United Arab Emirates

Heyo! I’m Lauren, a high school sophomore who loves reading too many fantasy novel series, listening to music, and eating a probably unhealthy amount of ice cream.

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كظم - Kzem

October 26, 2020

English, that ubiquitous language with sesquipedalian words and contradictory grammar constructions a-plenty, has many words for calmness and restraint. To name a few, there’s stoic, self-controlled, placid, level-headed, temperate, and serene. These words bring to mind unflappable pre-school teachers smiling forgivingly as toddlers fling wooden blocks about and scream unfortunate phrases they’ve picked up from their parents at each other, or perhaps ancient sages with long beards and a certain serenity achievable only by a near-century of meditation in quiet woods. Yet, these words restrict themselves to a single area of one’s general peaceful temperament.

Ask for a single word describing a temperamental ability, and English falls short. With an appalling doink!, English skips along the linguistic pavement, trips over this pebble, and flops on its face. Classical Arabic, however, the written language of the Middle East, with its gorgeous inflections, endless synonyms, and convoluted grammar, lends itself generously. Soaring over the pebble into the brightly lettered sky, Arabic spreads its wings and selects a striking word—كظم.

Call upon Google Translate, the bane of multilinguists and the sore victim of Internet memes, and the program fails miserably. Kazem, the discombobulated algorithm spits out. Anglicized? Yes. Explained? No.
How would I explain الكظم? I’ll begin with its sound. The soft kaa, elongating itself like a cat stretching languorously in the evening sun, melting into the murmuring thaa, a delicate lisp slipping off the tongue like the rustle of a tulle gown. The gentle mm, ending the word with the tenderness of a mother’s farewell. مع السلامة, عزيزتي. Goodbye, my dear. A beautiful word for a powerful ability.

So what does it all mean? A contrastingly clumsy English phrase explains it: the ability to restrain one’s anger. Melodically, Arabic answers with a story from Islamic history: كظم الغيظ (Kzem Al-Gheeth). It tells of a mighty, but kind-hearted Caliphate who instructed his servant to bring him water. The servant accidentally dropped the vessel and injured the Caliphate’s face. The terrified servant expected the Caliphate’s impending rage and a punishment. Yet, the king showed كظم. Restraining his immediate anger, the Caliphate not only forgave the servant, but set her free.

In this world of call-out culture, vicious judgement, and overwhelming negativity, I think we all need a little كظم. Our minds are roiling whirlpools, tossed up in furious torrents of volatility. We are scared, anxious, desperate, and hungry for hope. We represent the epitome of fragility, close to shattering, weighed down by the burden of stress and fear and worry, ready to lash out at those around us. But what if we took a breath? What if we calmed our whirlpools, turned them to tranquil lakes rippling with the wind? What if we showed كظم?

Of course, doing so is never easy. When we’re overcome with fury—cheeks flushed, foreheads knotted, fists crumpled tight—it’s hard to see through the haze, and even harder to swallow it down, smile, and breathe. كظم  is hard, but it isn’t impossible.

Like the kind-hearted Caliphate, we too can pause a moment. Breathe. Watch our whirlpools settle down as a smile, small at first, flits across our faces. Forgive. كظم.


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  • October 26, 2020 - 10:53am (Now Viewing)

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  • Emma Gold

    This is beautiful! My only question: would “mercy” come close to its English counterpart?

    about 2 months ago
  • therisingwriter

    Wooowo...this is really great Lauren! the examples and descriptions you used have let it stick in my mind, 'kzem'. I like the word and the action it means as well...restraining anger is something I have trained and always doing because anger is something awful if not controlled!
    Great Job Lauren!

    3 months ago
  • mirkat

    this is so beautifully written! wow. The way you described this word made so much sense and is so well-written. I've never read/spoken arabic, but i can read/speak some hebrew and i kinda recognize some of the letters if i squint. huh, interesting. <3 <3 <3

    3 months ago