Habibi, Himar, Hummer

Last April, actress Lindsey Lohan made an unfortunate mistake in Arabic. As with this poor Coalition soldier in Iraq before her, traditional and social media, in their usual way, flashed it across the world as a terrible act of stupidity. As a fellow student of Arabic, I am sympathetic. I have had a few memorable mistakes of my own, like every time I stumbled to remember whether the appropriate response to a sneeze was yarHamulkum allah [God bless you] or yaHramkum allah [God damn you].

I want to tell you one of my stories, which happens to actually have a donkey in it just as Ms. Lohan’s does, and to give some advice to Ms. Lohan and all language learners, Peace Corps Volunteers, world travelers and the rest of us.

* * *

In 2005, early in my second year with Peace Corps Jordan, we partnered with Operation Smile on a medical mission benefiting Iraqis. Volunteers were asked to stay at an Amman hotel with forty Iraqi children, each with one parent.

The war in Iraq was the daily reality back home for these families, and a frequent topic of conversation. They kept using a word to refer to American soldiers that sounded like the Arabic word Hmaar, “donkey.” Arabs use it much the way Americans do, including in the sense of, “You jackass!”

Yet, it was clear from the Iraqis’ tone and body language that they were speaking kindly, even fondly of these hamar. Finally, I discovered it had nothing to do with donkeys. Hamar was an English loan word — Hummer or Humvee — referring to a patrol of Coalition soldiers in an armored vehicle.

“The Hummer saw my son’s harelip when we were on the way to the market,” she said, tugging her filmy, slippery chador back into place on the crown of her head. “We always wave and smile at the Hummers and say thank you for helping us.”

The young, pretty mother continued, “Usually, we thank them from a distance. We don’t get too close to the Hummers. It makes them nervous. But one soldier waved at us to come closer, me and my son.” He was a slight boy, about seven, with hesitant eyes.

I listened silently, worried what would come next.

“He smiled at me and my son and said hello,” she said. “He asked him his name. My son is shy and wouldn’t answer.” Shy seemed the wrong word. The children at the hotel, some as old as eighteen, were more reticent, likely subjected for years to shame and ridicule from their neighbors.

“Then he leaned down from his Hummer and gave me the paper with information about Operation Smile. That’s how we got here.” Other mothers jumped into the conversation with their own stories about how the Hummers had won their hearts and minds.

Not only was I having a problem with the language barrier, but with a cultural barrier, too. They didn’t see themselves as I saw them, as victims of my arrogant, angry government. The Hummers had brought war and death. Yet, these Iraqis were grateful.

* * *

My advice to Ms. Lohan, though, comes from a year and a half earlier, in the spring of 2004. Less than two months into my Peace Corps service, the teachers in the school where I taught English were playing that game with me that people play with non-native speakers of their language all over the world, a game you might call, Say this! They would insist that I say a word or phrase, and when I did, they would all erupt in laughter.

Sometimes the words were funny because they included sounds that don’t exist in any European language and sounded strange coming out of my mouth. I had learned long before, however, never to repeat a word I didn’t know the meaning of, because sometimes the name of the game is to get you to say something you should not.

Fortunately, my vocabulary was much broader than they realized, and I didn’t often get caught unawares. Then Sid Abeer, the plump second grade teacher, said with a grin, “Okay, Maryah, say this: La illaha….”

“No.” I shook my head, still smiling but not laughing. Even if I hadn’t recognized the phrase, I would have known that a trap was being laid for me by the way the teachers sat up a little straighter and the glitter in their eyes.

Sid Abeer frowned at me, confused at my sudden refusal to play. “Come on, Maryah! Just say it! La illaha…. It’s easy.”

“No,” I said, my smile stiffening. “I won’t say that.”

“Come on!” She tilted her head turning big, innocent eyes on me. “Just say it. It doesn’t mean anything. La illaha….”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t not mean anything,” I said. “I know what it means. It’s the shahadeh. And if I say it in front of you—” I pointed to the half circle of expectant teachers in front of me as I counted, “One, two, three, four, five — if I say the shahadeh in front of you seven good Muslim women, that makes me a Muslim.” That’s all it takes to convert to Islam. Say before seven good Muslim witnesses, in Arabic: I make witness that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is His Prophet.

From the back corner of the teachers’ room came the stern, frowning voice of Sid Ismahan the Islam teacher asking, “And just what would be wrong with that, Miss Maryah?”

“By God, not a thing!” I declared loudly, slowly and clearly. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with becoming a Muslim if I believe from—” I started gesturing, as if scooping something from the pit of my stomach towards my heart. I turned to Sid Safa’ the English teacher for translation, and started over again. “There’s nothing wrong with becoming a Muslim if I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that Islam is the true religion for me. What’s wrong is if I become a Muslim because you women tricked me into it when I don’t believe it.”

“She’s right!” said Sid Ismahan to the other teachers. “You should be ashamed of yourselves, tricking her into something like that! Haraam!” She returned to the conversation she had been having before. We would never be friends, but I could see in her eyes and her slowly relaxing posture that I had earned a degree of respect. The students, too, began to see that Sid Ismahan respected me. It would be enough.

* * *

In short, Ms. Lohan, we all make mistakes, and you deserved sympathy where you got ridicule. But maybe next time, before you say something in front of all the witnesses on Twitter, you might be more careful about checking your translation with a friend you can trust.

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