Heather Harmon is a junior studying Comparative Cultures and Politics, Arabic, International Development, and Muslim Studies at Michigan State University. She is a resident assistant, treasurer and three year member of James Madison College’s Student Senate, and a student supervisor in a human resources office on campus.
Arabic latched on to me when I was a senior in High School. I was attending a lecture by a female candidate for the Egyptian presidency in 2012. Her name is Bothaina Kamal. She had no hope of succeeding in the election and she had no formal platform, but she did have a vision. Her vision was to rattle the conservative right and the powers that be in the Egyptian military. Bothaina spoke of the harassment she faced as a secular, successful woman; she spoke of the frightening violence that women across Egypt faced at the hands of brutal, undemocratic regimes. She aimed to wake Egypt up, to shake off what she perceived as social and political malaise. Bothaina wanted young girls to look at her –a television talk show host with humble origins- and imagine walking in her shoes and walking farther.
Bothaina’s English was spotty, and she spent the night using a proficient, though boring translator. Where Bothaina’s Arabic was fiery and expressive, the translator merely hammered out bland English phrases. Bothaina would gesticulate wildly and toss her scarf back and forth over her shoulders; the translator stood still, hands clasped in front of her and eyes tracing the same twenty shadowy figures in the back row of the auditorium.
That was the day that Arabic spoke to me. I left that auditorium feeling vaguely unsatisfied and unfulfilled, as if I had been promised much more than what I received. I was angry with the translator for not matching Bothaina’s passion, and I suspected that I hadn’t truly heard Bothaina’s message; I was afraid that too much had been lost in translation for me to really understand. I conflated that frustration with Bothaina’s talk of oppression and discrimination, and I found myself pitying Bothaina for not knowing English, lamenting the fact that if only we could communicate without that middleman, I could truly empathize with her. That was the day that I realized: I wanted to help give a voice to a people that I then perceived to be voiceless. But I was wrong; it took me three years of college Arabic courses and ten days in Israel to learn that there are no voiceless people in the Middle East.
The voices of Arabs and Israelis are very loud and very clear. Our coordinators on the trip kept impressing on us how passionate and outspoken the people of Israel are; after many talks by left wingers, right wingers, Zionists, Arabs, and more, I gained a sense of how true that really is. In one day, we spoke to four very different and equally loud voices positioned along the spectrum associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict. By the end of our week and a half in Tel Aviv, the Kinneret, and Jerusalem, I lost any sort of Mid-Western hesitancy when it came to bringing up politics at the dinner table.
I left Israel with a more nuanced understanding of my original assumption, the assumption that Arabs are voiceless. Arabs are not voiceless, and neither are Israelis nor any other demographic in the Middle East. Every human being is born with a voice as much as they are born with universal and inalienable rights. Perhaps if I had recognized the intrinsic nature of that human agency before attending Bothaina’s lecture, I would have left satisfied despite whatever may have been lost in translation.
What the Middle East lacks is not voices; it’s communication. It’s a dialogue. The fiery, competent translators aren’t missing either; I was overwhelmed and impressed by how many bi- and trilingual people there are in Israel. What is missing from the Middle East, and from the world in general, is the will and the desire to understand, to empathize, and to truly and deeply communicate with other human beings.
This is what relational advocacy means to me; to bridge the language barriers and cultural gaps, to soar past all the embarrassment and fear that’s associated with travel in a foreign land, and to live and speak and share alongside people who are different and strange and new. Relational advocacy isn’t about giving a voice to the voiceless; it’s about acknowledging that those voices already exist and hearing them, fully and with deep, unfaltering respect.