Learning About the Arabic Language...

We're at a house party in Birzeit, a small college town outside of Ramallah. I've found myself in the kitchen, not a big space, with about ten other people leaning against the cabinets and sitting on the counters. Everyone is laughing and smoking and being silly. Between all the haze and noise and the different languages bouncing around me it's hard to hear what's being said. Next to me a Palestinian guy is talking with another American girl. They're both particularly smiley people. The American girl gets a little louder.

"If you're trying to say 'the night was perfect' what do you say? Like how do you say that?"

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I think. I don't know.

I can say the night was nice (helu, koisa), but how does one say it was perfect, it really could not have been better?

"Al-leila......" she's gesturing, saying the word for "night" and waiting for the next part to come to her. Her hands are stretched in front of her, fingers spread wide and flexed with frustration, "Al-leila...what?"

The Palestinian guy is sitting on the counter opposite her, one knee bent up with one elbow around it. He's smiling too and looking up, eyebrows raised skeptically as he thinks, a cigerette between his two fingers.

"Hmmmm" he says. "Ah!" he's got it. He speaks with a grin. "Min al ekher. Al-leila min al ekher."

He loves saying it. He gestures with a big brush of his hand from is heart into the air above it.

"Ah, that is why I love Arabic!" he begins to explain excitedly, leaning over to get a little more serious (but no less joyous). "Yaani, everything is from the heart. Min al-Ekher! From the last."

'Ekher' means last. 'al-Ekher' is a superlative, meaning the very lastest. 'Min' means 'from' or 'of.'

This becomes one of the many times I am reminded of how learning a new language allows us to see beyond constraints of one's native language, and shows us, with serendipity, how those constraints have affected our thinking.

In English we can say the night was perfect, or without any flaws. We can say it was really, really good, or unforgettable. We can use any other more specific adjectives: the night was the most relaxing, the happiest, etc. All of these will get across more or less the same point, that whatever we are describing felt good, even if they vary hugely in more specific meaning.

For example, saying you had the most relaxing evening at home watching TV has a very different meaning than saying you had the most relaxing night when you went for a night hike with your closest friends and talked for hours while looking at the stars. From the context we can infer that the kind of relaxation being described is very different in the two different scenarios. In the first one there was a reprieve from being busy, from having to expend any effort to do anything or talk to anyone, and in that way it was a very nice, restorative night.

In the second example, though, we know from the context that the relaxation was much deeper. Maybe you have a memory of feeling totally at peace while watching the night sky with friends. So, if someone we're to tell you how relaxed they felt doing the same, you can apply how that felt for you to this invocation of the adjective 'relaxing.' You might also have memories of talking all night with close friends and gaining a deep sense of calm through it. You know it is not the same relaxation that is achieved by staying in and vegetating. The leisure being described in the second scenario is much more meaningful. It indicates a calm felt at a much deeper level than in the first example.

I think it might be a little silly to use min el-ekher to describe the night in watching TV, but a night spent under the stars with close friends may very well be min al-ekher.

We English-speakers don't have the words at our disposal to communicate the feeling of something being min al-ekher in such a concise and casual way. Maybe min al-ekher is so wonderful for this purpose because it is so abstract. Your conceptualization of min al-ekher won't take precisely the same form as the next person's, but I think the feeling it speaks to is one of the most primal, good feelings that is common to all humans.

In my own understanding, I don't know quite how to make sense of min al-ekher's meaning without adopting a new framework through which to think of my most favorite memories. The phrase allows me to put words to the profound enjoyment felt in moments where I have been totally relaxed, feeling deep happiness and ease, that I will never feel in exactly the same way again. And, in doing so, the expression requires another level of thought on these memories. Rather than thinking of my happiest, most peaceful times as just that, saying they are min al-ekher makes me notice that the deep satisfaction of these moments is sweetened by the ephemerality and uniqueness that are essential to them.

I think sometimes we feel min al-ekher in big, pivotal moments in our lives, sometimes we feel min al-ekher in the happiest times we've spent with friends, and sometimes we happen on little glimpses of min al-ekher when we notice something beautiful.

Walking home from the super market yesterday the phrase came to me while looking at the view of Jerusalem from my street. The city is in the far distance, just barely visable before disappearing over the horizon.

The pallette of landscape before me is soft and understated: there is the creamy white of limestone buildings; timid greyish yellow of the dust, rocks, and dry grass; an occasional speckle of sage or evergreen; opaque smog hanging on the edges of pale, cloudless sky. Through all of this, between the rectangular buildings of Ramallah, over the empty lots filled with rocks, dust, and trash, beyond the gently rolling hills, you can see Jerusalem.

Everything is crammed much closer together there than it is here, giving the impression that the city is a very different place than Ramallah. This particular view has more to it, though, of course, because I am admiring the sight of the deeply disputed holy city from the vantage point of the de-facto capital of the occupied West Bank, and because, as I've recently learned, many Israelis (presumably, then, many of the people living in the city I am currently admiring) don't even know where Ramallah is, or that it exists at all for that matter. So, as the thought is dawning on me that this is one of those sweet little tastes of min al-ekher that we can have every day, the beauty is tweaked just a bit by it's context. It adds a new dimension to this glimpse of min al-ekher.

The whole moment lasts about two minutes, the time it takes to walk down the block from the market to my apartment building. I feel the warm relief in my heart that one feels when privileged with a beautiful view: it's like sitting on the ridges of the flatirons admiring the sight of my home town beside the matronly mountains, or ogling at the stunning cliffs of Big Sur along side some of my favorite people, or having the wind knocked out of me while perched on the roof of the Royal hotel one night in Amman, floating in an ocean of twinkling lights.

I'm sure you have your own fond memories of sights like this, of time spent with friends and loved ones and feeling like this, of things that you might say have filled your belly with deep, calm joy, min al-ekher.

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Posted in Home Post Date 07/20/2019


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