From the time a person emerges on Earth he finds no pursuit that more totally overwhelms his feelings, psyche, and conscience than language, because language is a blend compounded of feelings, ambiguous signs, and obscure sense data. The German literary critic Walter Benjamin, however, denied that language had any animate aspect. He considered language in general to be purely inanimate and to lack any practical value separate from its utilization by human beings. But language can itself actually be beautiful, ugly, hurtful, tender, and solid as a rock at one and the same time in its impact and rhythm. It is as capable of dying as a man or of becoming immortal unlike him. It is the one being in this existence that really has a mother but no father.
If I think back to my childhood and boyhood, I do not remember anything which demonstrated that my mother was primarily responsible for teaching me the principles of the Arabic language. Over time I have realised that we did not speak much in our house because silence and gesture were the prevalent languages then. My memory offers me only scattered fragments of the tales my grandmother offered ingeniously once she discovered her voice after her husband, my grandfather, passed away. She would tell us about the people of the marshlands in the south of Iraq where she was born. She recounted stories about fabulous creatures that inhabited those watery meadows, hiding in the reeds and papyrus. These creatures, which were known as the Tanatil, the Giants, would assume human form and knock on the doors of homes. They would ask for something but then quickly gain control of the mind of anyone who complied. They abducted him and played with him in the waters of the marshlands, which extended for tens of kilometres. They would ride around on him and amuse themselves with him before they caused him to disappear forever.
Normally these stories were recounted by men and conveyed aspects of their narrator’s individual character. They would be dramatized with gestures and scary, guttural voices. This was my childhood theatre. Women sat listening furtively, feeling anxious and tense. They hoped they would never fall victim to these merciless, giant Tanatil. They would not ask any questions or move their heads to express their wonder or astonishment. Instead, they would seek refuge in silence, because a woman who was considered a chatterbox would bring “misfortune” to her family, according to the social norms of the time and perhaps by today’s as well. As a child, I was never conscious of my mother telling me anything that excited my interest. When she did occasionally speak to me, she limited herself to words that came easily to her and that followed an invariable pattern or formula. In the main, her statements were terse expressions of complaint or blame. I never heard her use entertaining or cheerful terms, because she thought that kind of talk would spoil me and weaken my backbone. The gist of what I learned from her was to have a stiff upper lip, to work hard, and to be self-reliant.
Thus I once wrote of my mother that her sorrow was deeper and older than language itself. Indeed, silence actually was her language. My mother did not use words so much as gestures, signs, signals, and hints. So her language appeared to be a distinctively metaphysical and exceptional language.
The marshlands region, which was as large as Lebanon, constituted a magical, spiritual, mysterious world in the midst of orchards, date palms, reeds, water, and migratory birds that spent winter in the warm lake water. Even today, whenever I am overwhelmed by passionate homesickness and feel choked up, I rush to listen to songs from the south of Iraq. They are full of love, sorrow, longing, and the pains of separation. I listen to performers whose raw emotions verge on the ecstatic. I listen especially to what are referred to as Muhammadawi style in honor of the tribes of Al-Bu Muhammad. For its rhythm this music uses drumming on an empty kettle instead of drums, which were usually hard to come by. The deep warm, sound of the Muhammadawi tawr touches the heartstrings, and these songs are, without exception, the most sorrowful ones in all of Iraqi vocal music.
In the society of the marshlands in those days property was held communally: clothing, animals, and produce. No one hid or hoarded anything. If a person was caught red-handed being stingy, his whole life became a burden for him and he was the butt of ridicule wherever he settled, because marshlands people had a zero tolerance for avarice. They were always ready to pardon a killer but would never tolerate a stingy person, whom they called al-muhariz or “the hoarder”. When I joined the Iraqi Communist Party at the beginning of the 1970s, I used to hear the expression “primitive communism” used to refer to the way of life of residents of the marshlands and to their economic activity.
My maternal grandmother confided to me that she spoke to my grandfather only in terse whispers, even though she was the most beautiful of his four wives and also the youngest. My grandmother lived to be almost a hundred. She communicated with my grandfather through a language of the eyes. She would read his eyes and brow; this language, which was truly economical, symbolic, and mathematical, is fully compatible with a scientific concept of language.
My paternal grandmother once told me that not only did she not speak to my paternal grandfather, she did not see him either, even though he fathered three children with her. She explained that she was too embarrassed to look at my grandfather, who was a venerable shaykh and sayyid and who came from some distant place – possibly Najaf or Karbala. Since my grandmother did not converse with my grandfather and never saw his face, I grew up without a clear image of my grandfather, al-Sayyid Ali, even though I inherited his surname and his “supernatural power”. The latter inspired pregnant women, when I was a little boy, to clip locks of my hair to burn with their incense in hopes of having an easier delivery.
It is obvious that my grandmother’s three virgin births surpassed even the record of the Virgin Mary, who became renowned for her sanctity, purity, and virginity throughout the entire world after she gave birth to Jesus without being polluted by a man. If the marsh people had recorded their legends, Saya Bint Mukharrib, my paternal grandmother, would have rivalled the Virgin Mary in virginity, sanctity, and other respects.
I was born in that distant, little known, strange, and language-free world where speech was symbolic and gestural rather than verbal, and where people skirted the actual topic and avoided addressing its heart or gist. If the matter related to marriage, to payment of compensation to a victim or victim’s family, or to launching a raid or a war, men would discuss many peripheral subjects but avoid direct references to what their meeting actually concerned, because they reckoned that discussion of the topic would spoil the parties’ good will and frustrate implementation of the plan.
This circuitous form of reference, which resembled a forest of riddles and secrets, constituted a difficult challenge for listeners. Moreover, some people slurred over their consonants, pronouncing them swiftly. This form of speech was called al-his-cha and was an extreme form of concealment and allusive reference. Lengthy explanation and talk were often considered to be weak and stupid , since the best words were few in number and allusive. This model was typically prevalent among residents of the watery expanses. Treatment of an issue was never precise or in depth, no matter how important it was, since in their opinion no case actually deserved that much interest.
I had great difficulty in learning standard classical Arabic, which was tantamount to a foreign language for me, because I was accustomed to the language of the Southerners, who were subjected to ethnic, sectarian, and linguistic discrimination by the residents of Baghdad. I confronted difficulties comparable to learning a foreign language that had usurped the place of my Arabic “mother tongue”. This difficulty was displayed in the length of the verbs, the way that components might be separated from each other, and the complicated use of prefixes and suffixes. If the matter had been left to me alone, I would have eliminated the verbs’ prefixes and tails and poured them all into a single pattern, since we remained in dire need of a clear language with convincing features and a precise format rather than a language of redundancy, triviality, and verbosity. The greatest misunderstandings in linguistic transmission, communication, and acquisition are attributable to the misuse of the prevalent language. We know that fondness, love, hatred, and other emotional reactions begin visually and then are translated to mental and sense language before they assume their final form.
In general, exaggerated descriptions and pretentious eloquence decrease the impact of the scene being described or of an incandescent, emotional moment. The Spanish poet Garcia Lorca was once content to create an entire poem from a single word; he repeated the word for silence – silencio – three times, placing each word on a separate line. Then the poem, in praise of silence, was complete. It became the shortest poem in the world, and the most concise.
My mother’s tongue consisted of her two mournful eyes, the tattoos on her forehead and hands, and her mouth, which was usually closed. Occasionally it would utter a single phrase like “How are you, dear” or “Your face changes everything, my spirit.” I was born in an isolated linguistic region that was cut off from the world, and its language or unknown dialect has shaped my behaviour to the present day, even after I learned literary Arabic systematically. My mother and her mother spoke the language of the people of the marshes which had thousands of words that are not known in other parts of Iraq, and especially not in its northern regions. No dictionary includes them even now.
When, fearful of the Baath regime’s brutality, I left Baghdad in 1978 and went to Lebanon, I was once again forced to change my dialect, which was Baghdadi by then, and chose an intermediary language based to some degree on modern standard literary Arabic to allow me to communicate with the Lebanese and Palestinians. Lebanon of the civil war period was a passage of fire for me. It smelted my steel, hardened it, and prepared it to confront all the areas of the entire earth and to endure all its climates, upheavals, harshness, and racism.
Beirut, which was my last way station before I reached the gates of Europe, deserves credit for acquainting me with Arabic culture and its rich aspects. This open Mediterranean city permitted me to realise the profound meaning of breaking away from one’s fatherland and choosing a free, personal, and individual destiny. It also offered me ample opportunity to consult sources that had not been available to me before in the shadow of a repressive, ideologically chauvinist regime. It also allowed me to become familiar with works of quite a few Arab cultural figures, especially leftists, who at that time had found in Beirut a temporary refuge. In one burst, I was transformed from a solitary, independent, impecunious refugee to part of a rich, widespread, diverse culture for which the Arabic language was the firmly rooted foundation and pillar. This also armed me with a new language for writing that for a long time helped me cope with the horrors of exile.
I frequently asked myself in Beirut a question that Arab literary figures were asking themselves at that time: how to interface with colonialism and imperialism and their cultures. I saw in these two technical terms a murky abstraction from two phenomena that were much discussed in Arab rhetoric without their characteristics ever being clarified. Who exactly was the colonialist? Who was the imperialist? Was it possible to consider Western culture a colonial, imperialist culture?
Ali Jawad Al Taher, the renowned Iraqi critic, asked Iraqis in the early 1970s to learn foreign languages like Russian, German, and Chinese – instead of the languages of the English and French colonialists – even though he himself studied under French colonialists. All the same, his suggestion resonated with me, and I considered learning German and studying its literature. Indeed, I discovered before me a new world that was very rich and varied. I even found among the “imperialists” people who assisted me in my effort. The European colonialist in my eyes assumed the form of the Barbarian prisoner in the eyes of the women of Athens as described by Constantine Cavafy in his famous poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda did something comparable when he opposed the tyrannical Spanish colonialism that demolished the social structures and cultures of the original peoples of South America but made an exception for the Spanish language, which became his own language – as if he had wrested it by force as booty from the colonialist.
Year after year I found myself detained by this new language; I even wrote to a friend once that my whole life had come to depend on my dictionary of the German language, which is described as a model aural language, written the way it is heard – unlike French and English. But I confronted the German language like a boxer who fights a stubborn adversary. So I began to penetrate the language’s defences to reach its depths, as Paul Celan put it. I would ponder a word’s triple or quadruple syllables and what are called prefixes and suffixes – as if the language were sold by the kilo – incapable of analysing its ciphers and grasping its internal logic. I was indifferent to the racist ideas that declared the German language an inheritance for pure-blooded Germans, who prohibited “foreigners” from writing in it, considering such an act grand treason. This prohibition appeared in theses drafted by a nationalist student group during Nazi rule, and known as the “Twelve Theses against the Un-Germanic Spirit ”.
Because I began to learn German when I was twenty-six, I thought I would begin with its important writers like Nietzsche, Kafka, and Rilke. How delighted I was when, with the assistance of a dictionary, I understood the opening of the novel The Trial by Kafka:
“Someone must have ratted on K, because he was arrested one morning without having committed any crime.”
Even so, the conjugation of compound, separated verbs and the declension of adjectives frequently caused me anxiety and despair and reminded me of what the American author Mark Twain had said about the number of cases for declensions in German and its compulsory and illogical assignation of gender. I actually had not paid attention to the fact that the number of declensions of adjectives in Arabic was comparable to their number in German, where there are eight cases. Then I began to decipher long compound words like Schwangerschaftsuntersuchungsparagraph or Stadtverordnetengeneralverstammlung, which has thirty-four letters. Gradually this foreign language penetrated into my depths until it finally took possession of me. Then my understanding and perception of things doubled until I felt that this foreign language had begun to drive out my mother tongue and threaten it day by day with eventual obliteration. I have begun to look sceptically at the bogus linkage of language and identity, especially after I became convinced that many Arab authors use the Arabic language without feeling that it is part of their ethnic or national identity. I asked myself what the expression “mother tongue” meant and what its psychological dimensions might be. Is desertion of one’s “mother tongue” a form of betrayal? I remember, in this context, that when I discussed this topic at a German university, an Iraqi who was present exploded: “What will be left of you if you abandon your mother tongue?”
Sacrifice of one’s mother tongue, however, does not necessarily mean abandonment of causes that occupy one’s mother or her language. Indeed, the case is quite the opposite. Is it not right and just that the Other should know something about us? Or, must we always remain cloistered in our narrow cultural circle, where we stockpile curses against imperialism and capitalism in closed assemblies while avoiding entering into fruitful dialogue with peoples subject to capitalist sovereignty and imperial expansion? Because we have come to the Other, who is remote culturally and geographically – the hypothetical enemy – travelling to him of our own free will in order to inform him about our culture, history, feelings, fantasies, and concerns, the true Other can therefore learn what we harbour inside us, and about the love we nourish for his culture, which has become part of our culture for us Arabs.