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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Nourhan Tewfik: Of/On Berlin

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A cloudy haze slowly subsides, making way for less blurry vision. Everything is opaque white. The 35m2 studio, the walls that make up its confines, even the ceramic wall tiles that adorn the open kitchen. The white-painted wooden desk neighbors the open kitchen. It looks onto a mini-balcony with a view of a small patch of greenery. It occurs to me that the yellow-turquoise color combination gentrifying the façades of nearby buildings is a grave mismatch, especially with the oliveness that commands the space. I push my sluggish body out of the side bed and onto the parquet floor whose hue is a confused mix of hazel and grey. My feet brushing against the ground is a daily exercise in groundedness. In my mind it is so intertwined with the whiff of floral spice that always follows minutes later. Tchibo’s African Blue brewed in a French press. I make my way to the grey couch, ceramic mug in one hand, a slice of Spinat-Knoblauch Quiche in the other. I don’t have much time this morning. It’s a busy Monday and I have two classes to attend at Freie Universität. I like being in Berlin, getting up early to read snippets from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmah, discuss theories in Arabic Studies, and study patterns of city making in the “Muslim” world. I am struggling with my Deutschkurs. I don’t like the academicness dictating second-language teaching. I despise the words Hausarbeit, Test and even the kleine Pause, together they enshrine language-acquisition in a chronic anxiety. To me, acquiring a language is a deeply personal endeavor. It is the danke, tschüss and bitte that despite being inundated with the “wrong” accent grant me a temporary, maybe fake, sense of integration. Luckily, Berlin knows better than to single anyone out on account of ignorance of German, or so I think. I give way to cowardice and make temporary peace with my verbal ineptitude.

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