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Politics of naming (road signs etc.)

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 02.01.2010:

Last Year in Jerusalem

By Dr. Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh

Since Jerusalem was declared the Capital of Arab Culture for the year 2009, there has been a heated controversy over how to celebrate this grand tribute. This was due to the fact that Palestinians have no sovereignty whatsoever over Jerusalem, nor do most Palestinians, pedestrian or official, have the ability to reach Jerusalem. The reason is painfully obvious and striking: the Israeli occupation and the apartheid Wall it erected around the outskirts of the holy city. Given this, symbolic celebrations seem to be the only means by which Palestinians can commemorate Jerusalem in any capacity.

Under such circumstances one would expect a mass representation of this kind of symbolism throughout the Palestinian public sphere to be seen, heard, and touched. However, signs of an esteemed tribute to the city of tears are barely present in the chaotically planned public sphere and poorly constructed landscape that we live in and witness.

Given local monopolies over the advertisement industry in the Ramallah area, an aboriginal flaneur would lament this chaos. However, one can only mourn the abysmal officially mentored contribution to the manufactured landscape where the symbols of Jerusalem are almost entirely absent not only for the year 2009 but for years to come. To demonstrate the absurdity of this absence, I shall use the example of road signs that have been recently installed along the roads leading to Ramallah.

While coming from Birzeit University towards Ramallah, one comes across all kinds of signs: commercial billboards, event advertisements, civil society project promotions, and official announcements. In November 2009, a new type of sign was installed that summarises all the absurdities mentioned above at once. Jerusalem is entirely absent from all the official road signs. Where Jericho and Ramallah, for example, are clearly indicated, with the approximate distance from the road sign, Jerusalem is ignored – although it is only a bit farther than Ramallah and far closer than Jericho! This paradox provokes those who are travelling to Jerusalem to wonder why it is omitted from such signs, and who is responsible for such a bold omission?

Within my field of work in visual and cultural studies, I have been researching the genealogy of colonial name commissions and the politics of toponymy in Palestine both under the British Mandate and the Israeli occupation. My work reveals that the politics of toponymy is a national project especially in newly established modern nation-states and political entities. This national project of (re)naming is a crucial part of language engineering and the making of collective national identity. The aim of nationalistic language-planning, therefore, is to promote the national language as a vehicle of unity and authenticity. Being as such, highly qualified commissions are meticulously chosen on the national level to carry out such a fundamental duty.

In the Palestinian case, however, one need not search far to fathom the genealogy of road signs or to decode the politics upon which they were created. Among the handful of signs installed on the Birzeit-Ramallah road, at the edge of Ramallah’s northern entrance, a striking placard narrates the entire story. The triumphant eagle logo of the Palestinian Authority is located on the upper part of a bilingual sign that reads in a loose, inaccurate, and confusing translation: “Client: Palestinian National Authority. Project: Know Your home Land. Install Guide for Localities) Ramallah and Al-Bireh Districts. Project Period: 50 Calendar Days. Donor: USAID-Palestinian Authority Capacity Enhancement Project. Supervision: Ministry of Public Works & Housing. Contractor: United New Land For Investments.”

When it is thoroughly read, the placard outrageously reveals the roots of investment in such a project. The project is carried out by a “donation” from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is reputed for having a clear political agenda to promote the colonial status quo imposed by the Israeli occupation. Omitting Jerusalem from the road signs installed within this project plainly ignores Palestinian national sovereignty, the aboriginality of the landscape, and cultural and political sensibilities towards Jerusalem and the rest of historic Palestine. Given the Israeli and the American stands towards Palestine, this project could be problematized and understood as part of the politics of amnesia fostered by the two colonial powers in the matrix of the post-Oslo political culture in Palestine. In addition, the time limit of the project (50 calendar days) transforms one of the most important vehicles of language and identity construction into a mere technical affair promoted by a foreign agency.

What makes the situation drastically ironic is that Jerusalem is blatantly present on other types of road signs – the road signs where one exits “Area (A)” of the Palestinian Authority! The Israeli road signs installed beyond the Qalandia roadblock, in particular after passing the (Area “A”) sign installed on Al-Ram-Jaba’ Street, clearly display the name of and the distance to Jerusalem.

In addition to the actual Israeli road signs, the placards installed on the roads under construction reveal the difference between the Israeli national, albeit colonial, project and the absurdity of the USAID-funded project in Ramallah! The placard indicates that the construction work is undertaken as a national project, by a national company, in a time framework that lasts two years. If one goes further to follow the signage system on Road 1, s/he would realise that the place-names appear to be affixed according to a six-category coding system that is purposefully created and painstakingly endorsed by the Israeli Governmental Names Commission (IGNC), which are: (1) Ancient Biblical/ Talmudic; (2) Abstract; (3) Natural/ rural; (4) Nationalist/Zionist; (5) Arabic origin; and (6) Military heroism.

The vast divide in the juxtaposition between the fleeting Palestinian project of road signs and the Zionist enterprise of the IGNC is a longstanding one. Even before the emergence of political Zionism, archaeology was a “national sport” for the Zionist immigrants to Palestine to the extent that it became the guiding principle of transforming Palestine into Israel. Zionist settlers first declared the war of naming and renaming by establishing the first Zionist settlement of Petah Tikva (“The Gate of Hope”) on the ruins of the Palestinian town of Mlabbis in 1878. This effort of the IGNC to supplant the Arabic names with Hebrew ones historically developed in three phases. The first phase, during the British Mandate period, is marked by a “Special Committee” that was established by the Zionist movement in 1925 to name the newly founded Jewish settlements to compete with the overwhelmingly Arabic map of mandated Palestine. In 1949, the second and most crucial phase began when David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, nominated a commission to work to create Hebrew names for the newly occupied Palestinian landscape. In 1951 this commission, officially called the Israeli Government Names Commission, was given the task to produce a Hebrew map of Palestine and to publish Israel’s first Year Book. During that year, Ben-Gurion decided to anchor the Commission directly to his Office, and it has since remained part of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. The last phase began after the setback of 1967 when the mandate of the IGNC was expanded to include the newly occupied land of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, to work in consultation with the “local” authorities of the settler communities in the these areas.

Such a complex and multi-layered Zionist enterprise should not prevent Palestinians from establishing their own national commission(s) of names for locations, streets, and plazas in a broader project of landscape and public sphere planning. In spite of the gloomy picture of the first attempt to launch a project for road signs by the Palestinians themselves, there are, however, some bright pictures in the scene. If one takes a left at the second traffic light after the entrance of Al-Muqata’ah, and follows the wall that leads to the entrance of the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat, s/he would find a ceramic sign affixed to the wall indicating the distance to Jerusalem from the place in which the late iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rests.

As tiny as it might look, the sign is not less significant or symbolic than the architectural concepts of the mausoleum itself. The entire mausoleum, made of glass and beige Jerusalem stone, is surrounded on three sides by water, and a piece of rail track is entombed underneath the grave. It was built on a natural spring to signify the temporality of the grave itself, for the water and piece of track symbolise the impermanent nature of the grave to show how Palestinians aspire to move it to Jerusalem, the capital of their desired state, the city which Yasser Arafat was born in, fought for, and in whose soil he yearned to rest. To further the concept of temporality and connection, the monument also includes a mosque and a minaret built after the Andalusian architectural style which shines a green laser light towards Jerusalem.

Though Jerusalem was declared the Capital of Arab Culture for the year 2009, the year witnessed two paradoxical positions regarding the placement of Jerusalem within the cultural landscape and public sphere in Ramallah. One seemed to be a (sur)“realistic” attempt to treat Jerusalem as a virtual reality and to colour the landscape and the public sphere by (un)consciously fostering certain politics of amnesia. The other, however, had a “nostalgic” approach, highly charged with the politics of remembrance to preserve ties with Jerusalem. The dream of a modern city like Ramallah, however, should not, in normal circumstances, contradict the yearning to get closer to Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. The persistence of the illusion of Ramallah, as a dwarf badauderie with an area of 16.3 km², becoming a modern city, or at least becoming a boulevard in a modern city, should not sidetrack Palestinians from bringing Jerusalem to Ramallah as much as taking Ramallah into Jerusalem, culturally speaking.

The idea that human history is the history of the victor no matter how many uprisings have temporarily broken its continuity should not prevent the militarily defeated Palestinians from establishing their own modernity with all that it entails of nationally planning their landscape and public sphere. In this sense, victors write history as colonisers name territory, but resistance begins by challenging this very dynamic. Palestinians should not mourn not being “last year in Jerusalem,” but they must learn the lesson of how to keep Jerusalem inside them “next year in Ramallah”!

Dr. Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh is a poet and academic. He is the head of the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, and the director of the Graduate Program in Contemporary Arab Studies at Birzeit University. Professor Al-Shaikh is the consultant to the Palestinian House of Poetry and a fellow at Muwatin, The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.

(1) Palestinian-installed road sign on Surda Street.

(2) A placard installed at the northern entrance of Ramallah-Al-Irsal Street.

(3) Israeli-installed sign on the road to ‘Azariyya and Jerusalem.

(4) Israeli-installed sign on Road 1

(Jerusalem-Dead Sea)- A Nationally Funded Road Construction

Project with A Duration of Two Years.

(5) Israeli-installed sign on Al-Ram-Jaba’ Street that prohibits Israelis from entering (A).

(6) A ceramic sign affixed on Al-Muqata’ah Wall

right before the entrance of the mausoleum of Yasser Arafat.


January 2010

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