My parents spoke Arabic when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. They talked about feelings. Our feelings. If one of us felt jealous or hurt or angry. If one of us wasn’t home yet and stayed out later than her curfew. If we had a friend they didn’t like or wanted them to leave and go home. Whispering to each other as if plotting some conspiracy against us. We understood everything. We always knew what they were talking about. Not the words but their intent. The beginnings and endings of what they talked about. When they fought, they cursed at each other in Arabic and their angry guttural words were filled with contempt. The sounds of my mother’s vitriolic chants were filled with hatred. She was outraged with my father when they fought. The depth of her anger and pain were expressed through her Arabic words. I could always tell how angry she was by the Arabic words she used. She tore us all apart.
My mother was very private about her Arabic and never wanted to speak in public believing it was beneath her. A street language saved for the merchants and the “lower class.” Only the “uneducated” and “dirty” spoke this repulsive language. It didn’t apply to foods, cooking a Moroccan dish, the only way to describe the spice was to say it in Arabic. It reminded her of her youth in Casablanca. One word to describe quince for sweetening or cumin for spicing up the meat carried the description to the entire recipe. Just one word described the smell, sound and flavor of that dish.
After my mother died, I traveled to Morocco with my father and he joyfully spoke Arabic to everyone. Unemcumbered by my mother, he struck up conversations with everyone he met. Merchants, friends, family and even the two women Fatimas who cooked in my cousin’s kitchen in Rabat. There was such love and acceptance from everyone who heard him speak their language. I understood everything. At night, I sat in my hotel room and tried to lip-sync conversational Arabic. I commented on what I was wearing, on what I ate, on how tired I felt. Nothing came out. They were all stuck in my chest. A language that I wasn’t supposed to speak out loud.