ARC Fellows: Ahmad Diab

My Marred Tongue

By Ahmad Diab, 2021/22 Poetry & the Senses Fellow

(Faculty, Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures)

To live in one language
to live long enough to live 
in another,
to remember things 
you lived in one
but now inscribe in the other,
traces left 
on the rim 
of the glass of memory
now color your lips
as you kiss
your enemy

A newly arrived relative in the Netherlands told me that “mar” was the first Dutch word he learnt. As he told the story of his survival in our peculiar accent (a colloquial Galilean mixed with Syrian Homsi Arabic), I imagine him in the cold north village of Ter Apel answering the Dutch asylum officer in simple English punctuated with the few words of Dutch he’d picked up. Ik ben from Syria mar ik ben Palestinian mar I came from Egypt mar the boat arrived in Siracusa mar no fingerprints in Italia.

As a writer, my life straddles a basic division – I’ve often found myself attempting to translate experiences I had in a different part of the world, and more tellingly, in a different language. 

So whenever I set out producing a narrative of one in the language of the other, I found myself attempting a difficult task of housing Arabic and English, conterminously, in one head and on the same page. Over time that elemental fracture between Arabic, my native language, and English, the language of my adulthood, graduate education and exile in the United States has multiplied into splinter fractures of Spanish, Catalan, German, French, Hebrew and Dutch.  My views on language are informed by the fact that I’ve been made to experience language not only as an extension and expression of the human experience, but also, and perhaps more forcefully, as the ephemeral domain of the nation-state. Languages coexist or rather crowd up in my head like visas on a passport page. The space needed for one is necessarily, decisively and irrecoverably taken from another. Having served their temporary purpose of validating my biological existence with my far more consequential legal doppelgänger at the portals of the nation-state, they start to fade and blur. Over time, one stamp’s washed out trace serves mainly to obscure the contours of another on that same page. A stamp’s red circle intersecting with a green rectangle is as haphazard as a false cognate. 

“واللغتان إذا التقتا في اللسان الواحد أدخلت كل واحدة منهما الضيم على صاحبتها”

I’ve come to see false cognates as a form of ضيم that is to be cherished at all costs, whether as unintended transgressions over linguistic borders, or as latent opportunities for trespass only available to those who possess (/are possessed by) that freakish knowledge of more than one language. If the homophonic or the homographic is grounds for the lowest form of humor within the one language, spread across two languages it becomes a restitution of personal possession over both. Far from being faux amis, false cognates are a refugee’s truest friend. They invoke the latent agency to inflict that which has thus far rendered you an object of infliction: an asylee, a refugee, a deportee, a passive participle. Rather than being interrupted at the checkpoint of the new language, a false cognate interrupts the monolingual bias of your interlocutor for a false cognate is always only false from the vantage point of that bias. 

My relative’s first Dutch word has several meanings for me, it also invokes several people, and memories that are disparate in time and space. In Dutch, it takes me on the Meuse boat ride he very reluctantly agreed to as he shared his harrowing story with me. Why does he fear being on a boat so much, why does he learn “mar,” before he learns “en,” the “but” before the “and” of his new tongue? Dutch “mar” is probably related to old English “merran,” which means “hinder or damage” and to Dutch “marren” which means “loiter.” It takes me to English where it often occurs as a past participle, as in “marred in controversy.” My tongue is also marred or مضيم in occupations and dislocations. “Mar” is bigger and nicer in Spanish. There it comes from Latin, and unlike the interruption implied in Germanic, it is vast, infinite, wavy, and continuous. It’s also the name of a friend from Granada or Grana as she used to say. I imagine her on school trips as a little girl enthralled and perplexed by لا غالب إلا الله on the walls of Alhambra. In Spain, they teach Arabic as a dead language, she used to tell me. She learned alive Arabic in New York of all places. مار takes me to my own childhood, to Christian weddings in the old town in Homs, and to picturesque Christian villages on school trips. Borrowed from Syriac, مار in Arabic is maintained in the names of churches to roughly mean Saint as in مار جرجس.  Today my childhood memories along with their settings are only accessible to me through language, often different from the one I experienced them in. 

I no longer experience that sense of bemused euphoria at the seemingly seamless reconciliation of tongues paraded in airport lounges, academic conferences and translation apps. It is all a mirage, and things making complete sense is a little bit too tidy for my liking.

Ahmad Diab is a Palestinian writer and academic. He is assistant professor of modern Arabic literature and cinema (20th and 21st centuries) at University of California, Berkeley. His work contemplates the relationship between displacement and representation. He received his B.A. from Damascus University. He was awarded a Ph.D. from the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is currently finishing his first academic book titled Intimate Others: Representations of Arabs in the Palestinian Imaginary.

Note: Over the course of the fall semester, each 2021-22 ARC Fellow will submit a short blog post relating to the theme coexistence. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! Poetry and the Senses creates meaningful opportunities for engagement, research, and collaboration. This multi-year initiative explores the relevance and urgency of lyrical making and storytelling in times of political crisis, and the value of engaging the senses as an act of care, mindfulness, and resistance. To learn more about the program, click here.