The most personal things are always the most difficult to write about. Even as I think of what I want to say, I can feel myself heating up. My fingers twitch, and what I want to do is close my laptop and go and make some tea. But, inspired by Elene Ferrante’s letters in Frantumaglia, a book I cannot put down, I felt the need to explore the subject of my accent.
A seemingly strange subject, I’m sure, but this small detail about myself reveals so many aspects of me and who I am that if I had to choose one thing to tell someone about me, it would be this. To be more accurate, I don’t have one accent, but three. I have my English accent, which sounds American now but hasn’t always. I have my Dutch accent, that doesn’t sound quite Dutch. And I have my Arabic accent, which sounds more like Arabic than my Dutch one sounds like Dutch, but still—not quite. This should come as no surprise, since I am half-Egyptian, half-Dutch, and grew up in Zambia, where English is the official language. I was educated in a British school and an American university. My family speaks English at home. And so English is the language I feel most comfortable in. It’s a language that is mine. I speak it without thinking, and I am able to stretch it and bend it and play with it.
But at the same time, English is not my language. It is not the language that I am supposed to be most comfortable in. Instead, the languages that I am supposed to be comfortable in cause me immense amounts of discomfort. It is not that I don’t know Arabic, or Dutch. There is a level of knowing that is purely rational. My brain hears them and understands. If it’s a conversation, my brain then puts together a response. But that is where things have always gotten difficult. The response has to be pushed out by me. It has to be pulled out by the other person. It has to be accompanied by panic. If I’m feeling brave, then it eventually comes out. If I’m not, then my body relaxes, I let out a deep breath, and what comes out is invariably in English.
Is it that I can’t respond in Arabic or Dutch? Is it that I need to learn them properly, to practice, to force myself to speak only in those languages? For a long time I convinced myself that it was about knowledge, or a lack thereof. My parents didn’t speak to me in Dutch or Arabic growing up, and so I just didn’t know the languages well enough. But when people have pushed me beyond this, when I’ve been prodded into giving a real response, my two-word answer has tended to me “my accent.”
What does that mean? Don’t we all have accents? But it is more than just a strange accent, or mispronouncing a few words. It means revealing something about me that I don’t want people to know, simply because I myself haven’t come to terms with it. We know, from sociology to linguistics to history, from everyday life to novels and films, that languages are essential to nationalism. They create webs of belonging and bind people together in cultures. They provide windows into understandings of how the world works, what life means, who we are, and what our past is. In other words, they matter. But an accent—an accent disrupts this. It creates a bubble around me that works as a barrier between me and that feeling of belonging. It feels as though I can’t grasp it; I am always reaching for it but I can never quite make it mine.
I have never been a fan of the discourse of “third culture kids” or “citizens of the world.” I think that being mixed and not having grown up in either country is a highly fluid positionality. In many ways, it has given me ways of seeing and understanding things I know I would not have otherwise. In other ways it has made me very self-conscious of my identity; it has made me always look for a home in people, since I do not have that feeling with a physical place (and that is not always healthy). I don’t know that my feelings about my accent are about confusion surrounding identity as much as about a search for something tangible and anchoring. My accent is a constant, daily, hourly, reminder of my lack of an anchor. I have a home in England. My parents and sister have a home in Egypt. I have had homes in other places. But none of these homes have come with what I have always assumed a home is: a city or town in which you are completely comfortable, to which you completely belong—even if you don’t always fit in—a place that you know.
I don’t have that relationship with Egypt, or Holland. My relationship with Egypt is much more complicated, because I am much more attached to it than to Holland. What does it mean to Egyptian? A loaded question, but my response is to always see it as something I lack. I feel as though I know many things about Egypt. I have many ties to it. But do I know what it feels like to be Egyptian? These questions are complex, and difficult. Most of the time, I have been lucky to have friends who understand what it is to feel these things. Who have experienced the disruption of not knowing where “home” is or will ever be. Other people have found it difficult to deal with. Some have even used it against me, saying I expected things from them I shouldn’t have because I was a foreigner and didn’t understand Egypt or Egyptians. When this was said to me, I knew it was untrue because their point did not make sense; but still—it hurt. It hurt much more than it should have because of how raw this issue is for me, and because this person knew that and used it against me. It was, and continues to be, a vulnerability. For others it is not a question of relating to it or finding it difficult; it is simply puzzling. They don’t really get it: what’s the big deal?
And increasingly, that is what I have asked myself. What is the big deal with having an accent? Yes, it is an affirmation of not belonging, of not having roots or a past in a place that I want so desperately to have those things. It reminds me that I will never have that anchor that seems to tie so many people in place, even if they move around. I know many people who say that they do not see themselves as connected to the place they are from, and yet they are, in many ways. It is not about liking or loving a city or country; it is about knowing it intimately, about understanding it and feeling it, about knowing how things work there. It’s a type of visceral knowledge that can’t be learned later in life. As I get older, I find myself losing interest in the novelty and excitement of moving to new places. There is an immense amount of privilege in that, and so many amazing experiences that come with it. But precisely because I do not have that anchor, it feels as though I am drifting. That is not me; I am someone who likes, and needs, stability and so drifting or exploring without certainty is scary.
It is difficult for me to admit that I do not have that type of a relationship with Egypt, even if I very badly want it. Hearing myself trip over Arabic words is a reminder of that. Realizing that I can never write in Arabic the way I write in English is another reminder. Feeling guilty that people I speak to talk to me in English even though they’d be more comfortable talking in Arabic—another reminder. I tell myself I just don’t know it well enough. It’s easier to speak in English. And it’s true: it is easier. But not because I don’t know Arabic well enough; I know it very well. But speaking it in an accent that reveals my unbelonging distances me from a place that I love too much to want to be separate from.
The irony in all of this is that I have been told I don’t have an accent; that my Arabic sounds fine. Maybe the accent is in my head, and is a metaphor for these deeper feelings of being unanchored and unsafe. Maybe ultimately the courage I need to just speak, accent or no accent, is equally about the courage to come to terms with my own relationship to Egypt. It has been a blessing, intellectually, to not be closely tied into a country, a religion, a nationality, because that has largely made me think about things in a more fluid way. But the downside has increasingly become clear, one that is not intellectual but emotional. There is a lot of support that comes from these identities, and with support comes comfort. Anchors can be restraining, but they can also be like a childhood bed that we come back to when we need to take a break from what is happening; like old smells and recipes that remind us of simpler times; and of friends and family who know you so well that you don’t have to think about who you are or what you say when you are with them. As much as I want that place to be Egypt, and as much as I have struggled and tried to make it Egypt, I know that it can’t be. It is not a situation that can be willed into existence; it simply isn’t. But maybe there is a way to collect all of the feelings I have for all of the different places in which I have lived and make something out of that. I am who I am because of all of these places and people; histories and cultures have mixed and blended together; and while I may not intimately know one place in the way I’d like, I do know many places in many different ways.