Learning both English and Urdu at school, and teaching French after university, Naima Rashid initially felt dislocated from her “mother tongue” and land. But, on reading Urdu again, she’s discovered it’s ‘the space between languages’ that feels like home.
For as long as I can remember my linguistic choices have seemed incongruous to those around me, and yet they seemed inevitable to me, as natural as putting one foot after another. I never questioned their flow, their source, or their rationale, but followed, in blind faith, the pull they exerted on me in the order in which they exerted it.
The language map of the self has never been straightforward for me. Born in Punjab in Pakistan, I grew up speaking Urdu as my mother tongue. Although the language of our province was Punjabi, it was not taught in school. Urdu and English were both taught as languages but, thanks to a colonial hangover, the focus on learning and mastering English was disproportionately higher, and all subjects were taught in English. The school library was well-stocked in English books, and we grew up naturally fluent in the language, and drawn to reading and writing in it.
Conversely, there never seemed to be enough time to delve into Urdu with the leisure and devotion I wanted to. There were Urdu novels lining the shelves at home, but Hardy and George Eliot always beat them to it. There was always blank verse and sonnets to understand, and so the ghazals had to wait in line. As I ploughed through tomes of English classics, I felt guilty looking at the spines of books with Urdu titles. Encased in the covers, the worlds in these books remained locked away, but the sounds of the titles jingled like keys to a magic vault. I held on to them like one would hold on to precious tokens of a larger truth that was inaccessible.
Any possibility of remedial action was further deferred thanks to the unexpected turn that events took in college. I fell in love with French, and decided that I wanted a career in teaching it. My parents were practically-minded people with backgrounds in the sciences. The flight of fancy in a language that was so removed from their immediate surroundings seemed high-flown and unrealistic to them – an idle dream of youth – and the journey towards that goal was a lesson in holding my ground. These were pre-internet days, and the availability of resources itself was a challenge. I remember buying a set of two audio cassettes which I played on repeat to master the sounds, while my parents prayed for my sanity in the next room, quietly piling up brochures for MBA programs in the hope that I would course-correct.
A self-designed immersion takes you down a strange rabbit-hole. On one hand, it estranges you to close ones because very few people are able to respect the daily sacrifices that such a commitment demands from you, and the adjustment of expectations it demands from them in turn; on the other hand, it forces you to plumb deep within your own self, strengthening your self-reliance. The more I belonged to this new inner world, the more grounded I became within myself, and inversely, the more alienated from my immediate cultural context. The community I sought as oasis in these times was the small tribe of those on the same ‘unrealistic’ mission as myself.
Sometimes, when my spirit would tire, I asked my French teacher when the language would finally become my own, and how I would know? When you start dreaming in French, she would say, more out of a desire to silence me, I suspect, than on grounds of reason.
What is our ‘own’ language then? Can a language belong to us even if we have never lived where it is spoken? Can our own language only be received or born into, or can we choose it by volition? Could passion carve a trail where a bloodline was missing?
The questions in my head echoed the doubts I faced every day; the oddity of the choice surfacing in quotidian interactions where an overt explanation was required, sometimes about the motives for the undertaking, sometimes about the ‘guarantee’ of end results. The doubts only intensified with our move out of Pakistan. In the new matrix of foreignness, the incongruency of the language that came out of a brown woman’s mouth was simply one strangeness among many that were hard to swallow. Job interviews followed a predictable rhythm. The clear proofs of my connection with the language I was teaching were notably absent. The colour of my skin and the colour of my passport immediately declared on my behalf that I wasn’t French, so other proofs and validations of merit had to be produced to balance them on the scale of legitimacy – stamped degrees, accreditations, recommendation letters. From an initial disbelief the conversations moved, sometimes through hostility and aggression, to an exoticization. I was always ‘the Pakistani who spoke French so well’ or ‘the non-native speaker who is teaching French.’
Like the Francophone community I had earlier found anchor in, this time the classroom became my haven. The act of teaching, sacred, its energy transparent, left no room for doubts or explanations, no debates on the ‘whys’, no interrogation about backgrounds. There was only a direct intention of giving and receiving. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it needed to be adjusted, but there was no questioning the motives. There was only a concern with the path that lay ahead, both for the students and myself. This is what I think of when I think of home – the feeling of solid ground beneath, this certainty of owning one’s truth.
Home. Roots. Belonging. I thought about these a lot. Where did I belong, in which corner of the globe, which quadrant of geography and language held the coordinates of myself? Had living through languages that were not my own dislocated something inside me? I wondered whether I would be punished for all the years spent with foreign languages. My own languages – Urdu and Punjabi, dormant for so many years, would they be lost to me forever? I imagined them floating down a Bermuda triangle, some prison island of the soul where God sends those languages you were born into, but didn’t nurture. As I went looking for lost fragments of Urdu and Punjabi, I feared meeting parts of me that had come undone as well.
Language is mother, the earth that nurtures us, and also the soil we sow, in turn. Was I holding a space of pride and belonging for my son? Would he still know how to love his country if he didn’t speak Urdu? Could you only love a country through its language?
A decade later, when I said goodbye to French teaching to work full-time on writing, a familiar guilt gnawed on me again. Mustering up courage at last, I dusted off some volumes in the cartons I had dragged dutifully from home to home, and continent to continent, and slowly began re-reading in Urdu. It was like working out after a long gap. There was the expected muscle pain. The first few pages read like hieroglyphics, then the meaning unraveled itself slowly.
To my great humility, I learnt that no language dies inside you if your soul has been awake to it, even if only in longing. Identity is a palimpsest, with layers that stack on top of each other, but also rivulets of consciousness and memory flowing in sideways and through the interstices. From the sheerest of cracks, some new light of knowing will flood in, re-molding a whole landscape as you knew it, some remembered word or moment, an epiphany snapping together the parts of a puzzle, changing forever the meaning of the flow you are living through.
Translation is essentially holding space for a truth, withdrawing it from the cloak of one language and robing it in another, getting comfortable with its rawness, its nakedness. Life has schooled me well in inhabiting my truth quietly while its contours are still in flux, trusting that between where my instinct is leading me, and a faith in when and how things fall into place, the puzzle will always come together. In this space between languages, I have found an anchoring that feels like home. Not in the binary conduit of a single language, but in the confluence of several.
When you know the truth in your marrow, any language can take you there.
About Naima Rashid
Naima Rashid is a writer and translator. Her first book, Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019) was a translation of selected verses by Pakistani poet Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English. Her writings have appeared in Asymptote, The Scores, Poetry at Sangam, Wild Court, and other places. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Competition 2019. She is a collaborator with the translation collective, Shadow Heroes. Follow Naima on Twitter @NaimaRashid_
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Detail from Jamil Naqsh’s Untitled , 2003, Oil on canvas, 121.9 × 121.9 cm. Private Collection.