Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘language’

Muslims, Words and Dr. King

A Muslim Reflection on Dr. King’s Legacy of Peace Through Words
by Najeeba Syeed-Miller. Posted 1/21/2013.
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The shaykh with whom I studied ethics would speak nearly perfect Arabic throughout the day and address everyone in his path with great respect, even in the grammar of his speech. I asked him why he put such care into his choice of words, he would say, “Najeeba, most importantly, in the form of our words, we should pursue beauty and elevate discourse.”

His words and monumental effort in expressing himself in a way that was sublime has always stayed with me. In essence, he was establishing a confluence between the choice of words he used, their elegant arrangement, his affect and the cognitive functions of communicating. He rounded these together in every utterance so that each sound he made was calibrated to increase beauty in the world and create a relational quality in the way he spoke with others.

As I reflect on why Dr. King so profoundly affected my journey as a peacemaker, it is because he also exemplified that capacity to elevate discourse by harnessing the resources of language to move the level of discussion deeper and higher. In this process, his prose and speeches resonated particularly with those who knew his context. At the same time, they echo in ways that are illuminating with a universal radiance because they appeal to the heart, mind and soul at the very same time.

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As a Muslim, I have been taught the Qur’anic principles of engagement: To speak with the best words and with words of goodness when I am in a state of difference with another. Often in the past, I thought of this injunction as emphasizing the idea of persuasiveness. I have since found that there are other important aspects to these teachings that emphasize generosity and respect for the other in exchanges.

In thinking about the language of my teachers and Dr. King, I have come to recognize that one major element of constructing conversations that are beautiful in both form and process is this encompassing eloquence that can integrate emotional and cognitive approaches to social change.

It is easy to separate thought and emotion, to parse out the heart from the head. What makes Dr. King’s words drum in our hearts and minds far after we’ve first read them or heard them is the genius of his understanding that social justice is not merely an externally focused pursuit of rights;it is a rearrangement of the interior human landscape in how we see and feel about ourselves, the world and one another.

There is an element of slowing down, appreciating his text and speeches because of their sheer beauty. It causes me to listen both to the content and the orchestration of his language. I am engaged with the ideas and the emotional quality. He speaks of the greatest ugliness manifested by humanity in ways that push me to see that internally, I too, may be capable of such monstrosity if not for the vigilance necessary to keep my heart, mind and actions intertwined to actualize dignity and peace. He behooves us to respond with an ethical approach not just in action, but also in insuring that even (or especially) an enemy is never demonized nor dehumanized in our depiction of them.

So perhaps one lesson to glean from our celebration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is how we can move beyond competitive modes of talking, into a state of communal conversation that solemnizes an oath to speak with such careful thoughtfulness, so that the very act of forming a word is a sacred exertion of our highest sense of self.

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Speaking Kinyarwanda

Kinyarwanda is spoken in a number of East African countries, most importantly for me, primarily in Rwanda. I’ve been trying to learn it for 5 years now and still only remember a few words here and there.

When I’ve been in Rwanda to visit the ROP Center for Street Children and other reporting and projects, I’ve given it my all, but still feel like a child learning to read for the first time. I even had a teacher for awhile, but she’s probably embarrassed to claim such, since her student is so bad at it.

Here are some examples of Kinyarwanda to English (or vice-a-versa). It’s not that difficult to read, but to speak is another story.

umwana – child
abana – children
umwigisha – teacher
abigisha – teachers
umwigishwa – pupil
abigishwa – pupils
afite – she (he) has
bafite – they have

That doesn’t look to difficult, does it? Put them into a sentence though and I get lost.

Unwana wanjye – my child
Abana wanjye – my children
Be abigisha – her (his teachers)
Umwigisha wabo aravuga – ???
Mbese umwigisha wanyu arahinga? – ???

For now, I’ll have to smile and say “Murakoze” (thank you) or “Imana aguhe umugisha” (God be with you). When in doubt, it usually works to nod my head “Yes” as if I understand and smile.

South of Bend by Pat Conroy

OK, I can’t wait any longer. I’ve tried to get through Pat Conroy’s latest novel South of Broad (2010) for months now to write a review and can’t get past the first chapter. It’s too good. Might as well leave it alone and enjoy it piecemeal.

Conroy’s use of language is so delicious, that I keep devouring the same lines over and over again. Each paragraph is a masterpiece of description, dialogue, nuance and narration. Every time I have a little time to sit down and read, I get caught up in the first course and don’t seem to proceed to the next entree.

The story takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, which in many ways is like another character in and of its self. It’s about a the boy Leopold Bloom King, how he becomes a man, the community that surrounds him and how he and his family react to and live with the suicide of his older idolized brother Steve.

Here is but one example of the languid language that stops me in my tracks. The narrator, Leopold, says, “I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged shell of some soft-tissue mollusk. My soul is peninsula-shaped and sun-hardened and river-swollen.”

Other than taking one quote after another from the novel, there isn’t much more I can say. Pat Conroy’s Beach Music has always been one of my favorite novels of all time and if I can ever get through South of Broad, I’m sure it will have my equal appreciation and praise.

Spanking New – A Novel

Unique is often over used in relation to artistic expression and though the concept for this novel is not entirely new (movies like Look Who’s Talking and the first Back To The Future have similar narrators looking at life before they are born), it is no stretch to say this book is indeed a unique work of art and a joy to read.

Spanking New by Clifford Henderson is a story told from an unborn beings perspective (referred to as a “Floating Soul”) about her parents, how she chooses them, her eventual conception and all of the friends and family relationships that are involved in her upcoming life, when she is born into the “Land of Forgetting”. She is a Floating Soul waiting to become a “Me”.

The author’s use of the written word is theatrical (in the best sense) and captures feelings, experiences, thoughts and emotions that readers can identify with in them selves and/or others. As Spanky, which she (who wants to be a he) is often referred to in utero, says, “Words are one of the primary tools you get in the Land of Forgetting.”

We are taken for a sweet ride of language and gender calisthenics’, as we witness the meeting of Spanky’s soon to be parents, Nina and Rick and Nina’s friends Pablo and Dink. The description of Spanky’s conception and differences of yin and yang are hilarious. Once conceived, Spanky identifies her self as an “Anchored Soul” and the drama, humor and questions of identity and gender are intensified and explored individually and collectively.

At one point Spanky, in her observation’s of how some people think and are conditioned in the Land of Forgetting, says, “Maybe her refusal to admit she likes girls has to do with those nasty assumptions and opinions I’ve been warned about. They could for sure make a girl feel like she should like boys.” Rick and Nina’s wedding turn a lot of stereotypes upside down, but doesn’t let go of the prejudice and realities that still exist. In fact, that is one of the strong points of the story. What is accepted as “normal” or “expected” is questioned and often confounding to Spanky, as she awaits her arrival into this strange milieu of “shoulds” and “should nots”. In some respects, it is like an alien from another planet who is on a scouting mission to observe human culture and behavior and can see into our hearts and minds.

Ms. Henderson is a keen observer of what is said and what is unsaid. Conversations between characters are not just seen; they are felt. Spanky tells us what is happening, what may take place and what the person is thinking and feeling behind and underneath the words that are stated and the actions taken. We learn why a situation and reaction is as it is and why people do what they do (or don’t do).

Spanking New is a wonderful story. The birthing scene alone makes it worth reading and took me back to several different births I’ve been privileged to witness. The description of Charlottes (Nina’s Mom) prayer during her daughter’s labor and her conception of the God Charlotte is praying too, is precious. It beautifully describes how much we make God into our image of what we need and perceive at a given moment, as opposed to the other way around.

This is one newly converted fan, who is looking forward to Clifford’s forthcoming book titled Maye’s Request.

It Doesn’t “Suck”

The way we speak drives me crazy! Well, it doesn’t really “drive me” anywhere, nor causes me to have a psychotic break, but it can be intensely frustrating. Our use of language is so flippant and unconscious that we rarely recognize the stinking sewage it can create in our immediate surroundings and the culture in which we live. Without understanding or realizing the toxicity of the words we are perpetuating we continue butchering the English language with random disregard for the consequences.

English is already limited in its capacity to adequately describe much of our experience, so why are we boxing it up into minimalist jargon and down-sizing its potential for understandable discourse? To put it bluntly, when did sucking become bad?

Sucking, a most pleasurable experience, now connotes that something or someone is not good; that they or it, is not only bad, but really awful. “That movie sucked” or “You suck” are lamely thrown around to encapsulate an entire event or individual and have nothing to do with the pleasurable sensations of sucking.

Co-mingling with this inane colloquialism is the phrase “I’m screwed.” or “Screw you.” To screw, in this context, refers to sexual intercourse, again a most pleasant and joyful experience that now insinuates being helpless, taken advantage of or without recourse, as in “I really screwed up.” or “They screwed me over.” It goes without any prerequisites that exclaiming “bad” to mean “good” makes as much sense as saying “cool” equals “hot”, “fat” is “great”, or “sweet” implies “excellent.”

Moving towards the basement of horrific vocabulary is “shut up”, which should be banned from use when used to convey “This can’t be true!” or “You’re kidding?” People who use “shut up” in that context should just shut up!

The proverbial “Boy!” or “Man!” when speaking of something astounding, exciting or unbelievable, such as “Man that was close! Man, you are amazing! Oh boy, let’s go!” is another constant source of verbal annoyance. Why don’t people say, “Oh, girl!” or “Woman, that was awesome!”?

Along these same illogical lines, when did both genders become “guys”? It appears to be used completely out of context and without regard to those who are being addressed. “Hi guys; what would you like for dinner?” the waitress asks a table of men, women and children. “What did you guys do today?” a father asks his daughter.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Take it like a woman! Quit acting like a boy.” or “Be a woman!”? When did being female become a bad thing? What is so threatening about women that men (and women) will use such language in a derogatory manner when they want boys or men to behave differently or to put them down?

And everyone knows the World Series is anything but. A competition that excludes ninety-five percent of the global population and includes only American and a few Canadian teams is not “The World”. American football is not “football”; it is hand and foot ball. Football is what Americans and English call soccer and consists of a REAL world series (World Cup) with countries from almost every nation on the planet.

There are some words that should just be banned, period. “Fine” for instance, as in “I’m fine.” The definition of fine is “finished; perfected; superior in quality; better than average.” When we greet one another and are asked, “How are you?” do we really intend to say “I am finished” “I am perfected” or “I am superior in quality; how are you?” Some psychotherapist friends tell me that “FINE” should stand for “Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional”, but what do they know seeing that “psycho” is short for psychotic and “therapist” comes from therapeutes, which means attendant or servant; thus my counseling friends are nothing but psychotic servants.

No word is used more inanely or often in English than the word “love”. We use it for everything – I love this movie; I love that song; I love you; I love me; I love baseball; I love Fred; I love Julia; I love food; I love God; I love my dog. It is used so casually and with such consistent disregard for its complexities, that it can end up meaning nothing more than an over-cooked adjective that has loved itself to death.

You may beg to differ with these observations about our idiosyncratic attempts to communicate; though I am still waiting to see someone actually get on their knees and plead or beg to disagree with something I have said. The old adage of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” must have originated with people who didn’t have to listen to someone saying, “this sucks” a thousand times a day or been told “screw you” and never been able to actually do so with the person who said it.

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