Two Nations, Two Languages, Two Cultures, in One (Little) Land: A Short Preamble, & 2 Translations — of a poem by Tamer Massalha, & of a Facebook status by Ayala Shalev in which she shared Tamer’s poem

A Short Preamble

I’ve written about these things before (see IsraelandPalestine), but now they seem to be getting clearer, to me at least. It’s also clear to me that a two-state solution, with a “State of Palestine” limited to the territories left to the Arab Palestinians since Oslo, is no longer viable, if it ever was. But it’s becoming equally clear to me that only a two-state solution (which need not be based on territorial division) can fulfill the emotional & spiritual needs of the people of the two nations that live (in terrible inequality & inequity) in this little land. & the reason for this is that these people have two different languages, two different cultures, with all their symbols, etc. I see all these images of Palestinian protesters waving their flags, & of Israelis waving theirs, but the crux of the matter goes deeper, & it begins with language, the first of all these things that people need to feel they belong to a nation. & apparently most people do feel this need. Could two nations do this in one state? Perhaps in time, if some sort of cultural autonomy were assured for both.  But more probably, it seems to me, before such a time, the Arab Palestinians will need to feel at long last the dignity & pride of national independence, & Jewish Israelis will need to feel (also at long last) the dignity & pride of no longer being oppressors.

How a just two-state solution could be achieved is still beyond me: I have not yet been able to imagine it, & have not seen any imagining that comes close to offering anything practical. But if I believe in anything, it’s the power of the imagination. & so I continue to contribute what I can to the discourse on this issue — sometimes my own thoughts, sometimes translations of writings by others that I feel add to our understanding of what is at stake. Today I’m publishing two translations — of a poem & of a Facebook status that deeply & very movingly touch on the core of these issues. The poem was written in Hebrew by Tamer Massalha, & was translated by him into Arabic.  (My English translation follows, & can also be read separately here.) I found it on Facebook, where it was shared  by my friend Ayala Shalev, who also wrote a very moving status about her experience of reading the poem with a group of Jewish & Arab adults who meet together regularly to discuss matters relating to their shared life in Israel in Palestine.  I’ve also translated that status, & it appears below the poem. It can also be read separately here.]

The Hebrew original, as posted by Ayala. The Arabic translation appears below my English translation

The Hebrew original, as posted by Ayala. The Arabic translation appears below my English translation

The Muezzin’s Prayer / Tamer Massalha

A voice that sounded like the Muezzin’s praying
called to me between the words of my poem:
Who is it that’s there?
It’s me, Imam, I replied to the prayer,
Your son who’s lost in the web of Hebrew,
who suffers from its curvings and its lack of will
to carry my pain for me.
But who is it that shackled Arabic to you, my son?
And why will you sing in a foreign tongue?
Who is that tore the word from the place
and exiled the Arabic melody?
I replied, my voice a choking rupture in my throat,
The Naqba, Imam.
It was the Naqba that expelled my language
to beyond the border,
and since then, my father, I’ve been tracking my pain
in the foreignness of the Hebrew language.
And how do you lament, my son?
How do you lament? the prayer’s voice asked pityingly.
I wait for the darkness of night, my father,
like an illegal inhabitant in his homeland.
like a ghost that steals in at a checkpoint,
like a food-smuggler in the tunnels of Gaza,
like a worker marching to his daily bread,
like a terminal patient on a stretcher in a line
like a husband and wife waiting for a permit at the Wall,
for a moment of family unification.
And when all the poets of the Hebrew language are sleeping,
my father,
quietly… quietly… my dear father
I gather from their poems the loveliest threads of language,
weave from them the flag of my homeland
and hang it, every night anew,
on an electricity pole.
tamer muezzin arab

Ayala Shalev’s Facebook status

Words, words, words… Mountains of philosophies have been written about words & language & still, the power, the representational character & the meaning of words always remains partly subjective & mysterious, not fully grasped. Something that can’t be defined precisely, something you can only understand something about through examples, a little like God, or love.

Our group of adults for joint Jewish-Arab life here met again yesterday, and together we worked on this poem that is attached here – The Muezzin’s Prayer, by Tamer Massalha. This poem threw me – for whom words are such a major and important part of my world – in so many directions, that there’s not enough space, and in any case there’s never enough time to pause over everything, so I’ll lay them down here, the words that filled me, so as to see what picture they’ll return to me.

A Personal Experience
When we were asked to share a personal experience the poem evoked in us, I remembered one time, long ago, more than a decade ago, when I was facilitating a meeting of Jews and Arabs in an activity of the Peres Center for Peace. I remember in particular how astounded I was, then, that the meeting of Arabic speakers & Hebrew speakers was being conducted in English. How can this be, I thought, it’s ridiculous, especially since everyone speaks Hebrew. “We don’t want to speak in the language of the occupier”, they said then, though all of them could speak Hebrew fluently, and only then I began to understand what this means.

Another Personal Experience
In the group there are people who prefer “to do” than “to be”, & one of the proposals for doing that’s always on the table is the matter of signs on the Israel National Trail. I’m not a trekker, so I haven’t seen this myself, but I understand that all the signs along the trail are only in Hebrew, not in Arabic.

During the talk yesterday the matter of signing came up again, from another angle. The disregard for signing. How on signs throughout the country the writing in Arabic is full of errors, distorted names and incorrect spelling of existing names.

& I recalled yet another angle, how, years ago, for some reason, I agreed to go to a meeting at the Shiloh settlement. I think it was the first time I’d been in the [Occupied] Territories. The landscape was spectacular, a truly biblical experience. & within all this beauty I was astounded to see that all the signs pointed only to Jewish settlements, in Hebrew. Every trace of the Arab villages that exist there was simply erased. I remember how horrified I was then. How was it possible to nullify parts of reality like this, what does it say about the people who do this, & how easy it is to do this by means of language.

“There are words,” some Arab friends said in this conversation, “that we, among ourselves, in our everyday speech, will say in Hebrew. We have no words in Arabic for those things”. A shackled language, Tamer Massalha wrote in his poem. & I recalled conversations I have with my relatives in the USA, in English, which I speak very well, yet there’s not even one time that I don’t have the feeling that no matter how precise I am, it will never be as precise as I can be in Hebrew, my mother-tongue, my language. A feeling of sadness & loneliness & helplessness. True, it passes, it’s momentary, but it’s always there, that moment of knowing that there’s no chance that they’ll understand me truly, in English, the way I intended. Because a language is a culture & a history & a society, & when the language doesn’t develop, when it’s shackled, that diminishes the culture & the history & the society.

Haneen Zoabi
& so the conversation came to this disputed woman. Zoabi, said one of the Jewish participants. Say Haneen, an Arab woman corrected him. & I thought: how is it that she’s insisting on something that to me seems like a diminishing. When I see that in the newspapers they refer to Tsipi Livni as “Tsipi” and Isaac Herzog as “Herzog”, I see it as a classic expression of male chauvinism. And here, it’s the opposite. Another little instance of a different language, behind which is a representation of a different culture. A different understanding of the nuances of the language, which in the best of cases produces friction, and in the worst – war.

Our discussions are conducted entirely in Hebrew. Initially we were strict about translation – whatever was said in Hebrew was translated into Arabic, and vice versa. But as the relationship developed & trust was built, we understood that this complication slowed us down, and we remained with “if something’s not understood, it’ll be translated into Arabic”. And for me, every time I hear them speaking that soft language of theirs – with its sounds that I’ve found pleasant from encounters since I was 18, but I’ve never been able to make time to learn it – for me it always brings sorrow. & appreciation. I respect & appreciate them for their deep knowledge of my language, & am sorry I don’t have such a knowledge of their language. There’s a statement there, in the fact that there really isn’t a common language.

“Death and life are in the hands of language”, it says in Proverbs (18.21). Aha. Exactly.

A new word I learned yesterday. It has no equivalent in Hebrew, as far as I know. “It has to do with music”, the friend who taught me the word explained. “it’s when you fully enjoy music, you’re entirely in the music, you reach a transcendence through music”, he said, searching for words to describe it. & I felt a new field opening up in my mind, & I started to sprout this word there. Tarab. It’s like tarbut [the Hebrew word for ‘culture’], I thought. A culture of music. & in this new field, this connected for me with the well-known saying that the Eskimos have lots of words for snow, because snow is so much a part of their lives. & here, opposite us, there’s a culture that we don’t trouble to know, and indeed we even seem to do the opposite.

This was a powerful meeting. A meeting with others, with other opinions, other ways of looking at a shared reality, a collision of concepts. & nonetheless, & above it all, we already have such a cloud that cannot be defined precisely, that we can only understand something of it through examples. A little like God, or love, or Tarab.

For other posts with translations of Ayala Shalev, see Hope for Palestine[..]? & Identity?


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