Zabor, or the Crisis of Language
by Emma Ramadan
Kamel Daoud’s Zabor, or the Psalms is about a young man named Ishmael, self-dubbed Zabor, who believes he has a gift that doubles as a mission: if he writes about the inhabitants of his Algerian village in his newly mastered French, he can prolong their lives. If he doesn’t write about them within a few days of crossing their path, they will die. Simple as that.
He fills hundreds, thousands of notebooks with descriptions of the village, the villagers, their stories, everything he can think of. He uses writing to counter death, but it is the ability to wield a language of power that truly sets him free. He uses French, the language of the former colonizers, the language of doctors and politicians, and the villagers are skeptical: Is Zabor merely delusional? Still, despite their doubts, the villagers call on Zabor when they find themselves at death’s door.
Zabor, or the Psalms is about all of this, but it’s also about the way our access to language or lack thereof can open up or limit our world and sense of self. It’s about how the languages we inhabit shape the lives we’re able to live. It’s a story of language as liberation, or as prison.
Long before he discovers French and his gift, on the day he realizes the Arabic he’s always spoken at home in his village with his aunt Hadjer is not the same Arabic he’s now being taught in school, Zabor begins to experience seizures, panic attacks, night terrors, and all manner of fits. Through learning the Arabic of books and lessons and sacred texts, he has collided with the limitations of his aunt’s language. “Compared to the language of school, Hadjer’s language, which had been my language since birth, proved insufficient, meager, like a sick person whose hands couldn’t grasp objects or point at faraway or dimly lit things without trembling.” Soon after experiencing this terror as his world seemingly splits in half, he stumbles upon yet another language—French: the language of literature, the language of out-there, of possibility, populating the exciting worlds he craves access to in the erotic books he finds, imported or carried back from beyond the village bounds.
If Zabor is a kind of reverse Scheherazade of The Thousand and One Nights, then I might be a reverse Zabor. Zabor overflows, brims with language, more language than can fit inside his tiny, remote village of Aboukir. I have access to the world—I worked on my translation of Daoud’s novel in Rhode Island, in upstate New York, at the Banff Center in Canada, in Catalonia, in Oxford and even in Beirut—but not enough language, or not the right language, to fill it up.
Despite how many times I’ve asked my father, I still don’t know why he didn’t teach me Arabic, his mother tongue. Sometimes the answer is that my father wanted to make sure my brother and I spoke English fluently and our parents worried that teaching us other languages at the same time would interfere with that. Sometimes it’s that he didn’t want us to have a language that excluded my British mother. Sometimes it’s that he didn’t think we would ever find it useful, since his entire immediate family had left Lebanon during the civil war with no plans to return. Sometimes I think it’s just that leaving Lebanon behind was a painful part of his reality that he didn’t want to contend with. Whatever the reason, I grew up speaking only English, my father’s third language after Arabic and French.
When we were young, often my parents would use French as their secret language between the two of them to say things that my brother and I wouldn’t be able to understand. It became my mission to learn French in order to break down this boundary drawn across languages. I studied it in school, lived in France, lived in Morocco, spent years translating from French to English. I remember the moment in grad school when I asked my mother, who had always been able to help me with my French homework when I was young, to help me with a particularly thorny translation question. She announced that she could no longer help me, that the questions I had were now beyond her comprehension. Instead of being proud, I felt panicked. I had passed her, instead of closing some kind of nameless gap between us.
Growing up, my extended family would meet at my Lebanese grandparents’ house for a large family gathering every week or so. We would share a meal that generally centered around the same dish, what we called riz and what I have since learned is actually called riz blahem. We would slather the spiced rice and minced meat in yogurt and sit around a large table with white doily tablecloths. Then the kids would leave the table and run around the various rooms of the house. For me, Lebanon was the cases of caffeine-free Diet Coke heaped in my grandparents’ pantry. It was the ghost piano that played different songs depending on what floppy disk you put in it. It was playing pool and hide-and-seek with my cousins. It was the large nutcracker resting on a giant bowl of walnuts on the coffee table. It was wall-to-wall carpeting and leather couches and a treadmill in the living room for some reason.
«If Zabor is a kind of reverse Scheherazade of The Thousand and One Nights, then I might be a reverse Zabor.»
Our fathers never spoke to us of Lebanon, of their childhoods, they never taught us their language or their customs. One of the only stories I can remember my father telling us about his youth was that a circus came to town and went out of business, and our grandfather adopted the baboon, which drove around in his car with him saluting the passersby. “That’s so Lebanese,” my brother and I would always say, whatever that meant.
My cousin and I would imitate the sounds of Arabic, mocking how the men of our family seemingly blathered gibberish sprinkled with the occasional English word; our favorite phrases to make fun of were “lemon-lime” or “penny loafers” or “limousine,” which cropped up in their Arabic sentences more often than seemed plausible. Or maybe we only exaggerated their occurrence in our minds through endless repetition. We hadn’t yet wrapped our heads around the fact that it was a wild, wondrous thing that our fathers could speak and flow freely through multiple languages, interweaving Arabic, English, and French.
Zabor’s aunt Hadjer has a similar reaction as Zabor’s knowledge of French grows. “She could never speak French but she enjoyed learning the few words that she rolled like rocks in her mouth when she wanted to imitate me, mocking, mischievous.” Is it a defense mechanism? A way of masking envy? For me, maybe it is simple ignorance of the ways languages coexist in Middle Eastern and North African countries, fractured identities resulting from colonization, globalization, and migration.
As Zabor’s knowledge of the competing languages of his region expands, he moves through a range of emotions upon realizing there are entire worlds out of his reach. “When I understood, I felt surprise… then scorn, and finally anger… The discovery of the miserable gap between Hadjer’s language, mixed and hybrid, and the language of school, evolved into bitterness against my own world.”
Growing up amidst these multiple languages, while having access only to one of them, created a kind of troubling instability in me, too, which was not helped by my already tenuous grasp at any sense of belonging. The gaps seemed more and more relevant; my inability to communicate with my grandparents started to tinge our gatherings with regret.
Following an initial fissure of his universe, Zabor is soon able to leapfrog over these gaps; he sees where one language ends and another must begin in order for him to keep naming and inventorying everything in his universe. The Arabic of his village starts to cede to the Arabic of school, creating a rift between Zabor and his aunt and shifting his connection to his surroundings.
“I was sad and irritated, but also stubbornly in love, attentive to the interruption of the other language, the Arabic of school, which was slowly taking possession of the walls, enriching itself with each new term, tattooing and snatching the various objects of my universe. Oh, not an infinite language, but already sovereign!”
When Zabor at last comes into a mastery of a third language, French, his fits stop. He learns that he can impose order on the chaos of his inner mind, because now he has a language able to name the feelings, thoughts, and desires he has, and he can give voice to what is inside of him. He enters into his own sensuality, which he was never taught the Arabic words to describe. “I can write the word ‘starry’ and all the ink of the sky stains my hands, climbs up to my shoulder and my eyes. The night is a glittering fleece.” Not only is he better able to control his inner turmoil, but he also gains access to something beyond his isolated village in Algeria. He can read new stories, imagine new possibilities.
But here I am unlike Zabor: My own inner panic began precisely when I became proficient in French and realized it hadn’t resolved my anxiety. That the ache and confusion inside me had only grown. I realized I’d been hurtling down the wrong path, or that the path had forked somewhere along the way and I hadn’t seen it in time. Learning French had opened up something in me, yes. Speaking it, translating it, moving through a French-speaking country, I do feel somehow more myself. But still I have gone through life with a longing to access something that’s always felt just out of reach.
“I had just realized that writing a name is like a window, but that it doesn’t make the wall disappear.” Arabic is Zabor’s window, French is his sledgehammer. I was left wondering why French hadn’t solved all my problems, why I had ended up not with a sledgehammer but with a number of small, obscure windows. I could speak English, I could speak French, and yet I still had no way to name myself.
Growing up in Orange County, California with Arab features and more body hair than the other middle school girls, I stuck out like a sore thumb. As did my immigrant parents who struggled to find American friends they connected with and had no desire to go anywhere near a beach. My parents always spoke of California, and of the United States, as a bubble I had to escape from. But where was I supposed to escape to? Where did I belong? Calling myself American seemed wrong to me when my parents were immigrants and I felt no emotional connection to the country. I spent a lot of time visiting my mother’s parents in England, drinking black tea and eating Cadbury chocolate buttons, but with no British accent I could hardly convince anyone of my half-English ancestry either. I was also a half-Lebanese non-Lebanese citizen who didn’t speak a word of Arabic, let alone the Lebanese dialect of Arabic, and had never set foot in the country. I had a fistful of passports, a slew of cultural reference points, but nowhere that felt like home.
«As Zabor’s knowledge of the competing languages of his region expands, he moves through a range of emotions upon realizing there are entire worlds out of his reach.»
After graduating high school, I went to Europe with a few friends. At every airport we went to, even though I clearly belonged to this group of American girls, the security guards would speak to me in the language of whatever country we were in. At restaurants, everyone else at the table would be handed an English menu, and I would be handed a Greek or Italian or Spanish menu. I might have felt a certain pride in so seamlessly blending in wherever we went, but it also evoked panic in me. If I could be from everywhere, then it was hard to feel like I was from anywhere.
Throughout my teenage years and early 20s, I often met people who had spent time in Lebanon and couldn’t believe I’d never been. When I told Lebanese friends I made along the way that I didn’t speak Arabic, I was confronted with dubious or disdainful comments that I “wasn’t really Lebanese,” that I was somehow not able to claim this half of my ancestry because I had been deprived of the language. I was being told that there was a right way to be Lebanese, and whatever I was, I wasn’t it.
My father’s persistent claims that Lebanon was too dangerous to visit, that you never know what might happen, that I could find myself stuck there in some kind of perilous doomsday situation, were finally overcome when I was invited to speak at the American University of Beirut in late 2019. His fears remained, but he realized he couldn’t stop me from going. My flight would be paid for, it was an honor to have been invited; I was going. Well then, so was he.
Happily, I imagined my father taking me around “his” Beirut, his old haunts, the streets he grew up on. No such thing happened. What old haunts? I had misunderstood everything. Beirut had been destroyed in the war that my father’s family fled in 1975, and subsequently rebuilt from the ground up. Nothing of his childhood remained. We walked around the former marketplace downtown, now a bizarre high-end shopping mall rebranded as the Beirut Souks. The closest glimpse I got of his upbringing was when, at a restaurant, his face lit up on hearing the waiter pronounce the name of a dessert he had loved to eat as a kid: karabeej.
Despite not having the magical family moment I had imagined, I did feel something switch on in me as I moved through Beirut. I walked to the water line to see the views I had glimpsed on postcards and friends’ vacation photos. I felt a buzzing in my limbs as I ate the familiar foods of my childhood, drank arak, heard the language all around me, translated the scenery through my body. I sat in a taxi with a man who looked just like my grandfather and who played the same music I’d heard growing up, and I felt more at home in his car than I had in a very long time. I visited a friend’s mother’s house for lunch where I was served kibbeh like my grandmother had made me as a kid, on the same white doily placemats. Everywhere I went, every store I walked into, I was spoken to in Arabic. I was recognized for what I was: Lebanese. And this feeling was as joyous as it was painful, because the first words out of my mouth were always “Sorry, I don’t speak Arabic.”
Upon my return from Lebanon, I was filled with something resembling hope. I felt closer than ever to myself. I had brought home some art from Beirut, which is now hanging on my walls. I learned to make riz. I felt a sense of pride eating labneh and hummus the way my father does—meaning, at any time of day and scooped straight out of the tub. When I went back to Beirut a few months later and found karabeej at a restaurant, my own face lit up with the same pleasure as my father’s had.
Zabor learns French to set himself free from the limitations of Arabic. He says, “Until I had the perfect language, I could only live in chaos… [French] gave me the means to circumvent the village and its narrowness.” I’ve learned French only to find I am still colliding with the limits of myself. I thought learning French would bring me closer to something, would allow me to circumvent my American bubble as it did for Zabor and his village. I can still remember the way my heart sank when a Lebanese friend told me that the kind of writing I was interested in translating from Lebanon was mainly being written in Arabic and English, and not in French, and that my knowledge of the colonizer’s language would not really help me forge any kind of connection to my fatherland.
On the last night of my first trip to Beirut, my father turned to me and said, “Okay, you’ve changed my mind. Beirut has changed, it feels safe. You can come back.”
«Beirut had been destroyed in the war that my father’s family fled in 1975, and subsequently rebuilt from the ground up. Nothing of his childhood remained.»
Three days after we left, wildfires erupted in the mountains near where my father grew up. A few days after that, the October Revolution began. Despite what my father saw as a new threat, I did return, in February of 2020, not realizing that would be the last trip I would take for a very long time. It felt good to be back, but even so the trip may have only widened the chasm and confusion I felt growing in me. During a conversation in which I lamented not feeling more Lebanese, a glamorous British woman a few years older than me told me how she’d picked up Arabic so quickly after moving to Beirut that people often mistook her for Lebanese. This was decidedly unhelpful for me in my predicament, in my struggle to feel authentically Lebanese when I was, in fact, Lebanese. But I thought to myself, maybe if I just spent a summer here…
A few months after my second trip, on August 4, the Beirut port blast rips through the city against a backdrop of compounding financial collapse and government corruption. The country is ravaged by COVID-19. My closest friends there leave. Will I still go back?
Maybe I’m on a wild goose chase, trying to find myself everywhere I am not. “At exactly eight years old, I discovered the horror of the inexpressible. God had ninety-nine names but my world had none… An intelligent language with the ambition of spreading from east to west and filling the tiniest hole, the tiniest bump, the tiniest cracks and crevices in my village, invisible to the naked eye.” I keep thinking that if I can inhabit the country, soak in the language, then it will spread through me and fill every crack or crevice I’ve felt widening in me for years. I try to educate myself, listen to podcasts, read books, watch movies. I click through images of the Baalbek ruins on Google Street View while in isolation during the pandemic. None of this provides whatever solace I’m looking for.
And maybe none of it works because there is no crack or crevice. Because there is no right or wrong way to be Lebanese. Maybe instead of seeing my lack of Arabic as something to resent, it would be more generous to see it as one of the many unfortunate consequences of mass exodus and forced diaspora common to war-ravaged countries. Even Zabor acknowledges the limits of language, the fact that no matter how many languages we possess, the inexpressible will always remain.
“To have to recount, fix, exchange, perpetuate, and speak with only a few words, or even millions! Yes, there were thousands in Hadjer’s language and hundreds of thousands in the language of school, but that didn’t change the fact that those languages had an end, a threshold of powerlessness; sooner or later, we would reach the limit of five words or five million words. Beyond the last shore(line) stretched the void.”
Maybe it’s not about accumulating language, but using the language we have to construct narratives of ourselves. After all, it’s not really Zabor’s mastery of French that sets him free, but his belief that French bestows him with a great gift.
What if I could think of in-betweenness as its own gift? What if being able to slip in and out of countries and cultures were a good thing? There is a beauty to it and an emptiness to it. But maybe the in-betweenness, my own face that defies easy definition, could still fill its own world. Maybe an in-between could be a valid way of being; it is certainly not a new or unique mode of existence. So many people of modern-day diasporas did not grow up speaking their mother or father tongues. Does that make us any less entitled to claim that part of ourselves?
Why must not speaking Arabic mean I see myself as an imposter in my own skin? Why can’t I simply be someone who is Lebanese, and doesn’t speak Arabic; someone who is English, with no British accent; someone who is American, with no blood tie to the country; someone who has French nationality by way of colonization.
Maybe my position, firmly lodged in some in-between, is why I find myself so drawn to translation, my mirror to Zabor’s gift. When translating, when flitting between languages, is when I feel most myself. Maybe I can create a home for myself right here, in the translation of French texts inflected with Arabic, laced with a kind of multiplicity or multiglossia. Not so long ago, I wrote about this in-translation zone as a space where I could be anything, and so maybe I could be me.
Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, RI, where she also co-owns Riffraff bookstore and bar. Her recent translations include Kamel Daoud’s Zabor, or the Psalms and Abdellah Taïa’s A Country for Dying.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 30, 2021