Living within spheres of linguistic transitions

February 24, 2018



Every morning, before I open my eyes, I write Arabic poems in the air with my right hand. I make sure not to forget to put the tiny figures above each letter to distinguish the sound. The manifestation of each verse comes different from its following. Unlike toddlers and instead of arms, I am rocked softly by a language whose complexity allows for an imaginary correspondence between my Arab ancestors and my cosmopolitan being. During this daily ritual, I do not haunt for the words since they often crawl down like starving ants for bread crumbs, or neither do I feel inclined to recall the poems I brought to life on the other previous days. My constant hesitation to pour them into blank white paper derives from a desire of wanting to preserve the unheard, and to save it from becoming a public domain. I would then get out of my bed to mark my presence in the anglophone space which I have been inhabiting for about five years now.


I speak in English, think in English, live in English, but I breath in Arabic. And I rarely practise yoga to claim that I focus on my breath every now and then. While overlooking the consequences of processing knowledge in a language that did not shape my early years of living, I find myself engaging in internal monologues that don’t offer enough coherence to understand my own context and the culture I grew up in. On the other hand, French is “secular”; I do not use it to think, even when I read Albert Camus or Tahar Ben Jelloun, and not even when turning the pages of magazines in the waiting room of a dental clinic. Today, French, somehow, doesn’t affect the ways in which I perceive the world, or my understanding of its mechanisms. Yet, similar to many other African countries, and due to the historical events related to colonialism, French was considered as a language of civilisation, and constructed other dimensions to modernity that affected the lifestyle of my family, in addition to alienating and subjugating unprivileged communities. In my quest of adopting decoloniality, I have divorced from it, not to separate from the rich literature and arts, but rather the imposed doctrines that were simply not duplicable in our Moroccan context.


What I find problematic in this lived experience of mine shaped thoroughly by language is my inability to translate all that I have cultivated in my Anglophone sphere of knowledge to my Arabic one. Every time I attempt to transition back to my mother tongue, I find myself still living within the confinements of the taboos and embedded cultural stereotypes which I had detached myself from in my anglophone sphere. It is similar to living a dual identity; between two worlds, two countries, two languages, and a battle between an inherited culture and a chosen one.


In her autobiography, Simone de Beauvoir recalls her learning journey, and the fulfilment of gaining a state of enlightenment per se, that enabled her to see where she stood in the world, and understand ‘the structure of society and the course of history’ better than she did before.

In my ideal Arabic speaking world, I would have loved to share my views on gender performativity or on racism in a manner which will not leave my arguments misunderstood.


A couple of days ago, I watched Nawal Saadaoui’s —an Egyptian novelist, feminist and psychiatrist— interviews both in Arabic and English. I understood the suffering, and the controversy around the social constructs of religious practices when discussing secularism and female genital mutilation. On the other hand, her Arabic interview on a Lebanese channel, didn’t offer her much room to express or elaborate more on her writings. She was considered a traitor for questioning the abuse of political power through thought control in her society, and for challenging the legitimacy of common beliefs. Saadawi’s quest of encouraging rationality and critical approaches to deconstructing and reconstructing the engagement with the world was not welcomed, yet cherished elsewhere.


The unlimited exposure to english content, and western academia has perhaps not provided me yet with the tools that teach the art of speaking in tongues. In many ways, it becomes critical to lead a battle with language to simplify how my gender, my race, and class intersect and transcend within an Arabic speaking world.


I need a narrative that doesn’t exclude the wisdom of my grandmother from contributing to knowledge production, one that exposes the androcentric dominated culture, yet allows my female cousins to relate to. And perhaps one that wouldn’t allow my educated generation to use our privilege against our communities.


It is about looking for ways in which my political and social consciousness could go beyond the limits of language to expose race as being a social construct with words, which themselves have been given racist connotations.

However, the matter goes farther since I need to keep watering the roots, and not seeking validation for neither myself nor my knowledge, from both the west and anglophone speakers in the spaces in which I am today part of.


It is about keeping an observant eye to how language slips silently into the day-to-day practices and shapes cultural landscapes. By following closely my journey, and the experiences of those around me, I might, perhaps and hopefully, give room to alternative ways to understand this phenomenon that mirrored humanity’s hazardous experience.




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©2018 by Amina Soulimani. 

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