On 23rd September 1980, in Derry, a new play opened in the Guildhall. Nothing remarkable there you might think, except that a military helicopter was flying overhead, and the audience in this occupied city had to run a tight security gauntlet.
The play was “Translations” by Brian Friel of the Field Day Theatre Company. The historical setting was the English cartographical expedition of 1822-42. This military mission was disguised as a benign operation, clarifying and transcribing Gaelic names into the English language. Carried out by soldiers with some local support, the process signalled an approach to colonialism that reached far deeper than military conquest alone into the realms of language and identity; as one character in the play remarked, “It’s a kind of eviction.”
This word, replete with historical resonance in Ireland, exposes the politicisation of cartography by imperial forces, the erasure of historic names with their cultural associations, and the imposition of the stamp of imperial ownership, a claiming of the land by linguistic means.
As the medieval linguist Antonio de Nebrija said, “Language has always been the perfect instrument of empire”.
Scroll forward to Kuwait, 2022. Dr Salman Abu Sitta, who knows full well the operations of empire, sits at his desk mapping his homeland, reclaiming it from Zionist settler colonialism, reasserting the Palestinian past and – we trust – prefiguring its future.
Dr Salman’s latest venture, adding to the magisterial “Atlas of Palestine” he has already produced, is the mapping of JNF Parks and Forests: – 46 of the 68 “leisure” facilities of the JNF lie over ethnically cleansed Palestinian land. Salman patiently peels away the layers of Zionist colonial impositions on Palestine, and, with no great drama, resists the attempted erasure of Palestine from the river to the sea by Israel and its leading agent, the JNF. Names are restored to their original, legitimate form.
Cartography, like archaeology, has been subordinated in Israel to the Zionist imperative of wiping Palestinians off the map, both literally and figuratively. A recent book, “Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Villages of 1948” by Noga Kadman, offers insights into this little publicised aspect of the JNF’s work.
Maps of Palestine published by the British Mandatory authority showed thousands of Arabic names for communities and geographical locations. A tiny percentage (5%) were in Hebrew; some of these Hebrew names were ancient, some ascribed to new Jewish communities by the Jewish National Fund Naming Committee, founded in 1925. When the new state was formed in 1948, these Hebrew names were vastly outnumbered by original Arabic ones. Ben Gurion said of these names: “We must remove the Arabic names due to political considerations; just as we do not recognise the political ownership of Arabs over the land, we do not recognise their spiritual ownership and their names.”
From this point, the process of re-naming Palestine began, an exercise in colonial power and an assertion of ownership, as in Ireland, deracinating (or trying to deracinate) the people from their homeland. The work involved was carried out by a sequence of groups like the Negev (sic) Committee, established in 1949. Ben Gurion called the process the removal of “the infamy of alienage and foreign tongues…. Liberating the Negev from foreign rule.” The committee’s remit later expanded beyond the confines of the Naqab.
Later, in 1951, the JNF’s Naming Committee and the Negev Committee merged to form the Government Names Committee, which is active to this day, still with JNF involvement. The ideology of this committee is to “revive” Hebrew names in an attempt to assert a right to the land, a “right” rooted in a remote past, connecting new immigrants to the land by obliterating evidence of Palestinian ownership of the land across millennia.
The committee tried first to find ancient Jewish connections in Arabic names and then to “revive” these. Where this proved impossible, the Arabic was Judaized or transliterated to make it sound Hebrew, foisting a false identity on the landscape. Thus, Tall Abu Huraya (named after one of the Prophet’s companions) was changed to Tel Haror – a name with no Hebrew meaning, but with a Hebraic phonology.
Other strategies were adopted to eradicate the Arabic identity of the land; new Jewish communities were linked with biblical names or names alluding to the Zionist war against the British, symbolic names hinting at redemption, the ingathering of Jewish people, or names of Israeli heroes. Arabic street names in cities were changed to suit the national narrative: Independence Street, In-gathering of Exiles Street, Return of Zion Street (all in Haifa).
And so it continued. The Nakba villages were, of course, problematic. Those villages which fell in the Nakba and were settled by Jewish people had to have their names Judaized. But the names of demolished villages were a problem. Some urged that they should not appear on any map at all, until they were settled by Jews, at which point they would be renamed. Eventually it was agreed to assign Hebrew names to Palestinian villages which absolutely needed to appear on the map.
Noga Kadmon tells us that the majority of depopulated Palestinian villages (302) were never assigned an official name in Israel; they were wiped off the map. Of the 116 that were named on maps, 69 were given names indicative of their ruined status, ignoring the cause of their ruination. For instance, Kudna under British Park was labelled ‘Iyei Kidon, (“Iyei” indicates ruins). Only 13 retained the original Arabic name.
These naming committees, still working today, with the JNF playing its usual role of Zionist agency, strive to consign the Arabic past to oblivion. In a manner analogous to the faux archaeology of the City of David theme park, Naming Committees have desperately dug about in history, seeking to leap over the Palestinian presence and connect today’s Zionist enterprise with a redemptive biblical/ancient past.
The effort of these bureaucratic committees is, indeed, to “redeem” – but, on a more significant level, it is increasingly impossible to rescue Israel from its settler colonial self, to drag the JNF from its fundamental racism and to salvage a scrap of decency from the ugliness and cruelty of the Zionist project.