Let’s file this under the category of “advice I didn’t follow in grad school, but should have.”

There are a lot of think-pieces surfacing these days on the mental health cost of being an academic, and rightfully so. The rise of neo-liberalism in academic institutions has put unseen pressures on academics, provided them with less job security, and has destroyed anything remotely resembling a work-life balance. Many academics have either left their disciplines to work in the private sector or have cobbled together an income from temporary contracts, accepting that they will never have steady, long-term employment at a University, despite decades of training.

But mental illnesses are only one physical ailment on the rise in academics. There are other considerations that are not mentioned as often which can dramatically affect the health and well-being of graduate students and scholars, and can exacerbate existing conditions, including mental illnesses. Below I will take you through some of these issues and some suggestions I wish I had endeavoured to take seriously while completing my graduate studies.

  1. Sedentary Lifestyle: Sitting in front of a computer or texts day after day takes a toll on the body that is difficult to measure. Being sedentary for most of the day can exacerbate mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, and they also increase your risk for cardiovascular diseases. The sedentary lifestyle that accompanies graduate studies and an academic career is tough to deal with as it seems to just “come with the territory,” and very real efforts need to be put into combating the “sitting syndrome”. Standing desks might help break up the routine, or keeping an exercise ball in one’s office to replace your chair once and awhile can help keep you active, even when you have to work. You should also periodically take brisk walks, even if it is just around your department. The movement is good for you and it will help refresh your mind so you can come back to your work with new insights and ideas.
  2. Obesity: Related to the sedentary lifestyle is the risk of becoming obese which is dramatically increased in academics because of poor food choices and a lack of physical activity. A lot of people notice significant weight gain during their degrees and depending on the length of one’s program this can have significant long-term health effects, if not properly addressed. Keep active and pack a health lunch with snacks and plenty of water daily to combat this risk.
  3. Heart Disease: Interrelated to all of this is the risk of heart disease which can be exacerbated by inactivity, poor nutrition and/or obesity. The excessive stress that comes with an academic lifestyle, particularly the pressures to teach, publish and research simultaneously can contribute to factors which lead to cardiovascular disease.
  4. Diabetes: Graduate students especially are known for making poor nutritional choices, especially eating foods that are full of sugar and simple carbohydrates. The sugar boost that people get from consuming these foods results in a burst of energy to help people push themselves harder in their work, but the subsequent blood sugar crash might render your brain useless in a very short amount of time. Over time, these poor eating habits lessen your cell’s receptivity to insulin and blood sugar, leading to diseases like metabolic syndrome and even diabetes. Opt for whole foods as much as possible and limit overtly sugary foods.
  5. Exhaustion: There are no surprises here. Academics and graduate students are the chronically sleep-deprived. There always seems to be one more sentence to write, another article to edit, or another book to read. And without set working hours, it can be difficult to set personal limits, especially when someone is very emotionally invested in their work. Do what you need to do to get to sleep at a reasonable hour on a regular basis. Being exhausted puts you at risk for a host of issues, including exacerbating existing conditions like anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and so forth.

These are only a few conditions which can physically manifest when working as an academic or a grad student. And even though it can get annoying to have every single person you know is telling you to rest, take it easy, and take care of yourself: you really need to take that seriously and put your health first. Your work cannot be accomplished if you are ill, and it certainly won’t get done if you are dead. If you won’t do it for yourself, recognize that the world needs you and your work too.

Take care,

Nakita


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on being the recipient of a Government of Alberta Graduate Student Scholarship. The Graduate Student Scholarship recognizes and rewards outstanding students in their second year of a full-time masters program in Alberta. Award recipients are selected based on all marks obtained in the first year of the student’s masters program. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to continue her studies after her defence is complete. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

The tentative title of Nakita’s thesis is: Remembering the Departure of Moroccan Jews. 


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Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Join The Drawing Board community in congratulating owner and editor-in-chief, Nakita Valerio, on being the recipient of the Sir Guy Carleton Graduate Scholarship in History. This award is endowed by the late Mrs. Agnes Agatha Robinson and is one of two scholarships awarded annually to graduate students of outstanding merit: one in English and Film Studies and one in History and Classics. The award comes with significant funding which will be used to fund her studies in Edmonton and research abroad. Join us in celebrating this monumental honour.

The tentative title of Nakita’s thesis is: Remembering the Departure of Morocco’s Jews: Personal Memories, Cultural Representations, Historiography and Silences


nakita

Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. She recently completed graduate studies and work as a research assistant in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta, as well as a research fellowship on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism for The Tessellate Institute. Nakita serves her community as the Vice President of External Affairs with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC), as an advisor for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life,  and as a member of the Executive Fundraising Board for the YIWCL Cree Women’s Camp. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and is currently working on a graphic novel memoir weaving her experiences abroad with her community work and research.

 

Join us in extending heartfelt congratulations to our very own writer and researcher, Liz Hill, on a successful defense of her Master’s thesis today. Liz’s research was on Madness and Leprosy in the medieval period. In the first year of her Masters degree, Liz received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming).

A version of this article was originally presented by Liz Hill in February 2016 at the University of Alberta History and Classics Graduate Student Conference on the theme of the sacred.

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In his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Bonaventura credits an encounter with a leper with being a formative moment in Francis’ conversion. While traveling, Francis happened upon a leper on the side of the road. Initially horrified by this surprise encounter, Francis remembered his developing spiritual intentions and that if he was to become a soldier of Christ he must first conquer self. He leaped from his horse to embrace the leper, and kissed the leper’s hand as he gave him alms. After mounting his horse and turning back towards the leper, Francis found that the leper had miraculously vanished without a trace. Shortly after this episode Francis received a vision of Christ that called him to the apostolic life. “From that time forth,” writes Bonaventura, “Francis put on the spirit of poverty, the feeling of humility, and the love of inward godliness.” In contrast to his previous loathing of lepers, the converted Francis began to frequent their homes, giving alms and kissing their hands and faces. In The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, a later collection of stories about Francis and the early Franciscan Order, Francis is credited with curing a leper both physically and spiritually. The leper in this story was so ill tempered and blasphemous that none of the other brothers would tend to him. Francis bathed the man and where the saint touched, his leprosy was cured. Seeing this, and the charitable and compassionated example of Francis, the leper repented for his sins and after his death Francis received a vision of the leper’s soul ascending to heaven.

Catherine of Siena also tended to an ill tempered and ungrateful leper. Catherine’s leper was named Tecca and her leprosy was so severe that everyone was repelled by the smell and she had no one to care for her. She was going to be removed from the city when Catherine came to the hospital, promising to tend to her every need and be her servant for the remainder of Tecca’s life. Unlike Francis’ leper, who was moved to penitence after the saint’s charitable example, Tecca became filled with pride, ingratitude, and irritation at Catherine’s humility and charity. Nonetheless, Catherine persisted in her ministrations until the leper’s death. Catherine even contracted leprosy on her hands from her contact with Tecca’s corrupted body. This leprosy miraculously disappeared after Catherine prepared and buried Tecca’s body. Raymond of Capua reports that Catherine’s “hands seemed to be whiter than the rest of her person, as though the leprosy had imparted additional delicacy to them.”

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Lepers appear in miracle stories throughout the Middle Ages, beginning with Christ cleansing lepers in the New Testament. There is a transformation in their narrative roles and the type of sainthood that they help construct around the eleventh century, though. Prior to the eleventh century leprosy mainly appeared as an affliction under divine control, often as a punishment or penance. Miracles that involved controlling leprosy – whether by curing a penitent leper or afflicting a sinner with the disease – were highly effective demonstrations of a saint’s supernatural powers because of leprosy’s natural incurability and biblical associations. The leper’s role was to be an outlet for the saint’s powers, and show the link between sin and punishment, and penitence and mercy. After the eleventh century the “ministering” saint became more prevalent and the role of lepers in those stories is simply to be the suffering recipient of charity. Catherine and Francis are both ministering saints, as are Elizabeth of Hungary and the less well-known St Eleazar. Martin of Tours and St Radegund were earlier models for the ministering saint. Martin cured a leper with a kiss, and St Radegund welcomed a group of lepers into her convent. Some ministering saints are credited with curing lepers, but stories of these interactions emphasize the saint’s compassion and ministration to the material needs of lepers. Rather than focusing on encounters between supernaturally powerful saints and stricken, penitent lepers, late medieval hagiography depicts penitent and humble saints serving lepers out of Christian charity.

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Charitable service is regularly represented in hagiography by acts such as bathing, embracing, and kissing lepers. Martin and Radegund both kissed lepers, but it became a common hagiographic trope along with the increased popularity of ministering saint after the eleventh century. Francis kissed the leper he met on the road and St Eleazar kissed three lepers who later found the stench of their disease replaced by a pleasant scent and their bodies cured. Both bathing and kissing involve close physical engagement with the leprous body. Catherine’s ministrations to the leper Tecca brings her so close to the leprous body that her own hands become leprous. Visual depictions of Elizabeth of Hungary also show her bathing lepers and Jacques Voragine wrote that she “laid in her lap a man horribly sick, which had his visage stinking like carrion” and shaved and washed his head. (The patient’s “stinking visage” suggests that he was a leper since bad breath and smell from the mouth and nasal cavity was a known symptom of leprosy.)

The intimacy and tenderness of these acts is often contrasted with descriptions of the disgusted responses of onlookers, or even by the saint’s own initial negative response to the leprous body. Before his conversion, “even the distant sight of lepers had filled [Francis] with violent loathing,” wrote Bonaventura, and Francis’ initial response to suddenly coming upon the leper on the road was horror. Raymond wrote that one of the virtues exhibited by Catherine in her care for Tecca was “patience [that] led her to support with joy the violence of the leper’s temper as well as the disgusts inseparable from that loathsome malady.”  Tecca is introduced as having been abandoned by her care-givers because her disease had become so unpleasant and smelly that no one, except the saintly Catherine, could stand to be around her. Elizabeth’s tenderness towards the patient with the “stinking visage” was also met with “loathing” and “scorn.” “All shuddered” to see Martin kiss the leper whom he cured outside Paris and one of Radegund’s attendants questioned who would kiss Radegund now that she had embraced lepers, to which Radegund responded “Really, if you will not kiss me it is no concern of mine.”

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These interactions between lepers and ministering saints have a fairly clear didactic purpose. They give hagiographers the opportunity to illustrate their saint’s charity, kindness, and humility. In some ways, the ministering saint can be viewed as a rather “down to earth” and practical model of sainthood. Rather than performing miracle cures they give alms and simply display compassion for the marginal and poor, modeling behaviors that could be emulated by ordinary Christians. This narrative purpose could be just as easily fulfilled by describing interactions between saints and any type of poor, sick, or disabled person, however. The leper has a uniquely untouchable nature, however, that gives more weight to the hagiographer’s demonstrations of his subject’s holiness.

The leper’s untouchable nature was perhaps most acutely manifested in his body, which was characterized as repulsive and gross, but his social status was also defined by untouchability. Recent scholarship has shown that rigid and punitive segregation and confinement of lepers has been simplified and over exaggerated, but medieval society did follow the spirit of biblical laws about leprosy that stated that the leper must live “outside the camp.” The leprosarium provided refuge, care, and community for lepers but it developed because lepers were customarily excluded and stigmatized, putting them in a vulnerable and needy social position. Lepers were marked out from the general population by special clothing, noisemakers that they carried to attract almsgivers and warn people of their presence, and of course by the physical marks of the disease itself. Although some could afford to remain in seclusion at home, most were made to live physically outside of society and their interactions and freedom of movement were restricted by measures that prevented them from eating with the healthy, sharing the same water sources, or frequenting public places such as taverns and markets. The actual institution and enforcement of these measures varied by time and place but the overall social responses to leprosy aimed to prevent contact, both physical and social, between lepers and the healthy.[1]

The socially and personally untouchable nature of lepers made the tactile interactions between lepers and saints a double transgression. There was transgression across the social boundaries that removed the saints, as healthy and often upper class members of society, from the lepers who lived on the margins of society, and there was transgression of normative personal boundaries. As the reactions to saints embracing lepers, and hagiographers’ descriptions of the corrupted bodies of lepers show, the normal response to the leprous body and person was repulsion and disgust. Saints are able to make these transgressions at the extreme level of intimate touch because of their exceptional, and sacred, natures.

Merchant class or noble saints such as Francis, Catherine, Eleazar, and Elizabeth serving members of a segment of society so marginal as to symbolize the entire concept of marginality was a transgression of social boundaries that demonstrated saintly humility and charity. Representing that transgression with an act as intimate and lowly as washing lepers’ feet dramatized this transgression very powerfully. It also drew on the idea that charity and service to the lowest of society was charity and service to Christ. Because Christ’s suffering during the Passion, and disfigured appearance after, were likened to the suffering and disfigurement caused by leprosy. Thus the charity and humility demonstrated by serving lepers had additional significance as symbolic service of Christ.

Transgressing the personal boundary created by the leprous body’s repulsiveness demonstrated mortification of self and transcendence of normal bodily reactions of disgust, in addition to being an expression of compassion and love. Francis’ encounter with the leper marked a turning point in his conversion because it was an act consciously undertaken in order to “conquer self” by resisting his normal, but selfish and uncharitable, revulsion towards the miserable leper. Raymond credits Catherine with the virtue of patience for bearing the disgust of her patient’s disease. When saints don’t struggle with their own revulsion, the ease with which they physically interact with lepers, such as in the cases of St Martin and St Radegund, is contrasted with the disgust of onlookers, demonstrating that the saint already possesses a degree of spiritual love and charity that allows them to be undisturbed by either their or others’ physical states.

Interactions between lepers and saints in hagiography make use of the untouchable leper and the act of touch by the saint to articulate ideas about sainthood – the traits that make a saint, and what the enactment of ideal Christianity looks like. The act of touch itself, however, has significance itself as an act with sacred power. Medieval Christianity made use of touch in a number of ways to express, transmit, and interact with sanctity, including the laying on of hands, the kiss of peace, devotional gestures, ascetic use of sensation (especially pain and discomfort), and devotional touch. Mystical experiences and spiritual relationships were also expressed through images of touch. The use of relics, in particular, demonstrates the perceived power of touch to confer sanctity through touch. Relics, sacred sites, and even living holy people became the objects of devotees’ feverish desire to touch. Hagiographies and miracle books from shrines recount the miraculous healing powers of relics, but even for those who were not sick, touching a relic provided a moment of closeness to the sacred and divine, possibly conferring some blessing or special grace.

The act of touch between leper and saint can be interpreted as a transmission of sanctity, much like that which occurs when a devotee touches a relic. In earlier hagiography that emphasized the saint’s power to heal and the leper’s penitential attitude the leper takes the role of recipient of the powers of the saint’s sanctity, but in the later examples, in which touch becomes most prominent, these roles are almost reversed. The lepers are sometimes healed, either physically or spiritually, but it is the saint who seems to truly benefit from the interaction. Catherine’s leper does not even repent for her ingratitude at the end of her life. Catherine, however, receives a sign of her own special grace by the miraculous cure of her leprous hands. Francis receives a vision that confirms his vocation after kissing his leper. Bathing lepers at least serves their physical needs, but kissing a leper primarily serves to demonstrate the saint’s piety more than to benefit the leper. The leper is the passive object of touch, like a relic, and in the tactile interaction between leper and saint, it is the leprous body that is emphasized rather than the saintly body. The saint is the holy person, and the leper might not even be portrayed as a very good person, but the leprous body has power when it is touched because it is normally untouchable. The leper’s body is in a sense sacred because it is only touchable by the very holy. Through receiving a saint’s touch, it either confers or reveals that individual’s sanctity.


 

[1] It is worth noting that this was not motivated by fears of contagion. Medical theories about the spread of leprosy only developed in earnest in the late Middle Ages and the idea of easy contagion by miasma only began to gain prevalence in the fourteenth century. Most medical sources suggest that leprosy could only be contracted by regular and prolonged interaction with lepers, or by sexual contact either with a leper or with a woman whose last partner was a leper. The leper’s isolation through out the Middle Ages was much more firmly rooted in Biblical tradition and the disease’s moral associations than in medical fears.

Further Reading

Boeckl, Christine M. 2011. Images of Leprosy: disease, religion, and politics in European art. Kirksville: Truman State University Press.

Demaitre, Luke E. 2007. Leprosy in Premodern Medicine: a malady of the whole body. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Orlemanski, Julie. 2012. “How to Kiss a Leper.” Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 3

Rawcliffe, Carole. 2007. “Isolating the Medieval Leper: Ideas – and Misconceptions – about Segregation in the Middle Ages.” Harlaxton Medieval Studies 15.

Stemmle, Jennifer. 2015. “From Cure to Care: Indignation, Assistance and Leprosy in the High Middle Ages.” In Experiences of Charity, 1250 – 1650. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

For the past 5 months, I have been studying the Arabic language at the University of Alberta. This is not my first foray into the Arabic language: I have been enamoured with it for years, even before I converted to Islam. I have taken some online self-study classes, bought books at the local bookstore to teach myself, took a few private tutoring lessons and the like. I even lived in Morocco for three years where I picked up a significant and usable amount of Moroccan Arabic to survive taxi rides and trips to the enchanting Moroccan souk (market). Even though Moroccan Arabic stuck with me and is really the first language I can safely say I speak besides English (my strengths in French are reading and writing), darija as it is called, is quite far from the formal Modern Standard Arabic (fus-ha, as it is known).

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Since I began my Master’s degree in History at the University of Alberta, I have had to focus on learning the Arabic language to further my research in Islamic-Jewish studies, particularly if I want to continue on and do a doctorate degree in a similar study area (which I do). As such, I enrolled in a couple of courses to learn Modern Standard Arabic and it has been an incredible experience, but for reasons that might surprise you, as they most certainly surprised me.

The Camaraderie: The last thing someone would expect when I tell them I am taking an Arabic class is that the class would be full of Arabs. Well, it is. I weaseled my way into the “heritage” class which is full of students who have grown up speaking the dialects of their parents but have little to no knowledge of formal Arabic or how to read and write it. There are three other non-heritage students in my class, each of whom I love dearly for various reasons, most significantly a kind of solidarity in the face of the madness of learning this language. Mainly the class is full of amazing, jovial people who are enjoying learning the language together. The class takes place at night, for two and a half hours, twice a week. Since the class is so long and at a weird time of day, we tend to get a bit delirious together especially when you add the complexities of Arabic grammar concepts to the mix. I have rarely had as much fun in a class as I do in this one, and I have to say that I actually miss the class when there are days between meetings. Part of this has to do with the fact that I am a convert to Islam and I don’t have much of a strong connection to the actual Muslim community even though I do a lot of activist work on behalf of that community. Most of my time, however, is spent with academics or family and both of those groups don’t necessarily overlap with Muslimness at all. The Arabic class, however, is full of Muslims and even though we don’t always mention much about our way of life (deen), just being in close proximity to people who have a similar religio-cultural context as you is more of a relief than I expected it to be. To not have to explain ever micro-action of your behaviour or character is refreshing, even though I normally relish in the opportunity to do so with people who may lack knowledge about Islam.

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Pages of Arabic: I regularly have moments of looking down at my homework or an exam I have just written, or even some extra writing I have done for my professor, and I have to marvel in awe at the fact that the entire page (in fact, pages upon pages) is written in Arabic. How is this even possible? How can I possibly understand what I have just written? And time does not cure the awe either. It just keeps getting more and more pronounced as my writing improves and expands. This used to happen to me when I was studying Greek and I think it is for no other reason than the alphabet is different. I genuinely feel like my brain is being rewired (and it is) because I am introducing an entire new set of meaningful symbols into my linguistic repertoire. And more than that, I can express myself with these symbols in ways that are affective for people who know and understand Arabic. I’m living part of my life in another language; I’m saturated by it. When you choose to express yourself in another language, it is not merely an act of translation. You are adopting and carrying the depths of meaning from that language into your self-expression, and with a rich language such as Arabic, where oceans of meaning are contained in one word or phrase, the expressions are almost limitless – especially when combined with those I have in English and French and Italian as well.

Egyptians are hilarious: This is not news to many people, especially not me. One of my best friends is Egyptian and his wit simply cannot be matched, so this is one cultural stereotype I am happy to uphold. My professor, Mai, is Egyptian and the stereotype holds true and strong for her as well. Her sense of humour is impeccable and she puts up with all sorts of class antics with a smile on her face and a laugh on her tongue. I have come to know a bit more about how Egyptian people view themselves through her (passionate, temperamental, hilarious, lovers of love and beauty, impatient, generous, kind, caring etc) even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to universalizing narratives about cultural systems. I am interested, however, in how individuals within that system talk about themselves and what stories they tell, and especially when this is done in good humour. Frankly, there is a kind of rapport between the heritage students and Mai that you don’t find in other classes and it reminds me of how my students were with me in Morocco – always trying to get away with no homework or leaving early, being trolls in general but respecting their professor to death at the end of the day. Her presence has only fuelled my unnatural obsession with the Arab world in general and the Egyptian world in particular, so I look forward to the day when I can visit the homeland and see these gorgeous stereotypes firsthand. I only hope I can touch a fraction of the language before then to make that experience really come to life.

Using different parts of my brain: It should come as no surprise that learning a new language messes with your head in a good way. You are forced to think about things in a completely different way, especially when the alphabet is something different than what you are accustomed to. Sometimes I find this process painful, especially during vocabulary lessons in class where it feels like every heritage speaker in the class knows everything and I can’t even remember how to spell the first word on the list; however, that kind of hyperventilating suffocation that I feel when learning Arabic is pure bliss. It’s the feeling of being on a precipice, about to tumble over an edge, head-first into the world unknown. It is the feeling of pushing your own boundaries of knowledge and existence, of unlocking worlds within worlds and breaking down our assumptions. I love this kind of ego-slay, especially when it is as humbling as learning Arabic is for me. This is exactly the kind of work that academia should be for people: the kind that makes the boundaries of who you think you are, and what you think your world is, ambiguous and blurry.

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Thinking in Arabic: When I am particularly immersed in my studies, which is a lot these days, I find myself thinking in Arabic. I will pass street signs written in English and imagine how I would spell such a thing in the Arabic alphabet. Or I will try to translate simple conversations or sentences to Arabic in my head. Sometimes, especially because of my visceral understanding of Moroccan Arabic and the fact that I am Muslim, I feel compelled to respond to situations in Arabic, uttering a Yallah or an Alhamdulilah wherever it fits. In Arabic there are just so many key words and phrases that encapsulate so much meaning in a tiny package that sometimes I find I am at a loss for words in English. It just doesn’t sound the same when you see a particularly beautiful sunrise and you say to yourself “All praise, glory and thanks are due to God Alone” when you can just say Subhana Allah instead.

Reading the Qur’an: On that note, my connection to Arabic is not only cultural in the sense that I love Arabic cultures but it is also cultural in the sense of religion. For those who do not know, Arabic is the language in which the holy book of Islam (the Qur’an) was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him for all eternity). One incredible outcome of learning to read and write Arabic fluently is that I can now read the Qur’an in Arabic at a pace that is a lot faster than before (let’s be realistic, I could barely read 6 words every 2 minutes before). Even though Qur’anic Arabic is quite different than Modern Standard Arabic, many principles are the same and the same basic letters and sounds apply, even though there is an entire science behind reading the Qur’an (tajweed). The fact that I can read what I and other Muslims consider to the exact and direct word of Allah (God) in the language it was revealed lessens the temporal and spatial gap between myself and the Prophet Muhammad and brings me closer to my spiritual practice, even if I am slow in learning the meaning(s) of such words in their own context.

My journey with the Arabic language will be life-long and this is only just the beginning. There have been moments of real agony already where I feel like I will never touch the depths of meaning that I want to with the language, where I lose myself in its music, tinged with melancholia and sorrow that it is not my mother tongue as I fail to remember terms or pronunciation again and again. But there are successes along the same path, big successes, things that I could never imagine were possible like those pages full of words I can understand and feelings I can describe. And for now, that will have to be enough until the day when  I will fully memorize the Qur’an while internalizing its meaning and when my own Arabic poetry will roll flawlessly off my tongue, insha Allah.