Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I’ve been meaning to do a post on the on the relatively recent Arabic lendword ‘هدنة’/‘hudna’ since, well, since before I started this blog. I managed to find this article which starts off very well, making the very interesting point that:
The use by Westerners of the word hudna highlights an anomaly. Whenever journalists, diplomats, or commentators covering the Middle East use a non-English word, it will almost always be Arabic or perhaps Persian; seldom do they use any Hebrew words. Never has a U.S. or British newspaper, for example, used the Hebrew word for cease-fire (hafsakat esh). This is odd as Israel is the other side to these cease-fires.
This is the first warning sign. Two languages are getting starkly different treatment. Lendwords often serve to give an exotic, foreign flavour to the concept they describe – think ‘nouvelle vague’, ‘squaw’ or ‘Rajah’, or all the trendy, tedious business jargon foreigners lap up from us. The decision to leave an imported concept sounding foreign can say a lot.
The majority of Arabic terms reproduced in Western language newspapers are concerned with either military topics (jihad, mujahideen, fida'iyin, shahid) or religious affairs (fatwa, mulla, ulema, ayatollah, Shari‘a, Allahu akbar). There is nothing wrong with borrowing Arabic words. However, doing so without understanding the word's nuance and historical development will render deficient any understanding of that word's true meaning.
Great stuff. But you can see we’re really entering the woods now. As with German, when most of the words we borrow from a language involve the same subject matter, we should tread carefully. The author, Denis McEoin, does not, as we’ll see later.
Here, it might be possible to consider hudna somewhat of an exception—it can be translated accurately as truce or cease-fire. Its contemporary usage — at least in English and other European languages — is exclusive to the conflict between Israel and its adversaries, whether Islamist terror groups in Gaza, the West Bank, or southern Lebanon, or states such as Syria. In Iran, it is used alongside the Persian term aramesh. Still, hudna retains a historical context that colors its meaning, if not in Western papers, then in Arabs' understanding.
Note: he claims accurately translated. Also note his stance and credentials. Though put ‘هدنة’ into google images and you also get a lot of ‘armistice’.

But I wonder about the word ‘hudna’. What else can you use it for? Wikipedia gives the variants
hadana: he grew quiet. hadina: he quieted (transitive or intransitive). haadana: he made peace with. The noun from each of these is hudna."
so it actually seems to have a much broader meaning than the English words, which are very focused on their military meanings. Though that might be fairly typical*. I rather like the feel of ‘hudna’ in fact. A tense calm as the guns fall silent. The eye of the storm. Though does it have much theological usage? I know Iranians understand it, but does it make sense in Urdu? And always worth considering with liturgical languages: does it mean the same to non-Arabic-speaking Muslims as to Muslim Arabs as to non-Muslim Arabs? It also makes me wonder about the word ‘truce’. Now this may not be true in your family, but when I were a lad, if two parties were tickling each other and one wanted to give in, he’d shout “truce!”. So to me at least, its register can go from the serious and martial right down to the childishly light-hearted. What sort of register does ‘hudna’ have? Do Arab kids shout “Hudna! Hudna!” in their childish Arab games? Do young Israelis do the same with ‘hafsakat esh’? Iranians with ‘aramesh’? Or is ‘hudna’ too militaristic and serious (like ‘armistice’), or even too religious in its connotations? Foreign lendwords are very useful at creating a particular effect, a particular set of associations, as they come without everyday baggage. The infamous German ‘Volk’ is a prime example. In German, it is almost as earthy and versatile as ‘folk’. In English, it’s pure Hitler.

But back to this “historical context”. Have a look through these-front-page google hits. Their working definitions all seem to follow The Israel Project glossary’s:
Arabic word often translated as "cease-fire”- Historically used as a tactic aimed at allowing the party declaring the hudna to regroup while tricking an enemy into lowering its guard. When the hudna expires, the party that declared it is stronger and the enemy weaker. The term comes from the story of the Muslim conquest of Mecca. Instead of a rapid victory, Muhammad made a ten-year treaty with the Kuraysh tribe. In 628 AD, after only two years of the ten-year treaty, Muhammad and his forces concluded that the Kuraysh were too weak to resist. The Muslims broke the treaty and took over all of Mecca without opposition.
What’s particularly interesting is firstly that this seems fairly standard. If you find yourself with temporary cessation of hostilities, it would take an idiot not to rearm and regroup and, well, if your ceasefire’s going to be broken it probably helps to be the one who breaks it. I doubt Mohammad’s army was the first or the last to pull that one. Secondly, unlike with McEoin – whose credentials are impressive and who clearly has no call to whitewash the term – ‘truce’ and ‘ceasefire’ are generally treated as mistranslations. But finally, and most importantly, all six use it for the same two things: truce with Israel and truce with the Quraysh tribe.

This is why I’m suspicious. It reminds me of the Shoah again, where a very general word is applied to a very specific thing. And then, quite simply, two usages is not a healthy number for a word, especially not one that gets so much exercise. From those two usages, we can infer that ‘hudna’ really doesn’t mean the same as ‘truce’. Nor does it mean the same as ‘هدنة’. ‘Hudna’, the English word of recent Arabic derivation, means ‘truce with Muslims, who are fundamenally dishonest’. It’s an imported unspeak, smuggling in the idea that a cessation of hostilities with Muslims is inherently different to with anyone else. This truce-with-the-perfidious-heathen trope gets a lot of airing, as well: One abstract uses it as almost a Hamas-specific word., while this smug declaration of victory associates it with Hamas and Hezbollah, but as an allegory for his (Muslim) adversary’s retreat. Even McEoin uses ‘hudna’ in this sense, saying:
What does this mean for the present hudna, or any that is likely to follow it? The jihad is waged against the entire world, but Israel has become its focus.[..]Can Western governments do anything to prevent a new hudna running its usual course? [...]If they could impose a hudna on their own side and not fire Qassam and Grad rockets, smuggle weapons, or infiltrate suicide bombers into Israel, there could be a chance for Gaza to develop.
And here, the difference between ‘hudna’ and ‘truce’, a complex issue of theology, strategy and translation, is even presented as a straight fact. You may also notice, if you google it yourself, that apart from Wikipedia, the abstract and one Ha’aretz article, all the front-page hits explicitly characterise Muslims as deceitful and committed to eternal jihad, and the hudna as a fundamental part of this. Unlike ‘truce’, ‘ceasefire’ or ‘armistics’, ‘hudna’ in English seems to be an exclusively negative word.

Incidentally, McEoin is also wrong about Hebrew. There is a word, an even shinier, newer one than ‘hudna’, which we’ve borrowed without translating: ‘הסברה ’/‘hasbara’. The basic meaning of the word is ‘explanation’, the s-b-r root, to do with clarity, in (I think) the hitpa’el hif'il binyan, which implies causation. So, if you pull it to bits, it means ‘making stuff clear’. But the sense in which we get it is far more specific: explaining Israeli policy to the rest of the world, i.e. public diplomacy or propaganda, depending on your point of view. Either way, it’s an old truism that truth is the first casualty of war, which should give us a clue that this sort of thing has been going on for a while. Every government makes excuses for its crimes and cock-ups, and especially in battle. Israel is no exception, though it might be at the high end of the bell-curve for media-savvy Western powers. (Having said that, calling the December incursion into Gaza the equivalent of Operation Jingle Bells might not have been a great PR decision). It also might just be a bit more open about its tinkerings with the press. Now, in English, we hear ‘hasbara’ (mostly) from pro-Palestinian sources, and referring to the nefarious propaganda drive that accompanied Cast Lead. We never get to hear it from baffled ulpan students, or sheepish Israeli kids recounting exactly how the vase got broken. The exact same process is taking place as with ‘hudna’. A vague word is being placed in a very limited context and used for something far more specific, left untranslated and foreign-sounding, a shorthand word for something everybody does, but Tel-Aviv does differently. Whatever this apparently untranslatable word means in Hebrew, in English, it means ‘uniquely Israeli manipulation of the media’.

This is not a blog on middle-eastern politics, so I’m not going to tell you whether to trust Islamist promises of peace or Israeli press-releases. I’m not going to tell you whether a truce between Israel and Hamas would be desirable, workable or sustainable or if the Israelis would lie about it. I’m also not going to go into my strong reservations about declaring precisely what 1.4 billion people believe and exactly what a particular word means to them. I’m just going to say: be careful with foreign lendwords. They might not mean what you think they mean. Especially if that word, or that language, is ever used as shorthand, synecdoche or symbol. Be very careful if the word was imported specially to describe one specific concept, especially historical, political or otherwise emotionally-charged. Think about the myths and preconceptions about the language or its speakers and how they might influence our decision to leave a word untranslated. And most of all, don’t confuse your arguments. The pros and cons of ceasefire, Hamas’ and Israel’s motives and trustworthiness, the danger from Islam moderate and militant, the influence of Israeli lobbyist groups like AIPAC, all of these things are geopolitical, not linguistic, issues. Which side is lying the most and whether you would fight them on the beaches or kill them with kindness, it is your job to argue that and not the translator’s. So when I come across exotic words taken out of context and evoking myths that the Saracens are out for our blood and the Jews control the press, forgive me if I take them with a pinch of salt.

*I’m thinking of the truism that every Arabic word has four meanings, one normal meaning, one which means the exact opposite to the first, one completely unrelated one to do with camels or horses and finally one so obscene I couldn’t possibly explain it to you.

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