An exiled Syrian poet wonders why émigrés often prefer their second language when writing and speaking about the deeply emotional.
In my psychotherapist’s office, a painting hangs on the wall that I often find myself staring at during the sessions. The purely minimalist scene of the painting depicts three tall windowpanes; at one corner of the room is a small side-table, a white vase and some white flowers—tulips perhaps. At the other corner can be seen the edge of a table covered with a maroon tablecloth. Next to it, facing the window, a human figure—likely a woman—sits on a wooden chair with her back to the viewer, as she looks at the landscape of a modern city and the roof of what seems to be an old mill—a remnant of the industrial revolution.
What intrigues me about this painting of Edward Hopper’s (“Room in Brooklyn,” 1932) is the position of that lady; isolated and alone, looking down at the world through the windowpanes. A position in which I often find myself—as do, I assume, many immigrants to the modern West; a telescopic view from a distance at a world bustling outside of their shells.
I have to say that these metaphorical “shells” are neither artificial nor intentionally constructed. They are natural and adaptive—they “happen to be.” They are layers of an isolating matrix; a cacophony of languages, cultures, traditions, norms, sights, and smells—elements we have to navigate as we move away from our nurturing environment. Through the process, we retain some of these elements and forgo others, while acquiring new elements in our repertoires.
I mention to my therapist how the lady in the chair made me reflect on my position in the world; specifically my own life, which I observe as an outsider bustling before me. I find myself identifying with this lady in the chair. I share with her distance from my own life in this manufactured exile—distance enforced, among many things, by language.
My therapist, a psychoanalyst, does not speak a word of Arabic. From a young age, I was good at English, and after years of living in America I have become proficient enough to engage in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy sessions in English. I was also trained as a psychiatrist in America, which helped me foster a strong existential and functional relationship with the English language. And yet, I maintain that receiving my own psychotherapy in English holds within it fundamental disparities from therapy in my mother tongue.
“If we were doing psychotherapy in Arabic, I’d have already cried by now,” I have repeatedly said to my therapist over the years. I have been in therapy for more than six years, with two different therapists, and not once did I shed a tear during a session. Even at times when I was in extreme states of vulnerability, deep within dark clouds of desolation and the most burning nostalgia, the most painful grief or innermost fears, I never cried once. Isn’t that intriguing?
Jacques Lacan would be very interested to hear this. Lacan was an influential figure in psychoanalysis who departed from the traditional Freudian structures, and argued (among many other conceptual points) that language is what makes us truly human. To Lacan, language—the method we use in psychotherapy—is our gateway into the psyche, and the unconscious is structured in the same way that language is. As children, we learn language not only by learning words and sentences, but also by engaging in an instinctual process of pairing (or infusing) words and idioms with meaning and emotion. This, he argues, is how we structure our unconscious, and how the spoken word can become a thread through which we can trace associations of emotions and ideas deep within that unconscious. We suddenly gain access to our deepest, rawest emotions hidden in the depths of our psychic abyss. No wonder, then, that psychotherapy, which is referred to at times as “talk therapy,” actually works, and is found extremely helpful by many.
Growing up in an Arabic-speaking environment, I did not acquire the English lexicon with which I am writing these words (or those I utter to my therapist) the same way I acquired my Arabic. To me, English does not have the same emotional “load” that Arabic has. The two languages are accessed through different apparatuses. I would notice this difference when my therapist asked me to utter words of a specific exchange I had with my mother or partner. He’d ask me to utter the words in Arabic. I was immediately cognizant of the difference in emotional states when saying the words in Arabic. The mother tongue makes my heart jump in a completely different way, even when saying the exact same thing I had already said in English. It is as if saying the words in Arabic opens the gates, or pulls up the veil so that I am fully exposed and vulnerable under the watchful eye of another.
The psychotherapist is not a tape recorder, nor a mere spectator. While my therapist sits on the opposite side of the physical space, distancing himself from me, the Subject, he is also sitting at the other side of the experiential space. His position, while looking into my life, is also similar to that lady in the chair. My therapist takes a look out-towards, rather than into, the lives of the humans entering his office. And while he can never be within my experience, he often assumes the role of an active spectator guiding me through my excavations.
It is clear to me during therapy that I am being observed; a realization, or a form of justified paranoia, further reaffirmed by my identification with the lady in the chair. Her head, carefully positioned within the window frame for any onlooker to see. Her image, depicted on canvas and “framed” itself in a painting, hung on the wall for art lovers to admire—condemned to being observed. I observe her, much like I observed my therapist in this small room. Whoever said we don’t observe our therapists? We all do. As a psychiatrist myself, how can I escape identification with my therapist, entering his side of this “sacred” space or observing myself through his professional eye?
Imagine a triangle with three corners: myself, the lady in the chair, and my therapist. In this triangle of reciprocal identification, endless possibilities arise for play and catharsis. For instance, I allow my identification with the passivity and isolation of the lady in the chair to relieve me of my own guilt (which originates from my passivity and isolation). This identification with the lady in the chair also allows me to take a neutral look at my personal history and my most intimate memories—now observed through her neutral eye.
When I was six or seven, I used to lie in bed alone, staring at the ceiling and sobbing. An idea in my head was twisting endlessly like a snake: “My mother will inevitably die... There is no escape.” I was swallowed by the quicksands of death’s inevitability, its irreversibility and unfairness. Not much would console me then, except a simple wish that my mother’s death would be delayed, a wish I continue to carry with me today like a talisman. As a child, I had fears about my father too, but they were a bit different. He was older than my mother, and sicklier too. I recall one day, he picked me up from school when I was in third grade. “He looks like he could be your grandfather,” a boy loudly mocked me. My father was indeed older than most of my friends’ parents at the time, which amplified my fears. He was in his sixties and had heart issues and underwent open-heart surgery when I was very young. My fears soon became reality—my father died when I was ten.
Before his death, and for months on end, I remember how I used to peep through the keyhole of the bathroom door, looking at his upper torso lying in the bath tub (he used to take long baths), monitoring the risings and falling of his chest and clavicles. I wanted to make sure he was still breathing, that he was still alive. I resisted the deafening certainty of his impending death. That was an exhausting period of my life that often surfaces during therapy. I reminisce, albeit with dry eyes.
In contrast, when I wrote about these experiences in my private journal, and in Arabic, it was a cathartic exercise interrupted by torrents of tears. I believe that using my mother tongue in writing granted me access to genuine raw emotions about the loss of my father. But then I wonder why I originally wrote this article (which you are now reading) in English. Perhaps it was to use the English language as a buffer in order to ensure a fluid stream of writing, or simply because I did not intend for my family to read it. Today, I observe my family from a distance, in the same way I look at the homeland which I left behind more than a decade ago, and the lady in her chair looks at the world outside. There is nothing to fill this cold distance, no voices to warm the deadening silence. I live in America, and my family is in Syria. Too many reasons prohibit me from going home to see them, and them coming here. At the time these lines were written, the Trump administration had implemented a travel ban on tourist visas from many countries, including Syria.
I cannot help but identify, partially, with Joseph Brodsky’s circumstance. Like the late Russian-American poet, I will likely lose my mother while in exile. Much like him, I will write something about her loss, and my writing will likely be in English. He wrote an essay after the death of his parents saying:
To write about them in Russian would only further their captivity, their reduction to insignificance, resulting in mechanical annihilation [...] Even if I had written all this in Russian, these words would not see the light of day under the Russian sky. Who would read them then? A handful of émigrés whose parents either have died or will die under similar circumstances? They know this story only too well.
Did Brodsky find it easier to write about his loss in English? Was it less painful? I cannot ask him now. I can only wonder if I am keeping myself “safe” behind the “second language” by writing and talking about intimate and sensitive personal matters in English. I wonder if the decoupling of emotions and words through the buffer of English allows me space to remain intact and unshattered. I also wonder if I would pounce on the opportunity to undergo psychotherapy with an Arabic-speaking therapist, even a hypothetical one. My gut-reaction is: no. I would be hesitant to do so. I would be afraid of being wholly exposed and vulnerable under the blinding light of my mother tongue. Also, I would like to think that using English in therapy is liberating, that it grants me a margin of creativity to reinvent myself, space where I can examine my history sober and unburdened. I am fully aware that this is a privilege only a few enjoy, and it’s not the only reason I’m ridden with guilt and privilege. Unlike many Syrians, I did not experience the war first hand. I was not forced to leave my home. I emigrated voluntarily. However, none of that should make my suffering any more or less than anyone else’s. To compare suffering is an exercise in absurdity. To say that my suffering is greater than yours is a futile act of self-validation, one that is impossible to ascertain. How do we measure suffering? On what scale? From zero to ten? How silly... While people endure different adversities in their lives, suffering remains absolute by its very nature. It sits at the core of what is personal. It can only be measured by oneself—never by others. And for this, we must be able to express our own suffering freely, be it in intimate or public social gatherings, online, or at the psychotherapist’s office.
Back to Hopper’s lady in the chair. I visit her every Wednesday evening at my therapist’s office in Harvard Square. She instantly becomes the object of my observation, a third person in the room, an object of my identification game. In my current phase of life, I am her, sitting in that room staring through the windowpanes. She and I exchange roles swiftly. We dance between positions, from being the observed to being the voyeur. Like her, I quietly and passively gaze at the outside. I check the pulse of life and monitor the risings and fallings of the clavicles of my world—making sure it is still alive, embracing my helplessness against the inevitable. It seems to me that, much like the lady in the chair, I am condemned to an immaculate, uncharacteristically furnished American room with an uncomfortable wooden chair, and granted a front row seat to a world that concerns me little; a world I cannot change, so I keep away from it; a world that I could potentially understand—so I try.