“I want to learn English.” Fifteen-year-old Areej Ahmed faced her father with tears in her eyes.
“Why?” he questioned.
“Because I want to go to America.” He laughed.
Ahmed did not want to live in Saudi. She wanted to make decisions without a man’s permission, wanted to able to speak without fear. She believed women should be able to make decisions in government. She once read a book about a women in America who seemed happy, and she wanted that. She wanted to feel at home.
“I never felt [that] I was home when I was in Saudi. I am home when I am here, in the States,” she said.
Ahmed spent her childhood in a small town carved into the mountains of southern Saudi Arabia and later the metropolis of Jeddah. But she felt strange in both.
She questioned her life. She questioned her home, her family, her government. Her words became poisonous to the ears of her family members, and her Uncle Ibrihim told her he did not want her to spend time with his children. She would corrupt them.
At 21, she received the King Abdullah scholarship from the government of Saudi Arabia to study in the United States. After six years, she again faced her father for his signature on her passport. If he did not give her permission, she could not go.
“You cannot go to America. What if I die?” he asked his daughter after two weeks of continuous battles about the passport. “You will not see me if you’re in America.”
“I will have your picture, and I will pray for you. It’s not going to matter if you die when I’m in Saudi, because if you die while I’m in Saudi, then I’m dead too.”
With those words, Ahmed convinced her father to allow her to come to America.
Maybe from my position, I can help people to be interested in Arabic culture more, to see the good side of it. And not to think that we all hate America or all want to kill Americans. That’s not true. It’s just a political game that we were victims of. That’s it.Areej Ahmed, Arabic professor
Language, and the words contained within, creates barriers. It creates a thick wall surrounding pockets of people isolated from anyone and everyone who is different. That was a lesson young Ahmed quickly learned. After moving to the U.S., Ahmed ventured west and settled in Denver, Colorado.
One day in 2007, Ahmed was on the bus, taking her normal route home. She sat quietly because she didn’t know English and awaited her bus stop when another man on the bus began touching her. He tried to speak to her, but she could not respond. He got angry and began pulling at the hijab intricately wrapped around her head. The bus driver forced the man off the bus, but he later arrived at Ahmed’s home, with a knife.
She left Denver and headed east, but the fear did not leave her. “I couldn’t sleep, probably, for two or three weeks [after], but still I was not ready to go back to Saudi.”
An older and wiser Ahmed now sits in an office hidden in a maze of hallways. Her clunky computer sits amid homework to be graded and textbooks with the binding on the right side. Arabic letters are printed and scrawled on various surfaces throughout her office. Her short stature seems unimposing, but her size is misleading. Nothing of her personality is small — not any more. Only artifacts of her former self can still be detected, including a sheer charcoal-colored hijab draped over her hidden hair and tightly tucked around her face, perfectly framing her broad, defiant smile.
She learned how to be strong, she says, and how to know herself. Living in the U.S. taught her that. It taught her to ask the man at the post office if he is mistreating her because of her headscarf, the color of her skin, or if he was just raised that way. It has taught her to respond to a stranger calling her a “f---ing rag head” at the gas station with a “good job” and a sarcastic smirk.
She learned how to use anew language for a new culture. While learning how to speak like an American, she also learned about Americans themselves. Through language, she became aware, a process she aims to pass on.
Ahmed lives in language. She began her journey to America with careful words, and now as the director of the Arabic language department for Ohio University and an adviser for the Arabic Language Student Association, her days are filled with language. She teaches the language of her homeland to help students understand a culture so different from their own, as she is still learning to do.
“Maybe from my position, I can help people to be interested in Arabic culture more, to see the good side of it. And not to think that we all hate America or all want to kill Americans. That’s not true. It’s just a political game that we were victims of. That’s it.”
Her message is clear, and it is well received. Jamie Moriarty, a student of Ahmed’s and former co-president of ALSA, said language plays a prominent role in understanding a culture.
“Language and culture are so intertwined, so when you’re learning a language you can see the true culture aspects versus what is perceived,” Moriarty said.
Another student, and also former co-president of ALSA, Alena Klimas said her ideas about Muslims changed as she began learning Arabic.
“You can actually talk and meet with people on a human level, rather than just seeing the news, the media and how terrible Muslims supposedly are,” she explained.
For Klimas, the impact is highly personal. With awe, she describes Ahmed as “the bravest person I’ve ever met.”
“It would break my heart to see someone discriminate against Areej because she is Muslim … She inspires me to be more open to other cultures and to fight discrimination.”
Students like those are who Ahmed believes will make a difference in place she calls home. “Those young open minded people. This is what you need. This is how you make change.” And change is what she seeks.
“I can’t go anywhere because I don’t want to go anywhere. I am willing to make this place a better place to live. I’m willing to take any discrimination, but I’m not willing to leave this country.”
Dignity and language meet in Ahmed’s favorite Arabic phrase from a verse in the Quran. “ولقد كرصنا بني ادمز” “We have favored mankind.” The sound of a language originating from a deeper part of the body enunciates each word as only a native speaker can. She explains that God said he has favored mankind, and he has given them dignity.
“That phrase means all humans should have the same respect and dignity and you should not take it away from them.”
Through language, hate can be born but also destroyed. For Ahmed, she will continue to love America and teach Arabic. She will hang verses from the Quran in her house and an American flag by her door. She will live in the languages of her life.