To Speak with Many Tongues at Once

The poetry of place—and placelessness.
By Omar Kholeif

I have always been an immigrant, wherever it is I have lived in the world. I left Egypt, where I was born, at three months of age. I lived in the West as an Arab infant whose family had imposed exile. When I returned home as a teenager, I was a stranger to my own extended family who scoffed and giggled at my polyglot Arabic accent. Now that I am living in the United States again, I realize that I have been code-switching my whole life: not only speaking, but also writing in a foreign language, a tongue and vernacular that is not my own, constantly attempting to assimilate. Being a millennial diasporic Arab, I have watched the world devour the image of my people and their collective identities on many stages. I've been privy to everyone from presidents to school kids spewing bigoted rhetoric, seeing the Arabic-speaking world conflated with the violence of religious extremism, a condition created and spoon-fed to the public by political commentators who have perhaps withdrawn themselves from their own complicity in making history.

I've always longed to find a native polyglot like me, someone who could discuss the mutilation of the Arab image in the Western consciousness, with whom I could talk about Putin and Paris, Netanyahu and Nagasaki, Tehran and Tel Aviv.

Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.