My native tongue is my mama’s whispers
as she wakes for prayer in the early dawn.
Absorbed effortlessly in the humid afternoons of Muharraq -
with its medieval neighbourhoods, sun-baked alleyways
where the dripping ACs cultivate rogue vegetation.
Its sounds are coastal, its tones lap sweetly
like the Gulf’s gentle waves dancing at dusk.
Its sayings are colourful, its proverbs a repository
of grandparents wisdom, and lax, smooth vowels,
savoury recipes, and spicy adjectives.
It gives shape and reach to my father’s personality
whether in his hilarious, descriptive stories
or in shrewd, persuasive discussions with an official –
after which he’d crack a joke to lighten the mood.
It borrowed some Hindi, Persian – and yes, a bit of English
but its core is ancient, steadfast Arabic,
born of the desert and nurtured by the coast -
classical and folk, spoken and literary,
wielded by the illiterate and scholars alike.
It can be friendly, slightly aristocratic -
also sharp, even vitriolic.
It can be funny, like the word shalōshin (tape)
or phonetically descriptive, like the word khirmis (darkness combined with quiet).
It can be insulting (I won’t give examples, my kids might read this)
or hypnotically soothing when your spouse is upset.
My polished, formal language is the scribe’s inkpot,
imparted in school, cultivated in institutes,
taught to me by my mother – daily lessons on the floor –
promoted by competitions on Pan-Arab TV.
Born in the North, nurtured in the Hijāz,
the alchemical vessel of the Hanging Odes.
Preserved by the Quran, spread by our ancestors,
from the Peninsular coast to Amazigh shores.
It graces the Topkapı, the Omayyad mosque,
and figures on epitaphs in Cape Town.
It festoons the coat of arms of Brunei,
and encodes Romance dialects in Spain.
While it lies dormant in the dusty libraries of Timbuktu,
archaeologists find it on coins in Scandinavia.
Mourners raise it on unwavering banners in Karbala,
and it is pored over by bespectacled German scholars.
Its flowing orthography is literacy to countless millions,
and its calligraphy is a source of endless art.
Supple in the mouths of high-minded poets,
an abused tool of mealy-mouthed journos,
and their arachnid mother, prevaricating officialdom.
Enshrined in prophecies, centuries-old scholarship,
refined in translations and crafted proclamations.
Memorable from deployable quotes and noble poems,
the Hudaybiya peace and the Declaration of Human Rights.
Cartoons are dubbed in it, and therefore kids play in it.
Physics is taught in it, as is theology.
The medium of instructions and bylaws,
the letter of law and of academia.
Language of empathy, of medicine
of sports terms, grand ceremonies -
and my great grandfather’s letters to his cousins in the mainland.
Abu Zaid – ever gentle – was a master of it,
so was the inimitable Taha Husayn.
Our very own Abdullah Al-Shargawi was a great talent,
as was our Arabic teacher, Mr Al Mawlani,
whom we helped hand-copy his master’s thesis
on the 10th century Andalusian Ibn Hazm.
Its grammar is the schoolboy’s bane,
its emotiveness is the lover’s agony,
its formulae are the imam’s lashon ha-kodesh,
its vocabulary and script are indispensable -
to the proud Persian’s tasawwuf,
and passionate Indian’s shaeri.
There is freedom in its strict metre and morphology,
and unchartered horizons in its lexicon.
I could say more –
how my native language is as reassuring
as that childhood blanket you refuse to throw away.
How my written language gives the mind structure,
while garbled chaos rages without.
I’ll be less ambitious – perhaps a bit more effective,
employing this wonderful, modern tongue, English –
to convey to the world what we speak.
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