The Challenge of Words

For me, words exist to tell stories. Simple stories and complex ones. Sad stories and happy ones. Beautiful stories and ugly ones.

Many times, people ask me: in which language do you think? And each time I have the same surprised reaction. Each time, I promise myself to pay more attention to the language I am thinking in and each time I forget or may be my mind plays tricks on me and makes me unconsciously forget.

Words are confusing exactly like identities. When I go out in the public, do I really think of who am I? A Canadian? A Muslim? A woman with a scarf or hijab? A mother? A wife of a torture survivor? An immigrant? How to live with all these identities at the same time? Emphasizing one, dropping another, keeping a low profile one, boasting about another or amalgamating and juggling all together and try to be at peace?

I grew up in a Tunisia. So when I tell to people around me I am African, people frown at me with dismay thinking of a bad joke… So why am I not black? And then I quickly add I am North African and that slightly makes it more credible but nevertheless confusing. But even being a North African is problematic today. Especially in France. But that is another story.

My mother tongue is Arabic but my family name is Berber. The Amazigh are one of the indigenous tribes of North Africa. So when I meet North African with Berber origins, their first question to me is: do you speak Amazigh? When I sheepishly respond no, I am immediately considered as a false indigenous. A traitor. A culture failure. An assimilated one, someone with just a name but not the strong beating heart of a Berber. Something like the Islamness or blackness of Barak Obama…

But even for Arab speaking people, I can barely pass the test. I am Tunisian and the Arabic dialect I speak is filled with French words. So for the purist Arab Middle Eastners like my in-laws, I speak French, and for the purist French people, I speak Arabic.

As you can see, I can never win. I am a linguistic bastard…

Arriving in Quebec, as an immigrant didn’t make my life easier as I didn’t have the Quebecois accent and that was considered a problem for my integration.

Not only my accent was problematic but my appearance with a hijab is considered as a sign of women oppression and alienation. Apparently, I have some para normal powers: wherever I go my hijab shatters years of women struggle. No matter how hard I worked to prove the opposite and join the “us”, I kept always considered to be the “others”.

So finally, I moved to Ontario and discovered the genius of multiculturalism as introduced by the father of our “cool” Prime Minister. I thought that my multiple identity crises would be buried forever. Unfortunately for me and for the world, 9/11 attacks happened and since I have been judged and looked upon through the deforming lenses of terrorism.

Fortunately, words saved me. They saved from oppression, they saved me from depression, they saved me from victimhood. In a world, where it became so easy to loose one’s own sanity, words are my saviours. I attack with words and I defend with words. Dictators and extremists are certainly scared of arms but no wonder they are even more scared by ideas and words.

Today, I write to better understand the world and myself. I write in English, a language I started learning in high schools while listening to Madonna. You can understand that even Shakespeare would distance himself from me. I write in French, not the one my in-laws think I am speaking, but the real French. Well, hopefully! And I keep reading a lot in Arabic and guess what: I still don’t know in what language I think of…

I wrote this text and read it in a panel at Stratford Festival, Ontario, organized by CBC Ideas program.





2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Words

  1. I love the third paragraph of this posting! People are so multidimensional, yet are often perceived as unidimensional — hence, for some people, the reason your hijab may “outweigh” your education (for example).

    With your permission, I’d like to use (with attribution, of course) this paragraph in my Psychology courses at Ottawa U.

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