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.

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Nadine Yasser: The Ballroom                                                                                       

Benjamin Shine, “Transcendence”, 2016. Source: boccaraart.com

I was wearing an orange dress, I had no clue why or how. I didn’t own a single item of clothing that was orange—nor did I ever plan to. I was in a ballroom. A stadium? No, a ballroom, a hotel ballroom. The same one I’d been to years ago when I had to go to some relative’s wedding. That was a strange day; I’d seen so many family members that I hadn’t seen in ages at that wedding. The music was so loud. I could feel judgmental eyes on me for staying at the table where the aunties sat instead of getting up and dancing with people my age. But the food was great that night, and it made up for the headache, the awkwardness, and the fact that I felt like a hostage to traditions the whole night. Meanwhile, this time there was no wedding. Instead, there were hundreds of people I knew and had met throughout my life. Most of the faces were blurry. I couldn’t tell if I was a blur to them too or not.

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Yumna Kassab: Taxi

Beirut taxi by The Monocle. Source: cdn.shopify.com

When my father was younger, he said he would learn English. It is the language of the world, it is the future here.

 He took us out of our school and enrolled us in another. Arabic, English, a little French, and this would let us be citizens of the world.

How was he to learn English as an adult man? There were no courses in the village, he could not read at a level to enter university. His one choice was to read over our shoulders and for us to teach him the words. He put a satellite dish on the roof and we only ever watched English shows night and day. He had the TV turned to children’s shows because they spoke slowly and he could understand.

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Sylvia Warren: Honey

Lilly Martin Spencer, “Domestic Happiness”, 1849. Source: dia.org

The house I grew up in was a project, much like my family. My father would pick up bits and pieces from scrap yards and skips and the deadwood and bolt them into the rest of the house, a little like my mother did with my siblings. The heart of the home was the kitchen, at least I think it is the earliest room that I remember. I have a recollection of sitting on the split linoleum as a toddler, splashing a plastic toy in and out of a washing-up tub as my mother was kneading bread and flour sifted down onto the surface of the water. Mother says I must have made this up, that I was too young to remember, but accusing me of an over-active imagination was really one of her only criticisms of me. I knew my parents had always wanted me, because they told me so. They had chosen me when I was only a tiny baby, and then when I turned six they had taken in two more children, my new brother and sister. My parents loved me and looked after me, gave me a strict but fair upbringing, and considered the most important things in life were to be both good and kind.

They called me Sienna, and I never knew whether this was the name my birth mother had given me, or whether it had been changed before I knew that I had been chosen. The year before my brother and sister came to the house Papa made a sandpit in the small yard that counted as our garden. He spent a week of evenings after work cutting and measuring planks of wood, cutting small crescents of plywood to act as seats. He worked with his shirt off, glasses fogging slightly with the exertion, and I squatted next to him in bright pink shorts and red wellies, sucking my thumb. There’s a photo somewhere, just after he had filled it with sand and declared it finished. He is smiling, his hair slightly curled with sweat, and I am sitting happily with a bucket and spade, staring up at somewhere beyond the camera. Each corner of the sandpit has a seat, and there I am in the middle without a care in the world. It was before I learnt that, for people like my parents, nothing can ever be considered complete.

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Jessica Sequeira: Race of the Horses

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Han Gan (742–756), Night-Shining White. Source: metmuseum.org

An old man used to sit outside my school every day, playing music on a traditional Chinese instrument. He would move a light wood stick over two pieces of metal. Most of the time the songs he played were slow, but some of the time he’d play ones that were real quick, and at those moments we kids would gather around. We had no problem making excuses to our teachers to leave class for five minutes, or take an extended lunch break. 

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Noor Naga: Boy Does Not Like To Share

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Federico Giovannini, from “You and I”. Source: lensculture.com

Knowing a father’s belt has snap-

ping metal teeth, one does not

have to think of kneeling.

One kneels. One kneels

to please before the word is

heard or the leather tongue

slides drily through the loops.

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