Mountain Language - Lawrence Abu Hamdan

A Belfast mural referring to the 1988 Broadcast Ban

This is the first blog post in a series that intends to act as a research experiment towards a new work I am developing, Contra-Diction: speech against itself  for Meeting Points 7 in Beirut this spring. This upcoming work and will deal with the little known religious community of the Druze that is spread across Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and Jordan. Across the region the Druze name is synonymous with secrecy and they are stereotyped for their cross border liminality as well as the malleability of their political positions. In the wake of the stories emerging from Syria that 18 Druze villages that suddenly converted to wahabi islam this project looks at the many ways in which the doctrine of the religious Druze minority has a specific interest in the voice; the speech of its members is highly conditioned through an ethico-religious practice called Taqiyya. 
By looking at the Druze theology and philosophy through the micro-politics of phonemes, this work attempts to show how minority thinking can allow us to re-read fundamental issues in regards to silence, free speech and the territoriality of language.

Rather than using this blog as a space to share my project as it progresses I want to use this specific form to pool the audiovisual resources of the web by placing a series of non geographically and non temporally related historical events of minor speech acts next to the core materials of my new research.  Using theses posts as a way to experiment with more oblique connections that allow me to learn the relations of my new research to the broader and deeper questions around the politics of aurality and orality. 

So here goes...

The video above is a BBC documentary about the 1988 Broadcast ban where you can see how an amazing media strategy turned a classic act of censorship into an absurd political performance of overdubbing and a battle for the soundtrack that is satirised below. 

An echo of this event occured in June 2012 that showed the persistent battle over voice in this conflict , when the Queen of England historically shook hands with ex IRA commander Martin Mcguiness under the condition that no microphones and audio recording machines were present. Just like in 1988-94 the image was permitted, yet the audio silenced.


In the same year as the Broadcast Ban was first implemented Harold Pinter, the british playwright, wrote Mountain Language. Though its often claimed that Pinter wrote this indictment against the banning of language in relation to the Turkish suppression of Kurdish language and culture I finder a deeper relevance in the IRA context as  as although the play dramatizes a banned language from the mountains, the only language spoken by any of the characters is english; the same language to represent both oppressor and oppressed. By excluding the easy distinction of two different languages, Pinter locates his critique not in the politics of language and the domination of one language over the other, but rather in the politics of amplitude and the domination of the one who determines which voices (as opposed to languages) are allowed to be heard and which are not. Pinter disorientates the ears of the audience and in turn positions them as the enforcers who must determine which of these english speaking voices are forbidden and which are permissible.  

And it is in this point where the oblique connection of the minor speech position in the context of the IRA meets my own research into the minor language of the Druze and the secret life of phonemes therein. Because much like the context with IRA in the story I am developing there is no easy linguistic distinction between the major and minor groups. The Druze are arabs and speak arabic and no other language is natively attributed to them.  So just as in the story of the 1988 Broadcast ban my story is not about language but it's performance, how it becomes vocalised , audible and negotiated.  

And so all of the above exists as in order to produce a supplementary reading of the following two components of my current research.   

1. an extract from a conversation with a Druze Theologian

LAH: When Fouad Khoury talks in his book “Being a Druze” about Taqiyya [ a practice of dissimulation where one is permitted to conceal their identity for the purposes of survival and cohesion]  he says: ”From a very early age, Druze learn how to pronounce correctly all the Arabic phonemes, which is not done to my knowledge in any other Arab group from the Gulf to the Atlantic.” He then goes on to show how in most places these phonemes are in fact mispronounced; the major example of course is that throughout the Middle East the letter [qaf] is dropped from the spoken language. And then he says “one of the main pillars of the Druze faith is to speak the truth, in this context, Sidq [truthfulness] has a double meaning: speaking the truth and speaking correctly, i.e., pronouncing the words properly”. So my question is, what is the relationship between speech, the phonemes and the form of speech; why do the Druze teach the phonemes, and how is the correct pronunciation of the phonemes a part of practicing Taqiyya? 

 DT: I understand, good question. Because “Sidq” means: the truth. Truth means that you have to respect the words. When you respect the truth of the language, you have to pronounce it as it is. To elaborate your pronunciation properly as the language intends also carries a meaning within it on the level of truthfulness. We pronounce all the Arabic phonemes correctly in order to stick to the basic rules of the language itself.  Because if I pronounce the Arabic letter “qaf ” as “ ‘af ” [replacing the qaf with a glottal stop; similar to the cockney “t” which in the word “butter” would be pronounced “bu’er”], I’m not saying it correctly, so I am also not speaking the truth. 

 LAH: So that means truth is more embedded in the form of the language than in its content? 

 DT: Yes, the pronunciation is linked to truly revealing the truth without causing any misconception to the listener’s ears. 

2.  An image posted by Saudi Wahabi Muslim Cleric on Facebook as a series in order to demonstrate the successful conversion to Wahabi Islam of 18 Druze villages in Idlib province, northern Syria.  

more coming soon..

Lawrence Abu Hamdan