Beth of Cassandra Pages has been doing a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) about her father-in-law, born in 1911 in Ottoman Syria and now in a retirement home in
Montreal Vermont. The whole series is remarkable, humane and honest and deeply moving, but I want to call your attention to the latest post, which begins and ends with the teaching of Arabic (I’m quoting about half the entry):
“I may have a new Arabic student,” my father-in-law told us, after dinner. “It’s a woman. She called up other day and said she had heard that I teach. She’s coming next week.” He has one regular student who studies with him each Wednesday, and another student who is “on leave”: he’s a minister who is currently in the Sudan doing relief work.
“Grandpa, how would you explain to someone how to pronounce an ‘ayn’?” M. asked. “Is it different than a glottal stop in Hebrew?
“Oh yes,” he said, “In Arabic you have to open your throat and…” he demonstrated, and asked her to repeat; he demonstrated again, a little smugly; he loves being able to do things that are difficult for us…
…“How do you begin teaching Arabic to someone?” M. asked. She has studied more of the language than any of us, and readily testifies to how difficult it is.
“I begin by trying to explain the ambience of the words,” he said. We all looked perplexed. “You see,” he said, “every word in Arabic is surrounded by meaning; it refers to a whole constellation of experiences that are particular to that world, to that way of life…All of that is contained within the language.”
“Take the word ‘happiness’,” M. said.
“What is happiness to an Arab?” he countered. “That is where you have to start. You have to see the desert, smell the bougainvillea…” He shut his eyes and began to recite two couplets in Arabic; it was beautiful.
“al Moutanabbi,” he said, opening his eyes. He raised his hand and punctuated each noun in the air as he translated:
Horses, and nights, and the desert know me –
and the sword, the spear, paper, and the pen.
“Wonderful!” He shook his head, smiling with pleasure. “He was quite the fellow. A great poet, and a warrior too. His caravan was attacked by bandits and he was going to flee, but one of his companions reminded him of these lines he had written, and challenged him.” He growled, shaking the words like a rabbit in the jaws of a wolf: “‘Aren’t you also a fighter who praised the sword and the spear?’ So he rode into the battle – and was killed.” He grinned, and shrugged: c’est la vie.
He shut his eyes and recited the Arabic again. I watched the bones of his thinning face move as he spoke; his voice was a strong as ever, and his silken white hair curled at the back of his neck. The three of us exchanged astonished glances. For us, the remarkable moment was becoming fixed in time and space and memory – but he was flying, gone somewhere we’d never been.
I wish I had the privilege of knowing this man; I’m glad I have the privilege of knowing Beth.
Incidentally, the poem by al-Mutanabbi provides the title for Night & Horses & the Desert, An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature by Robert Irwin, author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, a wonderful book; the anthology too sounds well worth having.