Independent pages Wave #3 ESSAY December 2020

Alqalbu Fi Fammiha | القَلبُ في فمّها

Ella Finer & Urok Shirhan

Whose permission do you need? Palms to the ground, her mouth stunned into stillness at the question. She cannot stand up. She has forced herself to get to the point. To be succinct, clear, legible, understood. To translate herself. To explain, contextualise, to be articulate, to fact-check her speech and proofread her tongue. [silence] She folds herself onto her palms, deep into the floor, and feels the wild power of her inability to describe the largeness of the answer. Repetition has not served her, it has silenced her. She makes herself a promise – on the ground – to rise and make the experience of silence serve her: her voice, her body, her truth. Her oceanic feelings.

‘We have been socialised to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us’. [1]

[1] Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in Your Silence Will Not Protect You. London: Silver Press, 2017, pp.5-6.

The typewriting machine – she orders, collects and balances on her bike – is so extremely heavy. And powered by her hands it is louder than her speaking voice. She is stunned at the amount of noise this writing produces: writing, silently, with her mouth shut, is a distinctly loud affair. The acoustics of writing had always been quiet refuge – pencil soft on paper, hushed type. And now in the insistent voice of the machine she hears the tyranny of the silence that has not protected her.

Her need for language is profound, and she searches for the dictionary – a book she made with a child’s hand – as affirmation of this need, only intensified by time. Her Mesopotamian ancestors lived in astrological time, and she feels the complex repetitions of the planetary rhythms strongly. Her voice has long carried the words of other worlds, her inventions in and of language, the manifestation of her self-revelation.

And in her memory she speaks this book, in a language she has spun from waking dreams; an imaginary lexicon with words for sun and sky, for school. These objects – we come to take for granted as familiar – take on new shapes in her naming of them, these things she moulds in her mouth. Her mother hears her speaking to an empty room in spectral sounds; her mother who speaks old English in her sleep. They are not so different from each other. They learned the dead languages. Ancient declensions. Are not all languages, languages of the dead?

In the municipal cemetery turned inner-city park, she is taught to respect the dead for her proximity to their material remains, underfoot. To tread lightly; her feet appear smaller when she takes care how they land. She treats language with similar respect, for its fragile existence in mortal bodies whose powers of animation are as long as the breath that can sustain them. May you bury me. May I die first. يُقْبُرني | Yu2borni, she says when someone is so unbearably sweet, beautiful, innocent. When the sight is so moving, it hurts. Words travel close to the burial ground, lifting a little when she voices them.

Listening otherwise to the words we speak, we can sense the distance they have travelled, the land and the bodies they have been shaped by/in. Languages of the deep. The sounds we have inherited and pass on. Her idioglossia is a private language, her own tongue. And in this tongue, she makes the world, a world of minute bones and unfathomable planetary forces, alone. Or so it appears – she never feels alone, and the radio is on, speaking her mother’s tongue.

‘She lets other languages speak – the language of 1,000 tongues which knows neither enclosure nor death. To life she refuses nothing. Her language does not contain, it carries…’ [2]

[2] Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, 1.4 (1976): 975-893, 886.

[3] Frances A Yates, The Art of Memory. London: Pimlico, 2010, p.38.

Her mother tells her about the hundred or so languages with only “a handful of speakers”, and she will hold onto this image, of speakers in hand, the measure of a final few. How many can be held? I am losing my literacy, she says as she feels herself forgetting, having put her ‘trust in writing, produced by external characters.' [3] It takes energy to forget (as much as to leave). She knows this energy in her body, in the body she was born from. And the body before, her grandmother’s, whose words were always in the air, off by heart. It has taken this energy – of learning to be literate – to forget.

Can she lose her literacy to regain memory? Or find some other ability, to fine-tune the connection with language she has been living since her early years? She seeks to make the distinction between the ability to read and write, and having competence|knowledge of the languages she inhabits. Languages she taught herself, for survival first and interest second. And the language that is all her own – how to return to this as a guide for keeping one’s own tongue. For reminding of the unwritten powers of expression, the truths still within her grasp.

She holds her dictionary – an attempt to teach others her own tongue. [silence] Her hands look smaller as she notices the shape of their grasp. A grasp of the lost language of one. A language that reads like secret code: one letter destined for a family friend in Baghdad was deemed safer unsent.

When you cannot speak into a language out loud, do you keep it inside? What does it do there? Playback in dreams, narrate some part of your waking day? When does it come out? She speaks continuously now, from her fear of forgetting – or not fear, but from deep knowledge – that the language existing in her imagination, without practice, without air, will leave her. Will sink. And still, she thinks about the hand. Full. Full of quiet echoes aspiring ‘toward the ability to sustain the return, the lasting of the leaving.’ [4]

[4] Douglas Kahn, “Acoustic Sculpture, Deboned Voices.” New Music Articles. 8 (1990) 6.

Go back to The Heart in her Mouth

Go to Het Hart in haar Mond

Go to Obi na’onu

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