We Built This City: Why Offering the Tennessee Driver’s License Exam in Arabic Is More Than Just About Language

On Monday, April 24th, in the evening, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw an article published by Marissa Sulek on “an Arabic man” who had failed the driver’s license test 14 times. As a Coptic woman, I had three reactions: first, there’s no such thing as an “Arabic man.” Did she mean Arab? Coptic? Did she care? Secondly, the comments, if I opened them, were going to be a slew of racist bigotry. Thirdly, I know this story. It’s been a problem for decades. Nevertheless, I opened the article.

The article was deeply deprived of any analytical, compassionate understanding about how this man knows how to drive, that his record is good, that he had a license from other states, that he has studied extensively (shown by the highlighting and annotating of his driver’s license book), and that his English is fluent, and yet continues to fail this test. The issue is a lot more than language — that is lot more than his knowledge of the English language — because even in the video, Mr. Abaza interviews in English, explaining that having a license in Tennessee will get him the job he needs. Of course, the comments section was even worse.

After decades of enduring this backlash, I want to clarify multiple points here:

First, driving is not American exceptionalism. Many places around the world have cars and have driving procedures, which naturally points to the fact that one does not need English in order to learn to drive a machine. To speak to the point about driving in the US, you do not need to be literate in order to drive a machine even in the US, since cars were developed at a time of high illiteracy. Instead, colors like yellow indicate to slow down, and orange a construction site, and red a full stop because most signs are symbols. One would need English in order to read Shakespeare or Thoreau, but one does not–and shouldn’t–need English in order to drive or to understand the rules of driving in the US. It’s not complicated, and the majority of accidents that happen in Nashville are due to speeding and distracted driving (usually distracted by phones), which have little to do with understanding the rules and more to do with obeying them.

Secondly, when one makes these racist arguments to bar neighbors from receiving a driver’s license, one is also demonizing our people when we are the ones who serve you drinks downtown before a Preds or Titans game; when we’re the ones who put food on your table and deliver your packages right to your door; when we clean the halls and schools and buildings. It’s demonizing and patronizing to tell us–who support your lifestyle and your needs–that we should not have mobility and freedom in the South. Being able to drive grants us access to take our kids to the park or Zoo or out to eat for a night after a long day’s work in the factories and warehouses and hotels. Being able to drive means I can quit a job where there is rampant abuse and drive to my next interview elsewhere, and this lack of mobility is something corporations in Nashville thrive on in order to control laborers. Being able to drive means I can start my own business or side hustle. Being able to drive is connection and mobility. To take that away from someone “because they don’t speak English” is cruel and inhumane.

Thirdly, the issue is not a lack of knowledge of English. From experience, working on the ground with Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims, the biggest issue is a lack of time to study not only a language but also new concepts, and also working 40–70 hours a week to pay rent to sustain your family. It’s difficult. Extremely so. It’s almost an Olympic sport to see parents on their day of have their kids quiz them over and over again and then to arrange for rides to and from their job site. I once was with a Muslim mother whose kids side-eyed her and said, “We would have fun in this place if you could drive,” after our conversation about how they want to return to Egypt and be with their friends and don’t see the benefit of this country. On top of this, I have heard stories of sexual harassment and assault from Coptic/Christian women because of their dependency on Uber/Lyft and male neighbors to drive them. Finally, I’ve seen people struggle to get diapers for their babies, pads for their teenagers, or even food because they don’t have licenses and, as parents, suffer anxiety and depression from feeling inadequate to support their children or to make friends or to get to know their city. The cost, then, of this inhumanity in not offering the driver’s license test in Arabic is direct harm to our community members, their family and friends networks, and their ability to support themselves.

I am a big supporter of offering the driver’s license exam in Arabic. The majority of states in the US already offer it in Arabic, and with Nashville being one of the top cities with Arabic-speaking peoples of multiple backgrounds, we too should have it in Arabic. Human dignity and community resiliency should proceed any racist, bigoted, and pro-corporate stances. We built this city. We deserve the fruits of our labor.

Lydia Yousief is a local Nashville person who attended Vanderbilt University and graduated in Middle Eastern Studies. She then studied at University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies where she completed her master’s thesis on Coptic identity-making through pilgrimage. Today, she is a founder and the current director of Elmahaba Center in South Nashville. Elmahaba Center is a nonprofit organization supporting Arabic-speaking peoples through community responsive programming like ACT Class, Tutoring, College Prep, weekly livestreams, diaper banks, food distributions and meals, and community networking.

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