In our final instalment from Writing Revolution, Jamal Jubran writes lightly and candidly about growing up an outsider in Yemen, and language’s ability to empower.
I look back now at the life I’ve led, at my childhood, and ask myself: How is it that I experienced such pain?
I was a singularly ungifted child, physically weak and always afraid of others, something that stemmed from the fact I was born outside of Yemen, where I came with my family when I was not even a year and a half old. My father had decided to leave Eritrea and return to Yemen, his homeland, after long years of exile and so my Eritrean mother, unwilling to be parted from those she loved, was forced to abandon her country and come with us.
We had nothing. My father had to start his life again from scratch. It is impossible to convey how poor we were, living together in a single room.
My brothers all spoke excellent Arabic, acquired at the only school in Asmara that offered the children of Arab exiles an education in their mother tongue. I never got the chance, which was only natural, since I was still breastfeeding at the time, my talents confined to crying and nestling in my mother’s arms.
Slowly, painfully, I grew up. Useless at everything, unable to pronounce a single intelligible sentence in Arabic, I failed to get into school when I was old enough to go. My stock response, when approached by Yemenis or asked to do anything, was to weep. I was scared of strangers, which meant I had to stay close to a family member at all times. The task of looking after me was divided between my mother and my siblings according to the time they could spare. It was out of the question to leave me alone to face the cruelty of the world around me, a world I could not negotiate with words. The neighbourhood kids, for instance, would beat me up for the slightest reason, or for none, exploiting my inability to express myself in Arabic and my puny physique.
Then something happened that turned my life upside down and changed everything.
One day, with my seventh birthday in sight, I went to the cinema for the first time in my life and there I discovered the world as I wanted it to be, a world that compensated me for a reality in which I was yet to find my place. It was an Indian film. I watched the hero defeat swarms of enemies with a single blow, a victory, it seemed, that was out of my reach. Now I knew how to get to the cinema on my own – it wasn’t far from where we lived – I was there every day. It became my own alternative universe, a place where I could slip into the guise of the one-punch hero and take revenge on the world, on the little bastards from the alley who took turns to beat me whenever they found me alone and unprotected.
What could be more delightful than laying low armies of your foes with a single swing of the fist?
Cinema gave me a certain inner steel and I managed to get into school by uttering a few Arabic phrases I had picked up by mixing with people at my beloved picture house. Now a student, my regular attendance at the cinema began to drop off and as my school career progressed, the visual imagination of film was replaced with words. I was dazzled by a new discovery: the alchemy of letters rearranged to form illimitable strings of words and convey innumerable meanings. I was a newcomer to the Arabic language, a beginner taking his first steps, but it was already clear that my relationship with these letters that so bewitched me would be an enduring one.
Words are power.
This was what I learnt. Naturally timid and subject to ceaseless assault by my neighbours and classmates, I would grip the reins of my burgeoning vocabulary and feel a shot of self-esteem that made up for my crippling lack of courage. I was as yet unable to speak fluently, which won me unending mockery from my fellow students, who laughed not just at my poor Arabic but at my ethnic origins.
Generally speaking, in school as in wider society, there was a distinctly racist element in attitudes towards people from Eritrea and Ethiopia and their half-caste children, especially those born to non-Yemeni mothers. It was an attitude based first and foremost on skin colour. I was later to learn that this racism was actively encouraged by the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came to power in 1978 when I was four years old; a regime based on a policy of divide and rule.
It left me with a deep-seated sense of humiliation and degradation that pushed me ever further into the embrace of cinema and language to soothe the psychological wounds I sustained in the real world. My progress through school was slow, marked by numerous failures. I repeated two years in primary and middle school. It was hard, but as a newcomer to the language, I had no choice.
Then I had a revelation. My talent for writing in Arabic would be my ticket out of the terminal state of weakness and vulnerability that left me exposed to daily humiliations. I decided to go to war against those who demeaned me and defeat them with their own language.
I would resort to writing.
Sanaa, December 2011 ■
Translated from the Arabic by Roger Moger.
Jamal Jubran is a journalist, poet and author, based in Sanaa. He regularly contributes to Beirut-based Al-Akhbar English and his articles have been translated and published in a number of international publications. He also has taught at Sanaa University, but was expelled because of his political activities. Before and during the Yemeni uprising, he was active in the group around Nobel peace laureate Tawakkul Karman.
Image courtesy of aufziehvogel2006.