Off the Linguistic Map

A leading Israeli linguist seeks to erase this country's Arab past in a bid to prove to the entire world that it is under Jewish ownership, and that the Arabs of Jerusalem have no linguistic and spatial identity connecting them to 'terrestrial Jerusalem' and the city where they have been living for generations.

Amar Dahamshe
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Amar Dahamshe

In an interview with Amalia Rosenblum, Avshalom Kor claimed that the Arabs inherited "place names as they heard them from Jews" (Haaretz Hebrew Edition, April 19 ). His statement implies that the Arabs did not put their stamp on place names in Israel. To prove this, Kor makes unwarranted generalizations and ignores the traditions that have drawn this land's historical map.

I contend that all the names used by Arabs for places where people live in this country have their source in the Arabic language. In my research I have found that some of the place names in Arabic also indicate a combination with Hebrew elements; sometimes names that seem to have no meaning in Arabic are explained by a Hebrew origin.

However, those cases of adoption from Hebrew do not come close to Kor's wide-ranging claims. Had he abided by the rules of scientific discourse, he would have explained that Arabic's imprint is also obvious in place names. His claims make it clear that he aims not to investigate scientific truth but to use his knowledge as a lever for ideological claims. By denying Arab ethnolinguistic markers he is trying to prove that this country's past is exclusively Jewish.

The Bible and other historical sources contradict this position. According to the Book of Joshua (3:10 ), for example, before Joshua's conquest, seven peoples were living in this land. Is it possible to prove today that all the names in the Bible are Hebrew, and not the continuation of linguistic traditions of the peoples who lived in this land before it was conquered?

This country's past is rich in ethnolinguistic and religious traditions. It is possible to identify influences of the Canaanites, Hebrews, Byzantines, Arabs and others. Place names have superimposed themselves in differing versions in accordance with the period of settlement at a site, just as levels accumulate in a tel - the hill covering the remains of an ancient settlement.

The human mosaic this country has known has made its mark on the landscape of its names; this landscape provides textual testimony to the waves of peoples that came through its gates and its multifaceted identity. Is it possible the Muslims who marched here to make war and the Arab inhabitants of the land who have been living here for hundreds of years did not give names to its places?

One could fill a book with examples of names the Arabs gave to human settlements and natural sites. I will confine myself to a few: The name of the village Kawkab al-Hija perpetuates the memory of Abu al-Hija, the commander of Saladin's army. Al A'asem is named for the members of the tribe who live there; Hudj al-Arus ("the bride's canopy" ) is the name of the place where processions from Reina and Saffuriya (now Tzippori ) would exchange brides. It is impossible to claim that these names are Hebrew, and it is impossible to make the existence of the society that created them disappear with the stroke of a false scientific claim.

As if this were not enough, Kor has submitted a plan to the Jerusalem municipality for giving names to the stations of the light railway, which is nothing but the uprooting of Arabic names and supplying Hebrew names in their place.

Kor's ideological greed seeks to erase from consciousness the place's Arab past and thereby prove to the entire world that it is under Jewish ownership, and that the Arabs of Jerusalem have no linguistic and spatial identity connecting them to "terrestrial Jerusalem" and the city where they have been living for generations. Kor would have done well to propose to the municipality a plan for preserving the Arabic names. In that way he would have shown that there remains language coexistence in the torn city and the country as a whole.

The writer researches the link between place names in this country and the identity of places in stories, autobiographical materials and historical memoirs.

The East Jerusalem neighborhood of SilwanCredit: Emil Salman



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