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Connections | Magazine

When English is a foreign language

My husband and niece are American, but for me, the language of love is Arabic.

alison seiffer for the boston globe

In my first days in the United States, my jaw hurt at the end of the day. It was as if speaking English required me to open my mouth wider and more often in order to emit the sounds in all their sonority. I still have a problem with the word water. A friend taught me to ask for “ice water” — never mind that I do not like ice in my water — at loud bars; “ice” seems to do a good job of cueing “water” to bartenders.

Eleven years later, English has become second nature. And yet it is still a foreign language. I realize this when I randomly encounter someone — a bus driver, a baker, a bank teller — who, discovering I am Lebanese, says something in Arabic. That one word or sentence brings with it unexpected delight. Relief, even. It reorients the world in one quick movement, suddenly rendering us both no longer out of place and everyone else a foreigner. It is a fleeting moment, but its powers of recalibration never fail to amaze me. It also reminds me of how smooth Arabic words feel, gentle sounds that seemingly glide off my tongue, not requiring efforts of articulation.


I married an American, but — probably not accidentally — one who knows Arabic. I have made many resolutions and devised many plans to switch to speaking to him in Arabic rather than English as a default, but I have consistently faltered. And yet I cannot even imagine what our relationship would be like if I did not have the option of resorting to Arabic when I need it. Would he really, truly know me if my first word to him in the morning, as we teasingly wake each other up, had to be in English? And would he appreciate the word I call him — hayati, or “my life” — if he did not understand the intricacies of the language?

Having lived in Cairo and Damascus, he speaks in a mix of dialects. We met in Beirut, and since then, his repertoire has gradually expanded, becoming more Lebanese and informal. When I am exasperated, I instinctively switch to speaking to him in my native tongue. Nothing is as liberating as being able to get annoyed in a language that feels natural, without having to look for an inadequate translation of pressing, indignant exasperation.


I remember obsessing, in a previous relationship with an American, about having blond, blue-eyed children who would call me “mom.” I understood later, with the benefit of hindsight, that my fears had more to do with the relationship itself than with the language that my future children would speak. But it is telling nonetheless that they’d coalesced around that word: mom. The Arabic mama sounds so much sweeter to my ear.

Now that I have a niece, I feel an incredible joy in calling her amto, the Arabic word for “paternal aunt.” In the Levant, it is customary, and an expression of affection, to call a younger relative the name he or she is meant to call you: Parents call their children mama and baba, and uncles and aunts call their nieces and nephews ammo and amto. Just saying amto conjures the whole world of amtos and ammos and khalos and babas and mamas and jeddos and tetas in which I grew up. The line of continuity extends from my childhood to hers, into her first steps and her first words and the huge excitement of hearing that beautiful little girl call me, one day, amto.


But I also know that it is possible that she, growing up in the United States, will choose to call me “auntie” instead. And, deep down, I know that “auntie” will fill me with the same happiness that amto would — so long as I reserve the right to call her “auntie” back.

Loubna El Amine teaches political theory at Northwestern University. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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