When she spoke Arabic, her eyes lit up and her face glowed and her arms swayed with the musicality of her words. The language, to my ear, combines the smooth rhythm of Italian, the guttural sounds of German, and the serpentine hum of soft-spoken Hindi. Her instructor, a strong-willed young woman, stops the actress mid-speech to give her feedback on her performance; they slide between Tunisian (an Arab dialect? its own language? there is some debate over that) and French seamlessly. This is not naturalism, she says. Let your body dance.
I picked them up from Heathrow airport only a few days ago. Ten Tunisians belonging to or associated with the company APA that created the show entitled “Hobb Story : Instructions for Arab Love” presented this month at the London International Festival of Theatre. Many of the company members were visiting London for the first time, and boy were they excited. I want to visit the Big Ben! one of them tells me in French, which they all speak fluently. I have been recruited as a volunteer interpreter, host, guide, liaison to the festival. Within minutes, I doubt my qualifications for the position: which place has the best exchange rate? where can we find food at 11pm on a Sunday night? how do we get a taxi in this city? why are your French language skills so poor?
They never vocalize that last question, but my neurotic self knows that is just what they’re thinking.
I am reminded of this poem that I saw performed recently, and it hurt me to realize that I am the same:
I, too, only speak English. And it hurts me because, for all intents and purposes, I am Canadian. Born and raised in Ottawa, a city that calls itself by bilingual, where one’s livelihood depends on being bilingual because that’s where the good jobs are. Sure, I can say on my resumé that I was in French immersion for 11 years, that I have taken a directing seminar in French, that I directed a “bilingual” play; and all that is true. I understand French, yes, but do I speak the language? Perfectly, fluently, comprehensibly. Could I write a spoken word poem in French? Could I participate in French debate without stumbling, searching for words every few seconds?
And what about Spanish. I am Canadian. I am English. I am Spanish. My father was born and raised in Spain and teaches Spanish, writes in Spanish, speaks Spanish for a living. I can say that I received a Spanish subject award in high school – but that says more about my tendency to complete my homework assignments than it does about my fluency in the language. And I could blame my parents for not teaching me a second language when I was younger. I could blame my bilingual friends for speaking English around me to make things easier. But I could – and should – just as easily blame myself for not putting in the effort.
I’m currently writing one of those lists of 101 things to accomplish in 1001 days. Two of those items are: write a poem in French and write a poem in Spanish. That may sound simple enough, but the idea behind it is that I must become acquainted with both languages well enough that I can fabricate a well-written poem in each language, not simply an anglicized version of each.
I want to be able to tell that strong-willed instructor (also an actress, a producer, and supportive partner to the playwright) that I think she is extraordinary, that I admire her ability to do interviews in English even though she insists she doesn’t speak the language very well. I also admire all the things that she and her company are trying to accomplish with this play: by touching on issues of love, sexuality, and relationships, they hope to show a different side of the Arabic culture, one that is not often seen in the Western world. This is documentary theatre that includes real testimonials from Tunisians, with hints of fantasy and lyrical theatre weaved in.
And the Arabic dialects really are beautiful.