“Disappearance/Muteness”—Tales from a Life in Translation

11 July, 2022
Alia Ali, “Blue Tides & Pink Palms,” LIBERTY Series, 2022, pig­ment print with UV lam­i­nate mount­ed on alu­minum dibond in wood­en box frame uphol­stered with 100% cot­ton man­u­al­ly block print­ed in Udaipur, Rajasthan with unbleached 100% muslin lin­in, 49 in x 35 in // 124.5 cm x 89 cm (cour­tesy Alia Ali).

 

My Ara­bic is mute choked at the throat curs­ing itself
with­out say­ing a word
asleep in the air­less shel­ters of my soul hid­ing
from rel­a­tives
behind the shut­ters of Hebrew
Almog Behar “My Ara­bic Is Mute”

 

Ayelet Tsabari

 

There are cer­tain words that always come to me in Yemeni. Words that appear on my tongue with­out effort. Words that come first, before my dom­i­nant lan­guages get a say.

Yemeni Ara­bic, more specif­i­cal­ly, the Judeo-Ara­bic ver­nac­u­lar of North Yemen, is the dialect my grand­par­ents spoke their whole lives, and my moth­er and aunts still use when they sing, or when they pep­per their Hebrew speech with Yemeni words or quote col­or­ful idioms like “Your rib is bro­ken when you mar­ry off your son; you gain a rib when you mar­ry off your daugh­ter,” or imag­i­na­tive curs­es such as “May the demons kid­nap you.” The lan­guage I heard every time I vis­it­ed my grand­moth­er, watch­ing her talk with her daugh­ters, her friends, her words accom­pa­nied with expres­sive hand ges­tures and exag­ger­at­ed sighs, sound­ing, always, either mad or cheeky. A lan­guage she used for endear­ments, infused with the love of ances­tral moth­ers, Hay­ati, Ayu­ni, Gal­bi, my life, my eyes, my heart. A lan­guage I was sur­round­ed by every time I walked the streets of Sha’ariya, the neigh­bor­hood in Israel where she lived, and where my par­ents grew up. A lan­guage I want to believe lies dor­mant in my body, genet­i­cal­ly encod­ed into my cells, wait­ing to be awak­ened, acti­vat­ed. A lan­guage I don’t speak, and now it is too late. A dying lan­guage that, despite its dis­ap­pear­ance from the world, man­aged to take root in my brain in the form of stub­born words that won’t let go.

This essay is excerpt­ed from Tongues, avail­able from Book*hug Press.

The oth­er day I slipped and twist­ed my ankle. Except, in my mind, I didn’t trip or stum­ble or ma’adti — the Hebrew word that should have come to mind. When some­one in yoga class asked what hap­pened, I eyed her. “Are you Yemeni?” I asked. “Half,” she replied, unsure. “Hitgal’abti,” I said, pro­nounc­ing the throaty ayin as it was meant to sound, as though a mar­ble slides down your throat. Maybe the word stuck because of the men­tal image it invokes: the way the syl­la­bles trip out of my mouth and pile on top of each oth­er. What­ev­er it is, oth­er words sim­ply won’t do.

Hane­ga, pro­nounced with a gut­tur­al het, is anoth­er one of these untrans­lat­able Yemeni words. It comes to me when­ev­er my eight-year-old daugh­ter frowns, pouts, shrugs her shoul­ders, and refus­es to talk. If my sib­lings or cousins are around, I’d mut­ter it to them know­ing­ly, the way I’d seen my moth­er do with my aunts. When I’m with peo­ple who aren’t Yemeni, the word still rolls to the tip of my tongue before retreating.

I took to Face­book once to con­sult with oth­er Israeli friends of Yemeni descent about the best way to trans­late hane­ga in my work. I was writ­ing a scene for my mem­oir, in which I used the word to get a reac­tion from my grand­moth­er. “Are you hane­ga?” I asked her. She turned to look at me, aston­ished and pleased to hear me speak­ing her language.

My post gar­nered 220 com­ments and almost as many opin­ions. “Hane­ga is not just being offend­ed,” observed Ayala, a rel­a­tive. “It’s an entire performance…the act of twist­ing your face and snub­bing the offend­er. Hane­ga means she won’t eas­i­ly be appeased. It’s more than a word or an emo­tion. It’s a cul­tur­al story.”

I delight in the sound of Yemeni rolling out of my mouth, rejoice in accen­tu­at­ing the let­ters in that deep, melod­ic way, feel­ing as though in my own small way I’m keep­ing some­thing alive — an endan­gered lan­guage, yes — but also more per­son­al­ly, our past, my child­hood, as though in using these words I am chan­nel­ing my ancestors.

Maybe it also feels like an affir­ma­tion, because despite grow­ing up in a Yemeni fam­i­ly, I have often felt not Yemeni enough, was accused of try­ing to be more Ashke­nazi. Was it because I lived in Cana­da for so long? Was my light-brown skin not brown enough? Or maybe it’s because, like many oth­er third- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Yeme­nis, I don’t pro­nounce the gut­tur­al het and ayins that Mizrahi Jews (Arab Jews who migrat­ed from Arab lands) were once famous for. That accent, my par­ents’, is still imi­tat­ed (poor­ly) and mocked on Israeli satire shows — often by Ashke­nazi actors who play Mizrahi char­ac­ters — even though it is the accu­rate pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Hebrew, which, like Ara­bic, was meant to have gut­tur­al let­ters. But the coun­try was run by Euro­pean Jews, so their (incor­rect, mis­pro­nounced) way of speak­ing took over and became the norm.

Grow­ing up I liked that I sound­ed like every­one else, that I fit in. Years lat­er, as I began embrac­ing my Yemeni iden­ti­ty, I regret­ted not learn­ing this pro­nun­ci­a­tion from my par­ents, envied my cousins and friends who did. Now I admire the ele­gant and musi­cal sound of it when­ev­er I hear it. Some­times I force it into exis­tence. When read­ing my Hebrew writ­ing in front of an audi­ence, cer­tain words no longer sound right if the het or ayin are not pro­nounced; flat­ten­ing them turns them into dif­fer­ent let­ters, and there­fore the words are altered. He’almut, I might say with the glot­tal ayin. Dis­ap­pear­ance. Or else, the ayin becomes an alef and the word might sound like Hela­mut: Mute­ness.

My grand­moth­er nev­er quite took to Hebrew. Ara­bic always came first, allowed her the range of wit and humor her adopt­ed Hebrew nev­er could. Like most women in Yemen, she was illit­er­ate, but in her six­ties, she took Hebrew lessons and learned to sign her name instead of dip­ping her thumb in ink as she had done before. After her death, I found an offi­cial doc­u­ment in my mom’s clos­et: my grandmother’s Hebrew giv­en name (which she also nev­er took to) scrib­bled hes­i­tant­ly and child­like at the bot­tom of the page.

My grand­fa­ther, like oth­er Jew­ish men, knew Hebrew from prayers, but that Hebrew was bib­li­cal, sacred, not for every­day use. When they arrived in Pales­tine in the 1930s, Hebrew, which had been a dead lan­guage for sev­en­teen gen­er­a­tions, became the only way these Jew­ish immi­grants from dif­fer­ent coun­tries could com­mu­ni­cate. How strange it must have felt to utter these words reserved for prayer in an every­day con­text, to shop in the mar­ket, to argue with a neigh­bor, to bring them down to earth.

My par­ents were born into this new lan­guage. My moth­er tells me my father nev­er knew Yemeni, and even if he did, his fam­i­ly spoke the Shara­bi dialect, from a dif­fer­ent dis­trict in Yemen.

“Is it that different?”

“They pro­nounce g, and we pro­nounce j,” she said.

How could I expect to speak an ances­tral lan­guage even my own father couldn’t retain?

Many years lat­er, when I came to Cana­da and had to live in a new lan­guage — a lan­guage I stud­ied in school but in which I scored a D+ on my matric­u­la­tion exams, a lan­guage that felt unnat­ur­al and awk­ward in my mouth, its long and short syl­la­bles like a mine­field designed to make me trip (Don’t say bitch when you mean beach, I prayed every time a vis­it to Kits Beach was men­tioned) — I thought of my grandparents.

 


 

This is an essay about my long­ing for Ara­bic, but it is also an essay writ­ten in Eng­lish, by some­one who was born into Hebrew, who didn’t know Eng­lish until she was ten, who hadn’t read an Eng­lish book until she was twen­ty-four, who wrote her first sto­ry in Eng­lish at thir­ty-three. There are days when I wor­ry that writ­ing in my sec­ond lan­guage is the most inter­est­ing thing about me as a writer. I under­stand the fas­ci­na­tion. Writ­ing in a sec­ond lan­guage, I had writ­ten once, is like wear­ing some­one else’s skin, an act akin to reli­gious con­ver­sion. This isn’t what this essay is about, but how can I ignore that part of my sto­ry? That facet of my writer­ly identity?

I write in Eng­lish about peo­ple who speak Hebrew and Ara­bic, so it’s no sur­prise that words in these lan­guages demand to be includ­ed; they migrate into the Eng­lish text uni­tal­i­cized and assert their place in the for­eign set­tings, mir­ror­ing my own sto­ry of immigration.

After my fam­i­ly and I moved back to Israel in 2018, I got to watch my Cana­di­an part­ner learn­ing Hebrew, and my daugh­ter, a true bilin­gual, weav­ing in and out of tongues, like a bas­ket­ball play­er drib­bling across the court. “Some­times it’s tir­ing to live in two lan­guages,” she said to me the oth­er day. I sym­pa­thize. My even­tu­al mas­ter­ing of Eng­lish came at the cost of my Hebrew. Lan­guage is a liv­ing, evolv­ing thing, and I had been away for twen­ty years. I used to pride myself on my com­mand of Hebrew gram­mar; now I am feel­ing chal­lenged in both lan­guages, a hum­bling expe­ri­ence that made me rethink my devo­tion to cor­rect gram­mar and recon­sid­er what real­ly mat­ters in a work of writ­ing or in dai­ly conversation.

These days, I find myself fear­ing for my Eng­lish, again. When­ev­er my Hebrew flows, I wor­ry my Eng­lish is at risk. I’ve seen my moth­er tongue atro­phy; no doubt it could hap­pen to my adopt­ed tongue.

The way we speak at home does not fol­low any of the rec­om­mend­ed rules for rais­ing bilin­gual chil­dren (where each par­ent must speak only one lan­guage). We speak Hing­lish, or Ebrew, flu­ent­ly switch, start a sen­tence in one lan­guage and end with anoth­er, and some­times, mis­tak­en­ly, we con­ju­gate an Eng­lish verb in Hebrew gram­mar. In a sense, the Judeo-Ara­bic spo­ken in my grand­par­ents’ home was a sim­i­lar crea­ture. It was the same Ara­bic their neigh­bors in Yemen spoke but col­ored with Hebrew influ­ences. Lat­er, in Israel, Hebrew became more promi­nent, but the two were still inter­laced, still interplaying.

Mov­ing back to Israel also meant mov­ing to the Mid­dle East, a part of the world large­ly ruled by Ara­bic. Pales­tin­ian Ara­bic is in the DNA of this place, and the neigh­bor­ing dialects of Egypt, Syr­ia, Lebanon, and Jor­dan sur­round us from every bor­der. I grew up watch­ing the week­ly “Ara­bic Movie” every Fri­day with my moth­er, an Egypt­ian melo­dra­ma filled with heart­break, betray­al, and for­bid­den love. Despite the dif­fer­ent dialect, my mom didn’t need the Hebrew sub­ti­tles. When she went to the kitchen to stir the soup, she asked us to turn it up so she could lis­ten in.

Accord­ing to research by the Van Leer Insti­tute in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, 10 per cent of Jews in Israel claim they speak Ara­bic, but only 1 per cent would be able to read a book. The per­cent­age ris­es sig­nif­i­cant­ly, to over 25 per cent, among first-gen­er­a­tion Arab Jews, but drops again with sec­ond and third generation.

Mizrahi Jews, some of whom came lat­er than Ashke­nazi, faced prej­u­dice and inequity in Israel. Their need to assim­i­late required an era­sure of their past, a denial of their her­itage and lan­guage, which wasn’t just for­eign, or dias­poric, but also asso­ci­at­ed with the ene­my. Yid­dish and oth­er Euro­pean lan­guages were also lost, but Ara­bic was more polit­i­cal­ly charged. Despite shar­ing roots with Hebrew, which should have made it feel famil­ial, it became viewed as dan­ger­ous, and hear­ing it instilled fear.

Chil­dren begged their immi­grant par­ents to stop lis­ten­ing to leg­endary singer Oum Kolthum (once referred to by an igno­rant Ashke­nazi review­er as a scream­er), stop speak­ing Ara­bic in pub­lic. With the excep­tion of the week­ly Ara­bic movie — a source of com­fort for many Mizrahim that was reduced to a cult phe­nom­e­non by Ashke­naz­im — Ara­bic lan­guage and cul­ture were not cel­e­brat­ed in the pub­lic sphere. The radio didn’t play Ara­bic music, or Hebrew music that sound­ed Ara­bic, a genre they labelled Mizrahi music. The schools didn’t teach our his­to­ry, our lit­er­a­ture. A gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren were raised to reject their her­itage, their lan­guage, their parents.

The first time I heard Ara­bic spo­ken in Van­cou­ver, instead of feel­ing nos­tal­gic, I tensed up.

In 2018, Ara­bic was down­grad­ed from an offi­cial lan­guage along­side Hebrew to a “spe­cial sta­tus lan­guage” — a move that caused out­rage among Israel’s Pales­tin­ian pop­u­la­tion, but also many in the Jew­ish left, espe­cial­ly those with an Ara­bic back­ground. In demot­ing Ara­bic, the Israeli gov­ern­ment made a clear state­ment about the sta­tus of Ara­bic-speak­ing cit­i­zens in the country.

That’s how we end­ed up a Hebrew-speak­ing nation ship­wrecked in the mid­dle of the Arab world. This is how we end­ed up liv­ing among Pales­tini­ans, many of whom (par­tic­u­lar­ly those with Israeli cit­i­zen­ship) speak Hebrew, yet we can’t com­mu­ni­cate with them in their lan­guage. This is how we end­ed up know­ing only the most basic Ara­bic words, most­ly slang and swear words (words that turned Ara­bic from dan­ger­ous to obscene), words we claimed for our­selves, using them casu­al­ly, care­less­ly, to the hor­ror of our Arab neighbors.

Lan­guage Bar­ri­er,” a web series pro­duced by two flu­ent Ara­bic speak­ers, Eran Singer and Roy Ettinger, both Jew­ish and Ashke­nazi, inves­ti­gates what went wrong in Israel’s edu­ca­tion sys­tem. They inter­view experts, vis­it schools, speak to Jews and Arabs. In one inter­view, Prof. Muham­mad Ama­ra from Beit Berl Col­lege says, “Lan­guage is not grammar…Language is dia­logue. The biggest prob­lem in Ara­bic lan­guage edu­ca­tion in Israel is pinned in the fact that they teach it as an ene­my lan­guage, not the lan­guage of the neighbor.”

I think of my poor Ara­bic teacher, a short, unsmil­ing woman with a thick Iraqi accent, her hair dyed an unnat­ur­al black, try­ing to instil in us an appre­ci­a­tion for her moth­er tongue. We weren’t excit­ed about Ara­bic, not like we were about Eng­lish learn­ing. Eng­lish was sexy. Eng­lish was Hol­ly­wood. Eng­lish was the future. For those of Mizrahi back­ground, Ara­bic was the dias­poric past we want­ed noth­ing to do with; for every­one, it was a lan­guage of war. As home­work we lis­tened to Israel’s Ara­bic radio sta­tion, learn­ing words like con­flict, gov­ern­ment, and nego­ti­a­tion. No won­der we lost inter­est. When the cre­ators of the show enter an Ara­bic class­room in a Jew­ish high school, every­one in the room admits they hope to serve in intel­li­gence in the manda­to­ry army, prov­ing Pro­fes­sor Amara’s point. In addi­tion, they main­ly teach Fusha, Mod­ern Stan­dard Ara­bic: good for read­ing but not for speak­ing. To illus­trate this, the pro­duc­er heads to the mar­ket and attempts to buy toma­toes while speak­ing prop­er Fusha. “I under­stood about 80 per cent,” the Pales­tin­ian shop­keep­er replies.

When I was 30 and liv­ing in Van­cou­ver, I got a job wait­ress­ing at a Lebanese restau­rant. Van­cou­ver had almost no Israelis then, no pres­ence of Hebrew. By then, five years into liv­ing in Cana­da, I no longer tensed to the sound of Ara­bic. At Mona’s I was sur­round­ed by the lan­guage, the famil­iar cui­sine, the music. At Mona’s my Mid­dle East­ern­ness was embraced and wel­comed. I missed home, and Mona’s and the fam­i­ly who ran it gave me one.

My first year at Mona’s, I hired Yusuf, an extreme­ly well-dressed Iraqi man I had met there to help me with my Ara­bic. For some strange rea­son, I retained my knowl­edge of the Ara­bic alpha­bet, and often drew the round­ed, cur­sive let­ters on paper when doo­dling. I recent­ly found a note I had giv­en my part­ner when we first met a few months after that. Beside my phone num­ber I had writ­ten my name in Eng­lish, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Yusuf was an expe­ri­enced teacher, and he came to the yel­low house I’d been shar­ing with four room­mates off Com­mer­cial Dri­ve with work sheets and hand­outs, com­pli­ment­ing me on my pro­nun­ci­a­tion and rapid improve­ment. But he was also way too flir­ty, and the day I told him so was the last les­son we had together.

I worked at Mona’s for six years. After some time, I start­ed tak­ing orders in Ara­bic, was able to explain poor­ly and halt­ing­ly to Sau­di stu­dents how much a shish kabob plat­ter cost and what would be on it. I start­ed catch­ing phras­es in songs by Amr Diab and Nan­cy Ajram and was buoyed when I could sing entire lines. Being away from home and its prej­u­dice toward the Ara­bic lan­guage allowed my body to remem­ber Ara­bic, lament what was lost, and reclaim my own Arabness.

But even at Mona’s, sur­round­ed most­ly by Cana­di­an Arabs, almost every­one spoke to me in Eng­lish. My Ara­bic improved, but  then I plateaued.

When I trav­elled back to Israel to vis­it, I began research­ing my Yemeni back­ground, and for the first time used some of these words I’d always known when speak­ing with my grand­moth­er. In my grandma’s last days, I began lis­ten­ing atten­tive­ly instead of tun­ing her out. Think­ing, here’s a word. I know that one. Here’s a say­ing. I have heard this one before. Her eyes beamed when­ev­er I spoke Ara­bic. The gap between us abridged.

‘Learn Ara­bic,’ a Pales­tin­ian author I shared the stage with at a lit­er­ary event in Tel Aviv plead­ed with me. ‘If you moved back here, you owe it to your­self.’ What she was say­ing was, it wasn’t sole­ly about my own past. It was about our shared future.

There are two Ara­bics I long for — my ances­tral tongue and the lan­guage of this place — or is it real­ly one? Ara­bic exist­ed along­side my moth­er tongue for gen­er­a­tions, a sis­ter lan­guage whose words are often rec­og­niz­able: bay­it and beit, yeled and wal­ad. They share many words, a sim­i­lar ring, an ety­mo­log­i­cal root, a lin­gual fam­i­ly, and yet they are estranged. If this is not a para­ble about the state of this region, I don’t know what is.

“Learn Ara­bic,” a Pales­tin­ian author I shared the stage with at a lit­er­ary event in Tel Aviv plead­ed with me. “If you moved back here, you owe it to your­self.” What she was say­ing was, it wasn’t sole­ly about my own past. It was about our shared future.

On a recent vis­it to Ush­iot, a neigh­bor­hood in Rehovot steeped in the smells of fenu­greek and cilantro, where recent immi­grants from Yemen live, I heard a child speak­ing Judeo-Ara­bic Yemeni. He was maybe six, brown skinned, with side curls and a kip­pah. He almost looked like the pho­tos I’d seen of Yemeni Jews tak­en decades ago. His moth­er was a young woman wear­ing a head scarf and born in Yemen, a rar­i­ty nowa­days. The num­ber of Jews in Yemen is in the dozens.

That child may be one of the last peo­ple to speak this language.

Who will he speak to when he grows up?

Some days I feel a phys­i­cal ache for Ara­bic, a tug in my heart. How do you miss some­thing you’ve nev­er known? Can a lan­guage be lodged inside your body, fold­ed into your organs, the same way we inher­it mem­o­ries from our ances­tors, like trau­ma? How else can you explain the warmth that spreads inside my body when I hear it? The yearning?

I want this essay to have a hap­py end­ing. I want to tell you I signed up for Ara­bic lessons at the com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter. Which I did, but then COVID shut it down before class­es began. I want to tell you I enrolled my daugh­ter in one of those few and rare Jew­ish Arab schools, where kids study in both lan­guages. My part­ner and I went to vis­it one in Jaf­fa before she start­ed first grade. Chil­dren ran around, play­ing in two lan­guages, shift­ing back and forth seam­less­ly. “I’m sor­ry,” the prin­ci­pal said. “You must live in the dis­trict to enroll.”

What I will tell you is that I recent­ly learned my mem­oir will be trans­lat­ed into Ara­bic, and how deliri­ous­ly hap­py this made me; I’d been dream­ing of being trans­lat­ed into Ara­bic. And then — how deeply sad, because I knew I couldn’t read it myself.

I may not speak Ara­bic, but these days I sing in Arabic.

When I dis­cov­ered the Yemeni Women’s songs a few years ago — a reper­toire of songs women sang at hen­na cer­e­monies, at births and wed­dings, a form of oral sto­ry­telling that had been passed on, unwrit­ten, for gen­er­a­tions, now on the verge of dis­ap­pear­ance, of mute­ness — I want­ed to learn them the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, through lis­ten­ing. Then I real­ized this wasn’t enough. I need­ed to join the singing, to become an active par­tic­i­pant in the tra­di­tion of pass­ing the songs on.

I see my teacher, Gila, at her home in a small moshav by Jerusalem. We sit in her liv­ing room, or on the bal­cony fac­ing fields and hills. She teach­es me the songs and their trans­la­tion and tells me of their his­to­ry and mean­ing. When I sing, my mouth does not stum­ble, even as it mim­ics words it doesn’t know. The trans­la­tion is there, but when I sing, I rarely look at it. Singing is its own lan­guage. Before the pan­dem­ic, Gila even sug­gest­ed I accom­pa­ny her to sing at a hen­na. I don’t know if there’s any­thing more affirm­ing than this.

The oth­er day, as I was prac­tic­ing the songs, my daugh­ter inched for­ward until she stood next to me. Then her small voice joined in, imi­tat­ing the for­eign words. Her body knew what it was sup­posed to do too. As we sang, I tried to be still, to not dis­turb the moment. We sang and I could hear our ances­tors singing along with us.

 

“Disappearance/Muteness” is excerpt­ed from Tongues: On Long­ing and Belong­ing through Lan­guage (2021 Book*hug Press), edit­ed by Leonar­da Car­ran­za, Eufemia Fan­tet­ti, and Ayelet Tsabari, and appears in TMR with per­mis­sion from the publisher.

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Canadian, Israeli and Yemeni, Ayelet Tsabari is the author of the award-winning memoir in essays The Art of Leaving. She co-edited with Leonarda Carranza and Eufemia Fantetti the anthology Tongues, On Longing and Belonging through Language. Her first book in English was a collection of stories, The Best Place on Earth, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice that was nominated for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, published internationally to great acclaim. Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. She studied film and photography in Capilano University’s Media Program in Vancouver, where she directed two documentary films, one of which won an award at the Palm Spring International Short Film Festival. She wrote her first story in English in 2006. A graduate of Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio and the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph, Ayelet teaches at the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph, at University of King’s College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and The Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Track in Creative Writing in Bar Ilan University.

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