To Mend a Broken Tongue
July 7, 2021 / Elyssa Sefiane
When life gives you civets, make perfume.
For a while, mastery of the languages of my father’s culture felt like the only way I could scrounge up a connection with my heritage, which my father himself is unable to provide. So, I spent the year after high school on a critical language program in Morocco, trying to attain “fluency” in Arabic.
Learning Arabic is like constantly having to be a funambulist of delicacies — teetering on the slacklines of every nuance, always inches away from face planting in the dirt. I once asked my teacher, “What do you thank for your drug snorting habit?” instead of, “What do you thank for your success?” Months into the program, I still got by on the streets in mostly pantomime, while peers with less of a personal connection to the language surpassed me in their speaking skills. On countless occasions, this broken tongue has humiliated me in front of elders, gotten me into trouble with cab drivers, and rambled without a lick of sense.
One day, I went to a café with my friend Sanaa. We talked about our lives and the things we had in common. Despite the fruitfulness of our connection, I felt guilty that most of our conversation was in English and that I was not exclusively focused on my language acquisition goals.
The waiter brought our drinks to the table. I ordered mint tea, which I prefer to be extra sweet. As I dumped in more sugar cubes than would be acceptable in an American setting, Sanaa laughed, grabbing my hand from across the table. “The way you flavor your tea, there is no doubt you are Moroccan!”
From this interaction, I discovered that it’s not so much linguistic ability that I seek. It seemed that way at first, from the hours I spent agonizing over Arabic grammar and beating myself up over test scores. But dancing to Chaabi songs with Aicha, drinking over-sweetened tea with Sanaa, dedicating my academic life to the pursuit of these languages, this culture — this is my way of vialling up these parts of myself, my father, my ancestors, and my homeland. It doesn’t require fluency in any one language to be fluent in the things I intuitively know.
My father doesn’t speak about his childhood or culture, so I grew up knowing little about what it means to be Moroccan. In fact, there is only one story he tells, which is the pigeon story. Typically, he tells it over dinner, and the ending goes something like this:
“What happened was,” he will say in between spoonfuls of couscous, “We caught the thing — called a civet — skinned it as revenge and hung it outside the barn. One day, a traveler passed by and stopped when he saw the civet. ‘Shame,’ he told us. ‘If you had preserved its body, you could have used the musk of the glands to make a lovely perfume.’”
My father is a different man now. His name used to be Hamid, which is close to the Arabic word for “sour,” or ḥamiḍ. When I first learned this word, I thought about how he changed his name to Jerry when he moved to the States. Maybe Hamid left a citric taste in his mouth, too much a reminder of his old life ridden with hardships.
I always begrudged him for never teaching my sisters and me his native Darija. But the truth is, my father has buried his language deep. His tongue is a burial shroud, cast over the limp remains of any words and phrases that remind him of his childhood.
I want to say to my father, My whole life, you have told me to make perfume out of all situations. Why, then, are the empty skins of your culture, your language, your memories, strewn lifeless at your feet? But I have never been able to muster the words, even in English, to tell him.
The things that I know, in the words that I know, are the perfumes that make up this little vial of mine. It’s my American mother’s interpretation of Moroccan meals that I grew up eating, my father’s overused pigeon parable, the tattered sepia photograph I have of my Moroccan grandparents. It’s how in Morocco, the land named after the setting sun, the moon somehow means more; in symbols, but also in the way that night never ends and the streets are full way past 12. It’s within language, too, like how the word for “hello” in Tachelhit, azul, literally means “come into my heart.”
Mostly, though, it’s the people I’ve met and come to love in ways I didn’t know possible; the ones who don’t judge me for the broken state of my tongue, the ones whose stories fill the pages of my heart.
My father has a secret that I am not sure even he is fully aware of.
On some nights, the words and phrases he has tried so hard to suppress suddenly resurrect themselves. The shroud is lifted, his tongue temporarily disinterred.
When he sleeptalks in Darija, what I think must be fragments of the stories I never got to hear spool forth into the air, like phantoms unvialled. ■
Written by: Elyssa Sefiane
Layout by: Xandria Hernandez & Jennifer Jimenez
Photographer: Pamela Silva Diaz
Stylist: Ulises Martinez
HMUAs: Chloe Luna & Katarina Tyll
Models: Chloe Bogen & Aiva Chapa