A World Wider

I found some oversized flashcards when digging through my closet a few years ago that have hovered over my mind since I first saw them. A sort of half-remembered presence that evoked equal parts of nostalgia and disappointment for the kinds of opportunity they represented; the words I never got to speak because they stayed there, hidden in that closet, for most of my life. I cannot speak about language without speaking of love; they are two inextricably linked concepts for me, one and the same. Language is how I express my love, and words are my building blocks. The way my voice wraps around them and embraces those words changes the way I convey the love I have for people, for places, for life, for any number of things. The flashcards in my closet are loose change in the currency of love, only ever partially useful, half within my grasp.

Indistinct graffiti in Rabat, words “my life” and “soul” are the only legible items

The flashcards in my closet are in the language my family abandoned for me when I was four; the one I chose to reach for again only ten years later when I was too old to retain the little German I learned from those flashcards and the lullabies my mother would sing me. She was lucky enough to grow up with two mother tongues, two languages that raised her — German and English — but I first ventured into that part of my history, first expressed myself in that language, when I was well beyond the capacity of ever truly owning German the way I wanted to, the way I own English. My mother left German behind because the challenge of raising a child far outweighed the challenge of raising her language from the place she buried it when she came to America, from the classrooms to which she confined it. She regrets it at times. I regret it more than that. When I speak, I sometimes feel that half my words are missing.

Enter Arabic, the foreign invader, the oddball. If English is the language closest to my heart, the one that raised me, my mother tongue, Arabic is the stranger. Arabic was never buried anywhere in my family’s history, never to be found in a closet years after its introduction. I found Arabic by falling into a hole and slamming into it at the bottom, a total coincidence that ended up consuming me. It has, in the years since I started learning it, become my direction. I will never own it, but I welcome it in at every opportunity I have, and I embrace that I will never fully possess it. Arabic is the language in which I express my love for the world, in which I convey my own humility and pride simultaneously. It is the venture that reconciles the ghosts of the language in my closet, German, which I always feel I should know better, with my affection for my mother tongue.

A series of Arabic grammar treatises

Learning Arabic is an exercise in patience, in training myself to love in spite of my limitations. When I hear it spoken, I am comforted and confused by the words and the sounds, so like music, that have taken me years to comprehend. I am fixated on those which still elude me. I am alone, and I am surrounded by the people I love, those I have met through my encounters with the language. Arabic grew on me, planted itself amid the strange and guilty wreckage of my half-German, all-English mind, and pushed me until I made a place for it. Neither my mother tongue nor my grandmother tongue, it remains the language I love the most, even more than the others in which I am adept. It is my home away from home, the way I contextualize places with words, the way I express my love for the very nature of a world wider than my ability to express. I happened upon Arabic at first, but after that initial encounter I chose it, and now it is a part of me. The part of my history spent living in Morocco, all my years in high school, every negotiation and renegotiation with the part of me that is my languages, is wrapped up in Arabic. It is the mediator and the medium. It taught me to accept the ghosts in my closet, to hold them like the little histories they are, and to count them as exercises in beauty rather than loss. It taught me to love in English what I could never understand before I learned to express that love — or how not to express it — in Arabic.

A painted satellite dish outside of the Moroccan National Library

I have been handed a mother tongue and a grandmother tongue, a present and a history. I stumbled upon a stranger, alhamdulillah, that entered my life and probed the closets there, exhumed the flashcards and forgotten words, and created from them a speaker and a writer. I know my languages are my limits, but that they also make me limitless, and for that I am grateful.

About the Writer: Dana Slayton (Cornell 22') is originally from Richmond, Virginia. While she proudly agrees with the classification of her hometown as “The Paris of the South,” her heart belongs to Marrakech, Morocco. It is her favorite city in the world because of its constant bustle, exuberant spirit, and rockin’ music scene.

About Guac: Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.

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