a vocabulary of belonging

I keep a notebook with all the Arabic words I learn while going about my days here in Amman. It’s funny how these pages, filled with swirling Arabic letters on the right side and their boxy English translations on the left side, have almost become a journal. Each word is traced back to a moment where I needed to express something beyond the limits of my third tongue. Sometimes, it is a word that corresponds with a stream of thought, or an emotion. Other times, it is a word needed to narrate mundane happenings, or critical events across the globe.


When I first got here, I was so scared of sounding foreign, ajnabiya. As someone of Lebanese heritage, I felt a strange pressure to sound the part of Arab as much as I looked it. I filled my notebook with words to help get me through everyday exchanges. I hoped that if I learned enough of these words, and learned them well, I could direct taxicabs and order coffee and buy groceries without anyone noticing my foreignness.

Dakhla. Entrance, turn, exit. As in, take the third exit on the traffic circle.

Sada. Plain. Please, I would like plain coffee, without sugar.

Wazan. To weigh. Could you weigh these vegetables for me?

Continue straight, if you please. Medium sugar. Not this roundabout, but the next one. I’ll have one-third kilo of stuffed eggplants, please.


I practiced pronunciation over and over: in the morning before heading out, at night before falling asleep. I would whisper my new words five times under my breath before ducking into a taxi or a corner store. I would will myself to use these words confidently, with my full voice.

Did people notice that I wasn’t from here? Of course. There was always something that gave me away. If it weren’t an incorrectly conjugated verb or an awkward word choice, it would be my clothing or the way I carried myself. I was, and often continue to be, somehow marked by the look and sound of someone who doesn’t completely belong here.

And… this is okay! This is perfect. This is the truth.

After five months in Jordan, I am much less concerned about “passing” for a “true” Arab. That is not the point of me being here. (And what is a “true” Arab anyway?) I now embrace the complicated story that is my engagement with the Arabic language. I enjoy explaining that I have a Spanish name because my mother was born in Venezuela to Lebanese parents. I cherish all the new words I learn without expecting them to help me better “play the part” of someone who belongs.

Words are simply tools for me to better express myself. Me. The woman who is not from here. The woman with the strange name and familiar features. The woman who is learning so much here, and is immensely grateful for the generosity of spirit she has encountered among the people here. The woman who wants to keep learning; to meet everyone and see everything during her short time here as a guest.

In essence, I have let go of unfair expectations for myself, and started practicing acceptance. This has helped me to enjoy language learning, and my everyday interactions with people, much more.

I will keep filling notebooks with Arabic words and their English translations.

I am building a new vocabulary of belonging. Words that animate conversations both silly and serious, conversations that eventually become the foundation for new friendships. Words that reflect my personality, interests, and ambitions. Words that allow me to better understand others. Words that close the distance between unfamiliar and familiar, and punctuate the passage of time from winter to spring.

I am excited to learn each and every one of them.



Thank you to Jordan-based photographer Amena Alani for the photos in this post. I met her while I was studying at Turtle Green Cafe. She was inspired by the beautiful candle-lit pot from which I was sipping my masala tea. She asked if she could take a few pictures, and I happily obliged. She very kindly sent me the photos a week later over email. I am excited to stay in touch and keep up with Amena’s photography on her Flickr account. 

[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, February 2017]

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