‘Don’t Speak Arabic Here’

By | May 2, 2016

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“Don’t speak Arabic here.”

That was one of the first pieces of advice I recieved when I moved back to the United States after spending years in the Middle East, and it’s a sentence that tends to ring in my ear very often. I did not hear it from an angry passer-by following the rhetoric of famous politicians. I did not hear it from the barista at the coffee shop I tend to frequent. I heard it from a person whose second language is Arabic, and I would lie to you if I told you that did not make me think twice about carrying around an Arabic novel to sit and read out in the public. I would also lie to you if I told you that didn’t make me look around and see if anyone was looking at me suspiciously when I spoke Arabic in public.

I felt like the person who warned me to not speak Arabic in America was telling me to betray my Arabic tongue and everyone who taught me it.

However, I also felt like someone was trying to lock up part of my identity. I felt like the person who warned me to not speak Arabic in America was telling me to betray my Arabic tongue and everyone who taught me it.

Don’t speak Arabic here? It’s gotten to this? I find myself thinking again.

On December 18th of this year was the fourth anniversary for the World Arabic Language Day presented by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On the morning of December 21st, a YouTube star, Adam Saleh, recorded his being kicked off a Delta flight for speaking Arabic. Although some were quick to call this a “prank” as Saleh’s videos are known for such, the fact that such incidents take place cannot be ignored. Early in April of this year, a University of California, Berkeley student was escorted off Southwest Airlines when a woman became uncomfortable after hearing him speak in Arabic over the phone. In March of 2015, Pine Bush High School received various criticisms – and even issued an apology- after having a student recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic during national Foreign Language Week. In 2009, a travelling student was interrogated at the airport for carrying Arabic flashcards because, he was told, “Arabic was the language of Osama Bin Laden.”


Many will attribute the recent rise of the discrimination “incidents” and hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, specifically, to ‘Trump’s America.’

Is that why Arabic, my language and the language of millions around the world, frightens many? Many will attribute the recent rise of the discrimination “incidents” and hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, specifically, to “Trump’s America.” However, with organizations that have been around since the 1980s, such as English First that lobbies for English becoming the official language of the United States and for issues like decreasing “healthcare costs by using English only and removing the translator mandate”, it is clear that the soon-to-be president Trump is not the root cause. He is simply part of the equation that paved the way for this sort of blunt and appalling discrimination to surface once again.

On a particular night a few months ago, my brother and I were walking in downtown New Orleans speaking Arabic. A group of women holding daiquiris were walking behind us. They seemed to be having a good time, laughing and speaking loudly, until one of them called to my brother and I.
“Hey, you. What language are you speaking?”
My brother and I turned around and said, “Arabic.”
“What are you saying?” She continued to probe.
At the moment, I was discussing how the sky looked like it was about to rain, so I told her.
“Girl, speak English. Speak English!” She commented and strolled past us with her group of friends.

Oddly enough — or perhaps, understandably enough – her question “what are you saying?” is something I wish people around the world that think Arabic is scary and the language of terrorism asked more often. If it were asked to myself, I would speak of the beauty of Arabic. I would narrate the many times I searched for the word “Salamtik” in English when someone who doesn’t speak Arabic tells me they were sick or the time I searched for the words “Ya’teek el ‘afia” in English to tell the conductor of the streetcar I frequent when he dropped me off at my destination. I can tell you that the first word means “May God give you peace” and the second word means “May God give you wellness”, but the sincerity of the words said in Arabic is lost in translation. I would greet and bid farewell with one of the most beautiful greetings in Arabic: “Assalamu ‘Alaikum” (“Peace be upon you”).


I still will speak Arabic, and I invite anyone bothered by this to ask me: ‘What are you saying?’ I would be more than grateful to tell you.

In 2015 alone, over one million individuals obtained lawful permanent resident status. This only points to the fact that more people are coming into and settling in the United States – people who speak different languages, including Arabic. The fact is not a single person can tell another to leave their language back home without going against the Amendments and Civil Rights law, often quoted but seldom followed.

“Speaking a different language used to be considered a unique and impressive skill. I remember making friends in elementary school over their interest in how to write their name in Arabic. Now to think that people are viewed as “Others” because of a skill, a unique attribute, leaves me speechless,” Manar Mohammad, a Palestinian-American friend, posted earlier today on social media. That’s what America was to individuals like Manar and myself. We happily told our fellow Americans where we were from and what language we spoke. We showed them how their names were written in Arabic.

I still will not think twice about including “Fluent Arabic” under the “Skills” section in my resume. I still will speak Arabic, and I invite anyone bothered by this to ask me: “What are you saying?” I would be more than grateful to tell you.

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