Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 27, 2009

IF, in the end, there is only the word, what would the end say? We know what the word tried to say in the beginning, in the ancient Middle East, in the lower reaches of the Euphrates where the earliest known writing was located, and in the coastal cities of Syria where “the radical simplification from hieroglyphs that denoted words and syllables to a short alphabet that represented simple sounds” was first developed. [1]

“The messenger’s mouth was heavy, he could not repeat the message,” the remarkably intact clay tablet of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, circa 1800 BC, tells us. [2] What all the words the courier carried we do not exactly know, but we are aware that they were patted on clay and that fire preserved the missive. There was no white phosphorus on the herald’s tongue that burned through the palate and throat; the memorandum was delivered. [3]

In the beginning, language scholar Nicholas Ostler reminds us, there were sisters and their lives spanned 4,500 years—sister languages straddling and spilling out even up to the farthest reaches of the present. One was named Akkadian, spoken in 2300 BC by the first Assyrian king Sargon I. Another was Aramaic, “the Middle East’s old lingua franca,” which “bridged the gap between the decline of” the first Sargon’s tongue and a third sibling of House Semitic called Arabic. [4] And there were more.

It was a German, A.L. Schloezer, who coined the term “Semitic” in 1781 to identify “a family of related languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and others.” The German drew the word from Shem, one of Noah’s sons, to capture the alloy of tongues. In doing so he “gave the unintended impression that all those who spoke Semitic languages shared a common ancestry.” [5] Which is not correct.

Schloezer’s faulty notion has since been corrected in varying degrees by scholars who questioned the notion of a single racial genealogy, contending that those who spoke Semitic languages do not necessarily share the same physical or social traits. [6]

This is only right, but it has not settled things.

Life is richer than we think and many of the things we consider to be innately unconnected, including the quirk-laden, are more organically linked than they appear to be at first glance.

What does the West owe Islamic enlightenment? Does the question compute? Did you know that algebra is derived from the Arabic term al-jabara, which refers to the reduction of an equation through the restoration and compensation of its parts? [7] And what about the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who worked in the caliphal Center for Advanced Study in Baghdad, the ninth-century scholar whose name became the word algorithm, the form in which it appears in Robert of Ketton’s translation: “Dixit Algoritmi…” or “Al-Khwarizmi says….” [8]

In East Africa, the major Bantu language called Swahili comes from the Arabic word sawahil, or “coasts,” from where countless Amir al-bahrs—admirals—helped spread trade and Islamic scripture through Arabic, Islam’s liturgical language.

Memory is a playful thing.

Darius was the Persian overlord in 522 BC controlling everything from Anatolia and Egypt to the borders of modern Turkestan and the Indus Valley, yet why did he decree “that the administrative language of the empire should not be Persian or Lydian, but Aramaic?” The Darius decree eventually pushed the use of the Semitic language instead of Farsi, which had more in common with the tongues of Europe and northern India than with arabiya or Turkish, up to the very ports of the Aegean and the Balkans in the west and the Hindu Kush in the east. [9]

Like mirrors conversing with mirrors or elastic creeper vines, conversations from the past cling tightly to the present. Who is paying attention?

Perhaps the day has finally come to limit God’s real estate to time—the one truly universal domain—so that each time people forget the past, they are by scripture less blessed, even cursed.

What does anti-Semitism actually mean in the region of Semitic people?

The Israeli poet and novelist Yitzhak Laor tells us today about what is taking place in Gaza: “Israel is engaged in a long war of annihilation against Palestinian society. The objective is to destroy the Palestinian nation and drive it back into premodern groupings based on the tribe, the clan and the enclave.” [10]

“Israel doesn’t want a Palestinian state alongside it,” Laor explains. “It is willing to prove this with hundreds of dead and thousands of disabled, in a single ‘operation’. The message is always the same: leave or remain in subjugation, under our military dictatorship. We are a democracy. We have decided democratically that [the Palestinians] will live like dogs.” [11]

Is Laor anti-Semitic?

What about the Palestinian, Remi Kanazi, who penned the poem “To exist is to resist”? If Kanazi’s verse is right, perhaps he is anti-Semitic, too, just because he exists? [12] Those who survived the deliberate brutality of Israel’s 22-day siege—are they anti-Semites, too?

After three weeks of air strikes and tank shelling, the world has an interesting register: 1,300 dead Palestinians and 13 Israeli dead. [13]

“You can murder only people,” wrote Amos Kenan in 1984 in the Tel Aviv daily Yediot Ahronot, “you don’t murder roaches. At best, you exterminate roaches. The exterminator is a nice guy, his name is Goliath, and he is the king of Israel.” [14]

On whom does the anti-Semite shoe fit?

Hard to say but here is something certain: in Room 5, Block 5 of the Auschwitz museum in Poland, tens of thousands of shoes whose owners were exterminated by Nazi Germany fill an entire block, and each single pair of the hundreds of shoes of Palestinian children murdered by Israel’s three week war on Gaza belongs to this display. [15]

Israel—nuclear-armed and in possession of the most modern technologies of mass violence in the Middle East, weapons that it has not been shy in using over decades—cries today that it has a right to self-defense. It pleads to the world for understanding, that it is not the aggressor but the victim. That it is the one under siege, the one threatened with annihilation. [16]

“The German people owe a great debt to our F├╝hrer,” wrote Nazi private Karl Fuchs in his diary entry on August 4, 1941. “[H]ad these beasts, who are our enemies here, come to Germany, such murders would have taken place as the world has never seen before.” [17]

Here is the monster, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: “[W]hether we are right or wrong, we must win. This is the only way. And it is right, moral and necessary. And once we have won, who will ask us about the methods…otherwise our whole people—and we in the first place, and all that we love—would be erased.” [18]

Life is strange.

To the right is oblivion, to our left is forgetting, and in front of us everything is standing on its head. #


Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire. He is currently working on the book Geographies of Forgetting: Conversations between Memory and History.


1. Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (HarperPerennial, 2005)

2. Ibid.

3. White phosphorus is a chemical 'obscurant' used to hide military operations. It has an effect similar to napalm -- it creates horrific burns on the skin and can set fields, structures and other civilian objects on fire. Israel denied it was using white phosphorus in Gaza, which has one of the moset densely populated areas in the world. By using the incendiary weapon in its war on Gaza, the international group Human Rights Watch said Israel has violated international law. See Jason Keyser, "Rights group: Israel uses incendiary bombs in Gaza," Associated Press, 11 January 2009. Human Rights Watch has more info on Israel's use of the chemical 'obscurant'. http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/01/10/israel-stop-unlawful-use-white-phosphorus-gaza This is not the first time Israel has used this weapon in this manner. See Meron Rappaport, "Israel admits using phosphorus bombs during war in Lebanon," Haaretz, 22 October 2006.

4. Ibid., 1.

5. David K. Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc., London: 1987)

6. Ibid.

7. Charles Siefe, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (Penguin Group, 2000)

8. Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Back Bay Books, New York: 2002).

9. Ibid. 1.

10. "LRB contributors react to events in Gaza," London Review of Books, 10 January, 2009.

11. Ibid.

12. Remi Kanazi, "To exist is to resist," MRZine.com, 5 January 2009.

13. "Gaza strikes ahead of truce vote," BBCNews.com, 17 January 2009. Based on revised figures from the Palestinian Health Ministry, BBC has adjusted in its report the number of Palestinians killed down to 1,193 killed, which includes 410 children.

14. Ibid. 5.

15. The author made a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in the town of Osweicim near Krakow, Poland in December 2008. The author intends to hold an exhibit in November 2009 which will include paintings from the pilgrimage. A chapter called Ground Zero Memories in the author's forthcoming book, The Geography of Forgetting, will include reflections on the Holocaust and the devastating impact of the Auschwitz museum on the author.

16. For a good background on the latest outbreak of violence, read the essay by the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe on what he calls "Israel's Genocide in Gaza", 16 June 2008.

17. Saul Friedlander, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (HarperPerennial, New York: 2008)

18. Ibid.

Photo of Neruda's Isla Negra coast from the always beautiful RedPoppy.net

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