By Shazia Ahmad* — Like many other first-generation Muslim kids in the Capital Region in the ’90s, I grew up spending hours of my weekend at the local mosque, learning the ABCs of Arabic (or more accurately, Alif, Ba, Taa). Our parents came from a wide array of countries, but most, like mine from India, were not native Arabic speakers. The vast majority of Muslims in the world are not Arab — 80 percent of Muslims are from non-Arab countries — but Arabic is the language of our holy book, the Quran, and our prayers.
As an adult, my interests would bring me back to the Arabic language and it in turn became a deep part of me. It was an important learning tool in my field of religious studies, and served as a lifeline in my travels that took me across the Middle East, spending years in now-besieged Syria and in the bustling city of Cairo, a cultural hub for much of the Arab world.
I found so much beauty in Arabic. Its calligraphy was dazzling and poetry so moving. Common niceties had an added spiritual and meaningful touch. “Thank you” was expressed as “May God bless your hands that have given me this gift,” or simply “God bless you with goodness,” a compliment returned with, “Real beauty is in your eyes that find me pretty.”
There is much crossover between Arabic and many of the Romance languages and a multitude of English words with Arabic origins, such as coffee, orange and algebra. It is the everyday language for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including many Christians and people of other faiths. The word “Allah,” oft debated by Islamophobes as an alien entity, is simply the Arabic word for God, and is used by Arab Muslims and Christians alike. A common Arabic phrase is inshallah, “God willing,” similar to ojalá in Spanish. (Janet Jackson even ended one of her recent videos to her fans with inshallah!)
Recent widespread hysteria over the Arabic language — including the removal of a Southwest Airlines passenger from his flight for simply having a conversation in Arabic, a Texas mayor calling the Department of Homeland Security about a flag that said “love for all” in Arabic and the detaining of an American student for having Arabic flashcards — is deeply disturbing.
Demonizing a language is a telling sign of how intensely we have dehumanized and caricatured the people associated with it, and inevitably leads us to accepting cruelty, oppression and violence against them. As Americans, and as a nation of many immigrants, we should make a concerted effort to appreciate the diversity of languages and cultures in the world and those that touch our own.
In so doing, we may find — beyond tolerance — unexpected beauty and understanding. Inshallah
*Shazia grew up in Albany and graduated from the University at Albany in 2004. She studied in the Middle East for eight years. She teaches and writes in Allen, Texas.