If you have ever thought that multiple sclerosis is hard to understand, or to describe to others, try explaining it to an exchange student from Saudi Arabia.
Mamdouh has been living with us for about a week and I figured he must have noticed by now my halting gait, my general incoordination, my recurring moments of cognitive breakdown. I decided to tell him all about it over a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
This is where the trouble began. Lost in translation from the outset. I had hoped that the words multiple sclerosis, or even the initials MS, would have a sufficient world-wide following to count as a given, an automatic beginning, a linguistic springboard to a more complete comprehension--like the general agreement which exists with terms such as OK, or AIDS, or JLO.
No such luck. The utterance of these two words, as far as Mamdouh was concerned, might just as well have indicated that I had something stuck in my throat and was trying to schpit it out.
Next I tried the word disease. I believe he understood this word. But the grasp of meaning where one word is concerned, as I quickly realized, cannot have extended to an understanding of why I was sitting there pointing to myself and saying disease, disease. If anything, he was probably wondering whether he should get in touch with his advisor at the exchange program.
Forging onward, where any sane Saudi might have wisely opted for silence, I began to caress my own legs and ankles, explaining that I could not feel them (even, ironically, as I sat there feeling them). They are numb, you see? Numb.
Say that word enough times and pretty soon it doesn't even make sense in English anymore.
Did I give up? Of course not. It was time now to talk about my malfunctioning brain. Leaving my numb legs behind, I pointed to my head, sort of forward from the ear and toward the temple, as one would do in positioning a pistol.
I was not only continuing to fail in my efforts, but was doing better at it all the time.
I cannot say that Mamdouh ever came to understand that I have a disease called multiple sclerosis. I do believe, however, that he did at least come to understand there is something wrong with me.
Surrendering at last to the uncrossable gulf, I took out my pack of Camels, shook out two, and together we smoked, united at last in a fellowship of bad habit. Perhaps one day I will end up with a disease that is more familiar internationally and thus avoid all this trouble in translation.