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  • Writer's pictureTashroom Ahsan

Why I Want to Learn Arabic (or My Relationship to God)

The Q’uran reads, “So if you are in doubt of what We have revealed to you, then ask those who (have been) reading the Book before you. Verily, has come to you the truth from your Lord, so (do) not be among the doubters (10:94).”

Youth was godless for me. My mother’s mom lived in our house for a quarter of each year until she died, but I remember her through the eyes of a seven year old. She was a tender woman in every sense. Her hair, long and pleated, rested upon her shoulder as she glided through her Maxi. Movement from her was slow but graceful, initiated with a weight of meditation. She’d help my mom with several house tasks—among them caring for me. Her cooking reminisced my own mothers, or my mother’s cooking longed for hers; sometimes I catch wafts of it in my own renderings of my mother’s recipes.

She spoke little English and I little Bengali. Her illegibility elevated her to a purely embodied figure in my mind. The grace, the softness of her skin, the glint of the crinkles which crowned her eyes—each of these made her more divine than human. It was only right that I could barely talk to her. I know none of her stories, only those through the childish mind of my mother. She carried within her everything I couldn’t comprehend about where I came from in a tantalizingly clear image, saturating each of her actions, and yet, despite her immediacy, her proximity, there was nothing I could do to touch her. I slept with her, in the same bed, for when I was young and she was old neither of us liked sleeping alone. When dreams wrested me from sleep I’d cling to her tenderness and fall back out of myself. When I wanted sweets she’d draw flan out of thin air. She could do everything besides communicate with me.

Of course this is a bit of an exaggeration. We communicated in broken Benglish. My Bengali has never been better than it was then, for I was constantly crushing thoughts into its forms, receiving immanent feedback, refining my sculpture, and trying again. Our broken language held her at a distance as someone with whom I could only speak to instrumentally. She answered my prayers but she could never be my confidant. I was seven, anyways, so no thoughts were worthy of that yet. But I never stopped looking at her with the eyes of a seven year old. Never did I treat her as a human being with history, with emotional depth, with the perils of life beneath her skin—for me she was a receptor, an angel, the grace of divinity.

One thing about her was that she was incredibly religious. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what it meant. Nobody else embodied religion in my family. My mother declared it evil. My father declared it incomprehensible. My education declared it as a contradiction to liberal sciences. So there was no religion in my home, except in her. She wore a headdress whenever anyone outside of our home was present. She prayed five times a day, and for her I always know my cardinal directions. In any trouble she turned West, for there Allah waited for her—if she couldn’t pull a miracle, He was her last resort. Her departure from the rest of my home elevated religion into the realm of beings which constituted my history that I couldn’t grasp. There was Bangladesh; there was the 1971 war; there was poverty; there was overt racism; there was culture shock; there was loneliness; there was Islam—each of these things dripping through the seams of the house into my life, scenting the air, referring to memories I never had but that each of the adults mediated their presents with. Only in her was this scent so flagrantly embodied—it was more difficult for a seven-year-old me to see my mother’s atheism as a response to 1971 than it was to see my grandmother’s Islam as a response to growing up in a Muslim country.

So when she passed away, as angels go to heaven, Islam remained on its pedestal. It didn’t become a human practice or imperative. It fluttered on with the rest of the memories that affected everyone but me. For the longest time, her death was the same; it was the cessation of divine normalcy more than the passing of a close relative. I didn’t know how to understand her, so I didn’t. My mother felt her death. She clutched back onto Islam in the face of it. She began praying daily, something she only did on Eid, and began wearing a headdress sometimes. On the couch where my grandmother used to sit she’d recount bright stories about her with a youthful melancholy that felt alien. “I am going to pray for you,” she would tell me sometimes when I needed help. I’d never seen her turn to anyone else before. My grandmother always supported her. By turning to Allah, she was turning back to her.

Stuffing clothes into boxes, preparing to go to boarding school, my mother once declared one of those proclamations of prayer. I asked her if she believed she was Muslim. No, she told me. I asked her how not. She said something along the lines that to be Muslim would be to organize herself in a doctrine, to ascribe to some bigger group with codified principles. Her faith didn’t reflect that. No, her Allah was the one of the Q’uran and her mother, not the one of the imams, so she was not Muslim. I bought this, in the same vein that I understood that group dogma was dangerous. She sought her mother through Allah—nothing more. Anything else would lead her to lose her self-possession. I had no reason to seek my grandmother. Divinity flowed through her body, but her absence left me with no longing. She was gone and Allah was gone and that was that. I had nothing to miss; only a seven-year-old, one who fell away long ago, could recall her. On I went in secularity. There were no more glimpses of anything higher.

Boarding school was an aggressively liberal and scientistic land, a Paris amidst the Bible Belt. There the only God lay in the unfolding of natural laws which I memorized and codified and enacted in my practicing of science. I first encountered spiritual movement when flasks of chemical reactions tugged my eyes. My chest felt light when I watched spinning liquid change colors, when vacuums sucked their organic moisture to make beautiful purple crystals, when my theory failed with avail yet something magical remained. I attributed this aestheticism to science and magic and moved on.

I arrived at Deep Springs with a scientific mind. Early on, in my first Summer Seminar, we read Martin Buber. The essay was called The Way of Man and in it Buber describes the act of heart-searching. In contrast to the secular existentialist move of declaring oneself as a commitment to projects which reify the human, Buber describes a spiritual tug upon the unified soul, one invoked by the hand of God, which one must learn to listen to in order to find their way. We were discussing it on the front lawn of the Main Building. Green overwhelmed me in scent and sight. Grass cradled my body and I felt its pollen keep my mouth shut. A bunny was zig-zagging back and forth nearby and I wondered about how I could maybe catch it. Maybe it was something I could eat one day. The windows before me felt like weary eyes. In the realm of words, a classmate of mine decreed this text the perfect description of human life. She had nothing to criticize. Breaking out of my generally silent indifference to religious texts, I lashed back at her saying that nothing in the text resonated with me, for the human soul is a spiritual fantasy of the incomprehensible, non-physically reducible mind. The soul cannot be tugged, I said, because the soul cannot be unified—it can never be fully formed as a whole, for human agency rests in projecting this unification. God couldn’t tug on the unified soul; He would merely grasp air. Nobody replied to me because what I said was ridiculous. My mind wasn’t present. I believed my words, though. I didn’t believe in the soul. I didn’t know what it could mean so I negated its existence. I knew that I knew very little about my own direction and that there were few signs that could aid me in finding it and that any choice I made was ultimately arbitrary and could be rationalized, either logically or religiously, so there was no point in trying to ‘listen.’ Buber failed to make contact then.

The next semester I read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. This book is my best friend. The striking of great art occurs in a harmony between inspiration and occasion, as A taught me, and I was an open banquet waiting for the brilliance of Heremita to vibrate my air forever. I remember my first feelings reading it, with A describing the motions of restlessness and boredom, of aesthetic affinity, of the miraculous images of sorry, the Diapsalmata echoing through my mind. The Unhappiest One punctuated my troubled relationship with religion: in it suffering is not aesthetically celebrated but religiously rejoiced. Rotation of Crops succinctly characterized the way that I went about my interests, hovering between friendships and hobbies, dwelling in them only as long as I could transfix them, fleeing the moment I had to commit. I felt understood—then the Seducer’s Diary disgusted me. In a paradoxically similar move to the crop rotator I was horrified by the perverse self-portrait that Johannes offered. I hated looking at myself through the text. Johannes sought to manipulate every situation, and his love, to fashion the perfect sorrowful memory. Never did he last in the present—the present was mediated through his desire to create it or recollect it. By doing so, he failed to recognize his own agency or the humanity of his beloved Cordelia. He breaks her and relishes in it. This piece was so obviously bad, yet so intentionally beautifully written. He rewrote tragedy as an agential play. And some desire that.

If Part I of Either/Or was a diagnosis, then Part II was a prescription. Wilhelm, the pseudonym behind the two letters, confronts A in the way he perpetually flees. He accuses him of lacking concretion and history. Only through God, he argues, and repentance, can one form themselves as legible, consistent, and real—one is only human through a dutiful relationship to earth which grounds their direct reporting to God. When I read this it made little sense to me. Stuck in my anti-Buberian rationality, I didn’t comprehend the necessity of God in self-coherence. Why did he consummate the responsibility that one held to others? How did he metaphysically unfold in physical relations? I was with Wilhelm, in the sense that consistency and responsibility to others reified one’s humanity and connected them to the universal human being. But this human was within me, was necessarily personable—God did not need to touch him.

I finished Either/Or disgusted with myself, committed to the idea of commitment, and perplexed about God. Shortly thereafter I began laboring as a feedman on the ranch. 5:30 AM alarms, daily, no avail. Feed calves. Hay horses. Save chicks. Coddle chickens. Water pigs. Six hours pass. Do it again. Six hours. Again. Mornings—I’d drive with the sunrise, feeling the air crisp into the day with the sun’s warmth. My buggy roared and the differential was messed up but I took enough care of it to keep it moving. The animals learned me by signs; I unfolded as the gift of life in the desert of death to them, so they’d generally change their mental states when I was around. I wouldn’t call it excitement. Maybe animation. I’d often sit with them. I liked to hang out with the pigs. They played with me. Sprinting around their tree, rolling in mud, shuffling up their bedding, chewing on my shoes—they welcomed me as a part of their life, and I enjoyed their company. I’d sit on a bale of hay I threw in to protect them from wind and wonder about what it’d be like to have children. Hopefully like pigs—grateful and full of life. Chickens occupied me as well, primarily through disgust and fear. They seemed to act as binary operators. If peckable then peck; else, squawk. The decision about whether or not something was peckable ruled their lives. Unfortunately they often deemed each other quite peckable. Most of the chickens, broody black sexlinks, lacked feathers on their back, chest, and upper wings. The worst were naked and named, and the best were merely barebacked. Once I found one with a hole deep in its upper wing, bleeding and refusing to enter the coop at night. I froze because I never had felt responsible for blood before. Connie, who used to butcher everything and loved animals, calmed me down enough to transport it into an isolated pen. After three weeks alone it recovered—a process opposite to that of humans.

Once I got a set of chicks. They took two extra days in the mail to ship. Upon arrival over half of them were dead. After two days a quarter remained, the rest too weak to go on. Three weeks after their birth a king snake entered their pen and took two for a meal. On the seventh week we killed them and for weeks later we ate them. I got another set of chicks. These ones were intended to live longer and lay eggs. I already had grief associated with the tiny specks of fluff. Yet those I knew were immoral death sentences and raising them was an instrumental use of my body. These would last—in them, a relationship to humans would be established in which I would represent all of the apes. I wanted them to love my hands—to see me, the source of food and water and heat and light, as their sun; I wanted to physically embody the Good to them. Five times a day I’d check on them. With my eyes I’d assess their dispersion and adjust the heat lamps; with my fingers I’d coddle them and pretend to train them; with my arms I meticulously packed and repacked their bedding. I tried to be as present as possible to make their lives as good as possible.

A crisp morning, just as any other, brought me to them. Their brooding pen was empty. I searched everywhere around the barn for any trace of them. Maybe the walls of their enclosure were loose and they waddled out; but why last night and never before? Maybe someone played a prank on me. Maybe they were hiding somewhere I couldn’t see. Maybe this discombobulated body I found on the windowsill had nothing to do with it. Maybe they were still alive. They weren’t. I found two more bodies but the other 80 vanished. Failure washed onto me again. In my buggy I carried my guilt.

These chicks only stuck out because everything else was well. I fed calves and cows and horses and pigs and turkeys and trees and everything else that needed human regularity. They ate, they grew, they maintained, and we learned some sort of uncommunicated love. I knew how to understand their body language. When I needed comfort they stayed with me and I felt understood, even if we couldn’t talk, because I didn’t think words were any better than space. I’d never spent time with animals before. These creatures weren’t pets, either. I didn’t have a baby-like affection for them. I held no responsibility for their behavior. Sitting with Baby, a calf I’d hand-fed since the death of his mother, and watching him snuffle through the flakes of hay I gave him, I felt like I had friends who needed me. That ground, the tiny little chute through which we’d load cattle into trucks, the angled boards he called home, felt like it had a lot of weight. It was our world. I couldn’t conceive of myself without it.

Responsibility was beautiful, but the days were long. Longer days meant that I had more time for my eyes to look. This I’m grateful for. I never quite exceeded the context of the first time I’d seen the mountains by Deep Springs. Gargantuan rotund lumps—they struck me as pebbles which God dropped, left to stack on top of one another. The lack of precipitation left the stones mostly intact. It was hard to believe that Earth allegedly burped them out, so neatly did they fit into one another as they crawled towards the sky. These rocks were nearby to the east. To the north, west, and south, the land said very little. Modest erections of fertility littered the floor, their densities mimicking something about the soils. These bushes were similar in shape to the trees which adorned the mountains after a certain height. Scraggly and domed, maximizing the surface area for light while shallowly yet longingly branching out beneath the soil to clutch any drop of moisture that penetrates the hydrophobic sand. The microflora tucked beneath the bushes had the same shape, leaching from whatever its caretaker let seep through. I’m not sure if the valley floor was particularly eventful. It crystallized death and defecation. Fossilized cow patties could be found from every viewpoint, as could bleached bones, old or new, of all animals. By the end of my time at Deep Springs, I collected 8 cow skulls, 1 bull skull, 2 calf skulls, 1 horse skull, 1 ram skull, 2 coyote skulls, 1 badger skull, 1 bobcat skull, and 1 deer skull with 6-pointed antlers. And these were only the ones I could take home. The desert didn’t seem to process what happened above it—it staged life and death, allowing them to penetrate into one another. Such staging, too, felt unearthly. In the east the ground was a cannibal, consuming and giving birth to itself in flamboyant cycles. Everything here was left. Though the lack of such a process might seem godless, it felt divine to me. The stage gave way to the curtains of distant mountains, folds which, from a distance, felt smooth—yet up close were pebbles as well, sheerer, more daunting, and less human.

The south end of the valley was dark. These black mountains were a part of the original thermal upwelling that formed the mountains around Deep Springs. They unfolded as sheets to me, and I never got close enough to understand them well. Every time I did I came across jagged black stones that felt igneous and I took it as a sign to stay away. Lava warns you well. The mountains to the east and west were all artifacts of the tectonic stretching of the basin and range, while the mountains on the west had an added dash of a much later thermal upwelling further complicating its geologic structures. The far away, western mountains had stones with veins in them. Walking through canyons revealed a myriad of bizarre minerals, “crystals” as they’re affectionately called, littered everywhere. Cubic nucleations erected from the towers, macroscopically depicting the fight earth made with itself for our sight. As one got higher, for these stones reached 14,000 feet, the ground came less from below and more from above. Grassier, greener, and lusher with wildflowers, the mountains we affectionately called “cow camp,” for that was their summer grazing, turned into the greatest show of pebbles. Boulders hundreds of feet tall stacked on top of one another in grand spires. The architecture of the land was alien, unparalleled—I doubt Mars, or any other planet, could really compete. I was grateful for work for it made the days longer. I spent more time dwelling in something unfathomably good.

Through work and land, I embodied a form of religious duty, that which Kierkegaard wrote of in Part II. I reified myself in my relations to those which sustained me, those animals which I kept alive. I could clearly see Allah in my everyday life. My eyes told me everything I needed to know about His presence. Scientific explanations never falter—for theory is impenetrable until data stretches it—but the motions of beauty elate in a way that chemicals and physics could never comprehend. At this time in Deep Springs, I felt Allah pulse through my consciousness. Yet I had no relation to Him. I could not communicate with Him. I had no language for Him. I didn’t understand Arabic, I didn’t speak it, I couldn’t read it, and I had no mediation to comprehend it. Even mediation would falter—already I held him in mediation, so comprehending him through the double-translated; in the English words of another human; would be even more removed. I failed to see His motions, for He reveals himself only in signs, stitched together to make immediacy coherent. Though I couldn’t pray properly, I think I lived as a prayer. My heart was with Him as I conducted life. My body had faith. My spirit remained lost.

During my second year of Deep Springs, after I’d done feed, I dated a girl. She was Muslim. And I loved her sincerely. We'd read little bits of the Q’uran together every night for a while. We never made it past Al-Baqarah—life always caught up to us—but together we tried to restore our lost relationships to faith. She had a more troubled one than I did, with the name of Islam lurking behind the most vile acts of violence she’d seen. She knew of Allah, knew of her imperative towards Him—but she remained troubled by the force He gave to some. So she treaded lightly in this territory.

She became my other commitment. I would do many things in a day but I came to her whenever time allowed me. Home was rooted in her. She comforted me, took care of me, was kind to me, and talked to me. There was little more I could have wanted from life than what she offered me. I felt nurtured. As the form of goodness became so tangible to me, I grew dependent on it. I needed her in my life. Without her I failed to sustain, because the external world became a reference to her. I saw her in everything and everything had to be her. Couches were meaningless if not steeped in memories with her. Why speak if not with her, she who understood me without words? Contemplating beauty itself, outside, felt hollow if not graced by her touch beside me. Through her I mediated my understanding of goodness. She elevated earth and stabilized the bad. Nothing was complete without her, and with her it was all perfect.

She also possessed the divine language. She’d read the Arabic to me, complaining about how the translations were off, clarifying what we were to get from bits. I listened to her talk to her family in that tongue. The syllables seem to me, a mere English speaker, to slide off of one another—sharp and smooth, flowing. Listening to her felt like watching a rushing creek. When she didn’t want anyone to understand her writing she’d move her pen from right to left with artful curves adorning the page. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I wanted the articulation she had. She could communicate with Allah because she had His language, difficult as the relationship was. The potential existed for her and didn’t for me. Through her, then, I sought to articulate myself towards Allah. Thus we read together; thus I maintained a faithful commitment to her and my work; thus I strove to embody religious ideals in the world as much as I could.

Dating her brought me to desire God. She demonstrated the beauty of the form of communication to him. She depicted his goodness in everyday life through the perfection of the world through her. When we broke up these structures fell. The world no longer enfolded goodness, for its faithful messenger turned out to be tainted. The Arabic language no longer existed in my life as a potential; the aroma of its beauty left with her, and it was no longer present in my life. I could no longer articulate myself to God through her. I resented the world for this.

I’d grown accustomed to seeing the world as a set of signifiers for the relation I had towards her. We broke up when I was in Fish Lake Valley, living out of a trailer in a land she’d never been to doing work I seldom did with her. That didn’t stop my mind from converting riding horses into riding with her, or cooking into cooking with her, or my clothes and books and letters and decorations and everything from feeling soaked in her. This richness was once sweet. The breakup made it suffocating, intoxicating, and maddening. The present hid behind the opaque shroud of history and I never looked behind the veil. I still desired God but the position he placed me in felt inescapable.

The breakup stranded me on an island of guilt. I had this thing, this failure, this terrible thing that I did that I could not speak to anyone about. We broke up over this. When I thought of her, I was brought back, not to my act, but to the depth of guilt. Guilt is less of a feeling or idea than it is a force. It squeezes your throat and chest, holds your eyes open, glaring at the back of your skull, and pulses your neck with vibrations begging, “why? why? why?” Kierkegaard writes that guilt is the mechanism that forces us to repent to God, thereby ensuring our legibility to Him. Heidegger wrote that guilt was the way that we understood whether or not we were being authentic to ourselves. But for both of these men, guilt was self-contained—one was guilty because of an unfaithfulness to themselves, which they needed to set right in order to address it. Guilt was inescapable, they agreed, but it spurred us to do the right thing to alleviate it. My guilt didn’t feel agential. I couldn’t really do anything about what I’d done. I accepted what I did. I asked for forgiveness, from her and from Allah. I promised myself to do better and become better. I think I did that. But none of those motions alleviated the guilt. Nobody and nothing can do that. Eventually it eases up, but it occurs so gradually that you never notice its fading, never notice that you can begin to breathe again. I don’t know if I can breathe steady yet, but I can at least breathe a bit more than then. Then, I was alone and suffocating. I repented and repented, took accountability for more and more, for things I hadn’t done—I let her back into me to strike me in various ways; forgiveness is not something you can ask for, you know; in an attempt to make up for it. Failed narcotics and cycles of abuse—a tale as old as time.

I wanted to learn Arabic after we broke up in order to establish an unmediated relationship to Allah with language. Language, too, is mediation—of this I had no doubt. Speaking to Allah bears no witnesses, though. Language grows its mediation through performativity, which gains weight through the eyes of others. The more you speak before, the more you speak towards them and away from yourself. Allah is not such a witness. He is within you, within me, and articulation with him is the closest we can get to unmediated reflectivity. Why Arabic and not English, or even Bangla? I couldn’t tell you with truth, because I still don’t know the language. The closest I’ll get to truth is the Q’uran, which states that truth comes from the Lord. The Q’uran is His book and he chose Arabic as His tongue. Beyond the bare fact, Arabic’s suitability for this task is clear through the blatant beauty of the language. Only such an artfulness can strive to appropriate the divine. The poetry, the calligraphy, the musicality of the words all point vertically towards a grand consummation. Surahs and the Adhan reverberate inside their listeners with the floating tones of its speakers, leading them through a spiritual journey alongside those written in the Q’uran. The letters and written word can mold towards any form in physical space. This allows for a great wealth of household art, but also demonstrates how even in sight the language can fill any visual experience of the world. It recreates experience with faithfulness allowing for a repetition of stories, stories which aim to draw out the universal humanity in every individual. The form and the content of Arabic strive towards harmony, only possible through the sublimity of the language itself.

Promptly after leaving the desert I downloaded Duolingo to begin my journey. I quickly encountered the same problem with the babbling owl as I did with the rest of the world. It brought me back to her. In my mind at the time, Arabic was still her tongue and not His. I was stuck in the memories of her speech, beautiful as it was to me, which kept me bound to finite moments in time. These remained inescapable, just as my position was. My love for the world, I realized, was conflated with my love for her. After she was gone I couldn’t separate the two from each other. Worldhood and her remained intertwined. The world enfolded goodness and she unfolded it; without her unfolding, I lost sight of its goodness. The Duolingo owl would teach me to work on my pronunciation. I emitted a sound I’d learned from some conglomeration of her and her brothers. Then I felt myself in the archives, in her atmosphere, suffocating. As quickly as I downloaded Duolingo I deleted it.

Without language, without Deep Springs, and without routine, I found myself in a suspended relationship to Allah. The movements of prayer and history fell as structure did. I no longer woke up at dawn without avail, nor did I report to my lover every few hours. Animals didn’t need me. They had someone else. The days didn’t either. Time was frozen, anyways, for I was stuck in the motions of history, and all the present did was chant back the same thoughts I’d already had. I forgot about my project towards Allah for a while since we had no worldly tie beckoning me towards Him. Any reaching up felt like it was born of necessity, a perversion of a relationship. Yet I still needed Him, so I still prayed, and I still conducted Ramadan, and I still tried to speak with Him in English. In looking to Him for hope, I hoped that He could drag my present out of the past and towards a gaze in the future. Eventually this happened and I don’t know how. I think He might have answered my prayers.

I don’t find myself thinking about the past much anymore. Nor do I think much about the present, or the future, really. Instead I find myself suspended, like a child in the womb, reaching in various directions to latch onto possibility. The possibility which, for me, feels most urgent again is to grasp Allah. I hope to learn Arabic to consummate that goal, or at least begin through the way of language. If words are those which clear the Open for the emergence of truth, then I probably ought to read without doubt.

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