Languages start at home; so I will start with the history of my involvement with many languages and with the way the use of languages which were not the ones I should have normally spoken or used in writing poetry and prose, affected me. I will start with some information about my own family's background, and its own struggles on the same theme.
My mother was a Greek from Smyrna, when Smyrna, before World War I, was a predominantly Greek city, a Greek speaking community within the Ottoman Empire. My father was an Arab. He was born in Damascus, Syria. At the age of twelve he joined the Military Academy in Istanbul, called the War College. That was close to the end of the nineteenth century. Damascus was a part of the Ottoman Empire, and my father was an Ottoman officer. Turkey being then an ally of the Kaiser's Germany, my father got training in Turkish, German, and French, besides his earlier studies in Arabic. French was taught in the Ottoman Empire for general education, for the same reasons that it was also taught in Russia.
My father, who was a Moslem, married my mother who, much younger than him, also represented a different culture. This was at the beginning of World War I, somewhere around 1916. So I was told. They spoke Turkish together; the Greeks, living in Turkey, all knew some Turkish and spoke Greek only at home and in their schools. Their lives were very close to their church, and culture and religion were intertwined. There were extremely few marriages outside one's culture-group.
The Ottoman Empire was an "empire," which meant it was not a state with a unified group of people. It was an empire in which Turkish was not even the most spoken language. Turkish itself was a language full of Arabic words and expression, because the Turks, being Moslems, learned the Koran in Arabic. There were also Armenians, in the Empire who spoke Armenian, as well as Turkish. So almost everybody knew at least a bit of another language besides their own; but everyone was rooted in their community language and life.
So, as I said, my parents had Turkish as a common language. My mother had gone to a convent school until she was twelve; the French had convents in all the major cities, and the "educated" people learned French. Some French, at least. So my parents understood French, knew how to read and write it. My mother spoke, but did not study, Turkish. So when my father was on the Dardanelles front, close to Istanbul, for quite a while and through a major battle, he wrote letters to her in French. His language was romantic, in the tone of the German, Austrian, or Russian novels of the time. Many years later, because these letters were carefully kept and were my mother's pride and joy, I read them. They could have been written within a work like Tolstoi's "War and Peace": they spoke of love, of war, of life and of death. They were written under the sound of the cannons, in black ink and a handwriting that drew the letters of the alphabet very clearly. They are lost today, because of the too many moves I made in my life, and the carelessness of my younger days.
I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, because at the end of World War I my parents left Turkey and came to settle in Beirut. Beirut was close to Damascus, my father's home. Many years later, I was born in a world totally different from the one my parents knew. The Allies had occupied the Arab East and had divided it; the French kept for themselves a region they sub-divided into Syria and Lebanon. They immediately started in Lebanon, a network of French schools run by French priests, brothers, and nuns.
Thus, I went to a French convent school and was educated in French. The children of my generation saw a country ruled by French people who enjoyed for themselves, and their language and customs, the prestige always attributed to Power. We were taught the same books as the French kids in Europe, the capital of the world seemed to be Paris, and we learned the names of all kinds of things we never heard or saw: French rivers, French mountains, the history of blue-eyed people who had built an empire. The French nuns whose families had just suffered an invasion from the Kaiser's armies hated the Germans and passed on to us the hatred of German...and so on. Somehow we breathed an air where it seemed that being French was superior to anyone, and as we were obviously not French, the best thing was at least to speak French. Little by little, a whole generation of educated boys and girls felt superior to the poorer kids who did not go to school and spoke only Arabic. Arabic was equated with backwardness and shame. Years later I learned that the same thing was happening all over the French empire, in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Black Africa and Indochina.
The method used to teach French to the children was in itself a kind of a psychological conditioning against which nobody objected, the people thinking that whatever nuns do is always good and for the best: so there was a system in all the French-run schools which charged a few selected students to "spy" on the others: anybody heard in class or in recreation speaking Arabic was punished and a little stone was immediately put into the pocket of that child; speaking Arabic was equated with the notion of sin. Most of the students spoke Arabic at home, but when they themselves became parents they started talking in either French or Arabic to their own children, or a mixture of the two languages.