I found myself sitting in a bare-bones classroom in an old house in a suburb of Sana’a, eight thousand miles from home, twenty-one years old, and suddenly thinking of the Talking Heads lyric, “This is not my beautiful life.” I was there with twelve American Peace Corps Volunteers and Fritz Pipenburg. Fritz was a German follower of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon and also an expert on Arabic grammar.
The sun was falling inevitably toward the gap in the mountains that ring the high-plateau city at 7,800 feet and its light slanted through the traditional stained-glass half-moon shaped windows high in the wall. My head was aswirl with the deluge of new experiences I had subjected it to in the preceding six weeks. New friends, new food, new country, new language, new life.
Fritz was telling us that when we got to the “willages” people would speak ungrammatically, but that we should learn proper Arabic anyway. On the board he had written out a conjugation for the verb “to know”—a’aref. I had been listening to Fritz for four hours and my brain was simply unable to absorb one more speck of knowledge.
Rather than focus on Fritz, my eyes fixed on a shaft of red light that was angling through the space between us. He erased his sloppy Arabic—I know, you know, he knows, she knows, we know, you know, they know—and the red shaft was brought to life with a swarm of swirling ex-words dancing a modern pink composition in mid-air, all twirls and sudden mass movements one way or another, like a school of fish or a flock of birds all responding to the same stimulus.
For just a moment I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open and I was seeing chalk dust swirl through sunlight or if I had nodded off and was somehow able to see into my own brain. It was a moment of such perfect one-to-one correspondence between exterior and interior states that I felt as if the membrane between me and not-me had dried up and flaked away to join the gyrating words before me in their dance.
Fritz must have seen the look on my face and so he called on me to conjugate the verb “to know” in the present tense. Without thinking, I gave him the correct answer. I pulled it out of thin air.