In the fortnight before I gave birth to my third child, I was leaving my friend Viola’s house when her father Saeed was coming up the driveway. We didn’t know each other well, but he smiled at me as we passed one another and said “Allah y’Khalsik bi kheir” – a turn of phrase that was commonplace in his generation but hardly thriving in mine. But his words offered me comfort: a short plea that God might accompany me on the journey of pregnancy and childbirth, and that both my child and I might emerge from the experience in good health and positive spirits.
I drove home that day thinking about how this phrase – and countless others – were another aspect of culture at risk of dying out among my generation and the generation that followed us out in the diaspora. With each year that passed, elements of my cultural identity were being watered down unconsciously as I navigated my life on Australian soil and the reality that the English language had, at some point in my life, surpassed Arabic as the one I was most proficient in, and indeed most comfortable, using.
But that short interaction with my friend’s father had reminded me that there were elements of my mother tongue that could do things to my spirit that the English language could not. Rich in nuance and meaning, they were links to my heritage and nods to my history: mantras and affirmations that my ancestors in Lebanon had relied on when they too passed through struggle – Ottoman occupation, famine, war.
But that short interaction with my friend’s father had reminded me that there were elements of my mother tongue that could do things to my spirit that the English language could not.
These seemingly ancient relics – the reserve of grandmothers with snow-white hair who stored sewing kits in biscuit tins and made soap bars out of olive oil – were the welcome antidote I needed to get through 2020, a dialogue with the divine that enabled me to soldier on when so much has felt daunting.
My friends and I had never uttered these phrases, but now it is clear that I had survived this unique and challenging year on those phrases, born of a language that I had once thought irrelevant as I moved on with my life in this nation.
Allah Yerhamo, God rest his soul. It is the phrase uttered to the family countless times as relatives file past us during the three-day wake period in the aftermath of my uncle’s death in January. His sudden diagnosis and short battle with cancer had pierced the family’s heart. My grandmother, bereft at the loss of another son, relies on this phrase to get through her days. The rest of us follow suit.
3a Allah, leave it to God. COVID-19 hits and the shops became bare. I say this to my Anglo-Australian husband as I return from the supermarket, armed with a couple of cans of chickpeas, the only bag of pasta I could find, and powdered milk, in case things get really desperate. This isn’t a phrase he’s used to, but he nods in respect and dare I say, optimism. Man can’t survive on bread alone.
Allah bi awid, God will make it up to you. My mother reinforces this one when the obscure overseas virus becomes a concrete reality for Australians, and things start shutting down. My income – a big chunk of which comes from speaking gigs at schools and writer’s festivals – takes a huge hit, but I doubt I am eligible for job keeper. A few months later, I get a small grant to develop my next work of fiction, and my mother is right once again.
Allah bi Dabbir, God will sort it out.
Allah bi Dabbir, God will sort it out. My days become intolerable as I navigate pregnancy nausea, home schooling and potty training a son in the throes of the terrible twos. We’re on lockdown, so I can’t reach out to my mother. Nor can I risk putting her in danger given I am married to an essential worker still moving through the world. Over What’s App video calls, my children beg for their grandparents and I beg for respite. I tell my mother that there’s no way I can get my PhD in on time anymore, but she reiterates the above and lights a candle in front of a crucifix and pictures of Saints in her home. I have no choice but to trust.
Masha’ Allah, Amazing what God has willed. My daughter comes into the world all cute and perfect, a day after I complete my PhD thesis. I repeat this phrase every time she opens her eyes, turns her head, cries out for me. This is the word of gratitude, of respect, of acknowledgement to the divine. In this year of struggle and strife, she is a much-appreciated gift. Life slows down for her and because of her, and it feels wonderful.
Neshkur Allah, thanks be to God. I leave the hospital for the first time in five days and the spring sunshine that greets me outside is the glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. 2020 has been a rubbish year for everyone on this planet. Some more so than others, of course, and I am one of the lucky ones. I think of those still in lockdown, those who have lost partners and parents to suicide, those who have died alone in nursing homes. We’re not in the clear yet, but we’re ever so vigilant.
While others baked bread, I dabbled in Lebanese cooking and grew fonder of the ways in which the gastronomical practices of my childhood unwillingly equipped me for life in lockdown and quarantine.
And I am so much closer to my culture. While others baked bread, I dabbled in Lebanese cooking and grew fonder of the ways in which the gastronomical practices of my childhood unwillingly equipped me for life in lockdown and quarantine. I leaned into an old way of speaking and believing, regained an appreciation for my mother tongue, and found survival in mantras and affirmations that came from wisdom, hardship and history instead of Instagram influencers using fancy fonts in fancy apps. I say Alhumdulilah – praise be to God – and hope I keep on learning.
Sarah Ayoub is a freelance writer.