Columns Jeffrey Weiss: My Way to the Egress Opinion

The Arabic word that perfectly describes the uncertainty of my condition

In the Quran, Muslims are instructed to use the Arabic phrase "insha'Allah" as a reminder of divine power. RNS photo courtesy of Aysha Khan

(RNS) Around six months into brain cancer, I try to be honest about obligations and requests. You want me to do something tomorrow? If I decide I’m up for it, I have an answer:

“Inshallah.”

Heh. It’s Arabic, of course. Tied to Islam and Allah, of course. But “Allah” simply means “God.” And the meaning is similar to plenty of other religion-themed idioms.

“God willing and the creek don’t rise” is an American expression, attributed to 18th-century Congressman Benjamin Hawkins. Orthodox Jews may offer “be-ezrat hashem,” or “with God’s help.” The Arabic expression translates directly into “God willing” or “if God wills.”

But I know just enough to understand that it’s sometimes used with a wry grin more than a devout nod: Yeah, sure. I’ll get all over that if the Almighty sets that up. Right. Ubetcha. Maybe.

That’s partly why I use it. Like the idiomatic use by many Muslims, I realize that my commitment is likely to be a bit of “maybe, maybe not” and I like to deliver that, even if the people I’m telling don’t really understand it.

I looked up the use of “inshallah” by Muslims and found more than a few clergy-style finger wags. Don’t use God as an excuse!

I found a column in Arab News from a couple of years ago:

“Apparently, this word has become associated with what is called ‘second-hand procrastination,’ i.e. never getting things done … for other people.” The columnist then gives an example of a person trying to fix a visa problem:

“He hands the required papers to the official, and waits. When he checks the status of the application one week later, the response is: ‘Not finished yet, Insha Allah tomorrow it will be.’ He checks tomorrow and it’s not done yet, but ‘Insha Allah next week.’ He visits next week, hoping his papers are OK now, only for the official to indifferently mutter with his eyes on his monitor: ‘Not finished yet, Insha Allah next week.”

Partly, I think I use it as my own gentle nod at Muslim culture mixing in America.

One of the strongest and most powerful facts about American English is that we’ve grabbed words from any language if it offered some interesting choices.

“Chutzpah” came from Yiddish. “Chaise longue” from French. “Okra” from Nigerian. And “algebra,” ahem, from Arabic.

And yet, anti-Muslim fears in the U.S. push against even the innocent use of a simple phrase.

The New York Times reported last year that an Iraqi college student (and legal refugee) was booted off a plane in California by Southwest Airlines because she was on the phone using “inshallah.”

Sigh.

So if my use pushes such American abuse away even slightly, it’s a small positive to try.

And it reminds me a bit of the captain in one of the songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.” He’s never sick at sea. And never curses with “a great big D.”

“What never?”

“Hardly ever.”

Heh.

Idiomatic “inshallah” matters more to me because uncertainty is starkly unavoidable for someone with glioblastoma. Median survival is about 15 months.

My odds may push me a few months beyond that, but who knows? And while I’ve not had many of the symptoms that many GBM patients struggle with, I do have fatigue kicking in pretty hard on some days.

Naps aren’t a negative, for sure, as long as they aren’t all day and night. But knowing I have limits, unpredictable limits, is in the front of my head as I plan what I want to do today and next week and next month.

I’m thinking about trips. I’m wondering about a new restaurant. I’m digging deeply into the huge batch of new and not yet strongly tested treatments for an as-yet incurable disease.

And by the way, do I wanna join some folks for lunch next week?

Inshallah, my friends. Inshallah.

(Jeffrey Weiss writes the RNS column “My Way to the Egress”)

This story is available for republication.

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Jeffrey Weiss

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