Revisiting Recitatif View all 5 stories

A Lesson in Arabic Grammar by Toni Morrison

On the syntax of relation

Adania Shibli
March 21, 2022
Art Furnace

IN THE 1980s, when the Fidaiyin were shooting Katyusha rockets on the Galilee, I assigned a secret cause to their act: to bomb my rotten school and free me from it at last. An end to this feverish wish was only made possible by the rise of another one: to change the school—or at least to write a text on how to do so. This new wish was allowed by the education model set forth in the early twentieth century by Palestinian poet and thinker Khalil al-Sakakini, which I had stumbled upon in one of my indiscriminate reading bouts. Inspired by this model, I wrote my first ever text, pleading for pupils and teachers, otherwise divided by power and hierarchy, to unite in their passion for learning and run the school together. That’s how al-Sakakini, a dead schoolmaster, brought me, an odd pupil, to life. Al-Muthanna?

Al-Muthanna is a pronoun in the Arabic language adopted when referring to any two people or elements. It constitutes part of the Arabic grammatical structure; when used, it effects changes to the forms of verbs, nouns, and adjectives. But al-Muthanna also allows for the emergence of a certain type of relation. As Palestinian mathematician and educator Munir Fasheh explains:

Al-muthanna refers to a relation between two people that . . . develops in a free and natural way . . . It is neither a couple nor dual—although the latter is usually used to refer to it . . . Al-muthanna does not perceive the other as non-I or as a person that is a copy of I, and it is not a higher synthesis/unity of the two. Each person remains who s/he is but a relation starts developing between the two, a relation that becomes so important in both persons’ lives that neither can live any longer as if it is not there.

Al-Muthanna relations tend to thrive within intimacy and in the margins, even between the dead and the living—as in our case, between al-Sakakini and me. In the years that followed my first essay-writing act, I’d continue exploring the Arabic language, and the question of how to live guided by the sensibility of its literature and grammar, accompanied by al-Sakakini and his love of Arabic. Al-Muthanna?

On the night of the 27th of November, 1917, al-Sakakini, the lover of Arabic, heard a soft knock on the front door of his home in Jerusalem. Behind it stood Alter Levine, a Jewish American, who was seeking refuge. The Ottoman authorities had demanded all Americans turn themselves in. Otherwise, they would be considered spies and risk punishment by execution, as would anyone hiding them. “Should I turn him away, thereby acting in a manner contrary to the spirit of the Arabic language, which I have loved passionately since my childhood, and whose revival and invigoration has been the goal of my life?” Al-Sakakini asked himself as he faced Levine. “The man sought refuge with me and I could do nothing other than welcome him in. I said to myself that he was not appealing simply to me for refuge. He was appealing to the literature expressed in my language.” Al-Sakakini welcomed Levine. Al-Muthanna?

Levine’s adherence to the dietary laws of Judaism dictated that he couldn’t eat al-Sakakini’s food and so he secretly arranged for an elderly Jewish lady to deliver Kosher food to his hideout. The Ottoman police spotted the woman carrying knotted bundles to al-Sakakini’s home and grew suspicious. They arrested the woman, and then the two men. Al-Sakakini and Levine were thus led to Damascus to be executed, a destiny they would be saved from only due to the war coming to an end. Handcuffed together the whole way, only silence extended between them. Al-Muthanna?

In a train station on their journey, an old pupil of al-Sakakini’s, who would later become an expert in Arabic grammar, spotted the master of Arabic and source of admiration, handcuffed, humiliated. Still their love for the Arabic language is there, and al-Sakakini began reciting a line of poetry he used to share with his pupils: “Prison, killing, missing, exile and distance from the beloved?” The once-pupil replied, completing the line with tears in his eyes: “That is dire.” Al-Muthanna?

The word adab in Arabic has two meanings: literature and ethics, or manners. Al-Sakakini treats Arabic not as a means of communication, but as a moral and ethical terrain: the basis of the search for our better selves by means of language and literature. Al-Muthanna.

Adania Shibli has written novels, plays, short stories, and narrative essays. Her latest is Tafsil Thanawi (Al-Adab, 2017), which was published in English as Minor Detail (Fitzcarraldo Editions and New Directions, 2020) and nominated for the National Book Award and the International Booker Prize. She is also a researcher in cultural studies and visual culture, and teaches part-time at Birzeit University, Palestine.