How I Became an Arab
It all started with Jasmine from Morocco, fifty-five years ago. And a postcard. Just a nice picture of Casablanca, but on the back she had drawn a curious, but strangely beautiful, pattern of swirling lines and curlicues that danced up and down on my skin. The design was foreign and yet familiar, like an elaborate frieze that had been hovering around the edge of my consciousness as long as I could remember.
“It means I love you and I’m going to miss you terribly, mon amour,” whispered Jasmine, nuzzling my neck.
“It’s Arabic. My other language.”
“Your other language? I didn’t know you had another language. You come from French Morocco. You’re French.”
“I’m French and I’m Arab. I’m both.”
“How do you do it?
“I was born like that.”
“No, I mean the writing.”
She took out a pen and repeated the mysterious pattern, her hand moving across the card from right to left.
“But it’s backwards. Mirror writing.”
She smiled. “Didn’t you know, David? ‘Jasmine Through the Looking-Glass,’ that’s me.”
“What’s it sound like?”
She traced the undulations with her finger: “Ana uhibbak wa sa-astafqidu lak kathiran ya habibi.”
It was as if she had run her finger down my back. If the writing was a painting, the reading was a song, the notes coming from deep inside her. The “q” was a kiss from the back of her throat. The strong “h” the hiss of a wave breaking on the beach, washing over me, the ocean breathing out her soul. This tiny, beautiful, dark-eyed girl, I’d always thought of as simply “French,” had suddenly revealed another side of herself, another dimension.
I gazed into her face, at the dusky smudges round the eyes I loved to kiss. The French – and now Arab – bruises that never healed. Was I kissing them to make them better or to touch their darkness? There was more mystery here than I could fathom. I was a visitor from another planet who had exposed a subliminal glimmer of her true self. And behind that self another world, a parallel universe.
I was bursting with questions: why had she never talked to me of this other life? What was this other world? How could you be both French and Arab at the same time?
The boat’s foghorn sounded. She kissed me quickly, then ran up the gangplank to the Dover ferry and out of my life. Or so I thought.
Two months later, I won a scholarship to go up to Durham University to start a B.A. program in Modern Arabic Studies.
Two years after that, there I was, about to jump in at the deep end.
As part of the three-year program, you had to spend your second summer living with an Arab family to brush up your colloquial Arabic. I’d chosen Arab Jerusalem – or rather, the Jordanian/Palestinian half of that partitioned city. I’d written out a want ad in my best classical Arabic explaining what I was looking for and posted it to the local newspaper, al-Quds [The Holiness], the Arab name for Jerusalem.
I’d received dozens of replies, all saying essentially the same thing: I was welcome to stay with their family for as long as I liked, on one condition: that I swear on the Koran never to pay for anything myself. Baitna, baitak, our house is your house.
This was very touching. But was it really true? Or just Arab rhetoric? Three whole months?
We landed in Beirut. The blast of hot air that met me as the plane door opened could have issued from a furnace. How could people live in such a climate? What had I got himself into? Too late now. I joined the lineup for Customs.
From the outset, I had promised myself I would speak exclusively in my limited Arabic, come what may. An official-looking Arab man was passing close by. I summoned up my courage and asked him if I was in the right line for Customs.
He stared at me open-mouthed. “Alhamdulillah!” [God be praised!]
He grabbed my hand and pulled me to the head of the queue, where he gabbled away to the Customs man in a rapid Lebanese dialect I could hardly understand a word of. The Customs man kissed me on both cheeks, and shouted something to a small boy, who disappeared, then almost instantly reappeared with a glass of hot tea. By now a crowd of Customs officials had gathered round me, crying Ahlan wa sahlan! Ahlan wa sahlan! [Welcome! Welcome!] over and over again, meanwhile completely ignoring the forty of so other irate passengers who’d been ahead of me.
They bombarded me with questions. How had I learned their language, where, when, and above all why? Why had I wanted to learn to speak their language? No foreigner ever did.
I didn’t tell them it was because of Jasmine from Morocco, but I did now understand that to learn a language was also an act of love. You had to love someone to master that person’s native tongue, whether it was your mother when you were a baby, or your first girlfriend or boyfriend from another land. And these wise men from an ancient culture, disdained by generations of monolingual colonialists, had come to know this truth profoundly.
Things began to slip into place in my mind. The blast of hot air that had hit me hadn’t been from a furnace at all. It hadn’t been a hostile Third World heat; it was a warm bath to soak away my British stiffness, to bring about some deep alchemical change in my bones as it drew me into another reality, that same reality I’d first glimpsed with Jasmine.
I was whisked through Customs – they never even asked to see my passport – and then through the baggage area, on a magic carpet of helping hands. From then on the carpet rolled out before me: finding a taxi, a hotel, a restaurant, then sharing a communal cab to Syria, where I floated across the desert border on a tide of yet more small brown boys bearing brass trays with miniature glasses of sweet hot tea, buoying me past further visa and luggage inspections like a pasha. Armed with little more than Salaamu alaykum, Inshallah and Alhamdulillah, I had a verbal passport that sliced through the densest tangle of red tape.
Then it was on to Jerusalem and the family I’d chosen from the stack of offers I’d received: the Haidamis. Would the bath still run warm?
The taxi dropped me off in front of a tiny pink one-story house just across the road from the Damascus Gate to the Old City where a young man was waiting for me. More smiles, embraces and kisses.
The young man introduced himself as Ahmed Haidami, the younger of the two men of the house, the other being his older brother Mahmud, who was so sorry he couldn’t be there to greet me, but he just couldn’t get away from his work.
Insisting on carrying all my luggage himself – no guest was ever allowed to carry anything – Ahmed led the way up the little garden path. As we approached the front door, he picked a couple of sprigs from a bush of delicate white flowers and shared them with me.
Jasmine, of course, what else?
Ahmed rubbed the white petals together in his palms and then cupped his hands over his nose to breathe in the scent. He nodded to me to do the same. It was the custom, he explained in Arabic. Ahlan wa sahlan.
Different sensual modalities, I realized. Now I was not only soaking in the warmth, I was breathing it in. Talk about a different world. Where I came from, when you were invited to someone’s house, they offered you something to drink, here they offered you something to smell.
There were five of them shoehorned into the three-room house: widowed mother, Mahmud and Ahmed, and two girls, teen-age Nur and five-year old Laila. They were so poor with only Mahmud working they couldn’t even afford sandals for little Laila.
In spite of this poverty, never once over the course of my stay with the Haidamis was I – whose generous scholarship made me a millionaire by their standards – allowed to pay for so much as a morsel of pita bread or a slice of melon.
How do you resist becoming an Arab after that?
David Stansfield is a former PBS writer-producer and the author of “Take Nothing For Granted,” a thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.