27-Jun, 18:48

19:27, November 11 99 0

2016-11-11 19:27:17
Modern Love: Grappling With the Language of Love

We often hear about how hard it is to be articulate in a foreign language, but when I began to study Arabic, what took me a long time to learn was not how to speak but how to listen.

Looking back, I see that my inability to listen well cost me my first love.

The man I loved was an Iraqi doctor. Young like me, he had been forced out of his country by war and had come to Syria to work in a refugee camp. This was in 2008, before the revolution.

I was in Syria to study Arabic. We met in that camp, and for the next year we were constantly falling in and out of love, breaking up and getting back together, pouring out our hearts and fighting, mostly because of all he wanted to tell me was that I didn’t understand.

We did this in Arabic, his first and my second language. The doctor and I were both alone in Damascus. He claimed he loved me from the moment we first spoke because I had asked him a question. This meant I was curious and ready to learn.

I don’t remember my question. What I remember is the dust, which was overwhelming, and the sun, which would not stop beating, and all the patched white tents, which spread out from the doctor’s ambulance like the petals of a flower.

I went into the ambulance to get out of the sun. The doctor was rocking a crying baby, and when he touched it, the baby quieted and fell asleep. I thought: I want this man to like me as much as I like him. But I didn’t have strong Arabic, so I simply gazed at the doctor and he gazed back.

After, he called me. We met in a cafe. He sent me a poem. I didn’t understand the poem, which didn’t matter; we were headed for love.

I was a beginner in Arabic. I loved it and was trying to learn. I knew the word for “hospital” but not “emergency,” “love” but not “passion,” “war” but not “civil war.”

The doctor and I wanted to be writers, so in our free time we studied how to be eloquent. Sometimes I asked, “How can you love me when I speak inarticulate Arabic?”

He assured me that he heard past my poorly constructed sentences to the beauty within. We didn’t worry about whether I found him articulate, because Arabic was his first language. We had not yet learned the lesson that vocabulary limits not just how well you speak but how well you listen.

We expected me to be inarticulate and him to be eloquent. We loved specificity and detail, and the doctor used great detail in his stories. But my Arabic vocabulary was blunt and broad, so I heard him as being blunt and broad.

We went to a lecture. In the middle, the doctor wrote on my paper: “You look beautiful in your glasses.”

I didn’t know the word for glasses, so I read: “You beautiful.”

He wrote: “I imagine you in a bath of rose petals.”

I didn’t know the word for rose petals, so I read, “You bath.” Did I stink?

We learn the words we most need. I had grown up in a small, sheltered town, so my vocabulary for war was limited. But war had colored the doctor’s work, his home, his first love (not me) and his sense of purpose.

“I remember the bombs that fell on the emergency room,” he said, and I understood there had been a bomb but not how close it was to the hospital or how he had worked through the terror, his hands shaking.

Our troubles worsened when the doctor called and told me something while I was at work, but I didn’t understand and was in the middle of something, so I said I was busy, could he call back?

Later, when we reconnected, he said: “You have no heart. I told you the camp caught fire. People were hurt. Two lost their homes. And you said, ‘Call back later, I’m busy’?”

My heart sank. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “I didn’t hear you.”

“Do you ever hear me?”

Of course, there are many ways to hear a person; it doesn’t always have to be in speech. That night, though, we got stuck on words.

Afterward, we still saw each other, but it was not the same. Soon my grant ended and I went home.

I thought it must not have really been love. How could the doctor love me when I didn’t understand him? And if I could not understand him or know him completely, how could I love him back?

This was my belief for years. I still sometimes heard from the doctor, but we were far away, an ocean between us, and I no longer believed we had really loved.

Then I met the man who would become my husband, a student with long hair who had come to the United States from Brazil to learn biology. When he rode up on a bicycle to the building where I lived, my heart almost stopped. He knew all the scientific terms in English but didn’t know simple words like “believe” or “comb.”

And yet after we met, I only wanted to be with him. I wanted to pour out my heart, to talk and to listen. And if anyone ever questioned our love (because it happened so quickly, over two months), or if he had ever questioned my devotion (because we did not speak the same language fluently), it would have ripped straight through my heart.

So I found myself in the doctor’s position. And I learned that sometimes it can be enough just to speak the words, regardless of whether your lover understands them; that sometimes merely wanting to speak is enough.

The doctor had once said, “You know me like I know you, and if you don’t, then someday you will.” He had had faith in the future.

I loved the way my husband looked when he was listening. He made up games that didn’t require language. He didn’t write poetry in English but he drew pictures on scraps of paper and left them about the house for me, and in this way, I knew what he felt.

What had I done to show I cared for the doctor?

Over the years, I continued studying Arabic and my language grew. When I began to translate for people from war-torn countries, I gained a specialized vocabulary.

Armed with my new vocabulary, I went back to the doctor’s poems. I took them out of their old box, one by one. To my delight, I found that the doctor was eloquent; he wrote with precision and conviction.

I went back to his story about the bombing and understood now how in the middle of surgery his hands were shaking so hard that he had not known if he could finish. But there was a patient before him, so he steeled himself and saw it through, and the patient survived. The bravery of this.

I learned terrible things. About the exact ways he had been tortured and beaten. About the strangeness of death threats he had received simply because he was good at his work. I learned that sometimes to be good is the most dangerous thing.

And finally, after so many years, I learned his sense of beauty. He wrote a poem about a jasmine flower that bloomed while wedged between dust and the ice of a wintery desert.

Whether he meant this flower to be us no longer mattered. What mattered was that his words lasted, as beautiful now as then. His words had kept until I could listen and understand. Years after the doctor and I had fallen out of love, I finally knew him.

He is now married and lives in Sweden, where he works for the Red Cross. Soon after I left Syria, he got in trouble for his politics and was forced to flee. A refugee with an uncertain passport, he made the precarious journey up through Turkey, across the sea in an unstable boat — five years before thousands of Syrian refugees, fleeing their own war, would make the same trip.

He still writes poems, which used to air on the local radio and were so popular that people would call in and ask for “The Love Doctor.” I listened to the show, using my dictionary to look up the hard words.

Maybe, in the end, his poems are the gift of our romance, along with this lesson: Even years later we can learn from a relationship. There is no deadline for understanding. And that just as one can love intuitively, without language, one can also revel, years later, in the perfect meaning of a once-spoken, misunderstood word.