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Palestine: Have Words Failed Us?

by in Culture on 21st December, 2023

A verbal paralysis 

It is moments like those that have washed over us in the past weeks that highlight the paradox of words – their power and futility. While many of us are in a state of paralysis, shock and deep mourning over the events that have unfolded over the last few weeks, we often reach for the ordering power of language to try to make sense of the sheer horror that we bear witness to.

We are seeing the human body and soul tested to its absolute limits in the violence that Palestinians are subjected to, and this exposes our limits. The limitations of our supposed human rights system, as well as our humanity and agency. It exposes a myopia in how we perceive others, ourselves and our history. While we like to mantra ‘never again’, and exceptionalise our place in time enough to believe that genocide and the maniacal propaganda machine that aids and abets it is buried in the obscurity of the past, we are seeing how humanity is cruel enough to repeat it ad nauseam, even here, even now.

Crucially, it has exposed how insufficient the fabric of our language systems is, how it’s cut too short to convey the pain and brutality of what is happening to Gazans. The sheer nature, scale and relentlessness of the bombardment that we are witnessing unfold, has triggered a collective state of shock. In this nightmare trance, though we are taking in the information from the many videos, survivors’ accounts and social media posts, there is simply no way to make sense of what is happening in real time, and we have no expressive power to put an end to it this very instant. Language fails us.

The purpose of our words, and language system, is to act as a bridge between our visceral and verbal selves. Functionally, it is to weld together the domain of feeling with that of dialect to try to convey the human experience, using a shared medium. Broken down to its constituent parts, our language is made up of sounds which signify meaning and value. We code and decode our feelings and thoughts amidst a context that we share, and this should generate empathy, and bring us together using this glue of human dialogue. I say ‘I am hurt’ when I feel pain, and those words signify something to you as a receptor.

We live in a world, which supposedly privileges a value system, and provides the necessary shared context, to understand pain and suffering as bad, and we therefore act accordingly. When we are witness to genocide, we see that context and value system entirely broken. 

We cannot find the words because language refuses to bear the burden of what we are seeing. It desists itself, refusing to take on the contours of such cruelty. The meaning and value of those lives and the tragic, incomprehensible nature of their deaths are so great that language, as a medium designed to bring us together, is incapable of conveying it. If language were effective, wouldn’t the value system which underpins it prevent the horrors we are witnessing from unfolding through our screens? 

With the bombardment, genocide and siege in Gaza, language has exposed itself to be staid and paralysing. When we have a toothless international human rights system that cannot transcribe the unjustified pain and suffering into action, what use is our shared code of language? If language is a social contract, the issue of Palestine epitomises the destruction of that moral agreement, commonality and decency upon which we build consensus.  Things we should deem universally bad like the killing and maiming of children, and bombing of schools and hospitals no longer signify the same thing to everyone. When we are watching fellow humans being slaughtered and we are hanging our hopes solely on the conveyor belt of a few eloquent, humane and principled commentators who will attempt to frame the humanitarian cause of Gazans in a way that might change public favour, to set in those slow wheels of political action, how much power do those words really wield? Are those words not empty, when we are using them to fight battles in well-lit, hyperbolic studios with suited men? What blocks those signifiers from conveying the Palestinian’s pain to us – is it our lack of collective humanity? When those receptors are incapable of being inspired into action, what use are the words we reach for like comfort blankets? That we celebrate in their futility. 

A reordering of language to genocide denial  

We have come to a point in history when using language to describe the reality of the situation in Gaza is criminal, while the heinous nature of that reality is applauded by national governments. Political and media elite use the tool of language to further punish Gazans. The paradoxical power of words is evident here – they are futile in protecting fellow humans, yet punishing when wielded by those who inform the political narrative.  To control language is to control the masses – the power in being the one that labels is unparalleled. 

We are repressed from rightfully referencing the acts and crimes perpetrated against the citizens of Gaza – genocide, erasure, settler colonial violence. And in obfuscating that language, in re-ordering it, those supporting the bombardment, hope to disempower us as democratic agents within this supposed international structure of rights and obligations.

There is an Orwellian attempt at double-speak, to stretch and bend language to fit a cruel and unceasing regime and its work. It is what’s broadcasted from official news networks, global politicians and right-wing pundits that attempt to warp the truth so far it becomes another victim of this crime against humanity. What egregiously reframes a call for a ceasefire as a war cry. It is the passive-voiced headlines that use a levitation of words to omit the perpetrators of these countless war crimes, that erase the deadly signature of Israel on over 20,000 bodies, many of them children and babies. 

It creates an Overton window in which the bombing of a hospital migrates from being an indefensible, inconceivable act to one that’s necessary for the survival of Israel. The dissonance that is created from removing the rightful name of the crime and criminal from its context; headlines with misnomers such as ‘Lives found ended’ – a new language of genocide denial. Where linguistic Frankensteins such as ‘humanitarian pause’ are welded together from the tatters of our value system, as though interjecting at intervals during a genocide is a noble act, which only exposes the cat-and-mouse game that is impossibly cruel in its architecture of a newly forged reality. A disjointed reality that will see those who enforce a mass-scale bombardment on an enclosed population, question the very child and baby deaths they celebrate, as though they are a figment of Palestinian imagination.

The attempt to reposition everything within the rhetorical frame of whether each Muslim, Palestinian, or Pro-Palestinian ‘condemns Hamas’, reveals a moral relativism dressed up in the language of universal rights. As though Palestinian lives are contingent upon every Muslim’s collective blame and unatoneable punishment. The linguistic punishment of speaking out against Israel’s crimes – being labelled a terrorist, with all the legal and violent implications that hold for Muslims in particular.

The forging of an ahistorical view of a situation that looks at the ‘crime’ of a child throwing rocks in isolation from a broader narrative of oppression. That seeks to truncate and eradicate Palestinian culture in its fullness and richness of history through the very words we think, speak and relay meaning to each other in. 

It is clear, there is a perfidious attempt to butcher our language and shared understanding, as well as the lives of Palestinians and our wider sense of humanity. This bloody colonisation of meaning and the notion of humanity itself – as though only one side is more human, only one side whose thoughts and lives matter – is an extension and by-product of the settler colonial project we are seeing in Palestine today. One that has led to Palestinian lives, truths and words being deemed worthless and deserving of destruction. 

The language of Islamophobia

What we also see in the debris of this once-shared language, is its suggestive power. While we know this isn’t about faith – rather the powerful versus the dispossessed – we can’t ignore the conceptual role the Muslim plays in facilitating genocide in Gaza and in keeping the international political classes in full support of the Israeli regime’s effort. There is the subconscious language we carry in our bones about Islam and Muslims, created and reinforced by a pervasive culture of Islamophobia, that renders us barbaric, bloodthirsty, ironically more inherently tribalist and more capable of being racist, and therefore more deserving of the world’s racism. This whole bombardment and the many before and parallel to it are based and depend upon a pretext in which Muslims are both exceptionalised – animalistic, bloody hungry, subhuman – and minimised; our blood is worthless, we are in our millions, worthless and deserving of slaughter. Incapable of feeling terror but inherently predisposed to terrorising. 

It is the spectre of the Muslim monster that is resurrected in American-Israeli PR campaigns to curry public favour and support for a deadly massacre. The idea that the bombardment of Gaza is one battle in a wider war to preserve civilisation against Islam. It’s a paint-by-numbers racism in which we provide the colour and definition of racist tropes that are centuries in the making. Those colours which dye Palestinians as undeserving of life, empathy and assistance. The idea of the Muslim as foreign, fifth pillar and invading, is so pervasive, that we can apply that template wholesale to its opposite context – an indigenous people that are simply asking for the right to exist in their land. The language of human rights is not conceptually big enough to accommodate Palestinians, and their rights, dignities and basic humanity.

This language of hate births a global political lexicon of Islamophobia which is inherently divisive and distorts our earnest endeavour to value all life. It frames a call for ceasefire  into the vile sentiment of antisemitism. We see peaceful marches, including those of all faiths and none coming together to end further loss of life, rebranded as ‘hate marches’. It allows such headlines as ‘How labour can afford to lose the Muslim vote’ as though our existence is expendable and a mere footnote in political briefings. We see the highest political rankings in the US equate Hamas’ crimes with savagery yet be silent at the wildly disproportionate taking of lives, in all its unimaginable savagery, by the Israeli regime. 

Islamophobia lives so deeply in our psyche that it disrupts the very relationship between signifier and signified; when we hear that it’s Muslims being killed, we see this as an inevitable consequence of democratisation and civilisation. Necropolitics, and the act of killing – the language of war – is sanitised when the perpetrator is perceived as white and the victim Muslim or brown or black. And we must always, of course, be the ideal victim. This is why countless news anchors see it fit to interrogate and probe Palestinian guests who have lost numerous loved ones in this ongoing massacre, and still demand condemnation of Hamas. The language of Palestinians, and indeed Muslims more generally, must be carefully tone-policed even when enduring a violent occupation. 

Islamophobia is a high-value line of discourse which sees people with no perceivable talent being given national media platforms on the merit of their Islamophobia alone. It is grossly, materially rewarding. The idea that all Muslims are terrorists, the subtext of all Islamophobic tropes, plays a big part in the justification and continuation of these war crimes, and why civilian deaths are not seen as civilian. This genocide is allowed to exist because it is the language of dehumanisation taken to its logical conclusion – if Muslims are not deemed human, their deaths mean nothing. 

The cogs of Islam that are so deeply uncomfortable to an Islamophobic world – our prayers, belief in the afterlife and the temerity to dream of our martyrs as being free and honoured there – are laid bare in the underbelly of this genocide. There is an attempt to colonise our faith, and afterlife, by taking hostage and criminalising our very beliefs, our words and how we honour our slain. This discomfort is why a German exhibition simply highlighting Muslim life has been cancelled in the name of remaining impartial, as have various EDI-related initiatives pertaining to Muslims, as though our very existence is so aberrant it requires censure. It is why supposed women’s rights charities and Feminism™ are silent in the face of the 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza facing pregnancy and childbirth with no health care, the countless women who have lost their children, lives and liberties, despite being so vocal for other global causes seemingly ‘liberating’ Muslim women. In a world that worships fashion, despite the Nike ads, Islam and Muslims will never really be that fashionable.

Our visual language 

This is a politics which informs a visual language we are all unwitting participants in, dictated by a global media that will always portray Muslims as both the perfect victim and criminal to justify their forever wars. As though our pain, suffering and blood are an anticipated part of a theatre of war designed to line the pockets of the most powerful. The media narrative we inhabit has created a perverse appetite for our suffering, and will have the world victim to an exodus, the actual dismembering of children, the familiar sight of brown men stripped and denigrated, and remain entirely unmoved. They simply can not see, or acknowledge a pain that’s seemingly so alien to their identity. A visual diction that is epitomised in the crudely drawn and conceived cartoons whose sole and unabashed aim is to strip us of our basic humanity and further alienate us; that draw the invisible bits out loud for their pleasure and vanity.

This visual training means that Gaza holds up a mirror to the wider world. Those of us who have experienced marginalisation see ourselves in Gazans, and those who identify with the powerful see themselves in the colonial settler force. Those of us that are marginalised possess a fear that we would ever come close to being as inhumane, and blinded by hate, as the Israeli regime is in its bombardment and massacre. What motivates the powerful across the world is the fear that they will taste marginalisation and all that comes with it. What powers us as the marginalised, is to prevent further human suffering, and what is behind the actions of those that dominate is to insulate themselves from cruelty they appear to identify as universally human. Part of what makes the situation so verbally disabling is that it has brought up the spectre of a value system we have been normalising for so long, it has exorcised to the surface some of the ugliest features of humanity that we long thought were buried but which have been operating undetected for so long. Our language alludes to a reality too ugly to bear. 

Along with other valuable lessons, the Palestinians have taught us to be cognisant of our own internal narratives – the very language by which we interpret meaning, develop values and adopt and enact our worldview.

A symbolic language of hope 

But despite this, there is hope. When our humanity is lacking, when we see those devoid of compassion, feeling and empathy in the world around us, we see the inverse reflected back in the vortex of Gaza – the language of love and resistance that Gazans embody and express so tenderly. The doctors and their communities who honour the youngest victims of this siege – the 39 babies in incubators – despite the world’s disregard and total lack of compassion for them.  The Grandma who risks her life to protect her birds and tortoise, beaming proudly amongst all the rubble at the animals she nurtures and feeds amidst an unfolding famine. The courageous ambulance crew who have the strength and camaraderie to offer each other humour amongst the carnage as they carry out their life-saving work, against all the odds and at immense risk to their lives. 

The Gazans have spoken to the world in a language that many of us don’t recognise for our lack of decency and compassion. We are not part of a language system which is so selfless and exudes so much generosity and dignity. That courage and nobility that is inaccessible and out of reach to an Israeli apartheid regime in all its arrogance, evil and hubris. 

When our verbal language is continually used to suffocate our political expression, is it any wonder that a symbolic language of resistance is born from its ashes? This is why the movement for Palestinian liberation is rife with strong imagery such as the watermelon, the keffiyeh, the bird, the stone. It has begotten a rich diction of poetry, slogans, chants; collectively voiced. A full and beautiful language born from censure, forged and embedded from a collective passion, cause and humanity. 

Because language belongs to us, the many, and we can choose to make it unyielding. We can be resourceful with it in times of censorship, and we can choose to reassert truth and breathe back life into our speech and morality into our actions. We can use it to build bridges and understand each other again. We can do that through the language of solidarity and compassion that Palestinians embody so perfectly. By voting with our purses and feet – our actions of boycotting, putting pressure on commercial and political powers, by continuing to speak up and reclaim the words they attempt to tarnish.

While the foundation of our reality is crumbling, we can reembody the idea that truth is a discipline, it’s not something we can passively absorb through a supposed moral majority, or through institutions that supposedly uphold human rights, that tell us to distrust our eyes in the violence and injustice we are seeing. As Muslims, we must learn and enact this truth of Islam through our hearts and feelings, as well as our limbs. It is both disorienting and entirely surreal to wake up in the world that we have post-October 7th, where we are forced to acknowledge that the people we share our tube journeys, streets, neighbourhoods and political affiliations with may not value every life – that some are in fact disposable to them. As Muslims we must still seek justice through our universal truths that value others’ humanity, but with integrity and bravery that will go against the political grain in acknowledging the humanity of Palestinians who are otherwise denied it by a global betrayal. 

The only language that really matters 

Because we must remember, there is the mercy prevalent in the other-worldly language of the stones, the earth and the mountains that will bear witness in the plain where it matters the most, that see what’s unseen to us and speak what’s unspeakable. Those trapped under the rubble, those doctors carrying out amputations including on their own children, without pain relief. The countless Palestinian prisoners, many of them children, held captive by an oppressive Israeli regime. Like Ahmad Manasra who was detained at 13 and kept in solitary confinement for two years, who has spent his life at the behest of a cruel regime. Those who face the humiliation and denigration which define Israeli checkpoints. Who are woken at Dawn for pointless raids and who face the constant tyranny of a cannibalistic regime. This illegitimate language that we as a community of onlookers refuse to acknowledge as it doesn’t fit in part of the wider narrative that all of Palestine is Hamas, and history began on October 7th. This language that is imperceptible to us, reminds us that an inverted value will come from these horrendous deeds. They will be borne witness to, and those who suffered at the expense of these deeds will receive innumerable recompense.

And finally, there is the language that connects us to the many Palestinians themselves, the language of prayer. The constant evoking of Allāh. The calling out to Him at every strike, at the raising of hands at every janaza, that acknowledgement that there is something Greater than all of this, there is something beyond the pain, an arbiter of justice, that is so beautiful and sweet it cannot be contained in a world so limited to our diminishing humanity. The All-Seeing, the All-Hearing that bears witness, that elevates the souls of our martyrs. The one who recompenses the slain and suffering with something greater than we could ever imagine, that allows these horrors to be only a corridor into our true, eternal, unblemished life. 

It is this language that grants us barakah, facilitates our cause, contextualises our suffering and tempers our pain. This supposed language of the terrorist, which evokes such jealousy and fear from oppressors, but works solely to glorify the only entity that is capable of true love, justice and mercy in an increasingly ugly world. The language of Jannah, that will not have to bear inconceivable hardship, and that we will speak when we meet again, in shaa Allāh. These are the words they can never take away from them and us, and which will always mean something, both in life and death. Allahu Akbar.

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks