“There really isn’t a common language”: An Englishing of a Facebook status by Ayala Shalev

[I was moved to translate this status posted yesterday by my friend Ayala Shalev, 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.  In it she also shared the poem “The Muezzin’s Prayer” by Tamer Massalha, which he wrote in Hebrew & later translated into Arabic. I’ve also translated that poem, & my translation can be read here.]

ayala profileWords, 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.


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