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This poem is taken from PN Review 260, Volume 47 Number 6, July - August 2021.

Language, Home and Threshold
Digging in Arabic and English
Yousif M. Qasmiyeh
Is language in possession, ever a possessing or possessed possession? Possessed or possessing in exclusive possession, like a piece of personal property? What of this being-at-home [être-chez-soi] in language toward which we never cease returning?

       — Derrida, Le monolingualisme de l’autre: ou la prothèse d’origine

(Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin)I own no language. Departing from this premise, I begin with language in Arabic, treating it as a hinge through which insides and outsides are constantly reimagined in writing. In a way, I return to the non-existent home through language. In my case, the Arabic that is written into English takes place through articulations of what could be denominated as permanent traces in one’s (mother) tongue. This is a recounting through language of a poetry that is continually in translation, the personal carried through time so as to be constructed in the future as thresholds, each threshold an instant where eyes can see one’s arrival and departure.      

Wreathed in vowels

I return to my mother tongue – the tongue of an illiterate mother. But is the return not an admission of a desertion in the first place? I reattach myself to sounds as sparse as a line of ants, hoping that my remembering who I am enables me to translate myself into language.

    a stranger    Wreathed in vowels
    a stranger    A circumcised tongue

I speak in two tongues. I write in two tongues. Not equally. Not with the ease of the native who is only existent in memory. I would say: Arabic and English are bartered in writing so as to see that what I speak is a possibility beyond itself. In poetry, the two shoulder my sins for me. The Arabic to my right, where senses equate to my impending off-balancedness as I drag the pen from right to left not knowing why it is that the right is right and the left is left. The English on the page, to the left, in ink, with silhouettes that look like inbuilt crosses from afar, as if the eyes are not themselves when they see. As if what is written to be pronounced (alive) is a memory of its sound.

It was through the acronym UNRWA, in my home camp, where I came across English – the English for those who cannot read English but can still see difference: from rations received seasonally bearing the letters U-N-R-W-A, from recycled school books doubly and triply sealed with those five letters. What is quite peculiar here is how an English acronym, which is supposed to be a representation and/or a deputisation of the absent words, metamorphosed into a fully-fledged Arabic word, written as one entity – rather than disparate bodies – and carrying a meaning in one language extracted from traces of another. Two languages sit side by side, the Arabic taking the English into my mouth through the spoon of the UN (United Nations). So, prodded by the perishable in what I was given, is the earliest English that would grow in my imagination, a survival pact came about between myself and the voice for a later life.

Now, in poetry, the Arabic and English occupy their times, with an eye to their coming time together, and what is to be inscribed next. They do so for the sustenance of a memory in progress or in anticipation of an inflow (with no detectable source to speak of) into a third time of their making. In poetry, I can sense language at the cusp of happening – in languages subscribed to their own life, but also open to plurality. For me, as a way of lessening the impact of such a moment, everything should return to translation: it is the one space that admits strangers as themselves. As translation is conversion (so Jacques Derrida tells us), strangers are converts, not only in text but also in the flesh. Loyal to the unknown, I only retain my name as two in languages.

From right to left, I turn to language, meandering through past homes with roofs constructed in haste from zinc and asbestos for the promise that above us one day would be concrete.

For it is a calf…

Before me, comes language. The one called upon whenever boredom befalls writing. In Arabic, lugha (language), has long grafted itself to generate what is beyond its means vis-à-vis what could be benevolently referred to as sense. In other words, the sounds in which people confide in order to speak sense are the same ones that bear their nonsensical correlative in the same setting. The inherent deficiency attributed to the way in which the word ‘language’ developed, both conceptually and linguistically is, one might argue, the trigger behind what it is that is a language. For it is what is known of language that is put to the test: in this sense, language becomes a shape, not only for itself but also for what is out there to be integrated within its folds.

Intriguingly, as its etymology vouches, it is the word lugha that ushers in the plural in imagination which in turn coalesces into more plurals with every suspicion of what it is that is a language. To repel the deficiencies of language or to constantly remember the deficient body of language that is, is to speak language. Indeed, it is this inherent deficiency in language that prompted the 10th-century Muslim scholar, Abū Manṣūr Al-Azharī (895–980 AD), to poignantly place language under the category of ‘one of the deficient nouns’ which journeys from another, presumably more complete and less popular, word: lughwa (morphologically larger than lugha). Premised on the above change, as language has evolved, instead of gaining more limbs to counter this self-inflicted incompleteness, it has in effect lost one more letter, the sound w, from lughwa to lugha. This historical contraction of the word, as Arab philologists advocate, is primarily to make the word ‘language’ more accessible to its utterers by virtue of shortening the distance between the mouth and the ear. Thus, by making the word less visible, language is made more accessible. This metamorphosis, from one feminine word to another, also consumes within it the journey that the meaning itself has undergone.

Take the following word, for example: derived from the same root, laghā is the (camel) calf that cannot be counted towards indemnity or blood money due to its insignificant stature and vulnerable age and therefore cannot be relied upon to outweigh the severity of what has been committed in the first place. Such corporeal and temporal facets inherent within language become even more discernible as soon as the somatic body of the word is taken into consideration, and the way in which proximity to meaning is so predisposed to the changes the word lugha itself has undergone in the first place. Let me explain: the word that is supposed to delimit meaning or, at minimum, establish a closer bond with what is considered meaning, has itself endured multiple alterations, including, in particular, semantic and morphological ones, in doing so rendering it in the flesh a true reflection of its substance. Indeed it is the assumption that speaking more than one tongue is, to quote Abdelfattah Kilito, ‘to be on the right or on the left’ of language itself.

Thresholds as/of the house and home

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