Monday, August 20, 6pm
NYC Department of Education
Tweed Courthouse, 52 Chambers Street
Between Broadway & Centre St. in Manhattan
Subways: 4, 5, 6, N, R, W, M, J, 2, 3, A, C
This is fairly short notice for this alert, but I want to really encourage folks to show up Monday afternoon for a gathering in support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a soon-to-be-opened NYC public school that will focus on Arabic language and culture (for folks unfamiliar, many NYC public schools have foci like this, cultural or otherwise.) The school has been the subject of racist and anti-Islamic attacks from many conservative pundits and media sources, as in this NY Sun article and an edition of Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes that was written up over at Media Matters. However, the school has been under especially harsh attack since Debbie Almontaser, now ex-principal of the school, came under fire from such sources for not condemning a t-shirt created by an organization that is unrelated to the school. Since then, Almontaser has resigned from her position, stating that she “became convinced yesterday that this week’s headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though [she] apologized.”
The t-shirt, which reads “Intifada NYC,” was created by a NYC community organization, AWAAM: Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media. The group’s mission states that it “provides comprehensive leadership opportunities in community organizing, art and media skills to young women and girls … to empower a generation of young women with the community organizing and media skills necessary to act as leaders within their communities, which have endured increasing hardship in recent years.” On Democracy Now! last Monday, Mona Eldahry, founding director of AWAAM, said this about the t-shirt’s origin and meaning:
Now, “Intifada NYC” is not a call for terrorism, as they say. It’s not a call for violence or, if I could quote one of the publications, “Gaza Strip uprising in the Big Apple.” “Intifada NYC” is a term that, you know, we developed maybe two, three years ago in the years since September 11th. Basically, for myself — everybody interprets it differently — but for myself, I feel, as an Arab woman, as a Muslim woman and as a woman of color, pressure from two sides … on one hand, from the community discrimination — from the outside, I mean, you know, discrimination on the streets — and then from our own communities, you know, we’re told, you know, “Be careful. You know, don’t — you know, don’t go to demonstrations. Don’t be too outspoken, you know,” you know, especially when we were young …
“Intifada” means “shaking off,” you know, so shake off these pressures that we’re feeling, both from the other side and from our side. You know, we have to speak out. And if we don’t speak up for ourselves, who will?
This clarification of the literal Arabic meaning of intifada is what got Debbie Almontaser into so much trouble. Essentially, both she and AWAAM are coming under fire for owning their own language and for refusing to allow it to be constrained to which others wish to limit it. A recent editorial in the New York Post gives this definition of the word: “terroristic assault and murder, undertaken by Palestinians against Jews in the Middle East.” (No mention, of course, of the terroristic assault, murder, and oppression of Palestinians by Israel.) The editorial then calls Almontaser’s explanation of the Arabic definition of intifada “malarkey.” Because apparently, the editorial staff of the New York Post deems itself more qualified to give the definition of an Arabic word than an Arab-American speaker of Arabic. And although it may be true that the word is most often associated with Palestinian uprisings against Israeli occupation, such a definition even leaves out the many non-violent elements of those struggles, including “civil disobedience, general strikes, boycotts on Israeli products, graffiti, and barricades.”
The repression, stamping out, robbing and perversion of language and cultural identity have long been important tools of colonialism, imperialism, and racism. Right now, it is in the interest of conservatives, racists, warmongers, and anti-Islamic people to promote only those perceptions of Islam and Arabic culture that support american wars and policies of aggression and imperialism in the Arabic world, as well as the oppression of Arabic people in this country. The Khalil Gibran International School is coming under attack because it will not promote the prescribed view of Arabic history, culture, peoples and languages; it’ll actually strive for a fair and complete perspective, one which will go counter to one that props up war and oppression. The attacks themselves – calling the school a “madrassa” (another Arabic word twisted by the media and conservatives) that will serve to “groom future radicals” – continue to promote the twisted view of Arab people, assigning sinister, violent, and anti-american motives to the mere study of Arabic language and culture.
The preservation of language and culture is threatening to american hegemony, to american imperialism, and to american racism. African languages were quite literally beaten out of Africans in slavery; Native languages and culture were wiped out with their people. Today, “Welcome to America, now SPEAK ENGLISH” is a popular t-shirt slogan, Latino kids are suspended from school for speaking Spanish in the halls, and travelers are stopped from boarding planes because they’re wearing t-shirts written in Arabic:
So the security officers and the JetBlue officers at that time told me that wearing an Arabic T-shirt and coming to an airport in the US is like going to a bank while wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I am a robber.”
And a principal can be forced to resign because she makes the mistake of defining a word in her own language, instead of allowing her language to be defined for her by those who do nothing but malign her culture.
Intifada NYC, indeed – for there’s a whole lot of bullshit to be shaken off.