One of the unexpected things I have told friends about in my learning to speak Arabic over the past five years is the fact that I am much more talkative in Arabic than I am in English. In Arabic, my vocabulary is still limited, so if I know how to say something, I am often so excited by this that I will go ahead and say it, just because I can! In the last few years, though, this idea of saying things in Arabic because I can has taken on a harder edge as well. Sometimes, there are situations in which you don’t know what to say in any language, and in those situations, the few things I can say, I do, but I am still often left speechless.
When my study abroad program in Aleppo, Syria, was cancelled during the last weeks of its span in spring of 2011, it was only the breaking point of a wave of tension that had been rising, rising above our heads for months. As a group of mostly Americans cocooned up in the then-safe north of Syria, we glanced nervously at the television screen on the first floor while walking into and out of our dormitory, checking to see which flag it was being waved in protest at any given march. It is Tunisia; it was Libya; it was Egypt; it was Yemen; but for a long time, it was not Syria.
But we were also not so blind as to think it would not be Syria, and later to think it would not be Aleppo: there were signs, whispers, rumors, smoke clouds, and hastily-broken up crowds, all of it a hasty scrawl on the wall spelling out that fact that it could be tomorrow that our little world of classes and guest speakers and cooking classes ended, or it could be next month, or it could be in an hour. When the time did finally come, then, and we were given our 24-hour notice, it was not unexpected, and yet it was. How to give words to this feeling in my third language when I couldn’t even process it in my first– I didn’t know. What to say to friends who had comforted me, sheltered me, opened my eyes, revealed their vulnerabilities and lovingly dealt with mine, how to tell them what all that had meant, how to tell them ‘goodbye’ and ‘I’ll see you once more’ when the odds were that I would not– I did not know.
Many of these things were shared non-verbally, through embraces with the women, hand-shakes with the men, small gifts given and received, and the shedding of copious and badly concealed tears. One young man who had lived on the hall with us carried my luggage to the waiting bus as we were finally shipped off to a 6 am flight. He told me, “This is how a man shows a woman he respects her and they are friends.” Other aspects were expressed through words: I promised to everyone that I would be back, promising against likelihood and on the basis of sheer willpower and prayer. I still mean to, although that return date seems farther and farther off every day.
Beyond that, what was there to say? I found myself dipping that night into a rich sea of Arabic (usually Islamic) phrases, a resource that I would continue to draw upon in the ugly years to come. Allah yahmikum, I said, God protect you all. Allah m3k, I said, God be with you. I would discover others after my return to the United States and use them to supplement my own verbal vacuum when it came to expressing my emotions over Syria in any language. La hawl wa la quwa illa billah, I would type on friends’ Facebook pages, there is no might and no power but by God. Ameen ya rab, I would say or type when someone expressed a sincere wish for an end to war, and end to the bullets flying by their window and the explosions leveling their city, Amen, oh Lord. Allah yarhumhu, I would say as friends posted pictures on the Internet of their murdered brothers or cousins or uncles, God have mercy upon him.
And sometimes this would feel hypocritical. I am a Christian, after all, although none of my Muslim acquaintances have ever objected to my using Islamic phrases. I am also a Christian with decidedly conflicted feelings about how God acts in the world and what God’s role in situations of evil and oppression and pain is. If I were talking to a friend in English, even a more conservative Christian friend, would I say to them: God be with you, there is no might and no power but by God, Amen, amen, amen, God have mercy on that person’s soul? It’s pretty unlikely.
At the same time that I recognize the possibility of hypocrisy, though, I also recognize my deep-seated need to be able to say something. Separated by time zones and miles and political realities, hugs and hand shakes and small gifts are no longer an option. Expressing my hurt on my friends’ behalf, expressing my mourning for the city we loved together as new articles come out every day spelling its demise, expressing my wish to do anything, make anything happen, to make it better and to have things be all right for the people I care about– all of this has to be channeled into words. It is hard to say how I would do this in English, but in having to do it in Arabic, I use these phrases because even if they don’t align precisely with my own theology, they are close in meaning. They express my desperate good wishes and my clinging onto faith in the arc of the moral universe being long but bending toward justice.