Beware: the Language of Heaven is Hell for the Passenger

no arabic

While living in the Middle East, we would often quote Islamic scholars and proclaim that we were “learning the language that we’ll all speak in Heaven.” We were not joking. With its rich phrases and flow, Arabic is a beautiful language.

After five minutes in a taxi in an Arabic speaking country, the beautiful sound of Oum Kalthoum’s voice will lull you into relaxing and enjoying all that surrounds you. You would never say a mere “Good Morning” in Arabic; rather you would say “Morning of Goodness!” to which another would respond “Morning of Light!”  You don’t say the mean-spirited “She talks too much!” Rather, you would say the descriptive “She swallowed a radio!”  And nothing so plain as “He’s crazy!” Instead, you would say “His brain is like a shoe!”

Twenty six different countries speak Arabic. It is a language that is centuries old, spoken by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is used in worship by both Christians and Muslims. It is a language with a history of narrative and poetry, a language of song and speech, a language of expression and beauty. While sometimes I shake my head at the impossibilitiy of the ‘ta marbuta’ and the fatḥah(فتحة) /a/, ـِ a kasrah (كسرة) /i/ or ـُ a ḍammah (ضمة) /u/, I absolutely love this language and I will continue trying to learn it until the day I die. 

Evidently, not all think as I do. Earlier this month, a student from University of California, Berkeley was removed from a flight. A passenger heard the student speaking Arabic and reported him. As reported by the New York Times, the student was from Iraq and had been to an event where the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon had spoken. The student called his uncle in Baghdad to tell him about this event. Unfortunately for the student, an arguably sheltered, bigoted, and clueless fellow passenger headed to the front of the airplane to report him. The rest, we might say, is history.

When I first read about this story, I thought I had no words. Anyone who reads CAB knows that I speak out about these things regularly. And there are times when I want to hear other voices, I want others to do the talking, the writing, to ask the hard questions. But there is a dearth of Western, White People willing to speak into the current climate of fear and xenophobia that creeps like a cancer through our country. This climate is perpetuated by ill-mannered politicians who vow to police Muslim neighborhoods; who ‘one-up’ each other on who can be the most bigoted.

When did we decide that Arabic was the language of terrorists? When did the 295 million Arabic speakers in the world become suspect? A passenger made an assumption based on limited knowledge and world view. An airline heeded that assumption. Instead of questioning her further, asking her if she knew Arabic, finding out more, a decision was made by the airline to remove a man because of the language he spoke. Deanna Othman says this in an article on Alternet: “Southwest Airlines has set a precedent with its action on that flight. It has validated the insidious paranoia that has become rampant in our society. It will unjustly lead Muslims and Arabic speakers to rethink their language of choice when boarding a plane.” 

This should trouble, if not terrify, all of us. It’s one thing when a passenger is misinformed and foolish. It is entirely another when a corporate entity asks no questions and falls into the reactionary fear that causes poor decisions. 

Because here is the truth: 

Unbreakable stereotypes, xenophobia, racism, bigotry, and fear of the one who is ‘other’ – all of these are far more dangerous than any language will ever be.

To you I pose these questions: When did fear begin to replace common sense? How can we change this? What can we do indivdually and/or collectively to respond? إن شاء الله [Insa’Allah] we will find a way to move forward together.

8 thoughts on “Beware: the Language of Heaven is Hell for the Passenger

  1. Love how you describe the beautiful poetics of Arabic, Marilyn. Just a quick note that I read yesterday that the passenger who expressed fear about the Arab -speaking Berkeley student is also Arabic-speaking. Apparently the listener heard some particular references that scared him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thanks Nancy! I read that as well. It was actually a woman, and the concern is that it is debatable how much Arabic she knew. You can think you know a language because you know how to say “Hi” How are you and how’s the weather. That’s not enough.


      1. It also came out that he was specifically talking about ISIS and was questioned by an Arabic-speaking employee of Southwest Airlines. There is plenty of prejudice against Arabs and Muslims in general in our country, but there is more to this story.


      2. Because I often hear the complaint that Muslims don’t call out other Muslims for terrorism, I was kind of liking the idea that this story rebutted that notion. Your comment makes sense. I can well imagine an Arabic learner interpreting “Inshallah” as indicating something vaguely jihadist. Anyway, here’s a link to the article that I read:


  2. I spent one flight from Gatwick to Cologne seated next to a young Iranian travelling to complete a 50 million euro deal in Germany. I told him about how I’d had to take off my shoes and have my wee decanted pots of shampoo etc checked. His reply was: “it must be random then!”, This was a relief to him clearly to know even ancient white females get looked over!


  3. My take on it is to make Arabic as common and “overlooked” as Spanish or French until people are desensitized to hearing Arabic words and sounds. It was funny, after wife and I got married (she’s Lebanese and I’m American) I took her to the USA for the first time. I spoke more Arabic in the US than I did in Lebanon…esp. shopping so people wouldn’t know we were discussing prices or what we were looking at.

    Liked by 1 person

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