Between Worlds, Never to Belong

oil painting

“Under the Olive Tree” – Oil painting by Aya Salah (2017)

Perhaps it is fate, and perhaps it is destiny.
Perhaps it was always meant to be this way, and perhaps it simply never was. I don’t know. What I do know, is that for most of the time, I do not feel like I fully (physically) belong anywhere.
Belongingness is a complicated abstract concept. Do you belong with your heart, with your yearning, or with concrete memories that physically connect you to a place?
I can’t be the only one who hangs in midair, between worlds, always identifying with both yet never feeling completely embraced in either.
Being a Palestinian Canadian is a most intriguing experience, but it is difficult to describe to someone exactly what it’s like to be a Palestinian in Canada. Having grown up since babyhood and well into adulthood in the marvellous city of Montreal, I can hardly picture myself living anywhere else. Montreal is my home, the bounds of my childhood, the foundation of my character; it is where I feel safe, strengthened, and comfortable to grow.
And yet, I still don’t feel like I fully belong as a Canadian, or that I truly have a right to use this term since I am not originally a native of the land. No matter where I’ve planted my roots, the seeds first and foremost came from Palestinian soil. There is no way to ignore that.
Deep in my aching soul, I keep finding myself yearn for the land and people that had once been, and relentlessly continue to be, a part of me, even way before I was born. It is for this reason I find myself gravitating towards places and experiences in the West that satisfy my nostalgic emotions. I always felt as though a piece of me belonged in the Middle East, on another continent, and that perhaps if I spent more time in both worlds, then Canadian-me and Palestinian-me could comfortably coexist in satisfied harmony.
It was mostly for this reason that I took a great leap of faith, and decided to try living briefly in Palestine. Maybe, just maybe, I could find that missing part of me in new, strange yet vaguely familiar lands.
But alas, belongingness is a far more complicated concept than I ever thought it to be. If only it was simply a matter of physically connecting with a place. The truth (my truth, at least) is… this diaspora situation extends beyond the physical realm. It includes emotional, spiritual, and intellectual (dis)connections at times.
On the surface, I fit in Palestine in a lot of ways. The language, core cultural values of generosity, family, hospitality, and even my self-chosen dress code happen to align quite well with the society I am currently in. But every passing day reminds me how much I do not belong here. Maybe it’s the noticeably different dialect that flows from my lips; maybe it’s the uneasiness I feel at commonplace trashy (yet embraced) values, like cheating and bribery; maybe it’s my constant waves of shock as I learn of occupation and violence that I have obviously never needed to deal with in my own life, and never envisioned I would ever live through.
Fact is, the longer I stay in Palestine, the more I suspect that my heart really belongs in Canada. Yet when I go to Canada, my heart jumps right back across the fence. It’s like it thinks grass is greener on the other side – even when I have been on both sides, where the grass is the same shade of green!
So am I never to belong anywhere? Am I to remain suspended metaphysically between worlds, and realize that no place on Earth can actually ​fill my inner thirst for complete connection? Does anyone actually feel like they belong anywhere, or are we all equally lost, yet too timid to confront the void?
These are a lot of questions that come to mind when I daydream or drift off. Of course, I don’t expect that definite answers exist for them; but they are something to muse over.
Personally, I have no problem with not fully belonging to one single world. Perhaps who I am depends on the very fact I not get blindly attached to one particular worldview. I am a lifelong traveller, travelling between realms of cultures, ideas, controversial histories, intricate experiences and lifestyles.
Perhaps I am never to belong anywhere. 
This constant diaspora, manifested in multiple realms…
And you know what? I am at peace with that.
And God knows Best.

Quran Reflection: On Being Pleased

*Note: I am not a scholar. This is but a self-reflective piece.

God tells us at the end of verse 58:22 of the Quran:

رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ ۚ

This part of the ayah in surat al-Mujadela catches at my throat every time.


I have yet to understand, perhaps I never fully will, why somehow my heart’s walls fracture at these words, and why my defences of all my baseless excuses crumble.

We like to think we can read other people’s thoughts, but we can barely understand our own. But here, I will try to analyse myself. I do not know why this part of the Quranic verse – translated Allah is pleased with them, and they are pleased with Him – makes me want to collapse in tears. There are likely many reasons. I decided I needed to reflect on this much deeper and try to understand myself through it. I think I have found one reason why this powerfully resonates with me:

To have God pleased with you, and you pleased with Him.

Oh, to have His pleasure. Always striving to make that the end goal and the waves that transport me as I sail with the means. Yet so many times I am not grateful. I may have the appearance of patience, but wars constantly rage within: an army of thoughts remind me to be content with the state of things in my world and to trust that the future is in good hands; and an opposing army of thoughts assures my ego it is justified in wallowing in its own self-misery. Could one have His pleasure if he is not continuously pleased with His flawless plan?

Although Alhamdulileh: all praise is due to God is always on my tongue, I wonder how truthfully and effectively this reality is translated in my heart of hearts. It is a reality for sure, to this I have no doubt – but am I spiritually living this reality in an authentic way? When I grudge things beyond my control – but yet that are – is this not a form of ingratitude on my part? Is this not an indirect expression of discontentment with God’s plan? And if I am not pleased with His plan… how should I ever imagine Him to be pleased with me?

رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمْ وَرَضُوا عَنْهُ

A Shephard

If He is pleased with you, what else matters? Everything pales in comparison to the pleasure of your Lord. And if He is not pleased with you… honestly… of what from all the skies and galaxies of creation will really matter?

So I pray to the One, turner of hearts, to make my heart sincere and firm. Oh Allah, the All-Merciful, allow us to be of those whom You are pleased with, and who are pleased with You.

For you, and only You alone, know, and have ever known, Best.


Art as an Escape


Oil painting “Lighthouse in Prince Edward Island”- 17 hours of my life was poured into this. Totally worth it.


I’ve always thought of art as a powerful means of awakening a sense of wonder in our otherwise dull lives. Art as something that grounds us in instinctive knowledge, but that can elevate our thoughts and souls. Art has the capacity to change not only the viewer and appreciator of art, but the artists themselves. This quote from the book Native Science beautifully explains this:

“The ceremony of art touches the deepest realms of the psyche and the sacred dimension of the artistic creative process. The sacred level of art not only transforms something into art, but also transforms the artist at the very core of his or her being. This way of doing and relating to art makes the process and context of art-making infinitely more important than the product.” (Gregory Cajete)

Lately, I have been making a good effort to increase more time in my weekly schedule for artistic processes. The more I immerse myself in these artistic processes, the more I question why exactly I am captivated by it. I have no plans to become a famous painter, calligrapher, writer, or video producer… then why do I keep painting, learning calligraphy, keep up creative writing, and create videos?

Increasingly, I’m seeing art as more than something that ends up looking nice and to be admired. I’m experiencing things in a new light. My personal experience is not necessarily giving me an insight that is different or exclusive from the above views… but rather one that acts as an additional layer to it.

Art is an escape; an escape that depends on us moving nowhere.

What kind of escape? It’s an escape from the hustle and bustle of a long active day of work and meetings. It’s an escape from the chaos that our uncertain thoughts cause within us. It’s an escape from our unrelenting running footsteps that we focus on more intensely than reminding ourselves to take magical depths of deep breaths.

Art is an escape from everything, by forcing you to to stay put. Art tells you, Nothing in this world matters right now, except that your painting strokes on this canvas are precise.  Art tells you, Nothing matters except that your poem has a rhythm when you read it out loud. Art tells you, Yeah, you might feel like a mess, but all that really matters is that your calligraphic letters are curved just right with your ink-dipped bamboo pen.

Creating art puts you in the present moment without a sound, and you find yourself self-reflecting a great deal. 

You realise that even in your hustle and bustle of a schedule, you can still extract moments of serenity and quiet. Creating art slows down our jumbled, loud thoughts until we accept that it’s okay to not have all the answers at the same time. Creating art settles your feet so that they can stop leaping over hurdles and give you a chance to take ocean-deep breaths.


So don’t for a moment think that creating art is a waste of time. Art is one of the few streams of sanity in an insane world. A timeless Lil’wat principle of teaching & learning I think applies so well to my own art process:

“Kat’il’a — finding stillness and quietness amidst our busyness and the need to know.”

Create the kind of art that brings you joy and peace. It is an escape to a better you. Art is an escaping adventure that brings you home to Him… if you allow it to.

And Allah (God) knows Best.




“Irrelevant” To Me

Dedicated to Rwan, who is one of the most amazing listeners in the world; who, in being so, allows me to speak my unspoken, complicated thoughts out loud into coherent words. The powerful tranquility of being still, and not at war with yourself… she helps me arrive there.

Graffiti Art

As someone who has been involved in several things for quite some time, it is inevitable that as you live through more experiences, life builds you an ever higher mountain of responsibilities and self-expectations to climb. To climb it well and avoid stumbling every other step, you often have to lighten the load of your heavy backpack that is carrying too many attachments. It is some of these attachments that are weighing you down from reaching the top and seeing the full picture of where you are best meant to be.

This was something I’ve struggled with in the past year – this backpack of too many commitments to others, and not enough to myself. I have (or had – new person is I!) a hard time saying “no” to volunteering my energy and efforts to causes I care about – even at the expense of caring for my well-being. I have a difficult time declining opportunities to be a part of developing the “community” – even at the expense of developing stronger bonds, and increasing love of the Prophet  , within my own household. As a result, my priorities appear to be skewed.

I thought saying “no” to helping out was a bad, selfish, terrible thing to do. But now I know better.

Hold on, I am not advocating being totally useless in society and volunteering in nothing; I am advocating volunteering where you are needed most, but not to do so at the expense of higher priorities – like your own emotional and spiritual needs. There is a difference between backing out because you have no values except YOLO-ness & self-indulgence, and of having so many principles you fear you aren’t doing justice to. As the hourglass of time reveals, circumstances change, so what was the right initiative to be pouring your heart and soul into a year or even a month ago, may simply no longer be the right one now.

To say it as drastic as it feels, it might now be “irrelevant” to you.

I didn’t have words to describe what I was going through, so naturally I assumed my changes in mood and decreased comfort levels regarding how I was investing my energy in was because I was confused about what I care about in the first place. But now I realize something profound:

You can still care about something even though it’s become “irrelevant” to you. Simply, it can flourish but no longer depend on you to do so; and you are in a state where you must flourish in new ways, without depending on it to help you do so.

Now that doesn’t mean that you should doubt it was ever a worthwhile cause to have ever gotten involved in. On the contrary; it was critical you got involved at the time you did, or you would not be who you are today. The you that first got involved was in need of doing so, it was a necessary part of your journey… but the person you are now, with luck, is not the person you were then. The now you realizes that remaining in the same place that is not taking you further than where it has taken you, becomes irrelevant if it is preventing you from traveling to other places more crucial to your inner and outer growth.

“We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Elliot)

Not everyone will understand you when you walk away; but you do not do it for them, or even for your selfish desires; you do it for your relationship with God. You want to make sure you are using every precious second you have to not miss out on opportunities He is granting you, simply because you’re too timid to say “no” to people. To me, staying where you are not needed is not selfless – it is a selfishness of wanting to keep clinging to a title (“activist” / “role model” / “leader”) you do not even crave. It is weakness (and ain’t nobody got time to be weak at the cost of their ultimate happiness.) 

“You can’t be successful with other people

if you haven’t paid the price

of success with yourself” (Stephen Covey).

To strengthen your community, you have to start with the individual: you. Once you are stable and rooted enough to extend the branches, begin with your family, the smallest unit of any community. In time, your selective (but well thought-out) unattaching will serve everyone.

disengage Yasmin tweet

A perfect former example to illustrate what I really mean by “irrelevant to me”: MSA (Muslim Students Association) of McGill. I love it; I loved being an active member on it for consecutive years, and, no exaggeration, I would not have half enjoyed five years of university completing a double bachelor degree had it not been for the warmth and magic of the MSA. Had the MSA not been there for me, and I for it, I cannot imagine who I would be now.

But despite these lovely and meaningful memories, I’ve moved on. I graduated. It doesn’t mean I think the whole purpose of MSAs are lame and useless – not at all! I still believe MSA McGill is as important now as it was half a decade ago, and I still think the MSA is an invaluable student club that serves the broader community as well in enriching ways. So yes, I still care about it. Yet, at this stage of my life, it is also “irrelevant”. If that makes sense… (it does in my head).

At the end of the day, you have a heart that will feel uneasy when it finds the rest of the body clinging to old routines that are stunting your potential in creating unique other change only the spiritually evolving you can make. The key is to evolve when your gut feelings are telling you to be still and honest with yourself. Your heart is talking to you – do the honorable thing, and listen to it!

disrespect your heart

By all means, go ahead and commit to a million causes, but only after committing to the seed that will make all the difference: you. Otherwise your heavy involvement in society might just be a cover of not being involved enough with yourself.

Never forget, change begins from within.


And Allah knows best.


Oh, Those Emotional Roller Coasters

Dedicated to anyone who likes roller coasters and metaphors.


The function of a roller coaster is to make you forget the world for a few minutes as your body is taken on an exhilarating adventure meters higher in the air than you are accustomed to. Not only do you approach cloud #9 physically, but you do so mentally as well. The thrilling sensation created by the exciting anticipation of being suddenly rotated around a circular track with the physics of centripetal force has your emotions at maximum intensity.

Now I just described one of my favorite amusement rides: the physical roller coaster.

But what do people mean when they say they are on an emotional roller coaster? Well, I cannot speak on their behalf, but I can certainly speak on mine.

In a physical roller coaster, things are simple.

  • There is a starting location, and an end location.
  • There is a set timing for how long each ride will last.
  • Because there is a designated person controlling the ride, you can be assured that you’ll get by in one piece,
  • Get all the way through,

And all you must do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Emotional roller coasters are a little more complicated.

Whereas a flux of various emotions are experienced on the physical ride – suspense, excitement, fear, joy, and so forth – they are all validated, expected, and hence most warmly welcomed as the norm.

But life often puts you in circumstances that you cannot see what the end result looks like, situations that you do not know how long your nerves must be put to the test, and something seems to go seriously wrong along this metaphorical ride…

You see, in an emotional roller coaster, you are not taken on a complete 360 degree turn; at least not in one swift shot. No no, you are rotated at most 180 degrees from the bottom so that you are now upside down. There is no human controlling this so the “ride” is halted midway for an indefinite period of time. Here you are, just hanging upside down as the blood rushes to your head, and you simply cannot ignore what you can’t stop thinking about.

You realize you’re experiencing a range of complicated emotions, and the more you try to rationalize them, the more sophisticatedly complex they become.

In these awkward circumstances, it can be hard to know how to feel and remain in an internally balanced state. The only way to do this is to remind yourself, for your own sake, that although there isn’t a human controlling this whirlwind of a ride, this is all part of a plan from the Best of all Planners.

Once this fact is internalized, it is easier to accept the fact that you’re going to be left hanging upside down, midway on this circular metaphysical track, until you learn to trust in your Creator and His wisdom.

Brace yourself to be content for whatever is to come next.

Oh, those emotional roller coasters. Might as well learn to enjoy the ride while I’m on it.


And Allah knows best.


Imagine Being Palestinian, in Canada

I cannot even begin to describe to you what it was like growing up as a Palestinian, in Canada.

But I will try.

Artist: Imad Abu Shtayyah

Artist: Imad Abu Shtayyah


Imagine being a child on the road to finding your identity, yet you are unable to convince the world that you exist.

No no, what do you mean you’re Palestinian? Just say you’re from Jordan, it’s what the majority of Jordanians are anyhow, and at least you’ll find it on the map.

The map. Did I mention Palestine exists – in all the hearts & minds of its people, its soil, culture, food, music, dance – I’ve even been there, smelled its sweet air, touched its green leaves, basked under the shadow of its olive trees… but “the map” will not show its existence. Instead it is lumped under an occupier’s name, one I refuse to acknowledge as legitimately formed.

What do I mean by lack of legitimacy? Imagine being thrown out your house by gunpoint with your family members, half of them killed in the process, and made into scattered refugees through violence. Meanwhile these thug criminals take over the house that you built yourself and comfortably live in it, with all your possessions intact. Yet it is now “not yours”, and in a twisted colonizer’s view, “never been yours”. Can we call the occupier a legitimate owner of the house? Never, and a thousand times no.

To be robbed and have it acknowledged as injustice is one thing. But to be robbed of material possession, as well as dignity and pride, and then be somehow blamed for it, is a whole other tragedy on its own.

Imagine being a 10-year old child in a privileged North American country, with little concerns in your pampered little life, when you walk into the living room as the news (obviously not CNN or Fox) plays. You see a small boy and his young father crouching behind a wall as the bullets shoot through the smoky air – and then both father and son crumple. Sudden death, completely avoidable, and completely deliberate.

Imagine knowing that their only crime was that they had Palestine flowing in their veins, but someone else decided they should not be safe on their own land. The land they built with their own hands.

Imagine living in a lovely place like Canada, and instead of feeling as though you are in Paradise, you instead can’t shake off the guilt that your life isn’t as difficult as the kids who risk their lives everyday just walking to school – because the bored soldiers at checkpoints could shoot at you or treat you like a bowling pin to knock over, by launching rocks at your head. (It’s all a game, let’s see who gets more points!) Meanwhile I am here, in Canada, feeling guilty at being safe, as though it were mandatory that a Palestinian child to be in constant danger.

Imagine feeling horrible for being helpless to fight the oppression your own flesh and blood overseas are forced to endure regularly. Imagine this burden on a 13-year old’s conscience. That was me.

The worst of it was, there was no one I could talk to about this. Things may be different now, but rewind over a decade and a half back, I was the only Palestinian (and even Arab), in my grade. It would have been nice to have someone who understood your inner torment, even if you didn’t need to express it.

“call me angry

i hear your voice salt with guilt

and I laugh.

look how easy it is to reveal you.”

— anger is a natural response to oppression (Nayyirah Waheed)

My only outlet in my youth was to write poetry – lots and lots of poetry – to express my frustration and anger. But who cared about the writings of a kid who had an entire country that “doesn’t exist” on her mind, when she should only be concerned with fashion and boys?

I have learned to smile through the anguish until I am now used to having people tell me they cannot picture me in a state of unhappiness.

But if you look past my dynamic colorful outfits and my radiantly positive attitude, you will find a burning sadness inside for the lost part of me I cannot seem to take full ownership of it until it is free.

Inside you will find a fire of rage for the silence of those too reluctant to speak justice when given the platform to do so (and here, the decision to “remain neutral” rings out the opposite message loud and clear). Inside you will find a volcano that erupts every time a Palestinian woman is degraded, every time a Palestinian man is humiliated, and every time a Palestinian child’s dreams are destroyed.

And still inside this heavy-loaded heart you will find the source of my smile, my strength, and my tranquility: the knowledge that Palestine will be free. It is one of those things that cannot die while people believe in it, and millions around the world are not giving up on it anytime soon.

Imagine being Palestinian, outside of Palestine, and realizing your heart never left it.

It is a beautiful ache.



The Importance of Busy-ness

*Dedicated to myself first and foremost, because I need this reminder more than anyone else. I hope you, the reader, will still find benefit in this.




Say, [O Muhammad], “Shall we [believers] inform you of the greatest losers as to [their] deeds?

[They are] those whose effort is lost in worldly life, while they think that they are doing well in work.” (18:103-104)

How many people do you see with their heads lowered almost permanently to their smart phones, forever texting away because they have so much to say and so many people to say it to? How many people feel they are important simply on the basis that their free time is somewhat limited?

What’s the problem with that, you may ask?

There are a lot of issues with that state of thinking, but common side effects include: Egos are inflated, heads are swollen, and it’s a lose-lose situation for all because no one is “not busy” enough to make time for others.


I’ve blogged ever so briefly about the above verses once. I was an undergrad student then and a member of a few extracurricular student initiatives. My hands were full, and boy, did I and everyone else know it.

Now, two years later, I find myself living a very different life, yet nonetheless relentlessly busy. I’m juggling different responsibilities and commitments that range from teaching to volunteering in both religious and non-religious non-profit initiatives. I am trying my best to be the best daughter and sister I can be, while reading books and attending lectures and unique events whenever I can. I find myself offering to do this and that before really processing if I have the time for it – it’s a weakness of mine to simply say ‘no’ (but I’m getting better at it). In any case, when all’s said and done, all I can attest to with complete confidence is that I am a very busy person these days.

In fact, I am so busy that I am writing this blog post with guilt; there are quite a few to-do items on my to-do list, but I’ve decided that I really need to get this out my system now. I’m a meticulous planner but when I want to write a spontaneous blog post, like now, it simply happens without a second thought (and that’s not always a good thing, by the way.)

Yes, I’m busy. That b-word, used in response to “how are things” of “oh, I’m good – just busy” no longer has the same satisfying ring it used to have with me. Once upon a time, to claim I was “busy” smugly implied to my lower self that I was out there doing important work; that my time was being well-spent, and that surely I was on the right track.

But is busy really an accurate measure of meaningfulness? Is productive busy-ness even a measurable factor? Is it important to be busy? How many of us claim to be busy yet aren’t doing very important work at all? What’s important and what’s not? Does important work have to keep one busy? Are they correlated at all?

With these questions swimming in my head ever since I graduated, I thought it was about time to address them. Needless to say, I am not an expert, but I’ve formed an opinion of some sort:


Being busy is not important.

Being important does not mean you must be busy.

However, often you can be both; or you could be only one and fool yourself that you are both.


I find myself lately trying my best to no longer reply with “I’m busy” to an “how have you been” question. When it slips, I cringe inside, because… well… So what if I’m busy? Who isn’t? Why is this news? Why is this important? Rather than replying with those two vague words to give off a sense of complex endeavors, why can’t we be frank with each other and just specify what it is that has been filling up our times?

“Busy”. What does that mean now? And so what?

Either way, for some slightly twisted reason, many of us feel it’s a form of empowerment to confess we are powerless to control our time. We take pride in saying we’re overwhelmed with life because it sounds like we’re making the most of ours. Are you ever really overwhelmed such that you can’t make time for what is truly meaningful to you?

Since writing about what I termed “the snowball metaphor” last year, I’ve gotten much better at making time for what matters. Some things have changed since then, but one thing has not.

I am still always busy.

The major difference now is that I’m constantly asking myself if what I’m busy with is really important. This is a question I repeat to myself over and over again. Unfortunately, sometimes I find myself too busy to even answer myself.

When I do take the time to self-reflect, I am often positive that I fill my time with meaningful work. Yet now and then, I run into amazing people who don’t seem as busy as I – and if they are, they don’t wave the fact in the air like a flag – and I am always astounded as to how much more of life they are obviously getting out of it.

I mean, where do they have the time to do this and that? How can so-and-so be doing this project and still manage to do factors A, B and C, all with complete ease? How come Person X looks so ordinary yet is doing extraordinary work modestly hidden only behind Person X’s humility in character?

I still have a lot to learn.

Something I have learnt, though, is that by no means should busy be synonymous with importance.

And Allah knows best.


Mother Tongues & Vulnerability


NOTE: This is a self-analytic reflection. It may ring with you, or, more likely, it may be completely bogus to you. You have been warned.


“You know how some people are full of layers? I’m not like that. I like simplicity, and I’m simple. I don’t have a million layers. What you see, what you get, is what I am.”

These intriguing words were said to me by a friend when I expressed to her that I feel as though I sometimes over-think my actions, my feelings, and ultimately, my intentions.

While I admire her outlook on life, people are unique and what works for one person may not work for another. Externally I may seem to be an extrovert, but in actuality, I find I am first and foremost an introvert of some sort.

I don’t really mind having so many layers to myself. Not only do I not mind discovering bits and pieces of myself at the right times, but I have no desire to be known and understood by simply anyone. I unconsciously find myself putting up invisible fences, or barriers if you will, to determine if someone really cares or is merely curious. You can be curious about a lot of things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you care; and one of my pet peeves is to be put under the microscope for no reason other than for mere curiosity to kill some time. Like it or not, when you are under a microscope by someone you care about, you allow yourself to become vulnerable.

What is vulnerability?

What does language have to do with this?

Admittedly, when I am in particular gatherings of all Arab folk, Arabic words flow easily to the tongue, and there seems to be no chance of being censured or getting emotionally hurt of any sort. But for some reason, when it is not in a dominantly Arab setting, the rules suddenly appear to be much more wary.

A Canadian-Palestinian friend once told me: “I don’t speak in Arabic to a stranger unless they are a friend. Otherwise, for the stranger off the street that talks to me, my speaking in a language known only to us in the crowd is almost like a sign telling him, hey, we have something in common. Let’s see what else in common we have! I want to be closer to you.

In any relationship, from work colleagues to friends to family, the foundation of a relationship is communication, and the medium of communication heavily depends on the language that transports the meanings and words.

So what happens when you and the other person are multilingual, and in fact, share the same mother tongue? Do you start off in the mother tongue even though you may end up really not liking the person… or do you start off in English/French and then transition to your mother tongue once you’ve gotten comfortable?

Can deliberately avoiding the usage of one’s mother tongue simply be putting up a barrier?

Perhaps I am the only one who even bothers asking these questions to herself, but they’re questions I’ve been silently pondering on for a good half-decade now. Maybe it is time to peel one of my many layers, place it under the microscope (I’m allowed to do that to myself), and analyze it. Here are my (very much) scattered thoughts on the matter:

Often, depending on how close I am with someone, or how much I value the relationship, do I permit myself to be more vulnerable in language. In other words, if you are Arab and I am Arab, and we both speak fluent English/French, and yet I relentlessly speak only strict English with you even when you request a change of language… more often than not, it could imply either I don’t want to get closer to you, OR, I don’t trust you won’t mock me at my western-influenced Arabic accent.


What does speaking in Arabic to a stranger have anything to do with becoming closer? It doesn’t have to, necessarily. But coming from the background I come from, it feels so. When I speak to a stranger casually in my mother tongue in a country that doesn’t speak it, it indirectly implies we have something, and something very significant, in common… because with a shared language may come a shared culture, shared ideas, shared hopes and dreams –

And then again, maybe it doesn’t come with any of these things, and that silent implication is wasted and merely created a tense moment (will describe those moments in a moment!) I thought it was only me, but speaking to others in my place made me realize it’s a lot more common than I thought…

Now this pecks at my curiosity: is this just an Arab-Who-Was-Raised-in-a-Non-Arab-Country thing, or does it apply elsewhere? .

Here is my self reflection of the matter.


Growing up in Quebec and attending schools in the English sector made it very rare that I ever had another Arab in the class. If I was “lucky”, there might be another Arab in the grade.

Why do you put “lucky” in quotation marks, Aya? You ask.

I’ll answer that plainly. It is because even when there was that one other odd Arab in the grade level, my relationship with her/him was no different than the rest of my classmates.

“If there are three of you, never should two of them talk without the third until you mix with other people, for this would grieve the third.” (Bukhari)

Even before I learned of this hadith, common sense dictated to me that if you’re three or more people hanging out and all focused on one conversation, it is extremely rude for two out of three people to start their own private conversation in the presence of the third friend. It must be very awkward for the person who can’t keep up with the conversation simply because he/she does not speak their language. Well, since the two of them can at least speak the third’s, why not stick with it in his presence?

I mention this because all my friends throughout elementary and high school were non-Arabs. CEGEP came along and I started new friendships, some with Arabs and some with Pakistanis, but the bottom line was that there was ONE sisters’ prayer room, and whenever I just wanted to chill and hang out, there would always be that one non-Arab in the room. So what did I do? I loved all the girls and wanted to get closer to them all, but to do it simultaneously. To keep everyone in the loop of things, I spoke solely in English.

Then came a day when it was only I and a couple girls. Maybe I was studying, or maybe I was reading a book; I don’t remember what I was doing, but all I remember was that as they spoke among themselves, I couldn’t help but playfully throw in a comment in my mother tongue.

They both stared at me: “You can speak Arabic? We’ve never heard you before!”

I was more shocked at this statement, this weak assumption they leapt to and developed without having first bothered to ask me for themselves, than they were at the language my comment was clothed in. Since then, I’ve been expecting it periodically with new acquaintances. This statement has been repeated to me so many times over the past few years in university that all I do now is faintly smile in amusement and explain my rationale for not having revealed this high-top language secret.

I suppose speaking always in English, a language known by almost all those I contact, has always been easier on my tongue in the long run than Arabic. Habits take a long time to build up; but once built, they are incredibly difficult to break.


Not Identifibly Clear

I speak Arabic in the Khaleeli Palestinian dialect… or so I thought. All were only too pleased we could speak and read any Arabic at all, so although they never pointed it out, when I went to Palestine, I realized my dialect sounded a lot different… All my sisters’ did.

It’s a puzzling scenario and my sisters and I often wondered why that was the case. We came to a (potentially completely wrong) conclusion: growing up listening to Egyptian music, visiting Algerian neighbors, having Lebanese family friends, spending Friday halaqas with Syrians and Palestinians from Nablus — well, is it really no wonder my dialect is not very Khaleeli Palestinian? I’ve had so little interaction with others from el-Khalil. Mix that salad of familiar dialects with the saucy fact that I spend most of my outdoor time speaking in English, and it’s no wonder that changing the language path (from English to Arabic) with someone I don’t trust is unsettling. It’s like I’m giving them permission to look into me and determine, for starters, if my dialect is right or not (which, by the way, has happened more than once).

I’ve gotten some “where are you from again? I thought you were Palestinian but you don’t sound it.” And then I ask their opinion of where does it sound like I’m from? Thoughtful facial expressions appear and after thoughtful moments pass, thoughtful responses come: “Well… you SOUND Arabic. Because, like, your words are clear and your sentences are grammatically correct. But, um… you don’t sound Syrian or Lebanese or Jordanian or Palestinian…”

Often the conversation, at this point, will have completely strayed away from the initial purposeful topic, and try as I might to change the subject and revert back to it, they just want to figure me out under the microscope- analyze why I speak like this, how do I feel about speaking like this–

It’s a tiresome process; When someone wants to figure you out, not all of you, not the part you want to be known for, but just that one little insignificant detail that they cannot get over…

Mind you, whichever dialect I speak, even if it can’t be identifiable with one particular country, shouldn’t need to be a big deal if I myself don’t think it is. The fact that it is makes the introvert in me squirm inside and wonder: Really? Should I be worried or am I being too haughty about this whole thing? And, well, then I go in circles trying to identify why I’m feeling annoyed, upset or irritated, and the final result is me trusting that person or willing to confide in her/him a whole lot less.

Perhaps at this point, you might understand a little why speaking in my mother tongue, to those who are ever so proud of theirs, is a sensitive thing for me. It means willing to bring down the language barrier; this is synonymous to allowing a part of myself to be momentarily examined like a book. (This excludes those who only know Arabic, and would be feeling incompetent in speaking a language besides it.)

Now I have friends, dear friends, those who seem to have bits in their souls that absolutely resonate with mine, whose empathetic hearts are always willing to listen to you– these are those that I don’t feel the need to keep up a barrier of any sort. These people want to know you for your heart, your mind and your spirit, and a swift language change will not have them biting their nails in anxiety wondering why you didn’t reveal such a hot topic before now. These people I frankly tell them my Arabic writing isn’t the best, my Arabic book reading (besides the holy Quran) are few, and I’ll throw in words and phrases at random, or have entire conversations with them in Arabic, because there is no need to be defensive anymore.


 The question is, should one ever need to be defensive in such an area? I’m wondering if other minorities in the West face these issues or if perhaps they’re not issues at all. Maybe this is just another episode of me overthinking and overanalyzing…


Regardless of which language you speak, I would be delighted to read/hear your perspectives if you would like to share them.

Until next time,

 مع ألف سلامة