The Tongue

I will not talk about a country that plunges its head into the water while its feet stand firmly in the desert sand. I will not talk about our faces and the variations of melanin between our skins. I will not talk about the cloths in which we wrap our bodies. I will not talk about the different rhythms we dance to and the lands we call home. What I will talk about, is the thing that shakes up the air between our bodies. The shelter to our thoughts. The words we seek refuge in. The magic we weave into space. The honorable pursuit of rendering emptiness tender and soft. The act of breathing brittle vibrations in the hopes of cathartic release. I will talk about the language I was given, the one acquired, and the one I find myself chasing in a semantic labyrinth that cannot be located on a geographical map.

The start:
We were young and our tongues were green. In our early years, we were sown onto classroom grounds and alphabets were poured over our heads. Buckets overflowing with poems and cautionary tales. When spring caressed our heads with its soft breeze, our words blossomed into sentences that soon grew to spread into the walls of our bodies. We, too, became overflowing. Flourishing. Splattering names onto everything our eyes would come across. Giving meaning to expression and extracting meaning from expressions. We had the keys to the gardens of worlds within words. So, we dreamt in stories, planted poems into the soil and spoke the language of the moon and the stars.

The middle:
I sit on my desk, gazing at the blank pages in my notebook, wishing my tongue was pristine. My hands cannot hold a pen straight. My mouth cannot utter a single word without looking down up on it. Most of the time, I dwell between the walls of silence , taking comfort in its soft warm embrace but once I want to step out into the world of alphabets and dancing tongues , words fail me with their elusiveness. I feel as though there are dervishes twirling over my scalp, each one drunk on their own rhythm, trapped by their separate moves. My mind is so intoxicated with the few words I carry within my neurons that it cannot think straight. Helpless, I sit in silence, my tongue being torn between three stubborn languages and a dialect that does not have a clear face. I sit and I envy those whose words do not sway between roads. They must say what they mean. Their words must fit between their teeth. Mine are sometimes too shallow, too hollow. Most times, they cannot even be found in dictionaries. When I do find them, they come with far too many synonyms and with too different alternatives. Thus, I cannot choose.

I speak a language far too scattered to resemble a mosaic. I am an Arab who speaks no Arabic on an average day. I am a Tunisian who does not know the DNA of the sounds she mumbles. At university, I speak in French and I feel as though I am wearing a dress four sizes bigger than my body. I write in my journals in English and I feel a shame unscrew my brain. I speak the languages I traveled across seas by TV to meet and I feel that I should not have. I feel like I am betraying my ancestors, speaking a language that has blood on its hands. The words that leave my mouth feel like an ornament dangling from my lips. They say that less is more and I think I have more than I could handle.

The idea of never collecting enough words haunts me. Of falling short. Of sounding like too many things all at once, like a mismatched orchestra with a hallucinating conductor. I hear myself shredding sentences and patching them into a paragraph that sounds dissonant. I feel embarrassed, letting my voice go, wander into the air and pluck words as it pleases.

I am undecided. My tongue is too. We both cannot choose. Arabic promises the sweetness of Mahmoud Darwich’s poetry. I am convinced the essence of my soul can be captured through a verse of Arabic poetry. French holds an ineffable mystery. I often dream of my words sounding as enchanting as a Françoise Hardy song. English feels like a house that I fear calling home. Nonetheless, emptying my mind onto a blank page can turn the winter between my ribs warm. Tunisian sounds like an ancient myth I want to decrypt. Once, I listened to a poet dressed in white in a part of the medina that is overwhelmingly white and under the hazy evening, I fell in love with the sound of my first language on his tongue.

The end:
Today is Friday and while we take the Sundays off in my country, I am declaring a celebration. A reason to feast on more words. Today is the day of unashamed abundance that does not wait for trophies and standing ovations. Of words that stand in the face of ephemeralness and do not crumble into despair. Today I am speaking a new language. One that does not have a political affiliation. One that is innocent of cultural appropriation. A language that bathes in Earl grey tea and steps into the world with its right foot forward. A language that wears jasmine scented cologne, listens to Fairouz in the morning and eats cheese for dessert.

I will not fear wearing other words or others’ words. I will not hide my voice in corners. From now on, the words will come out of my mouth rushing like ants after a sugar cube falls onto the ground. Four dervishes will twirl on my head and they will dance in effortless harmony. More dervishes will come and I will greet them with a child-like grin. Words, I will mix and match, cut and stitch and they will not sound sacred.

My new language is disloyal, possibly. Distorted, probably. Disobedient, most certainly.