By Eliza Campbell
“Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?” 1 Corinthians 12:30 (Authorized (King James) Version).
When I was born, my father blessed me to be wise beyond my years and to be abundant in understanding. I know this because I found this scrawled in my mother’s handwriting in a square pink scrapbook she had stopped keeping years before, but whose pages I still loved to pore over; my personal history written by someone else, a bright pink prophecy. Between glossy photos of me and my brown-eyed siblings, I found fragments of my history, written by my mother like instructions to someone who had lost their memory and needed to be re-taught their life’s story: “You loved to sing songs from our Pete Seeger tape.” “You went to Canada with us and made everybody happy.” “The first word you read by yourself was C-A-T.” I learned, too, that I had learned to talk very early, that my mother had taken me with her everywhere and nursed me on a steady diet of milk and words, talking to me like a fully-formed person before I was weaned.
It is reckless self-indulgence to tell these stories, I know. More importantly: their relevance wanes for you, reading, because they are not in your blood, in your language. You have your own version of these stories, ones that are written on your skin and tongue. They mean more to you than mine. My stories are essential to me; they remind me of my introduction to grasping the world, they have formed how I speak. And we must each tell our forming stories, and let them be told, for how can you learn to talk when you’ve never heard the sound of your own voice?
One day at church when I was in seventh grade, a Sunday school teacher offered us an assignment during our study of the Book of Mormon.
“Books are so normal for us,” he said, passing out long pieces of white butcher paper, “and we can’t imagine a world without them, can we?” He instructed us to open the book to the first page, 1 Nephi 1, and start copying it down, word for word – the better to give us a sense of Mormon’s long struggle in carving out each precious word into metal, or Joseph Smith’s arduous months translating it slowly onto paper. I started with the flourish of Nephi’s first person article and continued down three columns, my hand already cramping from the unaccustomed act of writing so much so fast. Ten years later I would meet Yulia Kiriakova, the woman who first translated the same book into her native Bulgarian language. Despite the advancements of computers and easily-accessible dictionaries, however, she described a similarly difficult journey in her long, laborious translation.
“I had to pray for help to get through the war chapters,” she told me, her eyes very wide and serious. “I said, ‘God, I cannot keep translating this, please help me.’” Then Yulia smiled and reached her hand across the table to me, the better to help me understand the miracle. “And then I started typing and did not stop until I was finished.”
What is it about this interpretation of tongues, this process that famishes the body and mind? I wonder this now when I read the Book of Mormon, which has become my daily text, my daily bread, the source of so much clarity and understanding. I think about the foundation of this faith, and how it is built on the loving translation of some believing souls, who looked into God’s overwhelming universe of words and wrote down each message, one at a time.
At the same time, in seventh grade, I was learning my first new tongue. Spanish at my middle school was the prevailing language of choice, and I fell in love with the class and the language the way you fall in love as a teenager: achingly, anxiously, writing about it in secret notebooks into the night. I over-ambitiously attended a Spanish language Sunday school class in my ward, and let the words fall around me like a waterfall while I sat with my English Book of Mormon, where the class was reading in the third book of Nephi, chapter 17. The class was discussing Christ’s prayer for the people, and I read along in English: “The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father.” I had always loved this verse, and again let myself ponder the magic: what words could be so un-hearable, so secret, that they could not be spoken? What would they sound like, these words closed to the interpretation of our limited tongues? All around me, the Spanish enveloped me, and I felt the loveliness of something inexpressible, a sound so beautiful that it could not be translated.
Your language is your home. To carry words inside of you is to carry a small, safe reminder of yourself, and to lose one’s language is to lose one’s home, and vice versa. In 2014, the United Nations estimated that the number of displaced persons globally has exceeded 50 million; this is higher than the post-World War II high, when millions of refugees streamed out of Europe in the wake of the world’s biggest war. In other words: 50 million is an unprecedented number, and means that many nations are being scattered. Displaced persons are defined as people who have been forcibly removed from their homes because of social or political strife, and they can include refugees, internally displaced persons, stateless persons, asylum seekers, and several other categories of people, all somehow made violently homeless. Sometimes civil and international wars are the cause of this homelessness, sometimes ethnic or political persecution, or some sort of humanitarian disaster.
What this actually means is that displaced persons are not distant strangers in foreign lands. Our lives are connected to them, and theirs to us. They are our friends and neighbors, our coworkers and acquaintances, our brothers and sisters knit close to us from across oceans and continents. They are here in Utah, where I am now, and scattered abroad. They are fleeing from Europe, South America, the Middle East, Africa – they are fleeing from home, and they cannot go back. They often leave illegally or unsafely, and arrive to their host country stateless and tongue-less: without health-care, without family, battling ongoing mental health concerns and psychological trauma, and often without the words to even speak of it. For many years, all of this was just technical knowledge to me: abstract concepts on a page that I could try to sound out, but not quite speak. And it was that way until someone helped me understand.
I met Malyuun the summer after my second year of college. I had a summer job as a tutor for special needs students in the Seattle School District, and expected nothing. I wanted to stay trapped in my own undergraduate angst; I didn’t want to think. That first day, I remember, I walked into an empty classroom at Ballard High School that had been assigned to me and my young charge, and I was silent and anxious. It had briefly been explained to me that I would be tutoring a special needs student with an international background, and I was sent to wait in our classroom for her to arrive. I walked into the empty classroom, which was being used for storage and was crowded with boxes and broken chairs, and sat down at a scratched desk, feeling hopeless and unready. And then the door opened and Malyuun came into the room, escorted by a teacher. The first thing I remember is seeing her bright eyes, which were big and dark brown, and how she looked shyly but directly at me. She was about five feet tall, with a sweet, round face, and wearing a floor-length dress with long sleeves, and a dark scarf over her head. She and the teacher paused at the door, and then began walking into the room, and Malyuun walked with a slow, bouncing limp on her right side.
“This is Malyuun, and she’s thirteen,” said the woman escorting her, smiling at both of us. She gave me a quick, penetrating look, and asked, “Are you all set?” I was speechless. Refugee statistics and the history of the hijab flashed through my mind, along with what felt like an immeasurable amount of work about to take place. All of a sudden, I realized how much responsibility I had, and I felt completely unprepared. But I said yes, smiled, and helped Malyuun to her seat. She giggled when I tripped on my way to sit down, and our work began.
During those next three months, Malyuun told me her story, and quickly became my best friend. She had lived in Somalia until the age of about eight, when the war broke out, and escaped with her parents and brother to nearby Kenya. They lived in a refugee camp for a few years, where Malyuun had developed a permanent limp from an untreated case of polio. When they finally got to Seattle under refugee status, she had lost over four years of foundational reading, writing, and math, and was officially designated as a permanently disabled student. My tutoring was part of an effort to redress some of her educational losses, and they were overwhelming to contemplate.
But we started, one piece at a time: an hour of fractions, an hour of reading out loud, vocabulary practice, spelling, or essay writing. She was a quick learner and became an adept teacher, slowly repeating basic Somali phrases to me over and over again until I could say them with her. We listened to her beloved Justin Bieber as a reward after a successful class, and every few days she would bring homemade malaweh for us to share: thin, chewy pancakes that we ate with our hands, licking off the honey and grease. When we needed a break, we would go on long, rambling walks around the school’s hallways, stopping in the girl’s bathroom so she could adjust the tying of the long scarf she wore over her head and shoulders. We learned, and rested, and made a little home in that classroom.
“Leeza,” she asked me one day, pausing in the middle of a pancake bite. She paused and looked down. “Do you know how to get to Michigan?” I looked up at her incredulously. It was a strange question, and I told her so.
“My dad is a driver for his job, but it is hard for him to get a license here. He drives everywhere, all over the states, to find a place that will let him take an easier driving test, but it is hard for him, because it is in English,” she explained. She bit off another piece of malaweh and chewed thoughtfully. “I think in Michigan they have a test in Somali language.” I nodded, smiled, and said I hoped so. It was out of my power to help, but the question and its implications stayed with me for several days. Driving, for her family, meant jobs, transportation, dignity, safety, and it was simply out of reach, and not for any good reason. This, like many other details I learned about Malyuun’s life in America, was a real, basic dilemma of refugee life that I had simply never considered – because I would never have to. But that didn’t mean that it was fair.
I once asked Malyuun to write a simple report about her home country’s political history, hoping that she would be fascinated, as I was, by Somalia’s rich history, culture, and disastrous political circumstances. She reinterpreted my request, however, and brought me a few pages she had written instead about her family’s life and livelihood in Mogadishu, probably patched together from fuzzy childhood memories and what she had asked her parents.
“In Somalia, we lived near to our school building, and my mother teaches English there. When we learn English and math, my class likes it a lot, and after school, we get to go to the madrassa to learn the Quran…” Malyuun’s report continued on. I thought of my undergraduate ignorance in wanting to focus on Somalia’s problems, as if the country were a car accident I couldn’t tear my eyes from. I thought about Malyuun’s real life in Somalia, and in Seattle, and how it was connected to mine. And I thought of her home. Where did she feel safe now? Where did she feel at home?
On the last day of our time together, Malyuun gave me her contact information, which I smilingly accepted, knowing I could never use it. We reviewed algebra, spelling, and read out loud one last time. She gave me a long, silver bracelet threaded with tiny bells, which I had often seen her wearing around her ankle on our trips to the bathroom, and she hugged me tightly as the last few moments of summer school ticked by. The last bell of school rang, a common language by which we said goodbye.
Words in one’s own language bring a sense of justice and understanding. When you learn to interpret someone else’s tongue, you are forced to think about who they really are, and break down a tendency to self-defend against new ideas. Martha Nussbaum writes: “One may be told many things about people in one’s own society and yet keep that knowledge at a distance. Literary works that promote identification and emotional reaction cut through those self-protective stratagems, requiring us to see and to respond to many things that may be difficult to confront…”[i] The learning of a new language works in much the same way, and even allows for the penetration of simple truths that would otherwise be lost. Although language learning can certainly be a creative medium, a language is a system of internally consistent patterns or rules, and you either jump in and are understood, or you stay out and are silent. There is less justifying, less manipulation of words to craft a second, less accurate meaning. Learning a new tongue graciously allows me to break down my over-thinking brain, my tendency to map my gut instincts.
This became urgently true to me when I was a missionary in Bulgaria, and found an excitement for saying simple things, language becoming more precious and dearly-cost. I learned simple, basic sentences – “I miss you, “ “I love you,” and felt them in a new way, where my English-speaking brain would never have been capable of allowing such mundane words to affect me. Language can be a powerful instrument for harm as well as good, as I learned one summer day in Bulgaria.
I was in Stara Zagora, a flat and provincial town in the midwest of the country; it felt like the Kansas of Eastern Europe. It was lunch time. I was in the middle of Stara Zagora’s sprawling and smoky bazaar, where peaches, watermelons, bulk candy, crop-tops, white cheese, toys, and leopard-print pants were on constant, rotating sale, where delicious and horrifying aromas drifted across each other with abandon, and skinny children squatted near piles of garbage and chattered loudly. It was hot. It was blisteringly hot, everything was pink and red and sweaty. My companion and I had resorted to dyuners for lunch, Bulgaria’s quickest and cheapest fast food. We settled into this lunch venue only on the most tired and desperate of days, days when you almost welcomed the distraction of a heavy, mid-laden stomach, the better to justify your heavy, sluggish mind. The stand where we bought our food was a grease and dirt-caked square under a red plastic awning; you could buy meat, bread, cheese-filled greasy rolls, and pizza that looked like ketchup spread over paper plates.
On my dyuner, kind of a Turkish version of shwarma, I always asked for lots of vegetables (sus mnogo zelenchutzi), and extra hot sauce (sus mnogo lyuto). The teenager working the stand grabbed a flat pita bread, wrapped it in white paper, and circled it into a cone. I was so hot; I felt my mouth water, I was so tired, I wanted to sleep, I wanted to go home. He filled the bottom with shredded meat from the rotating spit, bulked out the middle with a pile of greasy fries, topped it with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and onions and the dabs of red pepper sauce I asked for. I collapsed onto the bench with my companion and started eating.
An adult woman stood a few yards away, and our eyes locked among the aromas. Her eyes were large and dark, and I immediately knew what they were saying. She walked toward me, speaking with her body. I knew what was coming, and tensed up in anticipation. When she reached our table, she looked at me again with eyes that were somehow at once gentle, starving, calm, and desperate.
“Daime da pohapna neshto,” she said. Give me something to eat (the word “please” implied in the command form).
“Gladna sum. Mnogo sum gladna,” she said. I’m hungry, I’m very hungry (you cannot start a sentence with an ‘I am’; the adjective must come first, presenting itself before you).
“Molya te, daime da pohapna neshto.” Please, give me something to eat (“Please” literally translating to: “I ask you”).
My companion and I looked down. This was a common occurrence, and my protocol immediately kicked in. Protocol: a series of internally fixed rules that eliminates the discomfort of speaking freely. I stared blankly in front of me, with one small cone of my dyuner left sweating in my hands. This was standard, and we knew what we were doing. We were missionaries and not allowed to give away money or food on the street, we would create problems for ourselves and other people, and I knew this. I knew the right thing to do.
“I ask you,” said the woman. Her hair was shoulder length and very dark, and she wore a light pink tracksuit top with dirty jeans.
“Ne razbiram,” I said. I don’t understand. She knew I was not Bulgarian and the trick was an easy one; unwanted attention could sometimes be gradually shrugged off by feigning a language barrier. But she knew I could understand her, and she understood me. The woman pursed the fingers of her right hand and pointed them toward her open mouth, a universal sign for hunger. She signed and asked and signed and asked, and I stared straight ahead and said I didn’t understand. It was true; I did not understand. I didn’t understand why she had to be hungry and not me, I didn’t understand why I felt so strange turning her away with Christ’s name pinned over my very heart, I didn’t understand why it had to be that one sister begged from another sister, and received nothing in return but blank, understanding silence. And yet, I understood perfectly. I knew her language, her eyes, her desperate stance of street living, her sign language. I understood so well and yet I did not, and I don’t know which feeling was stronger.
Understanding is a choice, a precious act of agency. The gift to interpret is given to some, but we must choose to use it wisely. The gift of tongues is very powerful. I learned that day in Stara Zagora, yet again, of how strangely hurtful my language or silence could be. James writes: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity…Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.”[ii] How close a blessing is to a cursing! How close it is to say “I don’t understand,” and to lie, to hurt vengefully, or by omission.
Nidaa adjusts her glasses and pushes the French fries toward me. “Tfudili,” she says, an Arabic word that will never translate, but that collectively somehow means all of the following: here you are, please come in, help yourself, eat some of this, take my hand, go ahead, you are my honored friend, welcome. I smile and say thank you, and eat one of the fries. It tastes like a specific form of sun-warmed oil, and I am grateful for the substance.
“I also had fries yesterday, and the day before that,” I tell her in Arabic, laughing a little, and she laughs with me. I feel slightly ashamed that I am reduced to making jokes like this that are little more than boring, weathered observations, but Nidaa always laughs. We both lean back a little in our chairs. The covered courtyard we are in serves as a food court for the University of Jordan’s vast array of students, with a cement floor and ceiling and large, red Coca-Cola banners decorating the walls. A fry cook yells out people’s names as their orders of fries and shwarma are done. We’re sitting near the front of the yard of tables, where boys sit in expansive clusters and stare boldly at girls, cracking jokes, and girls sit in knotted little groups of twos and threes and look nervously down, giggling. The tables and chairs are green plastic and remind me of Wal-Mart picnic wear.
We have exhausted many of our preliminary topics for the day. We usually spend the first half of the hour we have together chatting about boys, our families, her schoolwork, my newspaper translations, or whatever one-dimensional topics I can wrangle out of my limited Jordanian Arabic. Nidaa hesitates and pushes her glasses up with her graceful right hand, and slides her homework away from the tray of fries. I take another warm sip of my Pepsi Lite.
“So, Leeza,” she says. “You should tell me why you even want to learn Arabic.”
I look up suddenly. I am not surprised, it is not an unexpected question, or even one that I haven’t answered a thousand times before. Nidaa is friendly and looking at me with warmth and genuine curiosity, but suddenly I am nervous to answer this question, this never-ending question, the question that asks itself in my head throughout my days and nights. I am nervous because where I would normally just say, “To work for the government,” or, “I want to work for the United Nations” (‘United Nations’ being one of the first vocabulary words you ever learn in most Arabic classes, probably so that we can all give vague, promising-sounding answers when we are asked why we study such a thing).
But suddenly, I find myself looking up at Nidaa’s hopeful face, feeling the fear drain out of me. I am tired of being silent. I am tired of lying by default. I don’t know what the future holds, or how to tell Nidaa all of the desires and thoughts of my heart, but I can look at her and let our language build itself through our hands, eyes, and smiles. When I first met her, I felt an immediate gut sensation that we were meant to be friends. She felt like a little sister who I forgot about and accidentally found again, wandering through the cracked and faded campus of the University of Jordan. She told me stories of her family’s Palestinian heritage, their longing for home, even as we sat in her family’s house in Jordan and talked together like we were already there. In other words, we have love for each other, which casts out fear, so of course she will understand.
“I am learning Arabic because I love it,” I finally tell her, laughing a little, and she laughs too, and my heart opens up and we start making room for new words.
*Name has been changed.
[i] Lundquist, Suzanne. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004: 47.
[ii] James 3:6-10