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Double-Edged Tongues: The Limits of Language in a Border-Strewn World

A shopkeeper speaking with a customer in Erbil's Grand Bazaar | Image provided by Rudaw
A shopkeeper speaking with a customer in Erbil's Grand Bazaar | Image provided by Rudaw

In 2019, I received a diagnosis of an autoimmune condition known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a condition I’d never heard of before. Upon returning home from the hospital, I immediately called my brother, who is a biologist, and tearfully shared the news with him. I was overwhelmed. He showed concern for me, taking the time to carefully explain how my immune system was attacking my own body, specifically targeting my colon, before adding, “Be thankful that it’s not your nervous system or your heart.”


His words provided some solace that evening.


As I prepared for bed, his observation lingered in my mind. What if it were targeting my nervous system? Or, even worse, attacking my brain? Would I lose the ability to think? Would I ever be able to speak or write or read again?


There’s a Kurdish saying that’s resonated deeply with me ever since I’ve fallen ill: “You don't realize the value of your feet until you walk on your head.” This proverb gained new significance for me after my diagnosis. Despite grappling with an autoimmune condition, I found solace in knowing that it targeted bodily systems unrelated to cognition and verbal expression. It brought me a sense of relief, knowing that at least my ability to articulate my thoughts and feelings remained unaffected. This has made me to appreciate the power of words even more.


For me, words transcend mere tools for accomplishing everyday tasks and carrying on conversations. Though I’m not inherently talkative, I often find myself engaged in an ongoing inner dialogue. Occasionally, the words that cycle through my mind refuse to remain contained. I liberate them onto the pages of notebooks or my smartphone's notepad. Having grown up in a society that meticulously scrutinizes words, particularly when spoken by women, I've come to deeply appreciate the significance of these long-restrained, inchoate expressions.


I grew up in a town nestled near the Iranian border with Türkiye, welcoming a steady stream of visitors from both countries: tourists, researchers, and businesspeople alike. Most of the people from my hometown have also roamed on both sides of the border, making sure to explore whichever country happens to be foreign to us at least once in our lives. As a result, many of us are adept in Turkish, Farsi, or both. Yet beneath this seemingly harmonious coexistence lies a more complex reality.


I vividly recall my high school days, when it seemed like every morning brought a new student to our school. Usually, these newcomers weren’t familiar with our official language, Kurdish, which also happens to be my native tongue, and that of most of my neighbors and friends. Teachers often became frustrated while explaining their subjects. It wasn’t uncommon for them to inquire pointedly, “Who doesn't know their native language?” I'll admit, I initially shared the same attitude, regarding new students with confusion that sometimes bordered on contempt or irritation.


To help the newcomers reintegrate into their ancestral culture, our Kurdish teacher encouraged each of them to sit with one of us, but after years in exile, they hadn’t only lost their native language, but also their connection to our culture and traditions. Even their clothes reflected Iranian styles. Uneasy and intimidated, many of them chose to stick with one another instead of sitting next to us. This only invited more judgment, ridicule, and ostracism. 


I’m grateful to say that my perspective shifted radically once I got to know Jiyan, a new classmate who later became my closest friend. Instead of looking down on her for not knowing our native language, I soon found myself feeling bad for her and her family, as well as guilty for having made assumptions about her.


A week after she arrived, when we were in 9th grade, Jiyan approached me shyly and asked, in Farsi, if she could sit with me. I understood her and responded with a smile and a nod, saying "Baleh!" which means "Yes!" in both languages.


The initial weeks proved a bit awkward and challenging because we didn't have electronic devices to assist with translation. However, Jiyan brought along a Farsi-Kurdish dictionary, which significantly eased our conversations. Given the numerous grammatical and lexical similarities between the two languages, we quickly picked up one another’s words.


After a few months, we began to visit each other's homes to do our homework together. Stepping into her house felt like entering a completely different world. Initially, Jiyan's mother warmly greeted me in fluent Kurdish, embracing me with tearful eyes: "Jiyan always talks about you!" Her father respectfully shook my hand, expressing how honored they were for their daughter to have friends who spoke their language. The walls were adorned with Iranian paintings and calligraphy, while the floors were covered with original carpets from Kashan City in Iran. They graciously served us snacks and tea in traditional Iranian-style cups and dishes. Jiyan's siblings even welcomed me with faltering attempts at Kurdish.


I never asked Jiyan directly how she felt when she first visited our house. However, I'm certain she sensed a similar awkwardness when she was greeted by my parents and siblings and noticed the differences in our décor and how we served snacks and tea. Our home was furnished in a more Western style compared to the Iranian aesthetics with which she was familiar.

Jiyan had been just two years old when her family had fled Saddam's regime and taken refuge in Iran. While this had spared them from the threat of genocide, it had also brought extraordinary hardship and loss. Everywhere they went, they were shunned, regarded as outsiders, stigmatized.


“In Iran, they called us muhajir,” Jiyan admitted to me, “and when we returned home, we were labeled awareh.”


Both words mean “immigrant.” Both words mean you don’t belong.


Jiyan also explained that although her parents still spoke fluent Kurdish, she and her siblings had largely forgotten the language because they’d been so young when they’d migrated to Iran. Despite settling in a Kurdish city, they were instructed in Farsi at school and prohibited from speaking their mother tongue.


After she shared this with me, Jiyan and I came to an agreement, which was facilitated by the guidance of our Kurdish teacher. She committed to teaching me Farsi, and in return, I agreed to assist her in rediscovering her mother tongue.


Within a year, she’d made significant progress in Kurdish, while I’d achieved proficiency in Farsi. I helped her read Kurdish books, and in return, she introduced me to classical Farsi literature. Through her guidance, I delved into the works of revered writers such as Hafez Shirazi, Ahmad Shamlou, Forough Farrokhzad, Nima Yushij, Sohrab Sepehri, and numerous others.


When you master a new language, not only do your professional opportunities expand, but your inner strength also multiplies. Imaginative windows open, letting more light into your life. Undoubtedly, this applies to almost anyone who willingly immerses themselves in a new language. But for individuals like Jiyan, who had to leave behind her mother tongue, the experience of language acquisition is more complicated. Every shining triumph casts a shadow. Invisible scars accumulate along the way.


When Jiyan first began learning Farsi in primary school, she rapidly became bilingual with the assistance of her friends and classes. She told me how she’d effortlessly switched between the two languages, discussing school with her parents in Kurdish in one breath and, in the next, using Farsi to tell her siblings how much she enjoyed her physical education activities.


However, she also noticed something troubling. While she continued to code-switch every day, many of her peers, even the immigrants like herself, were conversing fluently in Farsi with their parents. Sometimes, her classmates mocked her for her accent. This stirred up a turbulent mix of emotions. She couldn't get her head around the reasons that her parents hadn't made the effort to become bilingual like those other immigrant mothers and fathers. She questioned why her parents, aware of Farsi's significance in their adopted country, hadn't prioritized its acquisition. A sense of injustice began to brew within her heart.


“Looking back,” Jiyan admitted to me with some regret, “I realize I was too naive, if not outright selfish, to fully appreciate my parents and the sacrifices they had made.”


By the time they arrived in Iran, Jiyan’s parents had already lost everything: property, savings, and even their homeland. Exhausted by persistent displacements and consecutive wars, struggling to adjust to another new country, they couldn't afford to prioritize their own education. Instead, they toiled to provide for their children and ensure that they had food on the table and could go to school.


For almost 10 years, Jiyan and her parents lived in the Saryas refugee camps in Kirmanshah region before relocating to within the city limits. As the years went by, Jiyan and her sibling's fluency in Kurdish gradually eroded. Jiyan can no longer pinpoint the exact moment when her Kurdish vocabulary diminished and her word order lost its flow. She remained unaware of the decline proficiency until it had deteriorated significantly.


“It was heartbreaking to grapple with thoughts I yearned to share with my parents, but couldn’t even articulate in my own mind,” Jiyan often lamented. “Speaking Kurdish no longer felt natural. Sometimes, it even seemed un-natural.”


Heartfelt conversations and mutual understanding with her parents became ever more elusive, increasingly eclipsed by cultural and generational divides.


“We all began to feel this constant aching in our hearts,” she recalled, “as it dawned on us that our relationship might never fully heal.”


For me, Jiyan's stories evoked memories of my maternal grandmother, Khuncha, and her experiences with trauma and loss. At the tender age of seven, my grandmother was displaced from her village in West Azerbaijan and had to find one new home after another in a series of small villages in today’s Iraqi Kurdistan, all near the Turkish and Iranian borders. During this time, she became proficient in Turkish while maintaining fluency in Farsi and Kirmanji, her native Kurdish dialect. When she finally settled down and married my grandfather, she acquired Sorani, another Kurdish dialect. Whenever she spoke to me, strange words peppered her speech—words that were entirely alien to my ears. When I asked her about these words, she used to quietly chuckle and say they were "Turkish" or "Farsi." Even after 50 years, these foreign words remained etched in her memory.


During my younger years, I was captivated by her stories, finding her adventures and heroism incredibly compelling. Understanding her and her community’s struggles was a challenge for me, as I had never personally experienced migration to a foreign land. My attention was primarily fixed on the boundaries they courageously traversed and the exhilarating, diverse worlds they explored.


At first, this was how I responded to hearing Jiyan’s stories as well. 


After working with refugees, witnessing firsthand their traumas and scars, and then experiencing migration myself, I came to realize that assimilating into a new culture and embracing a new language can bring both blessings and curses.


Sometimes, the people whom I meet romanticize my multilingualism, praise me for my bravery and heroism, and encourage me to share my story proudly with the world so that I, too, may inspire others. Usually, I smile and nod while wincing, deep down, at these kind but naïve words. For me, these traits are the products of necessity, not virtue. I’m haunted by the memories of what each language cost me to acquire, reminded every time an accent, word, or phrase awakens aching memories.


At the same time, I’m reminded of my younger self, marveling at elders’ stories, unaware of what they truly meant, or how, for some people, every word in an acquired language is a synonym for “trauma,” “loss,” or “war.” I’ve learned not to fault the innocent and ignorant for what they do not comprehend. Some days, when I have the stamina and they seem receptive, I share my story and try to help them understand. Other days, I do my best to let it go, offering up a smile to conceal my scars.


Perhaps the hardest part of all this to explain is that the smile isn’t always false. Or, rather, it is always false, and at the same time, it is always true. Multilingualism can provide empowerment, flexibility, and a feeling of belonging far from home, fostering a positive sense of identity, and these factors do not override, but rather somehow coexist with the traumas imposed by displacement and war.


When reading, writing, or communicating in a foreign language, immigrants often have to reconcile these apparent paradoxes. Striving for this balance has granted me a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being, alive in a world full of color and contradiction. Different languages offer different lenses through which to make sense of the world, so that multilinguals like myself can perceive and sample life’s unending variability through a rich spectrometer of tongues. Sometimes, the associations that each language evokes, whether traumatic or empowering, rise to the surface and exert a noticeable influence on how I process information or express myself. At other times, these associations fade into the background, especially during routine communication or when the context doesn't trigger related memories or emotions. In these moments, the linguistic medium becomes transparent, and the present gains fleeting preeminence over the past. 


Whenever I yearn to deepen or enrich my inner world, I turn to the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Her poetry is renowned for its unfiltered emotion and vibrant imagery, a reflection of her personal trials and yearnings and the societal confines she confronted as a woman and an artist in Iran. Her verses delve into themes of love, grief, oppression, and the intricate nuances of existence. It seems to me that no single translation can fully convey the shadows that enveloped her, the depths of her pain, and I’m immeasurably grateful to be able to comprehend her work, and that of other writers and poets working in Farsi, Arabic, and English, without relying on translations.


Yet there’s a seed of dread within the blessing, too—and not just because I acquired those languages under duress. Ever since my diagnosis with IBD, I can’t help but wonder whether there may come a day when I need a translator’s help to comprehend my mother tongue.


My love and dedication to the study of new languages has had an unintended side effect: it’s put more distance between me and the language, literature, and culture my homeland. I keenly sense this disconnection whenever I translate stories or poems into Kurdish and share them on my social media platforms. Occasionally, native speakers reach out to caution me about potential inaccuracies in my usage of certain words and phrases.


What’s more, when I accompany my Aunt Piroz, who became a refugee in the US in 2014, to her medical check-ups or government administrative appointments, exchanges like this one are common: "Dktor dalet allergy-t haya ba hich darmane?" I tell her, which means, "The doctor is asking if you are allergic to any medication?"


"Allergy chye?" she asks—“What does ‘allergy’ mean?”


I attempt to explain it in Kurdish, in a clumsy and roundabout way, until my aunt’s look of vexation gives way to a smile, which I can’t help but read as sarcastic. “Ah,” she says, “hastyari! It means hastyari.”


Experiencing the gradual erosion of direct communication with a loved one is distressing—not just for me, but for my Aunt Piroz as well. At her age, it represents a sort of cognitive decline. The fact that it’s been brought on, not by any breakdown in her body or her brain, but by a breakdown in the world is immaterial. The outcome is the same. Like an Alzheimer’s patient, she’s forced out of the present and into the past, but the moments in which she’s locked, far from being a long and dreamy “now,” are the very periods of trauma that she hopes to put behind her, terrible memories kept fresh by every miscommunication. For me, meanwhile, these exchanges serve as reminders of the fact, both bolstering and terrifying, that every gain entails a loss, and every loss a gain.


In these moments, when her linguistic limitations leave her aching and alone, Aunt Piroz turns to the only thing that links her to her family and her homeland—ironically, modern technology. Shaking off despondency, she grabs her phone and calls her younger sister, Maria, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sometimes, their discussions go on for two hours or more. For me, it’s difficult to fathom such a long conversation, but for them, the discursive waters are boundless, constantly replenished by a flow of diverse topics without end. They seamlessly transition from their daily routines to updates about neighbors and extended family. If they feel it’s still too soon to say goodbye, they might pivot into the realms of politics and economics. Sometimes, what they say to one another seems to matter less than the language in which they are saying it—the particular syntax and diction and idiomatic constructions and conversational conventions that characterize the Kurdish tongue and evoke, for them, memories of times and places that have otherwise been lost.


Yet not everyone can turn to technology for such deliverance. For my uncle, who’s in his 60s and married to Aunt Piroz, smartphones represents practical aids, but falls short of replicating true communication. Today, he lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, but his formative years were spent in Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan region. There, he used to frequent Erbil’s Grand Bazaar, a sprawling, vibrant, open-air market composed of endless alleyways and every kind of merchandise—spices, clothing, fish, vegetables, sweets, antiques, and gold—all suffused with rich aromas, creating a bustling and inviting atmosphere.


Lost in this lively maze, my uncle easily lost track of time and spent hours engrossed in conversations with fellow customers, locals and foreigners, shopkeepers, and friends, discussing topics ranging from the weather to the prices of goods to their plans for the day.


The contrast to Salt Lake City couldn’t possibly be greater. When I speak with my uncle, he describes the neighborhood he visits as serene and orderly, but he feels unsettled, disconnected. One day, he told me, as he observed his own reflection in a windowpane, he realized that he’s no longer able to strike up casual conversations with strangers in malls or engage in light-hearted banter with people on the street—things that used to come easily to him. Even if he were to master English, he would still struggle to make sense of unfamiliar cultural references, judge which topics are appropriate in different settings, and navigate sensitive or controversial topics gracefully. Words, expressions, and even whole subjects carry very different connotations in English and Kurdish—in any two languages, for that matter. For people like my aunt and uncle, like Jiyan’s parents before them, these constant efforts to learn and relearn are exhausting, disheartening, downright Sisyphean. Google Translate lets my uncle deal with other day-to-day concerns, but asking for directions or assistance from shopkeepers isn’t the same as rich, organic, humanizing conversation.


When we find ourselves displaced to a foreign land, we must submit to its language, just as we must abide by its rules. When we don’t—when we cannot—we’re punished with social isolation: a sentence for the sentenceless, Draconian and without end.


Yet even in the context of forceful displacement, language can offer a path to connection and empowerment, too. Before leaving Kurdistan, I used to work with people seeking refuge in my town from the ravages of the Islamic State. These people—Yezidis, Syrian Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities—are collectively known as internally displaced person (IDPs). In my role as a translator and educator, I became immersed in their experiences, sharing their triumphs and traumas, highs and lows, and arduous, not-yet-completed journeys alongside doctors, therapists, and representatives from non-governmental organizations. I became a conduit transmitting empathy and understanding, transcending linguistic barriers and enabling people to share fragments of the experiences that unite us all in our diverse and disparate sufferings. I bore witness to their trials and tribulations as I’d borne witness to my own grandma’s struggles, and Jiyan’s, but this time with greater understanding, greater hope, and greater pain.


As a displaced individual myself, I become more aware every day of the complex multitudes that languages contain. Language is a bridge, and the chasm it crosses. Language cleaves us apart, and it cleaves us together. It raises barriers, and it dissolves them. It isolates and wounds, and it unites us in pursuit of healing.


Language holds an absolute monopoly on my relations with my family and my homeland so that I live in constant dread of what may happen if my mother tongue deserts me—yet it also gives me access to the vibrant, diverse, foreign worlds that I crave.


Words fall short of adequately capturing life’s nuance, paradoxical complexities, and contradictions, yet words are the only thing that even come close.


Like our bodies and minds, language is so fundamental to human existence that, in its absence, almost nothing is possible. It’s the gift that gives and gives, and it’s the one that may, at any moment, take it all away.



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