxi and embarked on the ride to Ramallah, where we looked for the Orthodox Church where the funeral was being held. I, particularly, was anticipating the event, as I had secretly learned the proper phrase for the occasion: Yislam raasak. The phrase literally means May God Bring Peace Upon Your Head. Today, I understand this, and it makes sense to me. I can say these words now with some conviction, knowing that I am not actually asking someone where the steam baths are or if I may caress their chicken. But in 1997 I did not possess the confidence that has come with 20 years of exposure and familiarity.
At the time, I was finding my Palestinian self, and it was of utmost importance to me that I spoke better Arabic than the non-Arabs in my class. My grip on the language represented my finding a place in the world where I belonged, at least marginally. I was confident that it was only a matter of time before it happened: that I would fall into and be enveloped by an identity that was at once complex and complete, with no capacity for self-doubt or longing.
At the funeral, I fantasized that my execution of yislam raasak would be so astonishingly perfect, my accent so convincing that I would be mistaken for a local. It was as if my entire identity -- or at least the part that had never really had an opportunity to spread out and grow in the small white Ontario town I grew up in -- was concentrated in this one act. I would no longer be identified as "ajnabeeyeh" or "foreigner." I would very suddenly and dramatically, be embraced into the community wholeheartedly. Many looks would pass between me and a wizened old woman in traditional dress whose eyes would seem to say:
We knew you were one of us. Welcome back. And let those other idiots you came with go to hell.
I would smile at her with my eyes and think: You're right, they really are idiots.
Language immersion can be brutal: surviving for hours or days at a time on sentences like I like cheese and The brown dog barks can, for some, spark an unforeseen identity crisis (Is this all I am? Someone who likes cheese and makes pointless observations about animals?), but anyone who has gone through language immersion will tell you that humility is key. Without it, you will never be able to withstand the bewildered looks from shopkeepers, or helpful taxi drivers who comment that you "speak Arabic 1%."
The Arabic alphabet, which is written from right to left.
If you keep at it, do your homework and practice a lot, there is the potential that one day; you might be walking along a village side road, when a family in a car stops to ask for directions. True, you may provide directions to the slaughterhouse instead of Aunty Siham's apartment block, but at least you will understand that it was directions that were wanted.
This is the euphoric moment where you will feel: I know who I am! I belong! It's a glorious, beautiful moment.
Because it will soon be replaced with the realization that now there are not only one, but two places in the world where you don't really belong, and two languages that you can't speak properly.
Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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