When I was 15, I got up early Saturday mornings. After something simple and easy for breakfast, I went out to the garage and got my bike. I rode west, past Denker, past Western, past Arlington. In the gloomy, grey skies of an LA spring, I kept peddling until I got to Crenshaw, then I turned southward. A few blocks further and I arrived at my destination, a little masjid squeezed in between two other businesses on the busy avenue. I could take my bike inside, for safe keeping, but I had to remove my shoes. Then, for the next two hours or so, I studied Arabic with a few other people.
I wasn’t interested in converting to Islam. My spiritual bent even then could best be described as agnostic. I was interested in learning the language. I come from a family of language nerds. Mom spoke French and Spanish. Dad spoke Spanish and some Italian. When he served during World War II, he was more interested in learning the languages of our enemies rather than blowing them up. He also dabbled in Italian and Japanese. My siblings also learned languages. Robert ruled Russian. My sister learned French, and later in college studied Zulu.
German was and remains my main “second tongue.” My husband and I often speak to each other in German. But I always had a fascination with Arabic. When an opportunity arose to study it, from a friend of my brothers, I took it up. I can still remember the alphabet, my teacher was so thorough in the way he taught it. Sadly, I didn’t keep it up when I went to UCLA and have forgotten most of the vocabulary and grammar I had learned. In those days, UCLA only offered one section of Arabic and it always met at 8 in the morning. I could get up and ride the bike to the masjid on Crenshaw, and get there by 9. But getting to UCLA from South Central by 8 in the morning was more drama than I could handle. Call me a wimp.
Today, though, if I studied Arabic actively, what would life be like? What would people say if I carried books with Arabic script on the cover today? Or worse, if they saw me writing in this exotic looking language? We know the answer, and it deeply troubles me.
In the last month, we’ve had two examples of people freaking out needless on flights because they perceived a problem where none existed. In the first instance, a young man called a relative as the plane was still boarding. He spoke to his relative in Arabic. The person next to him freaked and told a flight attendant. The young man, an undergrad at UC Berkeley, had to leave the plane and miss his flight while going through a tedious and humiliating interrogation by the FBI. The FBI ultimately released him, no charges filed and no apologies made by the FBI or more damningly by Southwest. Shame on them.
In the second instance, a passenger next to a man felt uncomfortable because the man, who had with an olive complexion and dark hair, wrote in odd scribbles. She felt unsafe, sick to her stomach. First the lady came off the plane for an examination. Then the airline removed and questioned the man about his background and his scribblings. Ultimately, as in the first case, no charges were filed and the man was free to fly on his way. What was he writing? Differential equations. The man in question is a noted economics professor.
When this second story broke, I tweeted about the origin of the word “algebra”:
“Algebra” origin: from Arabic “al-jabr,” literally, the reduction. Per @MerriamWebster #TheMathArabicConnection https://t.co/EHfoXv0D3h
— gar (@the_gar_spot) May 8, 2016
Merriam Webster tweeted back an article of theirs citing eight common words in English that originated from Arabic. Many ancient scientists came from Islamic lands. Astronomy is filled with Arabic: the star names Rigel and Algol, for example. The irony that algebra originated with Muslim mathematicians is undoubtedly lost on the person who “blew the whistle” on the professor. She clearly lacked that level of sophistication.
But this is the world in which we now live, a world riddled with anger, suspicion, and most dangerously of all ignorance.
In Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name, she described how she rode out the McCarthy Era by living in Mexico. She joined other poets, writings, artists, and leftist activists, all of whom fled the hysteria of that time. The Red Scare destroyed many careers and lives, for nothing. This was one of America’s darkest periods.
We’re in a new period of hysteria, a new era of witch hunts. Islamophobia runs rampant and effects everyone, including those who do not belong to the faith. Ask Sikhs who are bullied, beaten, and killed because their attackers thought them Muslim. Ask the professor working on a math problem while on a flight (#FlyingWhileThinking?). Ask those who speak or study Arabic.
I may have been too wimpy to get to UCLA by 8 a.m. to take Arabic classes, but I’ll be damned if I allow mass hysteria to prevent me from learning the language, or anything else for that matter. Learning and knowledge are the still the only effect weapons against fear. If we succumb to the fear and hate-mongering, then we’ll all become unsafe.
© 2016, gar. All rights reserved.