ESSAY: On approaching a language from outside its crèche by Walid Nabhan

On approaching a language from outside its crèche
Copyright Gilbert Calleja

There is a notion that writing in a language other than the mother tongue promotes more freedom for the writer because he is coming at the language from outside of its historical augmentation, outside the date on which it was born and grew up. According to this notion, language becomes more malleable in the writer’s hands; he is moving it up and down, until ‘she’ becomes a mirror of the self. It is said that Samuel Beckett wrote in French in order to be free from the influence of the English language, specifically, from James Joyce.  I am neither surprised nor intimidated. The late Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish once confessed that he made a huge and constant effort to avoid the influence of his friend Saleem Barakat, a Syrian Kurd who had mastered Arabic in a magnificent way that is perhaps embarrassing for many native Arabic writers.

For the most part, I do not like to impose conditions on any type of writing, since writing in itself is an act of liberation, not only methodological, as Beckett and possibly Darwish held, but also cultural, social, religious and spiritual. This is exactly what the Indian writer Arundhati Roy had in mind in her only novel to date (The God of Small Things, 1997).  Unquestionably, she was motivated by Salman Rushdie, who made a twist in the history of English writing by creating a hybrid Indo-English.

Arundhati takes the free use of the ‘lingual foetus’ outside the custody of English, frequently injecting it with Hindi, to tackle vital ethnographical issues in a region with multiple conflicts. The language is formed in accordance with the interaction of several voices and cultures: the old versus the new, society versus the individual, the relationship with the British colonial powers, the class society, the alien (imported) cultures, and finally, globalization in a closed, nearly matriarchal society. Her crossbred language puts the world outside of the limits of black and white (this is characteristic of the adult world); the simplicity and purity of the world of the young lies in its ability to display all  colors honestly; to display complexity without simplification.

But is it really true that a language unzips itself for strangers? My diminutive answer would be “yes”, but a tentative and cautious “yes”, since things are not that simple; nor are they ever collision-free. Before you dare to write in a language, you need to know the culture of that language, which means the culture of its speakers too: their mood, their habits, their traditions, their collective memory, their common sense, their religious hysteria, their gods, their devils, their saints, their feasts, their food, their rubbish, their songs, their etc… etc. Unless you learn their “everything”, and keep on learning, you had better watch your mouth before you approach the alphabets of that language. This might explain why some translations thrive while others struggle. I don’t think that the beauty of a language - any language - is available for a passersby; neither is knowing “everything” enough, it is only one component of a lengthy process. A crucial constituent is the passion. Passion grants you accessibility; accessibility grants you courage, courage takes you deeper. Language must be female, or at least, a female invention.

Two decades of togetherness. Does that grant me any exemption as a writer? I can’t tell. I still find myself on edge when writing in Maltese. Being a good driver does not mean that you are a good mechanic too. Bravery is a bonus, but there will always be mechanical faults which you are unable to detect and repair. The writer is merely a driver; it is the linguist who is the mechanic.

I was 24 when I arrived in Malta, linguistically formed, at least theoretically. I couldn’t be born again. But upon my arrival I immediately began hearing many interlingual echoes. When I tuned my ears more finely, they became louder. “Where were they coming from?” Were they voices coming from an ancient past or only vocal illusions coming from an exhausted subconscious? That was my first dichotomy - did I say dichotomy? Genetic closeness between Arabic and Maltese makes it very difficult to feel completely cracked, but it also makes it difficult to feel completely fixed. It’s a rare liaison. Despite the inescapable kinship, Maltese is not Arabic; they certainly have an ancestor in common, but Maltese has long been nourished by a different breast. Its “Semitic” content is always shrinking. This is a big loss, in my opinion. Faced by a long list of intruders, the Semitic component has been one of the lifelines of the Maltese language.

Back in 1990, when I came to Malta, Iraq had just invaded Kuwait and the coalition forces were gathering in the Arab Gulf. The Arab world was unmistakably steaming into another unknown. To make things worse, Arafat had foolishly sided with Saddam Hussein, an off-center and unnecessary choice for which Palestinians would pay dearly. After the “Desert Storm”, everybody declared victory but the truth is that everybody was a loser, including the land on which the battle was fought. Guess who  the biggest loser was however? A wrong decision has always meant another exodus for Palestinians. Nearly 400.000 Palestinians had to flee Kuwait, leaving behind all memories, all dignity and all their life belongings. My Arabic language at that time was no less depressed and confused than I was. For the first time in my life I couldn’t approach Arabic with love and passion. Language was suddenly no longer female; no longer did it have a dazzling curvature; it was a bath of blood, a crib of death. I was withdrawing into my crushed self, drifting into complete muteness, until Maltese came to the rescue. I must admit that the Maltese language saved me from myself, from a crisis of silence. Those who write know exactly what type of pain I am trying to express, but it is not the language which unlocked me first, language came later, as a secondary epiphany.

I loved Maltese and “she” loved me back, but many years would have to pass before I gathered the courage to declare my love to “her”. It is not painless when you find that you, your identity, your memory, your grief, your rage, your sense of belonging and your alienation are all divided between two worlds. By then, I was persisting in my writing, but there were no predecessors, no founders, no Maltese Rushdie or previous generations of “Maltesophone” writers. Malta itself is still bandaging herself from colonial and postcolonial lesions. I have encountered many “bookish” Maltese who regrettably believe that their language is deficient and unable to express itself properly. This is a terrible mistake. Smallness does not wipe out gorgeousness. There is no language that is unable to express itself; even primitive peoples have created their own symbols and phonetic alphabets. Maltese is a very creative language, very communicative, and it possesses all the tenderness needed for the flexibility of art. The quality of a literary work resides inside its intricacies, in its originality and newness, in the enchantment of the language it has emerged from; it is the latter which is the biggest challenge for each literary work, whether it was written in Arabic or Maltese or even Indo-Chinese. But what? Even when you put all linguistic sensitivities behind you, you still have the rock of Sisyphus to carry as chastisement for your “foolish writery”. It is precisely that “foolish writery” which must invent its own language; that is what Arundhati did, and what I am trying to do.

I still write in Arabic however, because when I write in Arabic I find myself in front of myself, even though today’s “self” is very complex and contradictory. A single identity makes things difficult in today’s  world, but still, it is only Arabic which allows me to confront my heritage,  my grandparents, my origins. My refuge language is still Arabic. The engraving was done long ago. It has nothing to do with one’s being an intellectual “whole”. It is simply the matrix of one’s indissoluble self, without any migrational utterances.

Being a citizen of two - possibly more - worlds is nice but not effortless. Managing the separate values and demands of each cultural identity is laborious and tiring, even traitorous sometimes: you are aware of your multiple layers and divisions. Every time I go back home, I feel confused and sad because I am not part of it, though I feel alienated here too. Perhaps I am like Edward Said’s “shipwrecked person who learns how to live in a certain sense with the land, not on it, not like Robinson Crusoe whose goal is to colonize his little island, but more like Marco Polo, whose sense of the marvelous never fails him, and who is always a traveler, a provisional guest”.

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