Opinion | Arabic in Israel, by Adi Gura

On the 23rd of March of 2011, a terror attack occurred in Jerusalem on the 74-bus line. I was reminded of this event when I opened my old diary and randomly stopped at the page that mentioned it. When I continued reading, I noticed that the tone of my writing was so emotional, I could barely stop. I was extremely angry and frightened because, only the day before, I was on that same bus line. My handwriting was dripped with all this sadness and the fear of death. My own manuscript shouted at me: “Go study Arabic! You must know your enemy”.

As a young girl, all my interactions and thoughts about the Arabic language and its speakers came down to the mug shots of the terrorists’ faces on the TV. Through the curtains of fear, I didn’t realize that the smiling lady from the grocery store is also part of a whole world I knew nothing about. For me, it was black or white, and I couldn’t analyze the situation properly. At that time, I did not see Arabic as a language of culture and people but mostly as a language that I must be away from.

As the years have passed, I found myself in a kibbutz in the middle of the barren desert of Jordan Valley, surrounded by tall date trees and feeling the breeze of dry desert blowing my hair. Every day, all the date pickers, regardless of our different linguistic backgrounds and origins, sat together for a cup of strong black coffee before starting work at 5:00 AM.

In the middle of April 2016, when the weather starts getting hot and heavy, Jews all over the world celebrated the Passover (a seven-day Jewish holiday, during which it is forbidden to eat flour). As for our small date pickers group, we sat together in our usual spot and sipped our coffee. At the beginning of the break, Uda, who oversees the Bedouin group, pulled out from his bag a box of cookies. He asserted “we know it is Passover time, so the cookies are without any flour, you can be sure! We made it especially for you!”.

The atmosphere in the kibbutz was simple and inclusive, the Israeli workers’ group came frequently to their co-worker’s village to buy popsicle with one Shekel (don’t forget we are in the middle of hot April), and the Bedouin fellows sometimes came to visit us.

The work on the treetop of the date trees connected us. We all had a mutual cause and shared goals; we went through the same progress. On the treetop we could barely feel the time pass, often we tried to catch the Jordanian radio frequency so we could enjoy the sounds of bouncing music as we work.

For me, it was the first time that the Arabic language was associated with a peaceful concept. I felt extremely proud that I was able to communicate (even with some mistakes) with my coworkers in their mother tongue. I believe that they were also happy for sharing with me their world and even the secret recipe of their tea. The origin of the interest to study Arabic suddenly changed, and I discovered the beauty of it, bringing me closer to the people who speak it.

When I started my graduate studies at the university, I could perceive the outcome of both sides’ narratives and education in daily interactions. I could, for example, notice a separation that felt almost natural between the two groups. It was not unexpected due to the difficult events that were carved into our consciousness.

For me, as a young woman who was learning the Arabic language, the random encounters with speakers of this language shocked me. I felt how I managed to shed, even slightly, the shells of fear from my heart just by using words. I get excited every time I use Arabic and learn new words. I feel as I am delving deeper into the language. I do realize that there are many more deep layers of this language.

I believe that small gestures can leave a big mark on people’s hearts. I do not delude myself that the situation we have reached can change so quickly, but there is room to be human and to be generous to each other. For me, everything starts when learning the language and respecting its speakers and culture. Through speaking Arabic with its native speakers, I could experience firsthand the ability to overcome an invisible wall and genuinely connect with each other.

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