As a Palestinian woman who lives between four languages and several cultures, I write in different languages, each time according to the context. Sometimes my choice of language in social media is arbitrary, while at other times it depends on the content and context.
As an activist in the fight against sexual violence in the Palestinian society, and the co-founder of the Tuskuteesh Facebook page (don’t remain silent) – a safe space for Arab women to share testimonies of sexual violence, I use the Arabic language in this context. Sometimes I write about the issue in Hebrew (and English), as the Arab-Jewish partnership is important to me and I understand that many of my Jewish friends still do not know Arabic, so I make efforts to make some texts accessible to them, according to need.
A couple of days ago, I was searching for children’s books in Arabic on the theme of sexual violence for a new corner on Tuskuteesh, and I wrote a short status in Arabic, which I then copied and pasted to various Facebook pages. In one of the pages, “Feminist Discourse,” I was shocked at some of the comments the post received: “You decided to take over here as well?” “What’s this fucked up thing of writing in Arabic?” or, “You’re just looking for attention.” Another comment referred to the fact that I was using a “foreign language.”
The thought that in a group that defines itself as “Feminist Discourse” it was so important for women who define themselves as feminists, and as women who are interested in the intersections between various layers of oppressions and power relations, to silence the non-ruling language and to ignore the contents a Palestinian woman posted – was no less than shocking to me. This attack naturally led me to leave the group immediately, but the feelings of pain and shock haven’t left me since.
I am left wondering about this phenomenon of fear of the Arabic language in Israel and of every language that is not Hebrew or English. I ask myself what leads the hegemony to fear other languages so much in the public sphere? In this context, how does a Facebook post, written in a language that some members in the group cannot understand, undermine to such an extent the sense of exclusivity, control, certainty, and security? Sadly, and regardless of the incident on Facebook, this is a common and widespread phenomenon in Israel. A few months ago, I stood in line to the cashier at the local supermarket, and the woman in front of me was talking to the cashier in Russian. Another woman started screaming: “You’re in Israel. We speak Hebrew here.”
Needless to say, generations of non-Jews have lived in this place. The fact that we speak Arabic should not threaten anyone in any way, nor plant fear in anyone. This fear of the Arabic language – of its very presence – is completely unjustified. The Arabic language is an official language in the state of Israel; more than 20% of the population speaks Arabic. I have the full right to speak, read, write, and dream in this language, just as every individual has the full right to speak, read, write, and dream in her/his language.
The comment that referred to the fact that the Arabic language is a “foreign language” pained me in a deep sense. Arabic is a local, native language, it is the language of all of our neighbouring countries. How did it become a “foreign language”? Years of sowing fear and of incitement against a whole population; years of intentional deletion of the Arabic language from public spaces, and attempts at silencing the language in work places where most employees speak Arabic. The example I brought is a reflection of a much broader reality.
The symbolic deletion of the Arabic language constitutes an ugly embodiment of not wanting to see us, to cancel our existence in the public sphere, and to establish a state of all its Jews. Needless to say that this wish is also reflected in real and much more violent events. But somehow, this silencing in the virtual space, whereby its sole purpose was to say: get out of my sight, you and your language, take your curly letters and just disappear – can be just as disturbing. All I have left to say to those women who commented on my Arabic status and who call themselves feminists is: we are not going anywhere. On the contrary, Arabic is part of your cultural landscape, even if you refuse to admit it. Or, as Maya Angelou writes: “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
p.s. What I didn’t include in the original article in Hebrew, originally published in Haoketz (with the Arabic translation), is the fact that my novel, Haifa Fragments, includes in it scattered words and sentences in Arabic. In her review of the novel in The Independent, Lucy Popescu writes: “Haifa Fragments is written in English and Khamis repeatedly uses Arabic or Hebrew words when they are unnecessary.” It was maybe unnecessary for the reviewer, maybe it jammed the flow of the text for her, but for me, it was an act of a political statement; to give presence to the Arabic language when it is being systematically deleted from every public sphere.