the chalk and the blackboard

i’m teaching an essay in my postcolonial literature class this week by one of my favorite writers, ngũgĩ wa thiong’o. the essay–“the language of african literature,” which is published in his collection decolonising the mind–is old, but its core ideas are still so important and applicable for people to think about. the occasion for the essay was a conference at makerere university college in kampala, uganda about african writers. a conference, which was imperialist in its nature, as he explains in a footnote:

…organized by the anti-Communist Paris-based but American-inspired and financed Society for Cultural Freedom which was later discovered actually to have been financed by CIA. It shows how certain directions in our cultural, political, and economic choices can be masterminded from metropolitan centres of imperialism. (30)

a lot of the conference involved discussing who or what counts as an african writer or as african literature, but the main issue that ngũgĩ had with the entire event was that no one seemed to care that this discussion was taking place in relation to african literature written in english, french, and portuguese. it should be clear, of course, given who funded it, what the agenda really was and why it was important that african literature be defined along the lines of literature not published in the native tongue of the writers.

he gives some context for these imperial and colonial goals in the essay, which i think are instructive for people in the arab world. for instance, i think it is important for people to think about the parallels between the berlin conference of 1884 that carved up africa as colonial entities to be controlled by europeans and the sykes picot agreement of 1916 which did the same to the levant. he explains precisely how that colonial control happened beyond military control:

Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle, a process best described by Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel Ambiguous Adventure where he talks of the methods of the colonial phase of imperialism as consisting of knowing how to kill with efficiency and to heal with the same art.

On the Black Continent, one began to understand that their real power resided not at all in the cannons of the first morning but in what followed the cannons. Therefore behind the cannons was the new school. The new school had the nature of both the cannon and the magnet. From the cannon it took the efficiency of a fighting weapon. But better than the cannon it made the conquest permanent. The cannon forces the body and the school fascinates the soul. (9)

ngũgĩ argues that one of the major elements of colonialism in the classroom was language. forcing african people to abandon their native languages, and the culture tied to it. he, too, was subjected to this in his native kenya, where he was educated primarily in the language of the british colonizers at the expense of his linguistic and cultural ties to his native language, gĩkũyũ. through his own educational experiences he shows precisely how children are taught to be alienated from their language and culture:

…one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gĩkũyũ in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment–three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks–or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford. And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into witchunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community. (11)

in palestine the issue of language is not as much of a problem as it has been in other colonized places. but make no mistake about it the israeli-american control over palestinian education dictates all of the tremendous gaps in people’s textbooks related to history and culture. in 1948 palestine, where palestinians have to learn hebrew, it is more of an issue. but because the qur’an is written in arabic and must be read in arabic, the issue of annihilating arabic is not something threatened. too, the goals of colonialism are different here. the british in kenya were interested in creating a population they could control not one they necessarily wanted to exterminate. here the desire is to remove the indigenous people by exiling them and murdering them. still, the use of education (as well as the media and economics) are means of controlling palestinians here (this, too, is a joint american-israeli colonial project) to create collaborators from within is an ongoing problem here. but to be sure there is an ongoing problem of judaizing the land by erasing arabic signs and such in ways that are related to denying palestinians’ right to their language.

judaization in al quds
judaization in al quds

clearly one of the ways this control is achieved is by trying to deny people their culture. ngũgĩ explains this beautifully:

The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth; what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language in real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.

For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. The domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised. (16)

people’s identity is tied up in their language and culture. fortunately, this travels with them whether they are exiled or in prison. this can never be completely taken away, though there are far too many reminders of inroads that israeli colonizers have made by depriving palestinians from their right to their culture. the events this week in al quds, the military control over the celebrations of al quds as an arab capital, is certainly one example of this. just imagine of armed palestinians went into a synagogue or a theatre and threatened them to stop singing, dancing, eating, storytelling: what would be the world-wide response to that? but here it happens. for instance, yesterday as’ad abukhalil posted a memo on his website (which i am posting below too) that the israeli terrorist army posted on the door of al hakawati theatre in al quds ordering the closure of the theatre:

memo making theatre forbidden in al quds
memo making theatre forbidden in al quds

imran garda hosted a discussion of this attack on palestinian culture on al jazeera’s “inside story” the other night that dealt with this issue, though i don’t like that it was two israeli terrorists (active colonizer arieh king and liberal zionist who thinks he has a right to be here as a colonist danny seidemann) against one palestinian woman (hoda al imam) fighting for her rights to her culture as well as to liberate her land. and there is one mistake that was made by garda, which i know was an accident, but it must be pointed out: when he questions hoda about boycotting he did not mean the palestinian boycott and anti-normalization efforts; he was talking about hypocritical arab regimes (most of which are allies of the americans) that conflate jews and israeli colonists in their uneven and sporadic so-called “boycott” efforts. these are not the same thing. but it is worth watching just to hear the debate and see the reporting on what has been going on in al quds this week:

it is interesting that here in the west bank this attack on culture is constant, and unfortunately, seems to have an effect on jeel al oslo. i notice, however, that among the handful of students who know their history and culture it is the parents who intervene in this process by making sure their children know this material that they won’t get from their schools or the media. one of my friends who this is true for is this amazing young woman whose family has an amazing story. her parents were resistance fighters in lebanon, where they met, and then were exiled to tunisia and elsewhere in the region before coming to nablus after oslo. there is far more to the story, and she is starting to write it down, which is amazing. we have been having amazing conversations about it and i love hearing her stories. there are so many more of these stories, so many of them that are not written down. that are not recorded. and these stories are a part of palestinian heritage, of history. and they must be recorded. this is an important kind of resistance as can be gleaned from the israeli terrorist response in al quds, and in many ways that are far less visible, when the attack and silence palestinian history and culture. make no mistake about it: this threatens them as can be gleaned from israeli terrorist lackey ethan bronner’s recent article in the new york times:

Relations with Turkey, an important Muslim ally, have suffered severely. A group of top international judges and human rights investigators recently called for an inquiry into Israel’s actions in Gaza. “Israel Apartheid Week” drew participants in 54 cities around the world this month, twice the number of last year, according to its organizers. And even in the American Jewish community, albeit in its liberal wing, there is a chill.

The issue has not gone unnoticed here, but it has generated two distinct and somewhat contradictory reactions. On one hand, there is real concern. Global opinion surveys are being closely examined and the Foreign Ministry has been granted an extra $2 million to improve Israel’s image through cultural and information diplomacy.

“We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits,” said Arye Mekel, the ministry’s deputy director general for cultural affairs. “This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”

But there is also a growing sense that outsiders do not understand Israel’s predicament, so criticism is dismissed.

i was thinking about this problem of apathy here in the west bank, which is related to the ways in which israeli terrorists and their palestinian collaborators have exhausted the people. instead of fighting or resisting in any way so many numb themselves shopping for the latest fashion, music, watching television, anything to escape. but it seems different in gaza. this week i had the pleasure of doing a guest lecture for a literature class at the islamic university of gaza. the students were so completely different than my students here. all of them had done the reading. all of them had thought about the reading. all of them had something unique and interesting to say in relation to the readings. they had read mary rowlandson’s narrative of captivity, which is a story about a white colonist in north america who lived in “captivity” when american indians captured her on their native land (what is now massachusetts). the students made some really interesting comparisons between their real captivity in the world’s largest prison that is gaza and the kind that we see with rowlandson, which is more akin to the israeli terrorist that hamas has been holding in gaza for the past few years (who i refuse to name because the colonizer is always named, never the colonized victims). i talked to them about the difference between this narrative and those written and spoken (through orature and speeches) by native americans. these differences are significant to be sure. we talked about this as resistance literature, but i asked them to think about the narrative style of rowlandson’s writing–sentimental–and how that might be adopted form the same ends as lakota writer zitkala-sa used, for instance. some students talked about how warped it was that this woman is seeking sympathy when it is she who was occupying indigenous land. others used it to talk about how hypocritical western feminism is given that being a participant in colonialism should be antithetical to feminism. we discussed comparisons in settler colonialism in the americas and palestine and how both were founded upon zionist ideology. there was so much more we discussed, but the main point is that these students, when i made comparisons to palestinian culture, literature, history they all got the references. their body of knowledge is vastly different than my students’ (lack) of knowledge. they got the comparisons and built on it. they were able to transform this colonial narrative and think about how it could be used to suit their needs and desires to use culture as a part of their overall resistance to colonialism in their land.

this is one of the many reasons why i think it is important to teach writings of people who have been colonized and who resisted it, like ngũgĩ, in addition to the work of the colonizers. in order to understand how colonization works at the level of culture one must know it from both standpoints. we need to understand the role that culture plays in resistance and continue to harness that. and we need to understand that palestinian culture does not stop at the european-israeli-american imposed borders. likewise, ngũgĩ tells us of a similar phenomenon in africa:

These languages, these national heritages of Africa, were kept alive by the peasantry. The peasantry saw no contradiction between speaking their own mother-tongues and belonging to a larger national or continental geography. They saw no necessary antagonistic contradiction between belonging to their immediate nationality, to their multinational state along the Berlin-drawn boundaries, and to Africa as a whole. These people happily spoke Wolof, Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo, Arabic, Amharic, Kiswahili, Gĩkũyũ, Luo, Luhya, Shona, Ndebele, Kimbundu, Zulu or Lingala without this fact tearing the multinational states apart. During the anti-colonial struggle the showed an unlimited capacity to unite around whatever leader or party best and most consistently articulated an anti-imperialist position. If anything it was the petty-bourgeoisie, particularly the compradors, with their French and English and Portuguese, with their petty rivalries, their ethnic chauvinism, which encouraged vertical division tot he point of war at times. No, the peasantry had no complexes about their languages and the cultures they carried! (23)

sound familiar? can we not learn the lessons of divide and rule from other contexts and moments in time? can we not apply them elsewhere? this is what the children of soweto resisted when they decided they would not allow afrikaans to be the medium of instruction in their schools. this is why they created their intifada. where is the new intifada here?

this is also why there is a renewed call for a cultural boycott of the israeli terrorist state by rahela mizrahi. you can read it in part below (click on link for the rest) and you can read samah idris’ arabic translation by clicking this link.

The world must break its silence over Israel’s crimes of 1948. It must start using the word apartheid to describe Israel’s political, economic and social structure, as was recently called for by the President of the U.N. General Assembly, Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockman. And the world must support the call by Civil Society to apply to Israel the same strategies that were effective in ending Apartheid in South Africa—Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

As an international institution in its own right, UNESCO’s maintenance of its own standards requires it to revoke Israel’s membership. In tandem with this act, supporting academic and cultural boycott of Israel would be a vital expression of UNESCO’s commitment to its stated goal of contributing to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture, promoting universal respect for justice, human rights and the fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the UN Charter.

If order to have a practical impact, the boycott must be wide enough to influence the daily lives of the Israelis and the world’s most respected cultural workers. Without this boycott strongly in place, the hypocrite beetle Paul McCartney visited Israel recently, as did the African singer Cesaria Evora, as if Africa was not under the same colonial oppression. Mercedes Sosa, who sings about the dispossession of indigenous people in Latin America, came to Israel to entertain the people who commit genocide against the Palestinian people. There are many other artists like them. And meanwhile, Israeli musicians, artists, and curators are welcomed all over the world because international institutions have not questioned their presence in the international community.

The world needs a culture of Boycott, a culture that refuses to turn a blind eye to genocide in the name of art, a culture that takes a moral stance towards Zionism and its crimes, and changes the public and official discourse. UNESCO’s support of cultural boycott would support this trend, and help to deter and halt the role of cultural expression in reinforcing systemic violence.


2 thoughts on “the chalk and the blackboard

  1. interesting that students in gaza and the west bank are so different. i mean, in theory, they are both jeel oslo, but they have obviously chosen very different paths…i just keep wondering why

    1. i hear you–maybe my last post will speak to this a bit. it is something you mentioned earlier–about people’s suffering leading to their different responses. i wish i knew the precise answer. but if you look at gaza’s history (from 1948 on) there has always been some kind of resistance there, from asserting it as a palestinian state in 1948 and assigning a position of a palestinian president until the founding of the plo in 1965 to the first intifada and until now.

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