Speaking in tongues

By Aieman Khimji [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My sister and I didn’t attend madrassah (Islamic school) regularly when we were growing up. And with my mum in and out of the picture after the divorce, it was my aunts – my father’s sisters – who taught us how to say our prayers.

They had made a book with the Arabic prayers for the 5 prayer times in a day. And all the Arabic prayers were translated into English – not words with English meaning, just English letters. So that is what my sister and I used, and that is how we learnt how to say the the wudhu, niyaats (intentions), surahs, tasbis … everything.

It was more a big black folder than a book, with handwritten pages in plastic sleeves. The plastic sleeves was so thick that it blurred the words, and sometimes I would have to press down on the page to see the writing more clearly, to distinguish between an “r” and an “n”. But even so, I never pulled the pages out of their jackets – those plastic sleeves were invaluable because we could prop the pages up on a sink when we were learning our wudhu and not get them wet.

When or why my aunts created the book, I don’t know. Whether it was because they weren’t good at Arabic too and that is what they used to say their prayers, or whether it was specifically created for our generation … I have no idea.

But as a 9-year old who couldn’t read any Arabic, I thought the black book was great. And it was as central to my saying my prayers as a prayer mat and a scarf. We didn’t pull it out 5 times a day; namaaz in our house was more of a Thursday evening ritual. But I still have it – tucked away somewhere – and if I close my eyes, I can still picture the thick plastic sleeves – now yellowed with time, the loopy handwriting on the pages and I can even tell you the order in which each of the prayers appeared because I had flipped through it so often.

As great as it was, it meant I relied on the English lettering to learn prayers that ought to have been recited and memorised in Arabic. And by learning it in English, my tongue altered the nuance and the cadence of the words – destroyed the beauty of the Arabic language. For me, each word was just a sound; it never carried any meaning. And nor did it communicate poetry and grace.

Certainly my loss.

Formal education, and not Islamic education, had always been the priority in our family. So it was only after mum had more of a presence in our lives – by this time I was in my mid 20s – that I realised how far behind my sister and I were with our knowledge of Arabic and our prayers.

When mum and I lived in Nairobi, we went to the mosque regularly and I was finally immersed in a culture that I had been on the periphery of all my life. And I was always so embarrassed at how little I knew or could read in Arabic. I knew less than the 8-year old girls who spent their time at the mosque squabbling over sweets or playing in the courtyard. And I was mortified by it.

I would hide how little Arabic I knew or pretend that I knew more than I did, just so I would stand out less as the “ignorant” or “uneducated” one. Or worse, add credence to the rumours that I was raised by a family that had no faith, that did not believe.

Gradually after staring at the curved Arabic letters on a page and hearing the intonations by the Imam, some of my Arabic lessons as a child came back to me and I started to make connections between letters and sounds. There are still some that throw me, and even today I am sure I am attributing the wrong sound to specific letters.

On a night like Lailat ul Qadr where I have to use an entire manual written in Arabic to identify what prayers to say, when to say them, and how to say them, the weight of that experience always comes back to me.

And I wish  I had dedicated more time to improving my Arabic.