Reading: “In Search of a Lost Ladino”

Marcel Cohen’s In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura is a short but powerfully profound text on the mental anguish of living with (and in) a dying language, and more generally on life with a complex linguistic and cultural identity. It raises very perceptively questions of identity and belonging in historically turbulent times, at the interface between East and West and religion and modernity. It is also a very little-known text, which I think is a great shame. If any of those topics are of interest to you whether professionally or personally, then read it. It won’t take much of your time, and will give you in return much to think about, in a gentle and very insightful way.

Here are some short excerpts from the English translation (published by Ibis). Longer excerpts from the original French are available here. Give it a try if you were ever an immigrant in a new land and a new tongue; if you ever tried to be intimate with a person who does not share your native language; if you can only partially speak with and understand some members of your family; if the future of your culture is not guaranteed; and if you're just interested in a very short but profound text on the (linguistic) human condition.

“You can’t imagine, Antonio, what the death agony of a language is like. You seem to discover yourself alone, in silence. You’re sikileoso (sad) without knowing why”.

“Antonio, to rediscover my words I have to close my eyes, and many expressions come back to me without my quite knowing how. What can I say to you with la yaka – “the cucumber’s ass” (“that doesn’t come to la yaka”, my grandmother used to say), which made us burst into laughter, or with the expression “son of a mamzer” (bastard) and all the things that make you “lose your mind”… Words stampede. They vanish as quickly as they arise. But what else can we expect of them? Really, they only tell us about smells, the distant sweetness of dondurma, of keftikas, of all those home-cooked delicacies. Ultimately, they just reflect nostalgia and the tragedies of the past. As soon as I glimpse them, words escape and die far away, like clouds in the sky.

The mother tongue: that’s what we called what we spoke at home. Will this mother ever die, Antonio? In her, our past grows old; in her, we are completely present to ourselves. And, if words are our true domain, how could they not also be part of our future? How could we imagine that we could one day become mousafires (strangers/visitors) to ourselves in our own tongue? In our deepest beings we know very well that things don’t die, or at least not the feeling that we have for them.

But when, day by day, this language crumbles, Antonio; when, in its death throes, it slowly dilutes in the mabul (flood), and, alone, in your room, you have to close your eyes to exhume a few scraps; when there is no longer anything to read in this tongue and no friends to speak it with; when the woman you live with looks at you like a sick man who is slowly losing away what remains of his sanity, and you feel obliged to forget a little more of yourself; when, staring at her on certain days, the past coming back at you in fits and starts, you feel like a complete stranger, having never really shared a roof with her because an ocean separates the two of you; when, despite all your efforts, you are unable to reveal more than a part of yourself – then, Antonio, you must admit that death speaks through your mouth”.