Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kushi didn't always mean 'nigger'

Many people were shocked or outraged today by this video of people in Tel Aviv yelling racial slurs and wishing upon people to be raped by "kushim" in Tel Aviv. The word "kushi" is often translated 'nigger,' and while in recent years is has indeed acquired something of a pejorative connotation, I believe that such a simplistic translation neither does the word and its history justice nor respects the suffer and pain that the real N-word has caused African-Americans.

‎"Kush" is the biblical name for a part of Africa, which includes most of today's Sudan and perhaps part of Ethiopia. For example, in the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus was said to rule 127 countries from India to "kush." When I was growing up, "kushi" was a perfectly neutral term for 'black person,' more like 'negro' in the 1960s than 'nigger' ever was. However, nowadays, since more Hebrew speakers in Israel actually know black people, and there are indeed black people living in Israel who speak Hebrew (including migrant African laborers, but of course also Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia), the connotations of "kushi" have shifted towards the negative -- perhaps not to the degree of the taboo that is associated with "nigger" in the American context, but it is gradually moving in that direction.

And, of course, there are Cushitic languages, which are (along with Semitic, Egyptian, Chadic and others) part of the greater Afroasiatic language family. So indeed, the pejorative connotation is very very new.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"They have some beautiful things too"

At the very end of my high school career, in 1988, I sat for an oral examination in Arabic. In the room were my beloved Arabic teacher, Meir Einat, as well as an external examiner, a teacher from a nearby school.

The exam included me reading and translating a sura of the Quran. The sura that the examiner had chosen for me was number 97, al-Qadr. I was happy. I had known it by heart. I still do. I later wrote a paper on it at Tel Aviv University. It has the word salaam in it.

I read it. I translated it. I eventually got a grade of 100% on the exam.

What bugged me, though, was what the examiner said when I finished reading the sura. It went something like this (I'm translating from Hebrew): "See? Those Arabs have some beautiful things, too."

A couple of years ago I saw an obituary in an Israeli newspaper with this man's name. I wished I had had the guts at 18 to have told him what a racist he was.

Update: I have been asked what the sura meant in English. I am appending a screenshot of a bilingual version of it, though you are welcome to look up alternative translations. Note than the Islamic tradition, there are no translations of the Quran, only interpretations of it, as it is considered the word of God, which was delivered in a divine manner that can only have been expressed in the original Arabic. I am an atheist, and do not subscribe to this school of thought, but those of you who are unfamiliar with Islamic teachings may be surprised to see titles such as The Meaning of the Glorious Quran, or An Interpretation of the Glorious Quran. If the edition was prepared by a devout Muslim, typically the word translation will be avoided.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tales from Queen Alia International Airport

There aren't many reasons to fly between Amman and Tel Aviv. The official flight distance between Queen Alia and Ben Gurion International Airports is 68 miles. I, however, have taken this route a number of times for two reasons:

  1. in transit to Cairo
  2. during the Gaza Massacre in the winter of 2008-2009, when my mother (never mind that I was a 38 year-old adult) felt that it would be safer for me to take a short flight than a long bus/taxi ride across the land border.

I honestly cannot recall whether the two stories I am about to tell happened on the same trip or on two separate occasions. It doesn't really matter. But I can assure you that they are both true stories that occurred between 2007 and 2009 – one while waiting to board a flight from Amman to Tel Aviv, the other upon landing in Tel Aviv from Amman. Also, there is no particular rhyme or reason for these stories to be told today of all days. There may be a time in the distant future in which these will become non-stories, but until then, they are somewhat timeless.

First story: The Iraqi dude

As I was minding my own business, surfing the web at the airport Starbucks, I caught a silver-haired gentleman in the corner of my eye. He seemed to have been struggling with his own laptop, and something told me that he would soon be seeking my asssitance. It wasn't too long until he indeed turned to me and asked for advice on connecting to the wi-fi network. Somehow it only seemed natural to him that I'd speak Arabic. I thought I detected an Iraqi dialect, and I peeked at his Royal Jordanian boarding pass only to confirm that his destination was no other than Baghdad.

I believe something went wrong with the wireless connection, because he wanted to email someone to inform them that his flight was being delayed, and for some reason he was not able to do that. He then asked me for a second favor. He asked whether my cell phone worked in Jordan, because his, he said, only worked in Iraq. I gladly let him make a quick phone call, and he thanked me profusely. I remember telling him there was no need to be so apologetic, since "we're both fellow Middle Easterners." I was wondering whether he'd get the hint, given that I didn't say "we're both fellow Arabs," even though the entire conversation was in Arabic. Though I strongly doubt he ever suspected that I was from Israel.

Second story: The Yemenis and the South African Mossad agent

Upon Landing in Tel Aviv from Amman, I noticed two young-ish looking Yemeni Jews. I have seen many like them in my lifetime, but something about these two guys threw me off. They were young, younger than I probably, yet they appeared as if they had frozen in time. They looked like the images I had seen in history books and newsreels from the late 1940s and early 1950s. I immediately new that these men were Yemenis who lived in Yemen, not Israelis of Yemeni descent.

In the seat just ahead of me sat a man, who, as is customary in Israel as in many Western countries, turned on his cell phone as soon as the plane touched down. I heard him speak English with a South African accent. He then turned to the two Yemeni men and asked them, in Hebrew, whether they spoke Hebrew as well. One of them said that he did, but his friend not so much. He then asked them several personal questions that indicated that he knew quite a lot about their backgrounds. He knew what town in Israel they were about to visit; he knew that they had relatives in Israel who had visited them in Sana'a a few months prior for one of the Jewish holidays. He even boasted that he himself "helped organize" that particular journey.

Now, to someone from outside the region this may seem like a "so what" story. But for someone like me, for whom the Middle East is home, but one filled with locked rooms, learning that there is ongoing traffic between Yemen and Israel, albeit restricted to Jewish Yemenis and Israelis of Yemeni descent, is a big fuckin' deal. 

And even my first story, to me, is something that I cherish. And I wish that were able to tell more stories like it. And I wish that I were not in a situation in which I was ashamed to tell the nice Iraqi gentleman where I was really from. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Letter to the Editor of the Jewish Exponent

To the Editor:

Deborah Hirsch's report from the events of Equality Forum ("Israel's Gay Outlook Gets a Hearing," May 9, 2012, mention, inter alia, "a self-proclaimed Palestinian-Israeli," who interrupted the speech of Israeli ambassador Michael Oren and made a statement regarding the lack of equality for Palestinians in Israel.

That person was I, but your reporter had misheard my self identification. While I was born in the Palestinian town of Yaafa, and my parents were born in British Mandate Palestine, their parents before them were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. My solidarity with the Palestinian plight comes not from me being a Palestinian myself, which I am not, but from the injustice that the Palestinian people have been suffering since my immigrant ancestors came to Palestine, and which has not ceased, despite the slick words of Dr. Oren.

What I did say I was, by the way, was "a queer Israeli," as can be heard in the following video:

Uri Horesh

Update: An abridged version of the letter was published on the Exponent web site on May 16, 2012:

Deborah Hirsch's report from the Equality Forum (Cover story: "Gay Rights Gathering Puts Focus on Israel," May 10) mentions, inter alia, "a self-proclaimed Palestinian-Israeli" who interrupted the speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and made a statement regarding the lack of equality for Palestinians in Israel.

I was that person, but your reporter misheard my self-identification. While I was born in the town of Yaafa, and my parents were born in British Mandate Palestine, their parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

My solidarity with the Palestinians comes not from being a Palestinian, which I'm not, but from the injustice the Palestinian people suffered since my immigrant ancestors came to Palestine, and which has not ceased, despite the slick words of Dr. Oren.

What I did say I was, by the way, was a "queer Israeli," and it was captured on YouTube.

Uri Horesh

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Homonationalism, Israel Style: The Foreign Ministry and “Pinkwashing” / Aeyal Gross

On May 9, 2012, the Israeli daily Haaretz published an op-ed by Aeyal Gross in Hebrew:

With the author's approval, I am publishing my translation of his article below:

Homonationalism, Israel Style: TheForeign Ministry and “Pinkwashing”

Aeyal Gross

In 1998, after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, Israeli transgender pop singer Dana International was asked about a potential conflict between having allegedly represented “the Jewish state” and the opposition fromJewish religious leaders to her very being. She responded that she had beenchosen to represent the State of Israel, not the state of the Jews. In Israel,Dana said, there were Arab citizens, Christians and others, and she represented the entire populace of Israel, not the Jewish state. Furthermore, she indicated, she represented “everyone who wants to be represented by me”.

 DanaInternational’s approach rejected exclusionary concepts of nationalism and representation, while deconstructing the notion of representation which is based on ethnicity and identity. In their lieu, she expressed a post-modern approach,by which she represented all individuals who indeed wanted to be represented by her. Yet now, this representation, too, is being appropriated by the Israeli propaganda mechanism: in his keynote speech at the Equality Forum in Philadelphialast weekend, Ambassador Michael Oren included Dana’s performance in his enumeration of evidence for Israel’s commitment to equality to its lesbian,gay, bisexuals and transgender citizens (LGBTs).

But if Dana’s Eurovision performance was an opportunity forOren to appropriate an event from the past, we must turn to yet another part of his speech, which was essentially a rewriting of the facts, in an effort to co-opt gay rights as a fig leaf – perhaps the last one left – for Israeli democracy,and to use this issue to conceal the wrongs of the occupation. In his speech,as well as in an interview leading up to it, Oren claimed that Israel had been fighting for gay rights since before 1967. It may be useful to remind Oren that in 1967, and in fact until 1988, the Israeli penal code included a prohibition on same-sex acts for men. While this law had ceased to be enforced since the1950s vis-à-vis consenting adults, in light of directives from the attorneygeneral, its incriminating shadow was definitely intact. Israel had not fought for gay rights in the 1960s, nor did it in the 1970s. Only in the late 1980sand early 1990s had there begun progress in this area, as a result of a concerted effort by community activists and a small number of politicians who supported them. This progress included the repeal of the criminal prohibition of “sodomy” and the creation of legislation and court rulings against discrimination. Nowadays, this progress – part true and part fiction – is being co-opted by Israeli “hasbara.”

Israeli LGBTs aren’t the only ones being appropriated. So are the Palestinians. Oren claimed in his speech that Israel granted shelter toPalestinian groups that could not operate in the occupied territories. In fact, Israel has refused to grant asylum to gay Palestinians who had requested just that. The Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University published a detailed report in 2008, in which it describes Israel’s refusal to even consider requests for asylum from gay Palestinians. True, two Palestinian LGBT organizations that operate in both Israel and the occupied territories are based in Israel, but Israel has never given them “shelter,” and appropriating them for the sake of Israeli propaganda is infuriating, given Israel’s ongoing oppression of Palestinians in Israel itself and in the territories – especially when we consider that this appropriation is done in order to deflect from this very oppression in an attempt to portray Israel as a liberal democracy.

The protesters, including the Israelis among them, were therefore correct in accusing Oren of a move that has gained the epithet“pinkwashing” around the world. Now that we are about to mark the month of pride, the challenge faced by the LGBT community in Israel is whether it wishes to collaborate with such a move, within the framework of what has become known as “homonationalism,” or whether it intends to celebrate the achievements and progress in the realm of LGBT equality in Israel, within the context of a commitment to equality to all who suffer from oppression and discrimination, including the Palestinian population.

Update: Haaretz eventually published its own English version of the article:

Which translation is better? You be the judge!

הארץ Haaretz

العربية.نت | آخر الأخبار Al-Arabiya