Opinion

“The more English I consume, the more distant I feel from my native Arabic”

Language preference and the search for identity.

By Afnan Alobaidli

Image: Alamy.

Some years ago, I watched an Egyptian film called Assal Eswed, or Black Honey (2010). Its protagonist, Masri Alarabi decides to return to his motherland Egypt after a twenty-year absence in the US. His experiences as an Americanized Arab upon returning to Egypt are as funny as they are revealing of the conflict between two languages and cultures for Masri. Though Masri understands and speaks Arabic quite well, he shows an evident preference for English, and vehemently corrects the pronunciation of English words for those who do not speak it well. On the face of it, Masri seems to have culturally and linguistically migrated to the western side of the map. But, those who have watched the movie know where the heart of our protagonist truly lies.

It often occurs to me how closely I identify with Masri’s experience, and I wonder if there are people out there who feel the same way. Though I have lived most of my life in an Arabic-speaking country, like Masri, I speak and write both in English and Arabic. But whenever I am using either language, it seems as if I am assuming a different personality and frame of mind. When I use Arabic, I tend to be formal and conventional. I behave like the adult that I am and like to be perceived as such. I am aware that I lack a sense of creativity and self-expression when I speak and write in Arabic. There is an emotional distance between me and my native tongue. However, classical Arabic always feels more like home to me than the colloquial language. My connection with classical Arabic is mainly through books, and they have always been good company to me.

“I like to sing in English, watch movies in English and read books in English. Should I feel guilty? Am I underestimating my native Arabic?”

English is my preferred medium for self-expression. I assume a childlike personality in the sense that I feel more curious, creative and willing to express my ideas freely. I also feel that I have a stronger sense of humor. I like to sing in English, watch movies in English and read books in English. Should I feel guilty? Am I underestimating my native Arabic? After all, language carries culture and I cannot help but feel that the more English I consume, the more distant I feel from my native Arabic.

Can linguistic preferences also influence cultural preferences? Will one migrate from one side of the map to the other because they prefer using one language over the other?

In an ever-expanding cosmopolitan world, we often find that learning and speaking multiple languages is an advantage. One may experience various sides to their personality while speaking or writing in different languages. This can contribute to having a well rounded personality, a personality that can grasp different world views and learn to accept everyone as they are.   

“I am aware that I lack a sense of creativity and self-expression when I speak and write in Arabic.”

My belief is that the dilemma of Masri Alarabi, and those who identify with his character, is in knowing one’s true identity despite linguistic and cultural preferences. Masri may travel to diverse destinations on the linguistic map, but he will not rest until he finds the place he calls home. For Masri, at the end of his journey, it was an easy decision once he understood himself. But many of us will keep traveling most of our lives, some in comfort and others with little ease, searching for home. That is, searching for ourselves.    

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Afnan Alobaidli is a graduate of English Literature from Saudi Arabia. She is passionate about art, history and literature. She loves to express herself through writing and plans to make it her lifelong vocation.