Mother Tongue

On the way, echoing softly around the corner and down the hallway, I hear it. Maybe I’m imagining it – I’ve only slept four hours in the last two days – but I swear I heard a soft K and delicate L wrap around a guttural H. I could recognize these sounds anywhere.

I have to see someone. Nothing urgent, just a quick check. For the anxious or tired patients, especially those so soon out of surgery, I like to tuck them in at night. It’s a miracle move, probably the greatest secret in medicine, more tangibly impactful than the flowcharts and electronic doctoring that have come to define my training.

I am a building away. I can take the second floor shortcut and be there in a few, but I can’t escape the sound of my mother tongue. I take the right instead, my focus now at odds with my imagination. I realize I have been homesick this whole time and I wonder what or who I will see.

For years I have lived far from home, away from family and community. Short of a phone call, my connection to home is distant and tired. My patients are my best friends, I am afraid, and my thorough notes a reflection of our time together, fleeting conversations I take far too seriously.

When I leave the concrete fortress and shower away the mix of human must and antibacterial foam, I find myself standing at the door and taking in the smell of my neighbor’s evening cookery. I’m hunting. I long for that familiar scent of toasted cumin and allspice, the lingering tang of the tomatoey bamya. I can’t find it so I try to recreate it at home. How odd that I read English-language recipes for a dish mastered by my grandmother’s generation of weathered hands and smarter tongues. Recipes were verbally shared then. What I would give to hear someone tell me how many kabshaat of rice I should prepare or what I should do lamma byighli ghali.

But I am on call tonight so there will be no standing at the door and wishing. I will hunt the halls instead. I continue around the corner, the throaty ‘ayn more pronounced, the lilting meem so beautifully reminiscent of the cassette tapes I used to listen to. A female’s voice, her jeem pronounced like a hard G, a friendly dialect I know so well.

I walk slowly, absorbing the words. My focus succumbs and for a brief moment I am a child again, running around the Red Room of the mosque, the khalaat sending their blessings and requesting I pass them on to mom. Hader, of course I will! But I make a mistake that any Arabic-as-a-second-language learner is prone to making: mixing the soft H with the harsh. Khalto pretends not to notice.

I follow her words around a second corner and find her conversing with another woman, both turned toward the wall, one leaning against it. The tone is serious, fitting for a cancer ward. I make the decision not to interrupt and say salaam, I am one of you. I walk on and contend with the reality that the voice will soon fade and my connection to my childhood, the melody of my mother’s warm words, will disappear with it.

I find the nearest set of stairs and pause. Maybe I should go back and at least thank them for bringing me back home, if even for a brief moment. But no. I have to tuck someone in, and I have to take the long route there. I’ll call mama along the way.

3 thoughts on “Mother Tongue”

  1. I definitely missed you writing these beautiful pieces!
    Please don’t stop – make every effort to keep these journals/reflections coming in. I’ll be looking forward to seeing a notification in my inbox.

  2. MashaAllah beautifully written! I look forward to more memories from your childhood, and of course more mentions of food and the memories ingrained with smells!

  3. That transported me back in time. Wonderfully done. I can completely relate to the longing and joy felt when, just for a a moment, we catch a whiff of home.

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