The salesperson just spoke to those people in English, I realized.
“Do you speak English?” I asked the dark-haired young man across the aisle from me. His face showed sun, wrinkles, and fatigue, making it hard to guess his age—somewhere between 25 and 45.
“No,” he shook his head and smiled as he pointed to the young woman sitting next to him. I had noticed her enormous, beautiful brown eyes, which, though tired, never closed during this long train ride.
“What language do you speak with them?” I continued, indicating the older man and younger women he was traveling with.
“Kurdish,” he answered.
I had him: “Bitdhaki al-arabi?” “Do you speak Arabic?”
His face lit up, “Yes, I speak Arabic.”
“Where are you from?”
“Are you fleeing the war?”
How do we learn about the suffering of people around the world? Most often we learn from our local media. They receive information third-hand, translated from one language to the next. A complex game of “telephone,” with no access to the first speaker, and so no way to check the accuracy of what we hear. Maybe by listening to multiple news sources we can learn the truth—unless they all rely on the initial bad source. Less often, we listen to the inidivuals who experienced the events. Someone can tell us “a” story, or people can tell us “their” story.
Once again my languages brought me into a remote corner of the language ecosystem. Who knew that a trip to Morocco in 1995 to learn Arabic would lead me to a train in Greece in 2015 next to Kurdish refugees, speaking to Mustafa. (Unfortunately, Kurdish refugee crises were happening in both eras.) Thanks to my languages, I heard Mustafa’s story about his family from Northern Syria.
(See the postscript, at the end of this post, to see where else my languages led.)
Mustafa worked as a laborer in Syria most of his life. He worked for Christian communities, about whom he said, “The Kurds and the Christians–it was peace between us.” While the father of the current Syrian president caused problems for the Kurds, my temporary neighbor’s life was fine.
Recently, Daish (the Arabic name of ISIS or ISIL) came too close, so his family decided to leave. They lived close the Turkish border, and the fighting between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Daish was an immanent threat. He left with his wife and children, his brothers, his uncle, and his uncle’s family. His mother and father stayed behind to mind their property.
He was not lucky enough to avoid the war, however. He saw fighting. He saw the bodies of those shot dead in the streets around Damascus. The Christian communities he had worked among were devastated.
He wanted to protect his family. They made it over the border and lived in the Kurdish area of Turkey. He filed for documents as his family was stateless, without Syrian passports, in order to travel further with his uncle’s family. He left his wife and three children, aged seven, five, and six months, with his brothers in Turkey.
Cruel ironies betrayed our similarities. On the same path for a moment, mine led to the beach in Northern Greece (Halkidiki), while his led to friends outside Thessaloniki where he could hopefully find work. As I left behind my wife and daughter, who were traveling on vacation, he left behind his wife and children, living the tenuous life of refugees in Turkey.
Language reinforced the privilege I enjoy in my life. Even when I’m on the same train, going to the same place, my starting point makes all the difference. Mustafa blessed me by speaking Arabic to me so I could learn a part of his story, and my place in the greater human story.
After a few days at the beach, I returned to Thessaloniki for sight-seeing. A young man stopped me in the street. “As-salaamu alaykum!” he said in Arabic. I answered, “Wa-alaykum salaam,” before I realized the unliklihood of someone stopping me (of all people!) in the street in Greece in order to speak Arabic.
He told me he recognized me from the train from Athens to Thessaloniki. A young man from Sudan, he simply wanted to say, “Hello.”
Hidden language habitats were finding me on the streets of Greece, thanks to my conversation on the train.