Ahmed Fouad Negm: Important Announcement

The Egyptian giant Ahmed Fouad Negm passed away five years ago today. Below is my rough translation of a poem, “Bayān Hāmm,” * a poem that was composed for recitation, not song. When Negm performed it, he liked to mimic the public speaking style of Anwar Sadat and there was no mistaking who the butt of the joke was. It is replete with references to the trips Sadat made to Iran in 1976 to visit his friend, the Shah, and filled with the kinds of linguistic gaffes — overcorrections, grammatical infelicities and surprise leaps from register to register — for which Sadat was famous. I’ve tried to capture the brilliance of Negm’s language which captures all the “mistakes” of an incompetent (or stoned) public official.

Negm was arrested in the fall of 1977 for a performance of this poem he gave at Ain Shams University. He was initially charged in a civilian court with defamation and incitement. The defamation charges were quickly dropped since, to prove them, the aggrieved party — Sadat — would have had to come forward to show that he was the basis for the ridiculous figure of Shahhata al-Mi‘assal. Sadat declined to do this, depriving history of great theatre.

The eminent Egyptian historian, Salah ‘Isa (who passed away last year at about this same time), wrote the story of how Negm and five others were eventually convicted in a military court on charges of fomenting rebellion and insulting the President of the Republic. Before sentencing, however, Negm went into hiding. Negm remained a fugitive for more than three years before he was finally caught. Here’s the poem that caused all the trouble.

Important Announcement

Upsidedownistan here.

Your sweet ole radio station.

Coming to you from Cairo and Kurdifan

From every Arab country and Japan

From Venezuela and even Iran

And any country open to the rule

Of tourism à l’américaine.

Tumblestan here.

Your good ole radio station.

We present to you, in every language

Plays and movies and all the arts

And press and speeches and televisionings

And mosque sermons, cheese and olives.

We show up in your home uninvited, riding on every airwave

Studying and grasping all issues

No matter the occasion, we’re bright and loud

No one listens, and no one cares

Listen or not, it doesn’t matter to us

You see, we’re the types who get paid either way.

Keep to yourself and don’t make us give you a lashing with our pen and tongue!

Somersaultistan here.

Your good ole radio station.

It pleases us (even if it doesn’t please you)

On this occasion (to which you haven’t been invited)

To bring to you—and don’t be disgusted—

Shaḥḥāta al-Mi‘assal, totally unvarnished.

The Chief Broker of the Developeding World

Educator of Croupiers

Destroyer of Farms, Pawner of Crops

And—may your wishes come true—Commander of Armies

You can’t deny it, can’t say you don’t know him.

Can’t say you’ve never heard of him.

Shaḥḥāta al-Mi‘assal, beloved by all hearts

He gets out the stains, the worries and fears,

He tokes, he snorts, he pops pills

You won’t understand him as he blathers on

Understand, or not—we don’t care.

Because you understand, even if you pretend you don’t.

You can deny it and swear it, but I tell you:

Don’t bother. You’ll give us both a headache.

Upsidedownistan here.

Your good ole radio station.

Because what was hidden has been revealed, clear as day

The issues are out for all to see

Stories have been told, even in print

About the smuggling and shirking and about this and that

About the influence peddling and deceit

That have appeared in the city like a flood

Sinking boats and inundating fields.

More boats are yet to sink.

And the crisis in housing, and the crisis in public safety.

While some eat well off a hungry world

The place is filled with a stench of conspiracy

And planning treason with the Americans

To slaughter the people and burn down the neighbors

People are chattering about it, so an announcement is in order.

As the ears have reported to us

For this reason and that, and the other one, too

We present to you the sugar doll and horse

Shaḥḥāta al-Mi‘assal, and this announcement.

Upsidedownistan here.

Your good ole radio station.

In the name of God.

A peace upon you. And salmon and bananas.

As far as everything’s going, it’s all hunky dory.

O Brethren, O Brothe…

Here is my announcement, as to what follows:

Everything is A-okay.

And all that talk that’s going around is just talk.

Verily, Don’t be impatiently! And don’t worry—

It’s the stuff of small-minded people, and I won’t accept it!

Nothing is wrong.

I swear most solemnly, most solemnly thrice,

There is nothing wrong, nothing at all.

And know this: even if there was something

There’s nothing.

There’s no reason to talk about it or nag me.

And shame on kids

Who go on with their churlishness

Making me pay them attention, forcing me to debate them.

By my very nature, I am against big dealers

For the sake of free competition and neighborliness.

But, it is not in my character

To expose the scandal

Of an associate of mine who’s pocketed a few bills.

Everybody puts things away for themselves

The new ones do it, just like the old ones did before.

So People: Zionize yourself and go with the flow!

Have a good toke and a good evening.

My good Iranian buddy, Prince Bazarmīṭ

Wrote me this year to invite me to a big party,

I accepted, of course, and we went to the bash,

It was the kind of banquet that only happens once.

My God—what fried foods, and the puddings!

What stews and platters!

To be frank, my head began spinning

From all the luxury and Persianate trimming.

There, for instance, when you drink second-hand dregs

They serve it with sweetmeats and veal pastrami as appetizers.

Over there, I never saw anyone envying anyone

Or people insulting anyone

Who happened to purchase two farms on the cheap

Because he was such a smart entrepreneur and developed them into housing.

After the feast we collected our presents

Silver plated and gold plated, and faience, too.

And of course, my good buddy the Prince Bazarmīṭ

Told me something

Which I’ll tell you about

at some appropriate time.

Some punks will come after me without cause.

Getting up in my face, sitting to judge me.

That is socialist resentment, and I will not tolerate it.

If they were my sons, I’d ground them at home.

Talk about wheeler-dealers, Talk about whoring—

Fake news and tired old slogans!

They want to turn the whole country into chaos!

They have long wanted me to leave the country

But I will not give it up, or let security slip

Not by the police, nor by the public prosecutor.

O People, do me a solid and hang tightly tight!

Stay the course and the money will come.

Eat and drink according to what comes to you,

Let yourself drown in a sea of slaves and slave-girls,

Paint your life as you like

As brothels and palaces fill the streets.

Say your prayers and thank God

For the blessings of garbage and sewer overspills.

In closing, peacely,

And finally, in terms of words,

Necessitarily, calm and harmony must prevail

Or else, and if not, I will smash it to bits, or else…

I will take all my money and leave this country at oncely!

A peace upon you, and salmon and bananas,

By my authority as president, and father and husband.


* This translation is based on a recording of the November 14, 1977 performance of “Bayān Hāmm” at ‘Ayn Shams University. Negm composed and performed versions of the poem in the first months of 1976. These, along others, exist in multiple guises across different print and electronic media. The print version closest to this transcription can be found in Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm, al-A‘māl al-kāmila (Damascus: Dar Tlas, 1986), v. I, 133-158. An earlier print version of the text can be found in: Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm, Bayān hāmm: ghanā’ Shaykh Imām; dirāsat al-Ṭāhir Aḥmad Mikkī (Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1976). For more information on Negm’s legal troubles with this poem, see: Ṣalāḥ ‘Īsa, Shā‘ir takdīr al-amn al-‘āmm: al-milaffāt al-qaḍā’īya li-l-shā‘ir Aḥmad Fu’ād Najm (Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2007), 205-242.

At the Ramparts of the Human

Here my words and bear witness to my vow. Night gathers and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realm of men.

— “The Oath of the Night Watch,” Game of Thrones.

At this very moment, large, well-organized caravans of migrants are marching towards our southern border. Some people call it an “invasion.” It’s like an invasion. They have violently overrun the Mexican border. You saw that two days ago. These are tough people, in many cases. A lot of young men, strong men. And a lot of men that maybe we don’t want in our country.

— Donald Trump. November 1, 2018.

Turns out I wasn’t wrong to suggest back in the summer that there were deep affinities between Israeli and American border rhetoric and the apocalyptic imaginary of contemporary Hollywood. When I wrote, I was grappling with the border-wall imaginary around Gaza and how it worked to transform (in image and story) one of the most destitute and desperate societies of human history (contemporary, besieged Gaza) into vicious enemies who were not quite human. The more I thought about it, the more I saw how it resonated with genre narratives (from sci-fi and fantasy to Westerns) about the frontiers of humanity. Game of Thrones meets World War Z meets Lord of the Rings meets The Searchers.

In both news reporting and fiction entertainment, we now regularly encounter images of walls erected to protect beleaguered groups of heroes from invasion by masses of humanoid monsters in the form of zombies, orcs, White Walkers, and unruly natives.


At the time, I had not yet discovered The Green Line, the fash podcast from Border Patrol brass Brandon Judd, Chris Cabrera, and Art Del Cueto. Thanks to an especially brilliant episode of Intercepted, I learned about this podcast, which is sponsored by Breitbart, as well as a knife manufacturer, a boot company, and a Texas physical therapy provider corporation that specializes in workman comp cases. The hosts play up the fact that they are leaders in the National Border Patrol Council, a right-wing frontier militia that poses as a labor union for federal employees.

Day after day, the hosts bring the voice of nativist ressentiment and weapons-positive chauvinism to a discussion of American politics. They call for wider gun proliferation and criminalization of non-citizen residents. They also, unsurprisingly, advocate a cruel if familiar military strategy against refugees fleeing the ravages of US-backed dictators and death squads in Central American. If you ever wanted reasons to abolish the Department of Homeland Security, you’ll find them here.

What’s fascinating and disturbing is that this podcast very consciously broadcasts from the ramparts. Yes—the hosts see themselves as the Night’s Watch, as cosmic guardians not just of a particular civilization, but of humanity itself. Westeros is real to them, and so is the Wall. Take a listen to this 2016 episode of the Green Line or any other and judge for yourself.

Do Border Patrol leadership imagine they work for Jon Snow? How many patrolmen really believe that Honduran refugees are White Walkers? Shockingly, some do.

Sadly, Herzl and Sobchak were correct to point out that if you will it, it is no dream. For those with enough will and weaponry, the wall between the imagined and the actual is never too thick or too high.

Obviously, science fiction doesn’t cause zombie apocalypses. But apocalyptic-minded armed thugs, with the full force of the state behind them, might just act on their fantasies in this actual world.

Our Cherry Orchard

Washington, DC is supposed to be famous for its cherry trees. Each year, there is a very official National Cherry Blossom Festival on the Mall at which we are reminded that some of the first trees were a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo in 1912. Today, there are colorful celebrations of the trees, complete with kimonos, parades, and a ceremonial lighting of an old stone lantern. The Tidal Basin becomes, for 10 days, a pilgrimage site.

By design, cherry trees have proliferated in the leafier neighborhoods of the District’s upper northwest since even before the date of 1912. Even so, I am not sure if these cherry orchards will survive. I look around, and I can’t help notice that there are a lot of dead ones this year.

If you walk on the sidewalks in the District, you will have noticed the confusion of the cherry trees these past few autumns. Without fail, during warm spells in November or December, many of the trees begin to bloom. Thinking it’s spring, they put out gorgeous pink and white blossoms along barren, dark branches. Not a bee around. The frost comes, as it does, a day or so later and the tiny withered flowers fall onto the carpet of brown and yellow leaves. The trees go back into hibernation. Having already sprung their spring, they have little to look forward to come March.

I haven’t lived here long enough to say how long this has been going on, but definitely in my neighborhood for the past five years, at least. This year, something else started to happen. Some of the cherries in my neighborhood failed to bloom this spring. They also failed to leaf. By May, their striped-bark trunks and barren twisted branches were conspicuous among the burst of green all around. By June, owners were sawing off the more grotesque limbs. Then the city came through and sprayed the tell-tale orange mark on curbside cherries: dead tree; vector of fungus and insect infestation; for removal.


On the way to work today, I passed five cherry tree skeletons like this one. They’ve been like that all spring and summer, shouting “mortality!” while every other plant exploded with green life. They weren’t the only kind of trees to die this summer. In the local woods — Battery Kemble, the C & O Canal, and Great Falls — we saw lots of trees come down this summer. Tulip trees and beech trees in soil so soaked that they toppled over in June’s high winds. I saw a line of hundred-and-fifty-foot oaks cut in half during a storm in July.

But the cherries were different. They died before spring came. By late summer, their owners had stripped the limbs off each, leaving only the trunk and flat stumps where thick branches used to be. These weren’t saplings. These were established trees, 20+ years old. They were well cared for, some of them the centerpiece of well-groomed gardens. But they all chose to die at the same time, which must have been sometime after they went into false blossom last fall.

The average lifespan of the yoshino cherry—which, along with the kwanzan, is the dominant cherry cultivar in the District—isn’t much longer than 20 years. So perhaps this all routine circle of life stuff, as natural as the annual festival that celebrates the blossoms?

There is another chapter in the history of the cherry trees, told here by the National Park Service, which suggests that there is little in this circle of life that is natural. In brief, the 1912 gift of cherry trees was a replacement for an earlier gift. In early 1910, Tokyo’s gift of 2000 cherry trees arrived in Washington, DC.

 6 January, 1910: Arrival of cherry trees in Washington, DC. [photo: National Arboretum]

6 January, 1910: Arrival of cherry trees in Washington, DC. [photo: National Arboretum]

But, on closer inspection, the trees were found to be infested with insects and nematodes.

 Inspection of cherry trees [photo: National Arboretum]

Inspection of cherry trees [photo: National Arboretum]

Within weeks, the trees were burned to prevent agricultural contamination.

 28 January, 1910. Burning of diseased cherry trees. [photo: National Arboretum]

28 January, 1910. Burning of diseased cherry trees. [photo: National Arboretum]

As much as we should celebrate the 1912 importation of cherry trees, we should also remember that it was part of a very complex, global history of immigration, transportation, infestation, and contamination. In this regard, we might similarly recall that these first cherry trees were imported into DC at the very same moment that the dominant tree of the region—the American chestnut—was killed off by a fungal blight that arrived with another species (also imported from Japan). Not long after, north American elms were ravaged by beetles that arrived in logs imported from the Netherlands. Our landscapes are filled with such importations. The point is not simply to mourn the loss of a pristine environment that predates all this history. Rather, it is to suggest that these landscapes were already precarious in 1912, and that my sidewalk observations today are old news.

In the coming weeks, when the weather warms up again some cherry trees will no doubt be fooled by the weather. A false spring will come and they will bloom. The cherry trees may do this for a year or for a few, but at some point, they’ll give up, worn out by the expenditure of so much energy out of season. Then they will be stripped and prepared for removal. Is this widespread? I don’t know. But in my particular neighborhood, it’s a thing.

The silence of this process may be the biggest difference between this small, local event and the melancholic final act of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. That play, you might remember, ends with the noise of axes cutting down the cherry orchard. When our cherry orchard goes, there won’t be much of a sound.

Happy autumn, folks.

Humanity's Border

In May, Israel and the USA staged a bloody diptych of spectacles. On the left, the opening of the new US embassy in occupied Jerusalem. On the right, the daylight massacre of unarmed Gazans by Israeli snipers.  

On one side, the age-old figure of the gleaming "City on the Hill," the Citadel of God's chosen, a favorite of colonial settlers from Cotton Mather to Golda Meir. On the other, the Gate to the citadel, or more exactly, the barbarians that lie outside that gate .


The City and the Gate: rarely are we afforded such a clear glimpse of this vision—on the one hand, civilization, on the other, barbarism. Freedom and tyranny. Or more simply put, humanity and inhumanity—which is to say, the human and the non-human, the latter less an intellectual category than a gory menagerie of animals, monsters, subhumans and inhumans. 

Wall v. Border

The US media, echoing IDF press briefings, has long referred to the barriers around Gaza as a "border fence." The reference to borders could not be any wronger. 

A border is the line that stands between two sovereign states. Gaza is not sovereign, and never has been; Israel's sense of sovereign territory fully encompasses Gaza. 

A border may be open or closed, but it is not something that is only ever open on one side, and only ever closed on the other. While Israeli forces freely move back and forth across the line that demarcates Gaza, the converse is not true. Israeli crossings into Gaza are not considered transgressions even when they are military and violent; any Gazan movement outside the line, whether accompanied by violence or not, becomes an aggression. 

Thus the fence that separates Gazans from the world can not be called a border. It neither represents a relation of mutual recognition nor a balance of power. It is a line, unilaterally imposed by Israel on Gaza. (And, for the record, the example of Gaza is not unique: Israel has consistently refrained from defining its borders with all its neighboring states). 

So what is it? Most of it looks like a fence. But it is best understood as a prison wall. Just as prison walls are built with one-sided gates designed to allow prison guards to enter, so too does this wall have such gates. But the highest goal of a prison wall is to prevent incarcerated bodies from moving freely. The walls around Gaza accomplish this goal every day. 

Purity and Danger in Israel-Palestine

Conceptually, however, these walls do much more than trap bodies. They prevent also "Palestine" from mixing with "Israel." To borrow from Mary Douglas, they create one space imagined as safe, and pure. 

And a second space that is chaotic, inhuman and full of danger and contamination.  

In this, the walls build on the fundamental Balfourian and Zionist distinction between Jew and non-Jew in Palestine. Now, as during the British Mandate, this distinction between Jew and non-Jews is one between the fully human and the not-quite human.

Only in this conceptual sense can we call the line between Israel and Gaza a 'border'. It was built to mark the categorical division between Israelis (as humans) and Gazan Palestinians (as not-quite humans).

Screen Shot 2018-05-22 at 9.09.48 AM.png

Monsters at the Gate

But as real as these resonances are with older colonial conceptual divisions, they reverberate even more strongly with stories and images in contemporary pop culture, particularly in dystopic sci-fi and fantasy genres, where noble humans fight against monsters in existential combat. Not accidentally, many of these stories involve epic sieges, where the humans of the citadel must fend off the invasion of creatures whose hideousness and evil derives in no small part from their likeness to humans. It is their status as humanoid—not-quite human—that is so monstrous.

Consider the above representations of Gazans at the gate against these images of embattled citadels pulled from recent blockbuster hits. 

   World War Z  (2013)

World War Z (2013)

   World War Z  (2013)

World War Z (2013)

  White Walkers at the Night's Watch Wall,  Game of Thrones  (2017)

White Walkers at the Night's Watch Wall, Game of Thrones (2017)

  Battle of Helm's Deep,  The Two Towers  (2002) 

Battle of Helm's Deep, The Two Towers (2002) 

The suggestion I am making is that, as bizarre as it may seem, media representations of the Gaza massacres dovetail with these other narratives, and with their imagistic vocabulary, to buttress and extend the walls around Gaza. Whether this is conscious is another question, but the regularity of the shared conventions are unmissable. Just as these fictions imagine an existential battle at the very border of humanity, so too does the Gaza prison wall serve as a staging ground, in the imagination of Israel's right and its allies, in a war against non-human threats.

The media corps of the IDF appears to be fully conscious of these tropes. At the very least, it does not hesitate to make use of them, as we saw in May. 

  Palestinians at the fence, negative image from  This is Hamas' Plan

Palestinians at the fence, negative image from This is Hamas' Plan

Consider the video, "This is Hamas' Plan," that was posted to the IDF Spokesman's Twitter account on May 15. In a series of shots, which simulate surveillance, infrared, night vision, drone and clandestine broadcast footage, this short video depicts Gazans as shadowy ghouls marauding Israel. 

Accompanied by a scratchy, distorted soundtrack that creates a mood of impending doom, it embraces the Blair Witch Project aesthetic so pervasive in contemporary horror-genre film and television. 

This, no less than any physical wall, is part of the larger project to dehumanize Gazans and to render them as morally expendable as any other orc, zombie or humanoid monster we might encounter in fiction or fantasy.

What does it mean for Israel to make a cheap horror film that depicts Gazans as monsters? The real horror, of course, is that there is a state that dispossesses masses of indigenous people, drives them from their lands, cages them as stateless refugees in an open air prison, assaults them for decades, and massacres them in broad daylight when they dare to protest—and then creates a cultural tradition filled with monstrous representations of its victims.

But then again, that's settler colonialism for you. 

  Lithographs of events in the Seminole War in Florida in 1835. (Charleston, S.C.: T.F. Gray and James, 1837.

Lithographs of events in the Seminole War in Florida in 1835. (Charleston, S.C.: T.F. Gray and James, 1837.

   The Siege of the Fort at Detroit  by Frederic Remington

The Siege of the Fort at Detroit by Frederic Remington

pageant_exhibition_panel12_nashaway_indians_during_the_attack_on_lancaster_mass copy 2.jpg

We Have An Orchestra Here

Today, Propublica released this audio tape of children being held in a south Texas detention center. In the midst of all the crying, a Border Patrol guard laughs at them, singing, "We have an orchestra here... all we need now is a maestro." 

It adds another disturbing dimension to the reports coming out of children’s detention centers where grown men and women are holding infants, toddlers and children in steel cages. Policy forbids government employees from touching the children, and so these children are left to cry with comfort. 

These reports are like Abu Ghraib. But for kids. On US soil. Now. 

This is not happening in secret. In fact, some leading officials are bragging about it while Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, interpreting scripture like a slaveholder, claims it’s “biblical”. And this is taking place with the full, knowing participation of the leadership of government agencies — ICE, HHS, Homeland Security — and the thousands of ordinary employees in those agencies who make this nightmare happen each day. 

One of the ugliest aspects about this policy is that it is fully intentional: separating parents and children and inflicting harm and grief on them is meant -- somehow -- to deter refugees from seeking asylum here. 

This has been going on for months. While roughly 2000 children have been separated from parents in recent months, the total number of children in government detention camps is actually 11,432. (source: Washington Post). 

The flashpoint for this crime is the border, but the center of this problem is, of course, Washington. Even so, we are all implicated wherever we're situated: from the thuggish Minuteman vigilantes who "patrol" the borders, to the Obama officials who expanded deportations in order to capture the votes of "moderate" republican voters, to the rest of us who were vaguely aware something bad was happening, but failed to do anything to stop it. 

And it is not just a problem located "over there" in the South or in the border states. The deportation system is national—which means it's also intensely local. Which means, we owe it to ourselves to ask questions about how our communities are implicated in these crimes.

Where is the nearest ICE office in your area? Do you know what happens there? Are there detention camps in your community? Who works there—any neighbors or family or friends? What takes place in them? Are there children being held there?

The answers to these questions are not completely secret, though some may be. To answer them entails getting out and meeting people who have been directly impacted by these policies. In the DC area, Sanctuary DMV is a great group to join. The Democratic Socialists of America are also fighting on this front.

[Update 6/20: And it turns out that we do have an orchestra here. I am proud to say that last night, my chapter (Metro DC-DSA) found Kirstjen Nielsen, one of the primary enforcers and apologists for the family separation policy, eating at a local Mexican restaurant and shamed her into leaving. Check out the video here. I applaud everyone who is willing to erupt, interrupt and disrupt business as usual: that is the appropriate response to this emergency. NB: if White supremacists want to be anti-immigrant, the least we can do is enforce an all white-bread diet on them.]

If giving money is an option, there a number of organizations (such as the ACLU or the Texas Civil Rights Project) that are working to fight the family separation policy, and others (such as The Florence Project) working to give material support to detained children. The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in Chicago is a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of children caught up in ICE’s nets. 

Ignorance is no longer acceptable: we must learn the facts of these policies as they are implemented in our cities and towns. Each time ICE arrests a migrant or asylum seeker, they do so in the name of all Americans. Each time they throw a toddler into a jail cell, they do so in the name of America. Those of us who remain silent while this takes place will be harshly judged. 

 Image from Casa Padre, HHS detention center, Brownsville, TX.

Image from Casa Padre, HHS detention center, Brownsville, TX.

The City and the Gate

It is not often we glimpse the cosmic struggle between civilization and barbarism, humanity and inhumanity, freedom and tyranny. But last week’s ghastly diptych was one such moment: on one side, Trump officials—led by stumbling, corrupt Israeli politicians and anti-Semitic millennialist preachers—celebrated the relocation of the US Embassy to Occupied Jerusalem; on the other, Israeli snipers murdered more than sixty Palestinians in broad daylight. 


American media commentators might have viewed the event as this century’s Sharpeville massacre. They might have compared the massacre to earlier colonial massacres, such as Amritsar or Sétif. Or they might have linked the event to American atrocities—The Orangeburg Massacre, The Jackson State Massacre, or The Kent State Massacre. 

But that would have entailed viewing Gazans as human and their killers as vicious perpetrators. Instead, most American pundits tended to frame last week’s events into a familiar, even dominant narrative form: on one side, an Judeo-Christian “City Upon a Hill;” and on the other, barbarians at the gates. 



For some, the city-upon-a-hill narrative is apocalyptic in nature: the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy in an alliance that is as spiritual and civilizational as it is military and political. There exist both Christian-Zionist and Jewish-Zionist versions of this, and they are well represented in Conservative, Rightwing and evangelical media forums.[1]

But there is also a secular, often liberal version—a civilizing mission—which goes by many names: Light Unto The Nations, Making the Desert BloomStart-Up Nation, The Only Democracy in the Middle East, A Tiny Country Surrounded By EnemiesA Small Country in a Big, Bad Neighborhood, and so on. This myth may not necessarily be millenialist in nature, but it no less cosmic.

For right-wing commentators, Gazans who were protesting their interminable imprisonment were nothing more barbarians deserving to be shot. For most liberal pundits, however, Gazan demonstrators were simple people who had been manipulated by the barbaric Hamas. But either way, in this narrative, the Gazan victims can only appear as nameless hordes howling at the gates of The City. Whether as criminal subhuman, or merely dupe, the Gazan as barbarian is as fixed in liberal commentary as it is in conservative and right-wing opinion. 

Elite Commentary on Gaza

Right-wing commentary on FoxNews, The National Review, Brietbart, The DailyWire and elsewhere, presented the Gaza massacre/US embassy opening according to the city-upon-a-hill narrative in its baldest terms: the epic struggle between good and evil, us and them. Some voices in liberal-centrist outlets, like CNN and MSNBC, temporarily broke with the narrative when confronted with footage that showed thousands being shot by snipers sitting far away in quiet hunting blinds. But these voices were balanced (or canceled) by the many other pundits on those liberal-centrist platforms advising audiences not to cry over the bloodbath: these people brought the violence upon themselves. 

As usual, the New York Times opinion pages were emblematic of what is normal, possible and allowable in elite American commentary on Palestine. Bret Stephens put it most succinctly on 16 May: “Gaza’s miseries have Palestinian authors.” Stephens’ essay was a classic example of the city-upon-a-hill story where the vitality of Israeli humanity, ingenuity and entrepreneurialism is met by the baseness of Palestinian ignorance, resentment and rejection. Stephens was not alone in the paper of record: while NYT journalists were reporting—often, but not always[2], accurately and fairly—about the overwhelming and unnecessary Israeli violence against Palestinians, the NYT opinion pages filled with other stories, as if to off-set the damage done by stating facts clearly. On 16 May, David Brooks also weighed in to decry the rise of “extremist” thought on both sides of the conflict, placing the lion’s share of the blame on Hamas, as if the organization were capable of total mind control over the Gaza Strip. 

Only one other regular NYT columnist commented in the pages on the Gaza protests last week: on 14 May, Michelle Goldberg wrote forcefully about Palestinian rights and history and about the alliance between Israeli Jews and evangelical Americans, from a position that was not so much “pro-Palestinian” as it was progressive and diasporic Jewish. Two other columnists— Thomas Friedman and Bari Weiss—who might have been expected to write something were silent, at least on the page. For his part, though, Friedman had already advised that Israel deal with Arabs most aggressively in a recent column. And in an appearance on Bill Maher, Weiss blamed dying Palestinians for raining on Israel’s parade. She also admonished audiences for feeling sorry for Israel’s victims who were, nothing more than dupes of Hamas: “Let’s not fall for a trap that is being set by a theocratic, authoritarian group that are sending women and children to be human shields.”

By that time, there had already been a steady stream of other pieces in the opinion pages of the paper. On Monday, 14 May, one contributor made the provocative claim that Zionists invented human rights, suggesting—though not explicitly saying—that human rights and norms belong to Israel and its supporters, even when it comes to Gaza. On that same day, Ahmad Abu Artema—a Gaza organizer—effectively laid out the case and rationale behind the Gaza protests. On 16 May, an Israeli soldier-writer, Matti Friedman, reflected on his experience in the Israeli military to argue that American audiences were being tricked by Hamas. Friedman urged readers to reject "simplistic" stories, presumably like the ones that showed how Israeli snipers were shooting unarmed Palestinians. On 17 May, in a perfect counterpoint to Friedman, Gazan author Atef Abu Saif, published a poetic reflection on the experience of protesting at Israel’s fence.

Reflecting on these pieces, we can reasonably say that the editors at the opinion page were working to create a balance. On one side, three pieces that begin from the premise that Palestinians are human beings who possess inalienable rights and who are survivors of a long history of dispossession that includes the 1947-8 Nakba and also a brutal military occupation that has lasted from 1967 until the present. And on the other, four pieces that do not acknowledge this history, do not grant Gazans normal rights and agency, and do not axiomatically recognize Gazans as humans. Given how rarely Gazan realities appear in the pages of the New York Times, it is striking that two of the seven pieces were penned by Gazan authors. While three out of seven does not strike a perfect balance, it does indicate an attempt to include narratives of Palestinian humanity.

 That attempt was torched on 18 May when Shmuel Rosner, an American-Israeli contributing opinion writer to the NYT, was effectively given the final word on Gaza. Rosner wrote, “It is customary to adopt an apologetic tone when scores of people have been killed, as they were this week in Gaza. But I will avoid this sanctimonious instinct and declare coldly: Israel had a clear objective when it was shooting, sometimes to kill, well-organized “demonstrators” near the border… I feel no need to engage in ingénue mourning.”

What does it mean for Rosner put the word demonstratorsin square quotes? That and the observation that they were well-organizedimply that they are not “real” for at least two reasons.  First, because protestors are being manipulated—by Hamas, no doubt. And second, because the demonstrations are being organized at all, rather than occurring in a wholly spontaneous fashion. In other words, these are not authenticdemonstrations and therefore the demands apparently being made by protesters—ending the siege of Gaza and allowing them return to their homes—can be ignored out of hand. And what do protests become when we take away demands? Nothing less than a riot. A seething, angry—and inarticulate—threat that must be dealt with in terms of security and control. 

But Rosner’s comments went far beyond dismissal of demands. He was also arguing that to mourn Palestinian losses was ingénue, that is, naïve and childish. We might ask Rosner: when are Gazan lives worthy of mourning? Fortunately, Rosner tells us: when they cease resisting their defeat. In this, he is in line with Stephens who delivered the same message to Gazans in his column: 

No decent Palestinian society can emerge from the culture of victimhood, violence and fatalism symbolized by these protests. No worthy Palestinian government can emerge if the international community continues to indulge the corrupt, anti-Semitic autocrats of the Palestinian Authority or fails to condemn and sanction the despotic killers of Hamas. And no Palestinian economy will ever flourish through repeated acts of self-harm and destructive provocation.

According to these authors, there is no point in lamenting Palestinian losses. Whatever tragedy befalls them, they have no one else to blame but themselves. Lest we mistake callousness for thoughtlessness, Rosner rejects empathy with Palestinians by way of timeless wisdom from the Talmudic tradition: 

The Jewish sages had a famous, if not necessarily pleasant, saying that went something like this: Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind. As harsh as this sounds amid the scenes from Gaza, as problematic as this seems to good-intentioned people whose instinct is to sympathize with the weaker side in every conflict, sometimes there is no better choice than being clear, than being firm, than drawing a line that cannot be crossed by those wanting to harm you. By fire, if necessary.

This is how the opinion pages at the NYT ended a very busy week last week: with a call to slaughter, wrapped in an exhortation not to mourn the Palestinian death that would occur as a direct result.

As we have already seen, the narrative of the City and the Gate is fully portable, and ready-for deployment in the USA. And it resonates deeply with a pop culture crowded with humanoid monsters. Those who use this framework to dehumanize Palestinians will use it to dehumanize others. And in fact, they already are, and have been for some time. It is not just Ann Coulter asking to shoot people on the US-Mexico border, or Trump referring to immigrants as "animals."  It's not just loonies on the racist right either: these arguments already appear routinely in the nation's leading liberal newspaper. 

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[1] As David D. Kirkpatrick reported this same week, the alliance with Christian Zionists is severely straining the older alliance with Jewish Americans.  

[2] A particularly egregious exception was the “shooting-and-crying” piece filed by Isabel Kershner and David Halbfinger on 14 May. 

Fog (of War) Machine

The fog of war does not occur by itself. It must be manufactured. As the Trump administration prepares to join Israel in a military confrontation with Iran, liberal US media outlets have already launched their own war of representations, images and stories. These are the basic components of a fog storm that may soon settle over us. 

Despite the liberal media's widespread dissatisfaction with Trump's style and policies, despite its consensus that Trump is both dangerous and incompetent, it now appears enthusiastic about the possibility of an attack on Iran. Can elite public opinion be swayed toward war with Iran and its allies? The answer is not obvious. Liberals reject Trump, of course, but they trust his generals and have applauded all his previous military actions. Many liberals are fatigued by war, but remain faithful to the gospel of global American mission. The liberal zeal for intervention will remain boundless as long as it is plausibly humanitarian in nature.  

As Americans wrestle with the logic of supporting a war started by Trump and Netanyahu,  it will be important to observe the role played by the liberal media. If past history is any indication, we can expect their coverage to follow these storylines:

  1. Iran is the aggressor in this war. 
  2. Israel wants peace. Its neighbors want war.
  3. Iran (not a nuclear power) poses an existential threat to Israel (a nuclear power).
  4. Israel's interests are American interests.
  5. Israeli and US engagements are always defensive and responsive in nature.
  6. Iran's bid for regional dominance is unacceptable. (In contrast, power moves made by US allies — Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE — are reasonable and legitimate.) 
  7. The situation in Syria has gotten to the point where the US must intervene militarily. (This is valid even though the US has already been playing an active military role in Syria for many years.)
  8. US and Israeli forces are motivated by humanitarian concern. (Their opponents are motivated by various forms of barbarism, neglect and cruelty.) 
  9. Iran, the Assad regime, and Hizbollah can not be negotiated with.

It is likely that the liberal media will present these axioms as self-evident, whether or not they are actually true.

Consider, for example, this explainy piece from Vox

This was published on May 8 in the wake of a series of deadly Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria. Yet the headline suggests that the "threat" is not Israel, but rather the targets the Israelis had just pummeled. The story continues, by shifting the focus to the threat now posed to the Golan Heights -- and there, in the midst of this, the truth of Israel's aggression is buried:  

"Before Trump’s Iran deal announcement, news broke that Israel had moved to safeguard the Golan Heights — the territory between northeastern Israel and southwestern Syria — to defend against a possible Iranian attack. (Iran has proxies and troops in Syria to help Bashar al-Assad’s regime stay in power, which puts them uncomfortably close to Israel.) Israel even opened up bomb shelters in the area to keep citizens safe. Tensions are elevated because Israel and Iran are in the middle of fighting a shadow war in Syria. Israeli jets continually bomb Iranian military locations in Syria and have even killed Iranian troops."

Israeli aggression appears, but only when buried beneath a pile of threat claims. But there is more: the author forgets to mention that, by international law, the Golan Heights are not part of Israel. They are Syrian territories occupied by Israel. Likewise, the author fails to note that many (most?) of the "citizens" of Golan are not Jewish Israelis, but Syrian Arabs whose lands were seized by Jewish settlers. One wonders whether non-Jewish residents of Golan had the same access to bomb shelters as Jewish Israelis? Previous moments in Israeli history would suggest that they likely did not. And what about these Jewish settlers? Given the paramilitary, frontier character of their lives, it does not make complete sense to think of them as civilians at all.

In other words, this story has completely reversed the moral polarity of the situation in Syria: Israel is not defending Israeli land, but Jewish paramilitary settlers squatting on Syrian lands seized through an earlier cycle of Israeli military expansion. And in any case, Israel is not defending against anything at all, unless we redefine the term "defense" to mean routine bombing sorties across international borders. 

Similarly, today's reporting from the New York Times depicts Israeli attacks as responses and introduces us to the foggy term "shadow war." 

"Shadow war" is a very odd way of referring to Israel's unilateral bombing campaign in Syria, which has gone on for years now and which until recently had not provoked a response on the part of Syrian or Iranian units. The language here strains to depict unprovoked and unanswered Israeli aggressions as a "to-and-fro" between rivals. It fails to mention that one of these rivals is a nuclear power. 

And what about that Iranian missile attack? Here's what the same author had to say the day before

While the headlines and first paragraphs suggest that the Iranian missile attack was unprovoked. Much later we learn that there actually is a context for the Iranian attack:

"The rocket attack early Thursday appeared to come in response to Israeli strikes on positions in southern Syria on Wednesday.... Israel had been bracing for a retaliatory attack from Syrian territory after a number of deadly strikes against Iranian targets there. But analysts said the Iranians had been restrained from striking back while awaiting President Trump’s decision on whether to withdraw the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran."

Again, the point is that liberal media outlets are gravely misleading their readers by way of faulty headlines and reporting that buries the actual dynamics of the situation. Without this, the upcoming war might be seen for what it is: a brazen act of aggression driven by interests and sociopathic will to power. 

When the US invaded Iraq fifteen years ago, it did not do so accidentally -- we were led there: first and foremost by the neocons who wanted war at any cost; and secondly, by a liberal media that was all too willing to create the fog that made the war possible. There are salient differences between now and then. In 2003, one could plausibly make the argument that US war policy was not driven by Islamophobia and the most toxic forms of Zionism. Not so this time. By this stage in 2003, we had gone out in the millions to protest. We haven't even begun to do so yet.

The fog bank is rolling in again this week, bringing with it mass human suffering.

Do not think of it is a natural event. It is entirely man-made. It's what happens when a blast of neocon will-to-power hits the hot, moist air of liberal humanitarianism. 

And do not think that this fog emanates from distant places "over there" in Syria. This fog is an entirely local meteorological phenomenon, designed to prevent only Americans from seeing things for what they are. It will not impact weather or vision in other parts of the globe. 


[The following poem is by Muḥammad Farḥāt al-Shalṭāmī (1945-2010), one of the leading figures of Libyan dissident literature. Born in Benghazi in the wake of Italy’s bloody colonial rule, al-Shaltami was employed as a teacher. He was first jailed in the 1960s under the monarchy – for his poetry as much as for his political activities. He was imprisoned again more than once during the 1970s by the Qaddafi regime. Shaltami was the author of numerous collections of poetry, with many poems originally composed in and about prison. Much of his poetry was published only in the 1990s. The Arabic original (below) comes from the collection Tadhākir li-l-jaḥīm (Tickets to Hell).]


You issue your verdict,

While morning still follows evening

And our mother, the great sun,

Dawns red despite your disgraceful informant.

Let me say this: Neither you nor I hold Time in our hand

As it passes by this huge world of ours.

The door locks shut

As morning makes its way. I can feel it, like a hand in the dark

Knocking down fences of the impossible,

Like fate's laughter, warning of sobs and tears,

And now I can see your crucifix, your scepter, your end, your predication

Now I can see you harvesting in the fields of death

Those things you planted with your own two hands.

Like me, you are someone who now awaits the cross in terror,

You wake to the delusion of a hand slipping ruin and annihilation into your palm.

To the delusion that the refuge of comrades surges and crushes while the essence

At dawn, a bullet smashes apart your barbaric head.

While you sit staring at the face of your dismal killer in mirrors.

Like me, you now await your cross with dread,

Whenever night falls, the echoes of a phonograph record bring you back,

You traitor. Yes. The worst of it all is to have betrayed.

-- July 26, 1969.

الاتّهام للشاعر محمد فرحات الشلطامي

أصدرت حكمك والمساء

ما زال يعقبه الصباح وأمنا الشمس الكبيرة

حمراء تشرق رغم مخبرك الوضيع

دعني أقول بأن ما بيدي أو يدك الزمان

يمضي بعالمنا الكيبر

*     *     *

الباب يغلق والصباح

آت أحس به، كأن يدا تحطم في الظلام

سور المحال كأن ضحك الدهر ينذر بالبكاء

فأرى صليبك.. صولجانك، وانتهاءك مبتداك

وأراك تحصد في حقول الموت، ما زرعت يداك

الآن مثلي، أنت ذا في الرعب تنتظر الصليب

تصحو على وهم بأن يدا تدس لك الفناء

وبأن حصنك بالرفاق يموج يزحم والخلاصة

بالفجر تنسف رأسك الهمجي رصاصة

وتظل تبصر في المرايا وجه قاتلك الكئيب

الآن مثلي، أنت ذا في الرعب تنتظر الصليب

وتعيد نفسك كلما عتم المغيب صدى اسطوانة

قد خنت آه لعل أبشع ما يكون هو الخيانة

          -- نشرت في  ٢٦-٧-١٩٦٩

من ديوان تذاكر للجحيم

  (بنغازي: دار الجماهيرية، ١٩٩٨)

Translation Theory, Practice, and Transduction

Or: Reflections on Working Between Arabic and Standard Average European Languages

[NB. These comments were delivered at the recent workshop, Towards an Arab Left Reader. Convened and organized by Profs. Mezna Qato and Chana Morgenstern at Newnham College, Cambridge University, one purpose of the workshop was to address issues that came up in the translation of key texts from the Arab Left.]

It’s daunting to speak on the subject of translation to this audience. Everyone of us in this room translates, whether or not we identify primarily as translators. For myself, I have come to prefer the clunky term of translation practitioner, since it suggests that such activity is practice: which means it’s never quite done and it’s never quite perfect. The word practitioner also speaks to knowledge gained through experience and repetition. Which is the most relevant kind of knowledge, I think, that there is on the subject of translation. 

And for this simple reason, I am not sure I have much to add to what you know by discoursing on the subject. Before I am accused of creating a naïve and false distinction between theory and practice, let me acknowledge what we also all know: that there is no such thing as proceeding without theory. All of us in this room have, to different degrees, read and given thought to questions of meaning and interpretation. Which is to say, for us to have gotten as far as we have in this room, our thinking is informed by the philosophy of language, semiotics, literary theory, postcolonial studies and so on. 

My point here in drawing attention to practice is to underscore something I have learned from experience that it is the practice of rendering texts from one language into another that teaches us the most profound lessons about translation in the sense that concerns us at this workshop. 

It is through the painstaking process of finding, or never finding, the right words and expressions that we begin to understand source and target languages. In the act of comparing senses, seeking equivalent phrases, and acknowledging—in frustration or glee—irreconcilable differences, we sometimes make discoveries about language writ large, or meaning, or what it’s like to be language-bound humans. In comparison, the lessons of translation theory seem to me much more humble with regards to what we are talking about here. Indeed, by now the very term “translation” has taken on so much metaphysical baggage that it rarely describes the actual material activities of people laboring between languages.

In US academic conversations the study of translation is dominated by questions of literature. This is a problem—and, as a side note, let me say that you are fortunate here in the UK to have real disciplinary and methodological diversity in the study of translation. My discipline, Comparative Literature, has long been in the thrall of its own translation studies. Even if much of this scholarship studies the role of translation in colonial and postcolonial contexts, much of it operates within older, unacknowledged Eurocentric and Christian notions of salvation and communion. As Mona Baker and I (and others) have written with regard to our present, violent moment, much translation activity is military in nature and it is not about human understanding, nor is it in the service of political solidarity.[1] Translation theory in the literary disciplines has been largely blind to this history, choosing instead to focus on a marginal slice of translation activity—literary translation—and imbuing it with a spirit of spiritual transcendence that is taken directly from the early Church. 

I don’t want to rehash this point any longer, since it’s not relevant to the project at hand, which really is one of political solidarity and human understanding. Just because most translation in our world is wielded as a weapon of empire, does not mean that all translation must be. And even if translation must be a weapon, we too know how to arm ourselves. 

What I want to say here is not a political pronouncement on translation as part of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist struggles and solidarities, as important as that might be. Instead, I want to clear away some of the discursive debris that gets in the way of us doing what we are here to do: which is to take texts that were composed in different cultural and linguistic contexts, for audiences situated in different historical circumstances, dreaming different dreams, and to render them—across time, space, language and culture—into something else: in our case, legible texts that speak meaningfully to contemporary Anglophone audiences. 

I would like to make some points, but they are all might be distilled into two. First, there are longstanding theoretical debates about translation. If I were a proper scholar, I would have already invoked the work of Apter, Benjamin, and Spivak. And now I have. We have all seen battles where charges of infidelity or untranslatability were hurled as if their ground were clear. I would like to suggest that, as compelling as these theoretical debates can be, they are often unhelpful when engaging in particular translation activities. They may be helpful for conceptualizing such activities generally or for commenting on them, but it may be that they do not help us engage in them. So, what I want to say to anyone of you who finds those debates unhelpful: you may ignore them as you work, as long as you develop your own tools for reflecting on the work you do. Conversely, to those who find them useful, please ignore me and count yourself lucky.

Second, if I had to describe the feeling I most often experience while engaged in translation, it would be one of constraint and feeling stuck. I know that I am not alone: someone once described translation as trying to ride two galloping horses at the same time without being crushed under hoof. While I’ve never experienced such equestrian excitement while working on written texts, I do like the metaphor. To translate sometimes really does feel like being trapped between very imperfect options. Given this, I have found it necessary in my personal practice, to look for any choices I have at my disposal. So, that’s my second big note: to remember that we have choices when we translate. There is never solely one way to do it.

I had this spirit of choice in mind when I replied to the invitation to suggest a short reading for the group.[2] The 60-year-old essay by Jean-Paul Vinay and Jean Darbelnet I selected does something very important for me: it gets us away from thinking of “translation” in the metaphysical sense—the translation of philosophers—and gets us into the small procedures and strategies we necessarily and routinely employ when rendering text between languages. What Vinay and Darbelnet sketch out for us is a spectrum of choices—nothing more. But this is already a lot. They describe a range of direct procedures, from borrowing and calque to literal translation; and a range of oblique procedures, from transposition to modulation to equivalence to adaptation. Together, they provide a technical vocabulary for most of the techniques employed in the translations of this workshop.

But if you read the essay, you will have noticed that what they describe does not map easily onto Arabic-English translation. For instance, in the center of Vinay and Darbelnet’s spectrum sits literal translation. In many ways, this is the standard by which most translations are judged to be faithful or not. Unfortunately, it is a technique that the Arabic-English translator will rarely, if ever, have the pleasure of using. Why? The reason is simple: since losing most of its inflections, English relies on word order to make meaning. Thus, the most common sentence structure of Arabic—the jumla fa‘liyya—must undergo real transformations when it is rendered into English. There is no literal translation of it. Same with the manṣūbāttamyīzmaf‘ūl mutlaqḥālmaf‘ūl fi-hi—or the iḍāfa. Same with the differences between the aspective sense of Arabic verbs and the tense system of English. Rendering the māḍī into the past tense is not always the best choice, nor is the muḍāri‘ fully equivalent to the present tense. 

The point is not that these various differences are untranslatable, as some might say. It is true these language features do not exist in English. Yet, to say “there is no translation for them” is to insist, in a sense, that renditions must be literal. This is like saying that all hands must be left.

More importantly, for those of us working between Arabic and English, it is not an option. Fortunately, there are plenty of techniques other than literal translation for remolding these foreign linguistic shapes with the clay of English. Using Vinay and Darbelnet’s terms, we spend more of our time performing modulation, which pertains to lexical choices, and transposition, which pertains to shifts in grammar and syntax. Sometimes—while translating aphorisms (ḥikim and amthāl) we reach instead for equivalence. Thus, “illī fāt māt” might become “What’s done is done” or “Don’t cry over spilt milk” or something else. We are also heavy borrowers in English, thus terms like “jihadi” and “takfiri” are now effectively English words. 

As I said, in US academia the subject of translation is dominated by questions of literature. To give one example, the endless argument about foreignizing versus domesticating strategies of translation. But there’s really no argument, since there is a broad consensus among translation theorists that to domesticize a source text is to turn it into pabulum. There is the an apparently anti-capitalist version of this stance which states that a domesticized text is a commercial text, a text decontextualized so as to fit the needs of consumer markets made up of lazy, infantilized consumer-readers. And there is an anti-racist or anti-imperialist version: domesticization whitens the source text and is thus accomplice to cultural appropriation. (As an aside: How odd that cultural appropriation is now a crime. It was not that long ago that the Marxist critic Dick Hebdidge developed that term in order to describe the counter-hegemonic practice of bricolage in working-class British subcultures.) 

So, the translation scolds tell us: don’t domesticate, foreignize! Don’t bring the text to the reader; make the reader go to the text. Make the reader work, for in that work they will become alienated—however slightly—from their own linguistic and cultural context. And thus the reader, and the language itself, will grow beyond themselves. Despite my tone, this line of thinking is rich and compelling. It was first articulated 200 years ago by Friedrich Schleiermacher, and then grew—with the German and British romantics—into an aesthetic position that went far beyond the practices of translation. Eventually it became a foundation for the estrangement poetics of literary modernism. 

My point in mentioning estrangement is not to denounce it. But rather to historicize it. And to point out how odd it is that one particular literary technique—that emerged first two centuries ago within particular philosophical-literary movements, and then another a century ago—would continue to dominate so much discourse on translation even in our present. Yet, to assert that literature should be modernist in style is like saying that every moment should be 1968.

By the same token, it makes little sense to think that all translation need be literary, or performed under reining literary-critical stricture. Indeed, as I understand it, the project of the Left Arab Reader is not one of literature. The texts we are working on are not necessarily literary in nature (more are not). Our audiences are not necessarily literary audiences, or audiences expecting literary texts. And our purpose, I think, is not necessarily to “move” audiences in aesthetic ways. 

I have been using words like remolding, reworking, changing and transforming as if nothing were lost in the process. Of course something is lost. We can always translate better. We can practice and improve. If we are doing academic translation, we have the luxury of using paratext—we can introduce and comment, we can supply footnotes. (For an excellent example of this, there is Samah Selim’s recent discussion of her experience translating Arwa Salih’s memoir.)[3]

But what about fidelity? What about faithfulness to the original? Those who want to talk about faith are welcome to, but to do so returns us needlessly to a world of Christian metaphysics. Let us talk about works, not faith. Let us look at grammar and sense. Let us investigate context, resonance, and semantic fields. But let us put aside all talk of faith. While we’re at it, let us stop talking about The Word so we can start talking about words.

To conclude, I want to refer to the linguistic anthropologist, Michael Silverstein, whose work has yet to be taken up by translation theorists. In one essay, “Translation, Transduction, Transformation,” Silverstein observes that translation theory has been based primarily on what Whorf called, ‘Standard Average European Languages,’ whose grammatical structures are relatively proximate (and often fully equivalent) and whose cultural contexts are highly overlapping.[4] If the material on which translation is theorized has come from closely-related—or standard average European—languages, which share common cultural rituals and landmarks, then it may not explain the labor that needs to take place when working with more distal languages, such as Arabic. Moreover, Silverstein points out, because such theory is grounded in Saussurian models of denotative language—signifiers that denote signifieds—it fails to describe non-denotative aspects of language. 

Let me give just one example of non-denotative language: the Peircian category of index, which has no place in the Saussurian universe, and hence in literary theories of translation. But it is a common part of language.

To explain, consider the word “bābā,” which appears across a wide number of Arabic dialects. What does it mean? We might translate it as: father, papa, pops, dad, daddy, paterfamilias, and so on—and these capture some, or much of its meaning. We might discuss the differences between it and the MSA forms of “ab” and “abū.” We could discuss register and tone. We could argue whether the word “daddy” can ever be appropriate now that we have heard it on Ivanka’s lips. 

However, these discussions won’t get at critical aspects of the word in usage. Consider how in some dialects “bābā” is the word a child uses to address their biological father, and also, how that father addresses the child, irrespective of their gender. It does not follow, then, that the meaning of the word “bābā” is also “child.” Rather, this usage is pointing—indexically, outside of language—to the relation these people have with one another. By the same token, the word doesn’t mean “parent-child” relationship: rather, it is the sound that people in this relationship use when signaling this relationship to one another. 

The same is true for many other such words: māmā, ‘ammū, giddū, and so on. Moreover, biological kinship does not begin to contain the uses of these words—all of them can be used, affectionately and ironically, by friends, lovers and so on, again, irrespective of gender. To render these usages involves getting into the structures of human relations in the Arab world—and to puzzle with how to express this lived culture in textual terms. Most importantly, to translate compels us to move beyond purely denotative models of signification.

There are other linguistic, but non-denotative, aspects of language that we tangle with all the time in Arabic. For instance, sub-lexical aspects of language that create sense, but not at the level of denotation, or what Peirce called symbol. We all know how, through jinās, the tri-radical Semitic root system can cast shimmering semantic auras across texts. We don’t have jinās in English, though sometimes we use Latin or Greek roots to approximate the effect. And there are also, for example, sub-root sound patterns in Arabic. The pair q-ṭ, for instance, hints at acts of cleaving and paring, which is then elaborated variously in the tri-radical roots q-ṭ-ṭq-ṭ-rq-ṭ-‘q-ṭ-fq-ṭ-m and so on. Similarly the pair gh-m suggests something murky, which is then expanded across a number of tri-radical roots, such as gh-m-m, gh-m-rgh-m-ḍ and gh-m-q, and so on, all of which retain the gesture toward obscurity, albeit with different shades. A deep awareness of these sound patterns can be found in the canons of poetry and prose. These are not cases of onomatopoeic words, though those exist as well. Authors employ such patterns to generate senses that, again, cannot be explained by Saussurian terms. 

These examples of index and symbol are neither extreme nor rare. These are as commonplace in everyday talk as they are in prestige textual traditions. They are present in routine family interactions, public speech, slogans and poetry, religious discourse and profane. 

The point is, that unlike translators from Spanish to French or from French to English, we cannot translate these features without also translating quite a bit of their social and cultural contexts. The term Silverstein uses for this process is transduction, which he describes as a process of conversion. But this is not conversion in the sense of religious faith. Rather, the metaphor is one of energy and dynamics. In processes of transduction, it is energy, not meaning, that is converted. Through transduction, the energy of wind or falling water becomes electricity. Friction occurs, and there is resistance. There are inefficiencies and contingencies. But for all the slippages, there can be sparks and shocks, and sometimes the lights come on. 

I can think of no better metaphor for what we are doing than that. 


[1]   See, for example: Mona Baker, “Interpreters and Translators in the War Zone: Narrated and Narrators,” The Translator 16: 2 (2010), 197-222, and “Narratives of Terrorism and Security: ‘Accurate’ Translations, Suspicious Frames,” Critical Studies on Terrorism, 3: 3 (2010), 347-364; Elliott Colla, “Dragomen and checkpoints,” The Translator 21:2 (2015), 132–153; and Moira Inghilleri, “You Don’t Make War Without Knowing Why: The Decision to Interpret in Iraq,” The Translator 16:2 (2010), 175-96.

[2]   Vinay and Darbelnet, “A Methodology for Translation,” in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2007), 128-137.

[3]   Samah Selim, “Politics and Paratext: On Translating Arwa Salih’s al-Mubtasarun,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 38 (2018), 180-202.

[4]   Silverstein, “Translation, Transduction, Transformation: Skating ‘Glissando’ on Thin Semiotic Ice,” in Paula G. Rubel and Abraham Rosman, eds., Translating Cultures: Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology (Oxford: Berg, 2003). Thanks to Michael Lucey for introducing me to this essay.

Hamilton Comes To Our Home

Hamilton has colonized my daughter’s fourth grade. To be a subject in the Hamilton Empire, you need to have memorized the musical’s main songs. To be a master, you need to have seen—or be about to see—the play itself. Which means, in Washington, DC, you need to be able to shell out $400/person to enjoy the three-hour experience. It is difficult to grasp how anyone can attach emancipatory politics to such an theatrical commodity whose price puts it beyond the reach of all but the very rich. 

Right now, my daughter is upstairs singing along to the songs that have been playing in a continuous loop since we bought the CD. Without having heard the actual music ever, she knew half the songs by heart. She learned them on the playground where kids sing them everyday, all recess long.

With modified words, it seems. I learned this yesterday when she asked about the seventh word in the first song: whore. We had an interesting conversation about sex work, poverty and misogyny. She then asked about the fourth word: bastard. We talked some more about misogyny and shame. These were conversations I never thought I’d be having.

“What do the teachers say when you sing about whores and bastards?” I finally asked. 

“Oh, no one sings those words,” she replied. “They replace them with others.”

I listened in for a few songs. At one point, I pointed out, “That’s dancehall style they’re singing. Remember listening to Capleton?” 

Like most people, my daughter is allergic to my pedagogical voice. She told me to shut the door so she could listen in peace. 

This morning, as we sat down to French toast, she asked, “What exactly was the American Revolution?”

I asked what she knew about colonists fighting the British Empire, and she told me. 

“That’s what we’re taught, but it’s a simplification of reality.”

“What’s a simplification?”

“It’s when you turn something that is in reality complicated into something simple.”

There I was with that pedagogical voice, “But in any society, there’s lots of struggles going on at any time, right? What were the other struggles going on in the British colonies of north America?” 

They’ve been studying this stuff for a couple years now, and she began to talk. She told me about the struggles of Native American Indian communities against the waves of white settlers. She recalled our infamous ancestor, Captain Isaac Maddeson of the Jamestown Colony, and his genocidal war against the Powhatans. She recalled the time we saw representatives of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi peoples deliver their tribute to the Governor’s House in Richmond, as they do each November, to fulfill the terms of their 1646 Treaty with the Commonwealth of Virginia. She told me about enslaved people (yes, thankfully, this corrective phrasing—and the concept behind it—are taught in her elementary school!) struggling against slaveowners and slaveowner allies. We talked about struggles between rich colonists and poor colonists, landowners and workers. 

She spoke eloquently, yet was frustrated, “But what do they have to do with the American Revolution, Baba?”

“That’s the point. The American Revolution is a simplification, making all these other complicated struggles disappear or appear irrelevant, so that people talk instead about one group of white male settlers who took up arms against their home country. But that’s what war does.”

“What does war do?”

“It gets people to forget all the struggles they know of. Instead, they talk about only one—and it might not be the most important one.” There was an awkward pause. I added, “You’ll see this soon enough.” 

“See all what?”

“See what happens when Trump starts a war. All the people you know who today think Trump is bad. Or the Republicans are corrupt and the NRA is nasty. You watch, as soon as Trump starts the next war. Most of them will say: this is no time for disagreements; now’s the time for unity; we’ve got to stand with the President, even if we didn’t vote for him, even if we oppose him. I’ve seen it happen a few times in my adult life now.”

“How many wars are there?”

“I’ve lost count.”

By now, my daughter was clearing her plates from the breakfast table. “Can I go back to my room, Baba?”


As I started washing the dishes, I could hear the strains of Hamilton coming from her room again.