Language lessons

Clenched in a fist, the Jordanian man’s right hand jumped into the air. My eyes widened, my reflexes snapped to, and I quickly hit the deck, narrowly dodging the object as it sailed through the air. Regaining my composure, I rose back up just in time to catch the pierce of his keen eyes and his brow furrowed in frustration. There would be no second blow. Instead, he turned, muttered something under his breath, grabbed a fresh piece of chalk and went back to scribbling flowery Arabic script atop the black board.

Unfortunately, this was not the 007 lead-up to diffusing the bomb, grabbing the loot, saving the world and scoring the girl. This was fourth-year college Arabic, and I daresay it may have been more intense than the prior situation. Suddenly, I had cause to ponder that old eternal question: “What in the —— am I doing here?”

I was suffering from an especially strong bout of cultural confusion on that particular day. After three months working in Central America and putting a fine hone on my high school Spanish, I had made my triumphant return to Mohammed Sawaie’s classroom. Much to Professor Sawaie’s chagrin, I was successfully breeding Arabic and Spanish, mixing words and languages in ways that would have made Dr. Frankenstein proud. My mind still floated blissfully on the surface of the Caribbean. My body was trapped inside the cinder block room, and Sawaie, a product of a strict Koranic education and upbringing, reacted a little too strongly to the combination.

But at that moment of disgrace and humiliation, I discovered just exactly what I was doing in that stuffy classroom. As Sawaie’s hand improved the blackboard with the language’s mystic scrawl, Jalaluddin Malik, a devout Muslim and a distant companion during those four years, leaned over, patted me warmly on the shoulder and said, “Muta’assif.” The loose translation was “too bad” or “I’m sorry.” His eyes and others throughout the room said the same.

For nearly four years, I’d been the only white American in that classroom. Every single one of my compadres (ah, the Spanish strikes again) was a first- or second-generation Arab-American. They had grown up with the language in their homes, heard it from parents, aunts and uncles and had come to Professor Sawaie to help them put a polish on their skills. I was doing my best to not get polished out of college. Somehow, it all worked out in the end.

Tina Nasr was a cute, perfumed Lebanese girl whose parents lived in Bangladesh and worked for the United Nations. I spent my breaks at home in Colorado. She flew 20 hours to spend them in a city known as Dhaka. Aziz Sachedina’s roots took him back to northern Africa. Supposedly, his father was a top religious leader for Sunnis living in the Western Hemisphere. Carine Saddie’s lineage was drawn directly from the land of the pharaohs. The legacy survived. Her father was a power broker with the World Bank. Born in Jordan, Professor Sawaie was perpetually adorned in khakis and a blue oxford. Inside the classroom, he was stern and demanding. Outside, the nearly 60-year-old man virtually bounced around campus, smiling at every turn.

And then there was Jalaluddin Malik, my supportive friend from the other side of the planet. Devoutly Muslim, everything about Jalal’s day-to-day routine was impeccable, from his posture to the humble, bowed salutation with which he greeted everyone. He alone fought against Westernization, shunning the Gap for long, handmade shirts of pure white cotton and trading the sounds of Pearl Jam for Sufi poetry. Jalal’s line ran deep into the Fertile Crescent. His life and extended family all awaited him in the area now known as Iraq.

It’s been nearly three years since the beginning of hostilities in Iraq. Sadly, I hear fewer and fewer people in Durango asking hard questions about the war these days. On the flip side, I regularly trip over comments about “stinking A-Rabs,” jibes about “rag heads” and false accusations that all come back to the gas tank. Meanwhile, our fearless leader continues to blow smoke from the White House. Now, the scare is all about a united empire of Islamic terror stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Pacific coast of Indonesia. Words like “wicked” and “evil” are still tossed around like loose change and so are countless lives on both sides of the chess board.

The number of civilian dead in Iraq is now estimated at nearly 30,000. The lights of 30,000 innocent bystanders have all been extinguished since we began this far-flung charade, 30,000 people wanting above all, the freedom to live.

In my mind’s eye, I can see Sawaie’s serene smile replace his shaking fist. I hear Tina whimsically laughing at one of Aziz’s cracks. I see Carine totally immune to wise cracks, still deeply immersed in her studies. But most often, my Iraqi friend Jalal’s face flashes, wherever he may be now. All I can say is Muta’assif, my friends. Muta’assif.

- Will Sands