A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an

By Yousef Alqamoussi

prayer rug (detail). circa 1988

Part 3 of 9


I’ve always had an odd relationship with words. For example, I can taste them. The taste of particular foods triggers certain words and phonemes in my mind’s eye. It happens in both English and Arabic. 

The taste of watermelon produces “grow.” Doritos Nacho Cheese chips produce the word “one,” and Arabic k f r words like kāfir and kuffār. “Two” and “twenty” are inspired by the taste of my mother’s homemade orange zest sponge cake, as are the words “king,” “pick,” and “kick.” The government cheese of my childhood tasted precisely like “chase,” “charge,” and “chance,” but other store-bought American cheeses like Kraft did not. Frosted Flakes elicits “taxi,” “fox,” “call,” and “because.” With milk, it’s “tiger,” nimr, and munkar. Nestle Kit Kat bars — not Hershey’s — elicit sh k r words like shukr and shākir, but not the English equivalent “thank.” Oil-cured black olives inspire balad and nūr.  Za’atar in olive oil elicits z d words like zāda and yazīd, the English “magic,” and other -ic words like “tragic” and “romantic.” Red meat produces ba’d, “meeting,” and “met,” but not “meat.” Well-salted plain omelets produce “back,” “come,” “return,” and “at once.” 

Pizza is complicated. Generally, the taste of pizza elicits v words such as “move,” “vote,” and “invite.” But my mother’s homemade thick-crust pizzas bring about an additional -tion at the end, as in “elevation” and “motivation.” That’s just plain cheese pizza. With toppings, pizza can produce such a dizzying array of combinations that I won’t go into it. 

To date, I have no explanation for this sensory mystery. There’s a technical term for it: lexical-gustatory synesthesia. However, there might be a clue to its origins in the fact that I am also an anosmiac. I can’t smell and never could. 

In addition to tasting words, I used to combine them into stories long before I could read or write them. When I wasn’t draped in bedsheets reciting Qur’an, I would sit beside my mother dictating full-length narratives which I had invented using characters from my favorite films and cartoons, such as Snow WhiteThe Jungle BookTom and Jerry, and Bugs Bunny. I drew my stories on colorful sheets of construction paper, then brought them over to my mother and dictated the words that she should write. 

“Mama, write ‘The cat chase the mouse!’” 

With little knowledge of English herself, she botched the spelling as she set my words to print. But eventually, we worked together to compose a substantial body of storybooks. It would be years before I learned to read them. 

When my mother wasn’t helping me write stories, she was telling them. My mother is a fantastic storyteller, and some of my fondest memories involve me and my siblings seated at the dining table eating stew and rice while she told and retold a number of fables and folktales. Among my favorites were The Wolf and the Seven Young KidsThe Boy Who Cried Wolf, and Laila wal Thi’b (Little Red Riding Hood). On weekdays after school, she would sit us down and read to us, and every night at bedtime, she would tuck us in and recite the Qur’an for us until we fell asleep. 

Words were magic. They healed me when I was sick, comforted me when I was scared, and guided me when I was lost and alone. The best words of all were the words of the Qur’an, the literal Word of God. Those words could alter the universe. I summoned hope and patience by reciting Chapter 94, ash-Sharh. If frightened, I recited Chapters 113 and 114—al-Falaq and an-Nas. In the face of oppression, I found strength in the struggle of Musa against the pharaoh in Chapters 20, Taha, and 28, al-Qasas. I beheld God’s justice against evildoers in Chapter 105, al-Fil. I began and ended each day with Chapter One, al-Fatiha, and 112, al-Ikhlas. In grief, I found solace in Chapters 36, Yaseen, and Two, al-Baqarah, Verses 153 to 157. 

When confused, I consulted the Qur’an through kheerah. When sick, I recited the Lord’s name through tasbeeh. When thirsty, I drank from the brass cup inscribed with the Throne Verse. If I lost something, I incanted the besmalah and I would find it. We hung calligraphy on the walls and wore jewelry with Islamic inscriptions. When we entered the house, we announced our arrival with “Salam” so that evil spirits would flee. 

I wanted to know these words, to harness them, to command the world with chants that summon courage, comfort grief, and inspire change, to declare them among throngs of listeners and to hear their echoes in the distance. I wanted to be a sheikh, a reciter of great words. 

But I didn’t become a sheikh. I became a gangsta rapper instead.

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