On Naming and Translating in Palestine



In this text, Bekriah Mawasi questions the ways through which the Palestinian struggle for liberation is translated into English, often creating unnecessary equivalences, as well as inadequate adaptations to a framework made by and for others. She brings our attention to the crucial site that naming constitutes, both in the transmission of specificities and in cultivating memory.

Calling things by their name where I live is a strenuous daily exercise. By the end of each day I flashback the language I uttered throughout the passing hours in three lingual modes, making sure they align and accommodate my intention to its purpose. I find solace in language and, with translation, I manage the ghosts of otherness, of receiving and perceiving. The diglossic nature of Arabic teaches me to adapt and look forward to a nuanced understanding fluctuating between crystal-clear thoughts through classical Arabic, and the instant lexicon of emotions that saturate the vernacular. I often find myself designing habits to cleanse my imagination from the redundant derivatives of outsourced information about what I see in front of my eyes, and attracting to the frame what is invisible.

An ecological park named Hiriya Recycling Park as it appears on Google Maps, might seem like a 21st century celebratory green extravaganza where “making the garbage bloom” is a conscious act to save the planet, yet it carries the name of a destroyed Palestinian village which was completely covered by waste. lf a river has a name on a sign planted on its bank, I would usually skip the sign and hope to find the Arabic name of the river online, using my multilingual skills, relying on my family’s knowledge, or looking it up in a book I trust. This might sound like an etymological approach, but in fact it is an act that undoes erasure.

The bizarre common meaning of being a Palestinian relies on unseeing and all the what ifs possible, that in one hand, while on the other I need to excavate history from my ancestors using a fork, turning temporality into a long waiting line in a liminal space where a ‘start-up nation’ is rising.

Some time in the late 2000s, I was on a student bus to campus, when a tall blonde man with a backpack slung over his shoulder noticed my necklace pendant.:

“Cool pendant. What is written on the map?” he asked, in a distinct North American accent.

“Palestine,” I replied, annoyed.

This one word made this total stranger harass me throughout our ten minute ride for wearing a piece of jewelry, while the other passengers kept silent. There I stood alone as if I was standing in the security check line at Ben Gurion airport: a subject to dehumanize on board. To eloquently describe the disruption of the road and the unrecognizable landscape, Mahmoud Darwish writes:

We were kindhearted and naïve.

We said: The land is our land

and no external affliction will befall the map’s heart.

And the sky is generous to us.

We hardly spoke to each other

in classical Arabic, save at prayer time

and on holy nights.

Our present serenaded us: Together we live!

Our past amused us:

I’ll come back if you need me!

(“At a Train Station That Fell off the Map,” 2008)

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Young Palestinian refugees from the al-Jalazone camp (near Ramallah), standing in front of the rubble of the boys school in their native village al-Abbasiyya (Jaffa district), near Ben Gurion airport. / Photo by Bekriah Mawasi (2009).

The protests that erupted in Palestine in April and May 2021 have brought global attention to the events on the ground. Crowds in the streets and screens of New York, Melbourne, and London called to #SaveSheikhJarrah, as families in the Jerusalem neighborhood faced their recurring dispossession. We saw how the discourse about Palestine and Palestinians was paraphrased in diverse media and a spectrum of dialects and languages. We read about Palestinians documenting and expressing their sorrows and fears and what is going on in their everyday lives in spite of social media censorship. Digital media brings possibilities for restoring and reestablishing a collective voice for Palestinians, it brings them together and connects them, offers them spheres where they present and promote their culture and explain their struggle. Despite the systematic oppression reflected in censorship, Palestinian youth enacted several acts to disrupt the technology by which systematic censorship was enacted, such as typing fragmented words in order to mislead algorithm intelligence.

Yet, the malleability of representing Palestine in a digital form can be distracting and disorienting.

Mawasi Funambulist Featured Image
Walls of Jerusalem and the ferris wheel looking from west restaurant pavilion, 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, USA. / N. Bennington, U.S. Library of Congress.

The use of social media to increase engagement has led to the creation of hashtags that mirror political activity taking place in the United States. A hashtag functions as coded language used on profit-oriented online platforms. Its usability is bound to the corpus of posts connected all together to mark an idea; they function as index terms where information is fed by the users of the platform. While Palestinians repurposed the digital tools to advocate for themselves, they borrowed hashtags and slogans from other global movements. When using a hashtag such as #PalestinianLivesMatter, we create an unnecessary comparison between the Black struggle in the U.S. and the Palestinian struggle for liberation. All this is done to seek relevance and visibility in the sea of online content and revolutions on platforms that echoes the oppression against these communities to virtual spheres. But some slogans are and should be immune to translatability. Translating the slogan into Arabic raises a dilemma: would it sound better in classical Arabic or vernacular Palestinian? Would using the same exact syntactic structure of the phrase #BlackLivesMatter be convincing semantically to the Arabic reader? Are we seeking social media engagement in order to be included in a U.S.-centric discourse of other oppressed communities? Is this what solidarity really looks like?

In his work Contribute a Better Translation (2011), Palestinian artist Sharif Waked invites listeners to provide a better version to Palestinian political slogans read by the automated voice of Google Translate services emphasizing the question of subjectivity.

Is the perpetual recontextualizing of Palestine and the Palestinians by any and all means possible the only method to tell our stories and the many Palestines that were created in our imagination?

Ruanne Basel Funambulist
In their work At those terrifying frontiers where the existence and disappearance of people fade into each other (2019), Palestinian artists Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas create avatars from images that were drawn from people who participated in the March of Return in Gaza, reflecting the invisible and embedded violence of representation in the circulation and consumption of images. The work corresponds with Edward Said’s book After the Last Sky (1986), and explores constructed meanings of being and becoming a Palestinian.

The fact of being a Palestinian has been fragmented into diasporas, psyches, and socio-political realities within and out historical Palestine. Palestine is ceaselessly being expunged from its people, off maps, at cultural institutes and universities, from databases and knowledge systems. A slogan used in a Palestinian village in Israel on Land Day which invites people to go on strike—“Down with terror. Be an Arab and Strike”—however apt in its context, might not be of relevance in a Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

Defining Palestine by Juxtapositions ///

Before starting to write this text, I encountered an image of the Dome of the Rock in an outstanding composition titled “Walls of Jerusalem and the Ferris Wheel Looking From West Restaurant Pavilion.” The stereograph was taken at the 1904  Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. I was amused by the wheel as a whirling observation point designed by foreign architects in a land far away from Jerusalem. I however wondered why the name of the building was not mentioned in the cataloging input at the U.S. Library of Congress, despite being the main structure that would make Jerusalem recognizable. This image from a world fair anticipates the ways colonial practices throughout the 21st century have turned Jerusalem into an amusement park of symbols, a gimmick, which determines how natives explain themselves through the new facades settler colonialism has installed. The composition invites the observer to question the nativeness of the landscape, suggesting that it can be transferred or manipulated.

Tracking the genealogy of indigeneity as a concept when talking about Palestinians, I found myself trapped in a language I avoid using.

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“Down with terror. Be an Arab and Strike!,” on a wall in Jaljulia (1976) in Matzpen , the bilingual publication of an Israeli anti-Zionist organization founded in 1962.

Indigenous people were not given this adjective before turning indigeneity into a legal colonial status or a framework for theoretical analysis. An indigenous community is a group of people who were in a place prior to the arrival of new settlers, and whose relationship with the surrounding is rooted in certain ways of life, resources, and knowledge.

Approaching the impact of U.S. political activism on the current discourse on Palestine and the Palestinians, one has to question the reliance on presenting a counter-argument to Zionist justifications of settler colonial territorial expansion and elimination of Palestinians based on an interpretive paradigm used by Palestinian and non-Palestinian scholars in North America. The geographical imagination of Palestine is not merely semantic. It is a battle over collective memory and collective expression of desires and ambitions. It is an ongoing questioning of current social and spatial infrastructures determining the lives of those who are on the ground and those who were deprived of their native nature or are about to be displaced. ■