Language That Needs No Translation

Yesterday I hung out almost all day with my little cousins on my husband’s side – the Arab side of the family.  He has such a large extended family that whenever we go over to visit at the grandmother’s house, we are always greeted by a huge crowd.  Uncles sitting together outside, eating, talking, smoking, playing cards.  A multiple of kids in and out of the house, letting flies in as they whip open the screen door and forget to shut it behind them.  Big plates full of rice with meat mixtures, yummy salads and of course, Arabic bread from the bakeries down the street.

I’m still learning my Arabic – and not the Arabic for prayers, but the LOUD Arabic that the uncles use when they start to get red-in-the-face over who threw the ace of spades in the middle of their card game.  The Arabic that screams from the mouths of the aunts when they are disciplining their sons for running through the house.  And the soft kind, like the kind my husband uses when conversing with his father.  The Arabic the cousins greet their grandmother with, kissing her three times on opposite sides of her face.

But the easiest Arabic for me to learn is the kind I hear from the little cousins.

Yesterday I drew sidewalk chalk pictures with his little six-year-old cousin.  She wore an orange and pink dress with pink sandals.  I love how unrestrained little girls are in their dresses – no concept yet of modesty, she is free to twist and turn and sit however she’d like, whatever is most comfortable, dress or no dress.  We drew a map of the different states where different parts of her family lives.  We drew roads to each state with “X” marking the spot where their houses were.  And we zoomed all over the U.S. to get to them.  We never made it to drawing the Middle East, which surely would have included some planes or boats to get there.

We talked about chicken nuggets and big neighbor dogs and older brothers who take her to Chuck-E-Cheese.  We talked about Mario Kart and broken sandals and favorite colors.  She forgave me when I accidentally misspelled “Chicago” in sidewalk chalk and when I made the divider lines in our road too long.  She laughed when I asked her if we were going to stop off at the zoo to ride the elephants on our way to Virginia.

She used simple Arabic words, mixed in with a little English.  Her words sounded different from the heavy accents I was used to from the older aunts and uncles.  She spoke slowly, so that I could understand, and when I still didn’t get it, she’d explain it some more in even simpler terms.

It’s not so much the words she used, but the way in which she used them.  It was less intimidating to me to talk about chicken nuggets and broken sandals than to be asked questions about why I haven’t learned to cook Arabic food yet and am I going to breastfeed?  I find that with the little ones only want to touch my stomach and feel the baby move, sit on my lap, cuddle me with no tension, no resistance, no awareness that I am a bit of an outsider to the family.  No judgments about the little bit of Arabic that I understand, just lots of sincere hugs and kisses that can be understood in any language.

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