Why I, an Arab, prefer to write in English over Arabic

Contrary to what some believe, I am not abandoning my Arabness.


By Amna Al Harmoodi

I only started speaking Arabic when I was five years old. Even then, it was only out of necessity. For when I was five years old, I was still an only child to  two working parents. Often left alone, I had either my nanny’s company or my trusty television, both uttering only English. My cousins spoke English, but would prefer to tease me in Arabic about my Arabic. My struggle started there and exists to this day. I could never remember which object was feminine or masculine, and to this day I get confused between the genders of body limbs. Slowly but surely I started picking up some hacks, like knowing that the sun was  female because its rays were hair and the moon was male because it was bald, and so on. But try as I might, my cousins glided through Arabic with ease when I could never get ahead. Even if I felt that I practiced enough to be on the same level, I was never recognized as their equal. 

Instead, I invested all my efforts into the English language, a language that never mocked me, unlike what came next. Upon entering school, my dependency on English became my classmates’ entertainment. Where my teacher praised me, my classmates mocked. Soon enough I realized I had not formed any friends. Then it began: my love of English. This started in the second grade, when recess would be the time my bullies enjoyed making a fool out of me. So, instead of going outside, I would stay in the classroom after begging my teacher to allow me to. I would then and there finish my reading homework, which consisted of thin novels that I breezed through. My teacher, Miss Annette, took notice and began assigning me even more novels to read. After a month’s time, I had finished the second grade level of thin novels. From then on, my school life was lonely, but it didn’t matter to me if I could just find a quiet place to hide and be in the company of the Big Friendly Giant or Mowgli. I began to forget the urgency of needing to learn more Arabic and escaped to worlds rendered by the Latin alphabet. 

“I invested all my efforts into the English language, a language that never mocked me.”

Over time, my Arabic improved. By the time I was in highschool, I was asked by my teachers to give speeches and even recite the Quran in our weekly morning assemblies. But my Arabic was never as good  as my English, and my heart was never completely in it. I remember vividly how advanced my English was, in comparison to my peers, that a teacher sat me down and demanded who wrote an essay for me, thinking that it was plagiarized. In my senior year of highschool, a teacher presented my essay to class as an excellent example. Yet, these compliments did nothing to dispel the whispers behind my back and fake niceties to help my classmates cheat. Again, I returned to the ever loyal English language through novels and through writing in my diary. 

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Amna Alharmoodi with Miss Anette. Image courtesy of Amna Alharmoodi.

And when university choices were looming around the corner, I chose an American university with no Arabic in it whatsoever. It was this university that accepted me for who I was and allowed me to pursue my love for literature and creative writing in English as an academic specialization. It was satisfying, to write, read and speak in English for the whole day. Gone were the remarks and mocks; what came instead were people who recognized my talent and shared the same infatuation of reading and writing as mine, including professors who praised me and even pushed and supported my plans for publishing my work in English. 

Even while entering this new world with its multiple open doors waiting for me, a small voice in the back of my head still criticized. My bullies and family members’ voices morphed into the negative voice in my head, always reminding me that I was going against something. I was going against the ocean current that is my Arabness. But, to me, its water was constantly slipping through my fingertips. I knew of the Arabic language’s beauty: I have three chapters of the Holy Quran memorized, but at the same time, how could I resist the English language’s allure and promise of loyalty? How could I deny all that I wanted to be? I was an Emirati, an Arab woman, but why couldn’t I be such a woman while speaking and writing in English?

The Arabic language mocked me when it appeared in popular songs and I wouldn’t understand some words, and when my family poked at my grammatical errors. Yet, the English language wholeheartedly embraced me. I could understand the lyrics, the poems, the plays, the novels and more. I could, one day, stand on the same level as the writers I read and be recognized. Yes, my native language and country’s first language is Arabic, but can’t I write our story—the Arabs’ story—in English? The story which I have seen distorted many times over. The story which I love to live, yet I do not often see reflected adequately. The Arab story of our traditions, way of life and struggles that include our Arab details but showcase human experiences that resonate with everyone.

“Yes, my native language and country’s first language is Arabic, but can’t I write our story—the Arabs’ story—in English?”

I realized those were the types of stories I wanted to learn more about and share through my own writing. I wanted to relay the stories of human experiences with the delicate and beautiful Arabic touches through English, leaving no chances for meanings to be added or altered. In my courses at university, some professors would assign us translated Arabic texts, all of which were eye opening as I was finally understanding and learning more about my Arab identity through translation. But I soon learned that translation has its faults, that some masterpieces of Arabic literature are yet to be translated and even when translated, the meanings shift and enter the English language’s world with its own history and culture. Most probably, when this article is translated into Arabic, some of the meanings and careful wordings have been altered or lost  amidst the new sea of meanings and connotations Arabic words offer. After all, the Arabic language’s world contains words and phrases that refer to Quranic traditions and Arab history and culture, as each language has its context and world. Then why not start from the intended world from the beginning? If I do so, I can establish the context and history in itself along with any notions or information I wish the reader to know and have access to, not waiting for someone else to nitpick and choose which aspects of Arabness to show. I am not forgetting that my name was first written in Arabic nor that I say ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ before I say hello. Through the English language, I want to push my Arab-oriented stories towards the top,  just like Omar Saif Ghobash did in  his book, Letters to a Young Muslim, which highlights the many differences that make up humanity, such as religion or race, and yet there is an infinite amount of shared human experiences. Among the readers of Shakespeare and other English writing authors, I want Arab stories to be global and accessible as possible. So, why hide the Arab stories between layers of complexity? 

In this day and age, English has become almost a universal language, appearing in entertainment and official areas like movies and passports, respectively. In the many Arab countries, this has caused concern as to whether we are abandoning tradition by embracing English wholeheartedly. In the Arab world, there is a stigma that revolves around learning and depending on another language as it is deemed as abandonment. This could have arisen from leftover feelings of imperialism or humanistic feelings of superiority to mask failure. I was the target of these claims of abandonment many times, when any family members or teachers would be outraged at my parents for not being familiar with the Arabic language, the language of the Holy Quran. To that, I say: why can’t I be an Arab in English? I want to write about painstaking hours of selecting fabrics for jalabiyat. I want to write about learning how to pray with my grandmother and wearing a blue slip-on prayer garment too large for me. I want to write about how thankful I am for the little Arab details, from the coat of arms in the image of a falcon on my passport, to the spiced rice I eat everyday. I want to write them into existence, to build a bridge from the English language’s world into the Arabic’s world and have everyone gain access to these precious stories. There is no abandonment, but rather a reinvention. 

“In the Arab world, there is a stigma that revolves around learning and depending on another language as it is deemed as abandonment…There is no abandonment, but rather a reinvention.”

My family still pokes fun at my Arabic that requires improvement, and they don’t understand what I am to do with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. To that I say, it’ll help me in sharing my Arab world, without needing translation, to be available for any curious reader. To eloquently deliver stories without any fear of the alteration of  Arabs’ images in the process or any political agenda. To allow such stories to be on the same shelf as J.K. Rowling and  Jhumpa Lahiri . I am not abandoning who I am, I am celebrating it.

Amna Alharmoodi is an Emirati writer passionate about writing the hidden Emirati stories. She won second place in Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF) Annual Creativity Award in 2019 for her short story “Transit”, which she co-wrote. She has been published in the NYU Abu Dhabi literary magazine, Airport Road, the NYU literary journal, Brio and the Paris-based literary magazine Postscript. 

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