Cry of the Chicken Nugget دعاء التشيكن ناجت
How do you feel about this statement?
“An Arab is a person whose mother tongue is Arabic.”- Article 10, 1947 Ba’ath Constitution
I’m not one of these people who can pick up languages like shells on a seashore.
I have to be drowning just to work my way up to a fluent float and even then I barely keep my nose above the water.
If I’m not fully ‘immersed’? Well, the words just dry up in the sun. Evaporate on my tongue. And in some cases, leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
As an American, I imagine I probably modulate louder than I should in English (It’s hard to tell from inside your own head). And yet as an Arab – in Arabic – I’m usually ‘in the back on mute’.
There’s a pre-vocalised stammer when I use the father tongue, it’s like there’s something that jams whatever cortex controls speech and so opening my mouth releases a whole shoal of fears and insecurities and existential wobbles that I can’t really articulate.
But fuck it – Ima try.
Writing in English is now my job – and over the years – Arabic has become almost vestigial. It’s like a ghost limb that’s withered up from disuse. I retain the ability to write and read (and type 50 wpm blind) and yet the netting of this most beautiful alphabet is like a sieve that meaning just drains right tf out of.
I used to want to sing in Arabic but I’ve struggled to work up the guts to even speak.
99% of the time if a stranger in Egypt, Lebanon or Syria (the only places in the Arab world I have travelled without the visual signifier of my Abaya) ever asked where I was from they invariably would guess Morocco (which I guess basically meant I didn’t make sense and sounded crazy). When I went to Morocco – that’s another story. My family in the Gulf used to call me ‘the Egyptian’. Old friends say my accent has now accrued the melted limey runoff of a person who’s been living in the UK for too long. But then again, I’ve had a few non-partisan people and tutors tell me my Arabic is better than I think it is – I just lack the confidence to speak. Whatever the case – my language, like me, is a mess. And at the end of the day, what language are you reading this in?
To clarify the title of this post Cry of the Curlew by Taha Hussein is the first novel I ever attempted to read in Arabic (and never finished I should add) and Chicken Nugget is the nickname for a generational cohort in the Gulf which I don’t identify as but maybe should. Like re-constituted chicken bits – a ‘Chicken Nugget’ is made from a lingual slurry. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. Speak no language good. Grossly tasteless, unidentifiable origins, no discernible value. You get the picture. If you’re not familiar with the term: there’s a sour piece on McNuggets in the Gulf here. I’m sure google will give a good yield if you seek more.
The guy in that article says it’s a generation who have rejected Arab culture because they watch too much Disney and prefer Happy Meals to sucking the marrow out of a mutton bone like they should. But I disagree (and I love marrow btw) because I don’t think it’s the chicken nuggets rejecting Arab culture – if there is any reason for a generation facing west – is it impossible to think it might be the culture rejecting us?
It can’t only be from lack of effort that my Arabic is a stub of what it should be.
Because I have really, really worked on it all of my life. In spite of not because of anyone who might have given me the tools when I was small and malleable.
I recently found a notebook I made one summer. It was a Mickey Mouse diary in which I had cobbled together my own language exercises and vocabulary tests based on things I overheard every day in the house.
But it would seem Arabic is really not a language for autodidacts.
I remember that even then with the little grey cells poised at the ready for retention, how hard it was to penetrate a root’s myriad meanings or get a handle on a famously baroque grammatical system without any real accessible guidance.
Often I feel like a sluggish mule buckling on the uphill to ‘language acquirement’. I struggle to find a reason to even use the words I carry. Meanwhile I watch all beleaguered while thoroughbred Oxford toffs translate bagfuls of rare manuscript and Muslim converts speckle every other syllable with PBUH. These guys trot all jaunty to the top of the tower.
And while Arabic might be a professional asset or a spiritual necessity for them – nothing is simple or easy to set your mind to when it’s an expectation laden minefield of emotional identity politics. Most people I know who struggle badly just end up lying about it or overcompensate by hyper focusing on their Arabness and maybe if they’re living outside of the region – they join the re-aspora of millennial Arab-North Americans and Arab-Europeans who come ‘back’ to learn Arabic or get jobs in the Gulf.
But it’s the elephant in our esophagus. A potential employer asks “Do you speak Arabic?” and you scan them to see if they might know better before saying, “Sure.” You’ve been coached through the shame of a negative answer into lying about it.
No one calls you out but you might live in a quiet fear wondering how bad of an imposter you are.
And feeling like a fraud is enough to make anyone turn their back on anything.
It’s actually tragic because it’s a sort of lingual brain drain and I’ve seen this more times than I can say.
Because a good education coupled with a good grasp of Arabic in the Gulf is a vanishingly rare commodity.
For me learning Arabic was never just hard, it hurt – it’s as if I had years of aversion therapy (which I won’t go into here) and eventually the words got sucked right out of my throat. Sea-witch-style.
But here’s the point of this whole blog post:
I’m not sure my linguistic failings are completely my fault any more.
And this weirdly healing thought came out of a conversation I had with a Kuwaiti friend who also struggles. Like me, he’s also made a LOT of effort to learn and spent a lot of money on classes and tutoring as an adult.
We discussed how there is a subtle rejection that happens. A sort of mistrust – even when you’re young. And the refusal to speak to that child in a particular language is a real thing. My father has never spoken to myself or my sister in Arabic. He will for a few sentences if I make the opening gambit – but inevitably he breaks back to English.
I had a Jordanian journalist snap at me when I refused to do a TV interview about my book with her. I said (in Arabic) it was because I wasn’t comfortable conducting it in Arabic (although it was probably more a fear of cameras). She huffed and laughed, “You’re an Arab. Why don’t you want to speak Arabic?”. That question. Thoughtless and exhausting. The encounter. Complex. (ps i swear she looked like Lady Tremaine in a hijab)
On the flip side of this – my father hasn’t taught my half-siblings English. He does not speak to them in English and just won’t. As a result, their educational and employment opportunities will never be as good as they should or could be no matter how brilliant they are.
What’s more I’m sure it’s not only Arabic – I have mixed Korean and Chinese friends who have experienced similar lingual and cultural rejection and as a result they have zero interest in visiting or being integrated into a culture that doesn’t seem to want them.
So this Little Mermaid is going to ask a few serious questions of whoever might read this because I really don’t know and I want to talk about this.
How dangerous and damaging is it to the future of a region if a language is linked specifically to cultural and ethnic identity?
If you’ve had parental units and education that encourage the full flowering of Arabic does that make you more of an Arab? If English comes easier to you – does that make you an agent of the west or some kind of imperialist/colonized subject? Because that seems to be the low key vibe of people like that journalist I mentioned. I’m amazed at how people seem to forget that Arabic is as much a colonising force as any European language. Think of the way pan-Arabists tried to erase Berber language and identity all across in North Africa.
And next time you see a pretty German girl on Arab Idol and get all up in a wad because you wonder “if she can do that then WTF is wrong with me!?” – just remember that the struggle is real and it’s a lifelong commitment.
Edward Said didn’t master Arabic until he was in his late 40s. Maybe that’s apocryphal. But at 32, it’s some kind of cold comfort. And until the technocrats figure out how to apply ‘deep learning’ algorithms to the human mind, I’ll just have to keep doing my vocabulary cards and reading the newspaper.
But anyway, at the very least we’ll always have “boooody languedge”.