Hadil Ghoneim: Home Accents

The author at school in Kuwait. Courtesy of Hadil Ghoneim

“You speak with no accent,” the American man remarked. He was hosting our small Egyptian delegation for lunch, and I knew he meant it as a compliment. It was my first visit to the US, but instead of simply thanking him, I found myself thinking over his comment. “I actually speak English with an American accent,” I said. The awkwardness dissipated as I went on to tell the whole group about growing up in Kuwait, attending an American school where all my teachers were from the US. That school’s Lebanese-American founders probably had the same self-aggrandizing sense of identity, too. They named it The Universal American School.

American wasn’t the only accent I picked up there. The majority of my peers were the children of Lebanese, Palestinian, and Egyptian professionals working in Kuwait. There were very few Kuwaiti kids, some Iraqis, some Syrians, and a small assortment of non-Arab nationalities. I wasn’t even conscious that I was mimicking the other kids’ accents until the Arabic language teacher, assuming I was Kuwaiti, asked me to tell the class something about Kuwait. Before I could correct him, another kid shouted out that I was Palestinian, only to be corrected by another. I was embarrassed, but also surprised at how deceptive my speech could be. I wasn’t aware that I was an accent chameleon. For a long time after that incident, I thought the way I spoke must be the result of some weakness or insecurity that I had as a child in a culturally mixed community. Nothing reassured me about my bidialectalism until I came across some British research on accents (the Brits are famous for obsessing over voices). Rather than a sign of inauthenticity, research shows that switching dialects and accents is a natural and subconscious adaptive impulse, and that it can be attributed to the increased mobility of the middle classes.

But, beyond superficial accents, whose culture was I absorbing as a child? I was in an Egyptian family, growing up in Kuwait, and attending an American school with a bunch of other Arab and non-Arab nationalities. In school, we didn’t have to pledge allegiance—whether to Kuwait or the US. We followed the official national calendar that observed Muslim breaks, but it was the American holidays that were truly celebrated: we dressed up for Halloween, decorated classrooms for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. I knew the tunes and the words to “Yankee Doodle,” “Oh Susanna,” and “My Darling Clementine”, from music class. Our reading, math, and science textbooks were all imported from the US, and the texts referred to episodes and scenes from American history and culture.

On the other hand, we had an Arabic language period every day, based on the official Kuwaiti public school curriculum. The weekly Islamic religious education period, also in Arabic, was based on the Kuwaiti ministry of education textbook. The few non-Arab students would leave the classroom during Arabic period and take Special Arabic for non-native speakers, and a much larger number of non-Muslims, including Arab Christians, would leave during the religion period to do “activities” like arts and crafts. My Muslim friend Fatima joined the non-Muslim group because her native language was Urdu.  

In the third grade, our Arabic teacher, Mr. Michel, was from Lebanon. At the beginning of every class, he would write  بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم  (In the Name of Allah the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious) prominently on the blackboard. It confused me that a “Michel” should endorse the Islamic basmala that preceded Quran recitals. So one day I ran up to him after class and asked, “Mr. Michel, are you Muslim or Christian?” He raised not only his eyebrows but his voice and his pointer finger too, like someone on a podium, and he responded, “I’m Arab.” I already knew that, I told him, and repeated my question, to which he repeated the same reply with even more passionate conviction. I gave up after the third time round, feeling even more confused but also suspecting I had asked an inappropriate, wrongheaded question.

At that early age, I had little awareness of the political world we inhabited, nor did our teachers ever attempt to explain it. Mr. Michel never told us about the civil war ravaging his country, or the religious divisions fueling it. I was once surprised when Joan, a sweet girl from Jordan in my second grade class, got all worked up about a small map in our textbook. She started crossing over it vehemently with her pen, and we soon followed her example, though no one explained why we were doing this. I heard one kid whisper, “Israel.”  Our teacher, a warm young woman from the Midwest, did not object as we mutilated the page. She was sitting closest to Joan. She looked at her face and listened to her distressed mumbles about her parents and their hometown. Then she said in a kind voice, “You have beautiful eyes, Joan. The blackest eyes I have ever seen.” 

Textbooks, no matter what language they were in or where they came from, had little staying power. What lingers in my memory, besides the songs we sang in music class, were the booksI borrowed from the school library every week. They were all English children’s books. I loved the Ramona Quimby series, The Boxcar Children, The Secret Garden, and James and the Giant Peach. But what captivated me the most were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I was gripped by the trials and tribulations her family had to go through to build the right home and settle down, only to have to move again to a different state. (That they sometimes occupied the lands of indigenous communities was entirely lost on me.) Sometimes they built a better house, but other times they would have to endure a setback and start over from a worse place.  The homes in other children’s books were never under threat like that. They existed solidly in the background, stable throughout the story. Laura’s yearning for a forever home resonated with my own.

Shortly after I was born in the mid-seventies, my parents moved house in Kuwait. For ten years before that, they had been living in a duplex in Adeliya, a predominantly Kuwaiti neighborhood. They rented the ground floor and garden from the Kuwaiti owner, who lived on the second floor, and later reclaimed the whole house when his son was ready to get married. My father had a government job as a legal officer, and my mother taught math in the girls’ middle school nearby. My two older brothers walked to the neighborhood public school, and I wasn’t surprised when my brother told me they used to speak with a Kuwaiti accent when they played outside. He told me that the kids in the neighborhood thought of my mother as the only foreigner in the family, possibly because she drove a car and her hair was uncovered. I have no personal recollection of that nice house, the family dog named Lucky that they kept there, or the parties they had, but I can tell from the pictures that those were my family’s happy, golden years.

The home I do remember in Kuwait was a basic two-bedroom apartment in a plain four-story building in Salmiya. It was a nice neighborhood, but unlike the previous one which consisted entirely of standalone houses and villas, this was all multistoried buildings inhabited by expatriates like us. Our neighbors were Lebanese and Palestinians, and I had two Egyptian friends from school who lived on my street and rode the school bus with me. My parents called this a temporary home. Maybe because it was hard to accept the downgrade, but also because my father had his heart set on returning to Egypt. Even though his talents were recognized early on, there came a point when he thought he was losing his privileges, or being denied the position he deserved. Whether because of the new policy of saving certain positions for Kuwaiti citizens, or the move from Adeliya, or even the diminishment of Egypt’s role in Arab politics, by the beginning of the eighties, my father had resigned and left our home in Kuwait to prepare for a new one back in Egypt.

It might have been transitional in the life of my family, but that temporary place in Salmiya was the one I knew as a child: a small apartment ill-fitted with large pieces of furniture that belonged to a previous, bigger life, yet bare of any intentional effort to make it nicer. To my distress, this home came to resemble a launchpad from which members of my family jumped off one by one. My brother, who was nine years older than me, left shortly after my father to attend a military high school in Cairo. Two years later, my oldest brother left to attend the American University in Cairo, for there was no place in Kuwait University for non-citizens. As the number of immediate family members dwindled, a live-in female house cleaner who doubled as my nanny remained a constant mainstay my mother could not do without. To me, she was like a mean older sister.

Our apartment was on the top floor, and from the kitchen there was a door to access the rooftop of the building. Perhaps my father thought this wide open space could compensate for the garden we’d once enjoyed—except that it didn’t. In the scorching heat and humidity of Kuwait, no one wanted to get any closer to the unforgiving sun. It was a little desert within the desert, an island to which my father would banish my brothers if they deserved punishment. After they left, that desert island became my outdoor adventure space. I would stay out there for as long as I could endure the weather and the boredom of playing alone, watching cars pass along our street and singing to myself. My brothers left behind old metal roller skates with adjustable leather belts that could be tied over sneakers. They also left behind a red skateboard that I used to sit on, pretending it was a boat or a sled. Maybe if they were around they would have taught me how to skate.

Kuwait was a very car-dependent, air-conditioned, indoors-based living experience. Unlike Cairo and Alexandria, where I spent summers full of beaches, cousins, and grandparents, there was no going for a walk in Kuwait, frequenting the kiosk for candy and comics, or chasing after the bicycle ice cream man, the cactus pear cart, or the cotton candy man. In Cairo, we were members of a sports club that had pools and playgrounds, but we were not members of any club in Kuwait. I only remember seeing the Gulf Coast from my mother’s car as she drove us around the city; I can’t remember when my whole family apparently used to go to the beach with our friends and our dog because I was too young when those days were happening.

I do remember accompanying my mother on her shopping trips to all kinds of outdoor markets, watching her and her best friend haggle with the vendors at the fish and vegetable markets, the old souk, and even in the big stores on the high street. She would take me along to some of her social visits if there were kids my age. Her Egyptian friends lived in apartments, and her Kuwaiti friends lived in big houses. My mother had many friends: not only the family friends she shared with my father, but her own friends from work. She once took me there after a dentist appointment, and I thought the math teachers’ room was a fun place. A Kuwaiti colleague of hers tried to make me laugh by speaking to me in an Egyptian accent and repeating shocking lines from popular Egyptian movies.  

At home, I busied my imagination with pieces from elsewhere: the books I borrowed from the school library, and the Arabic mysteries and comics my brothers had left behind, which included huge annual volumes of Disney magazines, translated and localized into Egyptian Arabic. I don’t know why my mother kept old issues of the mail-order catalog Otto, but I used to look at the pictures in it and fantasize about our next home. Kuwaiti TV showed a lot of “foreign” content: not only Egyptian movies and shows, but also a weekly Bollywood movie and daily MGM cartoons, in addition to the Kuwaiti version of Sesame Street, and even some Japanese anime series dubbed into Arabic. Our VCR player helped us stay up to date with Egyptian comedy and popular Ramadan shows.

*          *          *   

My brothers were teenagers when they parachuted into their idealized homeland, and it wasn’t long before each of them found out that summering in Egypt with family was a lot different than being left on your own there, year round. They landed separately with no stable home base in Cairo, since we were used to spending our summers between our grandparents’ homes anyway. While my father was busy setting up his office and other projects, my brothers failed to feel at home in the colleges they chose, or rather, that were chosen for them, and they both wanted to flee, quit, or change course. When my oldest brother fell sick with food poisoning, it finally dawned on my mother that her sons needed her and she quickly resigned.

I was only ten years old when I left Kuwait in 1986. My family reassembled in Cairo in the middle of the school year. We made our home quickly in an apartment that my father used to rent out as an office. As a family residence, it had many flaws, but its location on the lovely island of Zamalek was excellent. Here was my wish, finally granted: settled with both parents, both brothers, under the same roof at the same time. I was so ready to begin living what I thought a normal family life should be like. But instead I found myself bearing witness to a multifaceted war inside my family.

On one front, there was an intergenerational war between my self-made, middle-aged father, who thought himself almost done with child-rearing, and his firstborn, twenty-year-old charismatic rebel, out to prove that everything his father believed in (and all of society for that matter) was wrong. Their ideological battles fulminating for hours on end in our living room were at least educational, exposing me early on to big words and opposite views on secular nationalism, Western modernity, sectarian Muslim history, and revolution. Equally dramatic was my other brother’s rebellion after what he perceived as years of bondage and neglect in military school. I still wonder what it was that prevented my father from pacifying the rebels with generosity and containment: was it a shortage of humility, empathy and forgiveness, or lack of trust in the future, already intensified by foreseen economic stress. I spent years picking sides and listening to one party lay the blame on another, but ultimately I sympathized with all of them and decided to blame global politics, petrocapitalism, and economic migration instead.

My mother, like a medic or an aid worker, didn’t have time for long-winded discussions and analysis. Despite losing most of her savings to the notorious late-eighties Ponzi set up by Islamic investment companies, and losing the rest to my father’s projects, she provided her children with immediate relief and compassion, busying herself with the day-to-day practicalities of keeping house. Not long after her financial setback, our live-in helper left not to bereplaced. And yet, despite all the rumbling unrest in the household, I felt at home. 

After some difficulty finding a nearby private language school that would accept me midyear, I was able to finish the fifth grade in an Egyptian public school that taught the standard national curriculum translated into English. There was nothing fancy or international about this school. Everyone spoke with an Egyptian Arabic accent, even when it was English they were speaking. Most of the teachers were too grim, but I liked the kids. The boys were funny and the girls were friendly, and I was probably a novelty with my accent. The thing I liked the most was being able to walk to school. There was always something new to see every day: a mysterious house, a shop window display, a different shortcut, a myriad of people coming and going or just hanging about on the crowded Cairene island. For even though my new school was ordinary and middle-class, it was located in an upscale neighborhood brimming with foreign embassies, cultural centers, famous residents, and cool boutiques. 

I didn’t mind the generic school building, the rustic wooden benches and dim classrooms. I actually liked the soft natural daylight coming in through big windows with simple curtains, the way homes are lit. The classrooms in my previous school in Kuwait had bright fluorescent lighting, glossy floors and furniture, and central air conditioning, similar to modern banks and malls. But I missed the music room, the auditorium, the gym, and most of all, the library and the books. My new school lacked most of these amenities.

When I complained about the depressing schoolbooks and not having access to a lending library, my father taught me how to cross the bridge from Zamalek and walk to Agouza, where the British Council library was located. I was outgrowing children’s books anyway, and started to find sustenance in Arabic books, magazines, and newspapers that he and my brothers brought home for themselves. And though I had left the American school, there was a regular dose of American movies, TV shows, and soap operas right there on national Egyptian television. Besides that, I had access to my brothers’ large collection of cassettes of American and British rock music, which kept me a decade out of step with what friends from my own generation were listening to. All of that fed my imagination with portable pieces of homes that I missed, and homes I’ve never been.   

The home that I wanted as a child was the physical presence of my family in my daily life. My brothers enjoyed that as children, but I was luckier than them to leave Kuwait, our birthplace, before my roots required more space to grow and spread in. Any home in Kuwait would have been temporary for us expats, no matter how big. And, though my childhood dream was to reunite and settle with my family, it wasn’t long before I realized the need for belonging outside of nice rooms. All kids outgrow their family homes as they get older, but what do they find beyond?

Unlike my brothers, who were transplanted at a later stage of their lives, and in unfavorable conditions that alienated them, I had the time to slowly grow into Egypt, and spread my roots organically in its crowded, aged, yet still pregnant earth. When I was tired of my own family, and my own little self, it was not hard for me to find larger collectives to belong to, and they didn’t have to be supranational ideologies either. At one point, it was important for me to insert myself in a bigger story, call it mine, and contribute to it with others. I was able to do that in Egypt in the late nineties and the beginning of the new millennium, even if it was all in our imaginations. As a fresh college graduate, not only was I excited about my job at a new book review magazine, but after work I volunteered in adult literacy classes and interfaith peace dialogue groups, and I continued to discover the burgeoning arts scene around the city. When I felt disappointed and hindered by an older generation at work, I found breathing space in a youth-based nonprofit organization. We naively but earnestly thought we could make change through nonpolitical development projects.

That kind of home I couldn’t have had in Kuwait as the daughter of perpetual guests. My father went to Kuwait in the early sixties when he was a young man and it was still a young country, and he remained there for more than two decades. Others who went there early on helped build the country, its laws and systems, and yet continued to be expats for more than four decades. They were never part of a social contract, only job contracts, with comfortable salaries that allowed them to be silent consumers. In Cairo, I had a salary too. But I also had the right to associate with others, to complain about things, to dream about changing them, and to fail at it, although that too proved to be a temporary home. In the years since the spectacular defeat of the January 25 revolution, and after Tahrir Square had promised us a home like we had never seen before, the only collective feeling I’ve sensed among Egyptians is that of mass despair. There isn’t much sense of ownership left.  

Perhaps not everyone has a need for that kind of belonging, and not all the time. My mother maintained a human connection with Kuwait through her school community. She used to teach the young girls in the morning, and their mothers and grandmothers in the evening, and she remained in the same school for two decades. Nowadays, we hear so much about the deepening structural segregation and tensions between citizens and expats, that my mother’s long standing friendships with Kuwaities from the math teacher’s room look like an anomaly. Still it gives me hope when I hear her mention that she is going to see an old Kuwaiti friend who happens to be visiting Cairo, even though it’s been three decades since her hasty departure. 

My brothers and I have continued to move, each of us following a different trail of migration. They learned entirely new languages and added the foreign accents of their spouses to their own. The accent I learned in my old school, together with the books and pop culture I’ve consumed over the years, have helped me feel less of a resident “alien” in my new home. I don’t share a common history with most Americans, but it’s not hard to find communities with common goals and interests. My daughter attends the public school in the neighborhood, and that community has made me feel more of a connection with the city and its people than I could ever have imagined.

I’ve noticed my daughter picking up regional accents as we move from one state to another in America, and she sometimes mimics the accents of her favorite pop singers. She finds it easier to speak American English than her parents’ Egyptian Arabic. I try to teach her Arabic, show her Egyptian plays and movies, and take her to Egypt every year for a short vacation. But I will never ask her a question like the one my brothers asked me on the roof of that building in Salmiya, after giving me some candy one day: “Egypt or Kuwait?” I couldn’t make up my mind, and I couldn’t guess which one they wanted me to choose, and in the end they looked disappointed. It was a wrongheaded question, because there is nothing wrong with having more than one home. Unlike the child I was, I now find comfort in thinking of all homes as temporary. I find solace in the portable and the intangible, and I don’t let myself grow attached to any house. That way I can still pretend I’m inhabiting both homes at once: the one I left, and the one that I am still making.