In the English-speaking world, words that resist translation tend to occupy an unusual conceptual field. There are some terms, of course, for which no adequate translation is available. Ennui, for example, is not quite captured by "boredom." There are other nouns, however, whose resistance to translation prompts more political questioning.
We do not tend to call Hitler's biography My Struggle. Holocaust is rightly a proper noun; we do not speak of the catastrophe of 1941 to 1945. And, curiously, Marx's inimitable volumes regularly maintain German nomenclature (Das Kapital) on American tongues. Which brings me to a group of non-English words of particular interest in the contemporary US. Arabic words including sharia and jihad slip casually into English sentences without translation or explanation. I am not the first to mention that "Sharia law" in fact means "religious law law."
So let's think about intifada. The US news cycle has been peppered with the Arabic term since Thursday night, when tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered to march from the West Bank city of Ramallah toward Jerusalem to protest Israel's assault on Gaza. The so-called #48kMarch is believed to be the largestmobilization of Palestinianssince 2005, turning murmurs into shouts about a coming "Third Intifada."
Intifada in Arabic means "uprising" (or, as Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Columbia University, points out, when intifada is translated as a "shaking off," cheap Orientalist conceptions of camels shaking off sand have been applied). The term, however, has a specific and exclusive reference point in the US media: It denotes both the First Intifada of 1987 to 1993, during which Palestinians en masse clashed with Israeli forces, typically with no more advanced weaponry than rocks to throw. Several years later, the term became a historical designator for Palestinian struggle again with the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2003. This was also a period of widespread uprising, but became defined in the American imagination by suicide bombs and terrorist tactics.
Intifada, then, became unmoored in Western-media lexicon from its sense as "uprising" and instead occupied that peculiar anti-Muslim tendency to imbue Arabic words with a valence of terror. And while Hamas's terrorist tactics must be condemned, I urge that we think of intifadaas an uprising — a rising-up of an oppressed people. It is, as Khalidi told me, "like what the Irish did, and the Indians, and the South Africans did against apartheid." Intifada is not, as the historian noted, some "peculiar violent ritual" reserved for Palestinians — it simply means "uprising," which is what oppressed Palestinians have no option but to do save for continuing to live under the yoke of 47 years of occupation.
To speak of intifadas as marked historical events serves to normalize a context that should not be normalized — that is, a context of daily violence and oppression under which Palestinians live. Intifada does not get translated partly, I believe, to serve as an othering — specifically, not-one-of-us — of the Palestinian cause. While the US media spoke, often with wide eyes, about revolutions of the Arab Spring, these same events were referred to (although not exclusively) as intifada in the Arabic-speaking world. To speak in English of a Palestinian intifada also serves Israel's victim narrative: Palestinians, it suggests, are the party taking violent initiative. But the violent context of their daily lives is ignored, as is the fact that we are really talking about rising up against an oppressive circumstance.
Khalidi suggested, and I agree, that it is not useful now to talk about whether we're on the verge of a so-called "Third Intifada." Aside from the problematics of such discourse in the US, as mentioned above, it is more important to stress that history does not repeat itself. One demarcated Intifada does not follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. The First and Second Intifada were markedly different. We do not know what will happen next.
We are, however, seeing what Khalidi calls a "paradigm shift" in which a new phase of Palestinian unity has emerged, united against the occupation. Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday gave permission for the mass march, marking a shift in the Palestinian Authority's relationship with Jerusalem. Without the PA to do its bidding, Israeli forces resorted to sniper fire instead.
With a shift toward a united effort in light of the intensified assault on Gaza, the conditions of possibility for what might be called a Third Intifada are perhaps emerging. I urge, then, that intifada not be understood as some othering shorthand for Palestinian violence. Rather, we should remember that we are talking about oppressed people rising up.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard