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Paris Dec ’13: On language

Assalamu alaykum ❤


Alhamdulillah I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Paris with my father for a week. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the city (so much I even hurt my feet!) in the past few days: walking past monuments, taking my time in museums, and experiencing cathedrals and the mosque etc. It has made me reflect on the similarities and differences between the United States and France (based on what little I know). I have been looking at Paris as a city of major political and cultural influence for a long time, from the Romans to the current French Republic. Through the days of the Renaissance and colonialism, Paris has so many layers of history and so many different facets I find it thoroughly fascinating. I have quite a few ideas I want to explore in a series of blog posts, but I will first start with a facebook post and the story behind it inshaAllah.

The post

Le français était ma première langue étrangère quand j’avais 12 ans. Je suis tombée amoureuse avec les mots, l’accent, la France et les autres pays qui parlent français. Dans mes classes, nous avons étudié un peu l’Afrique et la Martinique, etc. Même si je ne savais pas la colonialisme vraiment ou les problèmes de l’inégalité du monde en générale, j’aimais beaucoup avoir l’capacité de parler avec les autres dans leurs langues and je savais la valeur aussi. À connaitre les gens dans leurs vrai âmes est un plaisir qu’on ne trouve pas assez facilement que parler les langues d’autres…
Aprés le français j’ai appris un peu le chinois, le hindi, le persane, l’arabe et je me suis tombée amoureuse plusieurs fois… autant que j’ai tellement oublié le français, je pensais seulement à l’Inde, des “pays musulmanes,” etc mais ici maintenant le français revient à moi de plus en plus alhamdulillah et je me souviens ma première joie profonde de pouvoir parler les langues étrangères…
Hier soir quand j’ai parlé en français, anglais et un peu arabe avec le chauffeur marocain de taxi… j’ai réalisé encore la vrai pouvoir et privilège de connaitre les gens differents, je suis humiliée toujours de entendre la joie, les difficultés, l’amour et la douleur des vies differentes. La langage n’est pas seulement une système grammaticale, c’est un vrai lien significatif entre les gens qui n’est pas toujours beau… (Je peux pas parler des dialectes, je peux parler seulement en des langues colonialistes…) mais c’est les liens beaux qui vont nous sauveront inshaAllah ❤

[Translation] “French was my first foreign language when I was 12 years old. I fell in love with the words, the accent, France and other French-speaking countries. In my classes, we studied a bit about Africa and Martinique (in the Caribbean). Even though I didn’t truly know about colonialism and the problems of inequality in the world in general, I loved having the ability to speak with others in their own languages and I knew the value of it as well. To know people in their true souls is a pleasure that one does not find as easily as through speaking other languages. After learning French, I learned a little bit of Chinese, Hindi, Persian and Arabic and I fell in love over and over again, so much so that I had forgotten French. I only thought about India and “Muslim countries” but now French is returning to me more and more alhamdulillah and I’m remembering my first profound joy in being able to speak foreign languages.Last night when I  spoke in French, English and a little bit of Arabic with my Moroccan taxi driver I again realized the power and privilege of knowing different people. I am humbled every day to listen to the joy, difficulties, love and sadness of different lives. Language is not only a grammatical system, it’s a truly significant connection between people (that is not always beautiful)… (I cannot speak in dialects, I can only speak in colonial languages) but it will be the beautiful connections that will save us inshaAllah.”

IMG_8950The story

It all starts after injuring my feet through a bad choice of shoes on days 1&2, I still managed to get to La Grande Mosquée de Paris (Great Mosque of Paris). Alhamdulillah this is not the first time I’ve been to a mosque outside of the United States after becoming Muslim. My first experiences had been in India, where I was often turned away as a woman (you might spontaneously start menstruating and dirty the place! or we have no space for you anyway, except maybe next to some graves). Other times I was turned away as someone who does not appear to be Muslim because the color of my skin is wrong (clearly just a foreigner trying to sneak in at prayer time to snap some shots!). Similarly, I was met with less resistance but still confusion in Casablanca. However, I showed up at the mosque in Paris and I was pleasantly surprised that it felt as comfortable as in the US. I managed to find the wudu area and after following some women I made it to the women’s prayer hall (around the corner, down the stairs, through a back entrance I never could have found myself). After prayer, there was a men’s group dhikr session for over 15 mins coming over the loudspeakers that reminded me of Morocco 😀 ❤

[Side note: One of the beautiful things about Islam, in my opinion, is the fact that in prayer Muslims all face the Kaaba in Mecca, saying nearly the same words with nearly the same prayer movements (with minor differences between schools of thought). It doesn’t matter if I’m in Paris, Seattle, Fez, Delhi, or wherever–I can join in and have a meaningful spiritual experience anywhere in the world. It always feels comfortable because I can always fit in. Perhaps some Muslims might take this for granted, but this is something that is profoundly beautiful to me and it strikes me every time I partake in salah abroad. Whether I am in the mosque for Jummuah in Hyderabad or Palo Alto, I can partake in unified worship of God.
Some might rightfully point out the potential for Arab supremacy given that we are all required to pray in Arabic. But my argument against it is that the unity of the Muslim community in prayer and worship, as well as the confidence that the words have not been changed over time, the ability to partake in worship comfortably anywhere in the world triumphs greatly over any frustration in learning to pray in Arabic. If anything, I have often seen non-native Arabic speakers, in their striving, have found deeper meaning and pleasure in learning the Arabic. Of course the issue will always remain that people might say the words out of habit without any meaning or feeling, but this is not limited to foreign languages… but I digress.]

After visiting the mosque, I went to buy some books at a local shop across the street and to the Institut de Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) and the museum there. Perhaps it was my feet aching and/or general fatigue, but I was not really feeling the museum… By the Seine, I caught a taxi and in my un-trained (and unaware!) American rudeness (I only later learned is rude…) I bluntly asked to go to the Louvre.

My hijab gives me away instantly, and I have found that to be a blessing more often than a curse. The driver told me that there was a lot of traffic (a word I hadn’t heard before: bouchon) and we started talking. He asked me if I was Muslim and I said yes, I asked him and he said yes. In fact I am not Française but Americaine which was a surprise to him even if I had mistaken the gender of every noun I managed to say to him. He was Moroccan and Berber, and happy to know that I have so much affection for Morocco as well. We talked about Islam in France and in the United States, I said I didn’t know much, but he was very happy to be Muslim in France, the problems were the same: l’Islamophobie. The concept of laïcité (a particular brand of French secularism, also manifested in Montreal) has its logical limits as he described his daughter who is prevented from wearing hijab at school while she is surrounded by Christmas trees on campus. He lamented that what a shame it is that people commit crimes in the name of Islam and that those voices are often the loudest or at least the ones most listen to. Even the smallest of offenses, whether it be lying or saying a bad word to someone “ce n’est pas Islam!” he said simultaneously with such compassion and passion. We also talked about language. If you can speak French and Arabic, I’m convinced you can speak any language, I said. He agreed that Arabic has very unique sounds that cannot be found elsewhere. We talked about Edward Said’s Orientalism and many other such things. The more I write, the less I seem to remember…

Recently I’ve increasingly become more of a nervous type, fearing being taken advantage of or verbally abused in random contexts, but in a 20-minute taxi ride with stimulating conversation with a complete stranger in which I was able to connect deeply (my French actually worked!) made me feel so much more at peace with the world. I always knew that one of the best things about traveling it meeting people. There is little to no chance I would ever see this man again, meet his family or his friends and get a chance to experience more of the French Muslim community, but these small gems of experience are what makes life worthwhile. It is the unexpected gems that keep me interested in my life (or maybe I’m just narcissistic HAH) Alhamdulillah.

Travelling produces a hyper-reality, one is more aware of what is going on because one knows how little time one has for a trip. The departure date looms over my head, Sunday is too soon! The fact that I can’t get my prized American-style Mexican food (not to be found outside of the US) for a week is not an issue, because I can experience French bread! The hardships don’t mean so much now because I see the end in sight and I can enjoy what I have here and now. But it is also true about life although we do not know the departure date and therefore I often forget the greater point…

Besides the explicit mention of Islam or my reflection on language, this experience also made me think about the hadith: “Be in the world as if you were a traveler or a stranger.”

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Normally I have heard this used to talk about how life is difficult, how one can never assume that one will ever feel comfortable in this life,  because the idea is that we are “from” God and “to” God we will return, and that this life is a test. We will never feel true, lasting comfort until we are reunited with God in heaven (God-willing!). The focus remains on the joys of the afterlife, how in this life we should not be so materialistic and focus only on achieving in the eyes of God etc. We never know when we will die, so we need to squeeze in as much good as possible and ignore the difficulties!

I don’t know if there have been other more optimistic interpretations of this hadith, but I propose one as a total lay person. Why not think of the joys of travelers or the unexpected happiness one may find as a stranger? While I hate tourists (and I strive not to be one) who go places for the sake of “being there” and taking all the necessary pictures as a badge of honor, assuming the new place will cater to one’s needs (*ahem* the SPEAK ENGLISH attitude), one cannot deny the BEAUTY of visitors who savor every moment of their travels. The visitors who take pictures so that their memory might not deceive them, in the hopes to one day share their experiences with others, to provide a visual that they might fill in the other details when recounting their stories to a captive audience. They are the visitors who cherish each moment by trying their best to make the most of their experience, to accomplish as much good as possible for themselves (and potentially for others by buying souvenirs, etc). They are the visitors who throw aside their pride in not understanding a new culture, a new language, a new place and are unashamed by their ignorance but use it as an excuse to explore, to open their minds and hearts to new ways of living, thinking, and, often, eating. Why is this a way of life that we restrict to two weeks a year or when we are in a place far away from home? How much do we not know about our own places? How much more is there for us to discover? This openness is not something that need be cultivated in foreign places, though it most often has occurred to me away from home.

This kind of traveling, as I always try to do, has reinforced the absolute need for humility and hospitality in everyday life. It is only when you have felt so intensely the difficulties of being a stranger or a traveler do you realize how that is truly the lifestyle for so many people on a regular basis. Whether it is my deep awe for international students who navigate foreign languages and cultures for the sake of their education, or for refugees who do not have a place to call “home,” or for minorities who have a complicated relationship with a “home” that constantly marginalizes them, I cannot see any proper response other than compassion for those who are suffering, humility about one’s own blessings, and hospitality for those who do not feel at home.

I am endlessly grateful to my friends who have shown me compassion and hospitality, for speaking to me in English that I might understand better, even when they are acutely aware of how much better they might express it in another language. Alhamdulillah.

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December 13, 2013 · 10:20 am