Issue Nº 13 – The Letter

Chronicles from the Margins of Language: Subtle Forces in Everyday Resistance

Text by Rasha Dakkak
As I journeyed through my formative years, I found refuge and joy in the enchanting realm of words. This affinity drew me close to a cartoon persona, Abi al-Horouf, and his relentless clashes against the malicious Kharbut's linguistic chaos (the word ‘Kharbata’, from which Kharbut’s name derives, means causing disorder).
Abi al-Horouf appeared in the segment ‘The Adventures of Abi al-Horouf’ on the Jordanian TV programme Al-Manahil, inspired by The Letterman from an American educational programme that aired in the 1970s. As I watched the episodes of The Adventures of Abi al-Horouf, I discovered an unexpected source of empowerment in how he made use of the most ubiquitous instrument we have at our disposal: letters. Though fictitious, his saga felt as if it brushed against reality’s edges, unveiling the sinister potential of seemingly ordinary words. Abi al-Horouf's unassuming heroism captured my imagination; his demeanour and unpretentious attire made him feel more real than fictional, someone relatable.

Much like his escapades, I narrate three tales, one I witnessed and two shared with me, where letters and diacritical marks conquer tyranny, reinforcing my unwavering belief in this force.
Lam’s Song of Liberation
Within the expansive world of language, I, Lam, am but a humble letter. I stand tall alongside twenty-seven siblings to create the intricate fabric of words, sentences, and stories you use to express yourselves.
As a hopeless romantic, I embarked on a solo journey, feeling compelled to support Ghada and Ghassan's audacious love story that defied the odds. It was before the establishment of Israel in 1948, when countless Palestinian men were imprisoned unfairly for daring to voice their opposition against the British occupation of Palestine. It is a saddening reminder of the injustices that have occurred and continue to occur. Ghassan’s captivity weighed heavily upon his beloved Ghada.
Ghada, an embodiment of resilience, reached out to me for aid in communicating a message to her incarcerated fiancé that she was not allowed to visit. Back then, although barred, prison cells had windows that opened to the outside. Ghassan was unaware of the location of his cell. To help him escape, Ghada and I crafted a song holding information about his whereabouts, enabling him to plot his escape more effectively. With elegant poetic skill, we spun verses that intertwined my presence with Ghada’s words. Repeatedly and randomly, I positioned myself within the song, creating a melody that seemed to dance on the edge of comprehensibility, yet to those who listened, it sounded like gibberish. Although the army had translators and some Arabic speakers, their language skills were inadequate to decode our message.

In the first line, we explain the prison’s location in relation to his village so that in the case of escaping, he knows which direction to run.

شمالي لالي ياهوالي لديرة شمالي لالي ياوريللوووو
Shimali lali ya hawaalideerah shimali lali yawerilloooo
North, Oh love, the village is north.
Then, we explain which direction the prison’s front door is facing.
ع لالي للبواب هولولم تفتح شمالي لالي ياوريللوووو
Ala alli libwabehloom teftah shimali lali yawerilloooo
The ones whose gates open to the north.

Ghada wanted to express how much she missed him, so we collaborated on a few lines to convey her sentiments.
وطالالالت الغربة الليلة واشتقنا ليلي للهم ياوريللوووو
w talalat alghorbe aleila weshtagna lelillahom yawerilloooo
It has been too long since we’ve been apart, and I have been missing you.

During restless nights, Ghada undertook a secret mission. She strolled along the outer perimeter of the prison wall, singing a soft melody. Her voice carried my constant presence in a mystical chorus. Each note held the weight of her devotion and conveyed the message that would lead Ghassan to his freedom.  Ghada’s tarweedeh (song), reached Ghassan’s ears. Guided by my subtle presence and armed with the newfound knowledge of his surroundings, Ghassan orchestrated his escape. The walls that once held him now seemed feeble against the strength of the couple’s determination.  It’s heartwarming to realize that long after Ghada and Ghassan's tale had ended, I continue to serve as a reminder of their liberation and the crucial role I played in it.
1. Lorenzo Lotto, Family Portrait, 1524. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Abu al-Horouf (The Letterman), 1987
Nuqta’s Revolt
I’m too old to precisely recall when, but somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries, vast numbers of non-Arabs converted to Islam and started to read the Quran. It was a time when I had not arrived, and Arabic script had to endure from poor pronunciation. This had become widespread due to linguistic disparities between the native tongues of those influxes and Arabic. Enter the story's hero (yes, that’s me!) – ‘Nuqta’. I popped up right then and there, born on a mission to unite tongues with accents as diverse as the constellations. I nestled beside letters, giving each a voice that resonated through time. I have been there for centuries, standing as the bridge between clarity and obscurity, miscommunication and understanding.
But as centuries passed, I began to feel as though I had been overlooked... perhaps even taken for granted. With time, my days as a rescuer faded. The succeeding generations embraced the letters with familiarity, their eyes skimming over the curves, lines, and myself. However, in May 2021, a pivotal moment unfolded in Palestine, particularly within the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.
The Zionist regime was throwing Palestinians out of their homes. Following that, there was a violent incursion into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, carpet-bombing of Gaza, and a series of organized settler attacks across occupied Palestine. It was all a microcosm of the reality for Palestinians over 73 years of Zionist rule. As these images circulated through the digital realm, I saw a profound transformation in public discourse, where each hashtag held the power to unite souls across continents. I could hear a new rhythm born from empathy and solidarity.  
Yet, there were clearly many authorities that weren’t pleased, so we gradually began to realize that Palestinian content was being restricted or removed.
I, like the users, was outraged. I’ve been witnessing and addressing the Palestinian cause for years. At that very moment, I felt the urge to counter the censor’s grip. With social media users, we devised a slick plan to defy oppressive algorithms that sought to silence their voices and set their words free, altering the placement of my forgotten presence. An idea that would enable me to make a strong comeback after life had tested my resilience, and it would remind people of the past that I’d just recounted with you while also contributing to this asymmetric struggle that I am very much part of.
I hopped from one letter to another unexpectedly, and sometimes, I would disappear altogether, confusing the algorithms tasked with deciphering letters and words. Within this staged chaos, it was unable to control the whispered narratives, and I, Nuqta, stood at the heart of this rebellion.
In its brevity, this experience instilled an invaluable lesson to algorithms and all parties involved in the large-scale removal of Palestinian content. And so, dear reader, I became the embodiment of a spirit that refuses to be hushed. I became the heartbeat of a movement.
1. Lorenzo Lotto, Family Portrait, 1524. Courtesy Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Abu al-Horouf (The Letterman), 1987
Fatha’s Fateful Interventions
In the war-torn streets of Beirut, buildings stood with shattered windows, their walls marked by bullet holes and the residue of explosions. Palestinian Sabri navigated the perilous city with caution. The once-vibrant streets had transformed into a battleground, and the conflict had morphed the land into a canvas smeared with the hues of sectarian strife.
Factions fighting for control had reduced checkpoints to zones of potential death, where one’s identity could lead to swift liquidation. The simple act of carrying an identity card now bore the risk of a fatal dance with destiny at any checkpoint.
Early in the morning, Sabri would venture out in search of groceries for his family, and like many others, he chose not to carry his identity card when out of the house for fear of disclosing his Palestinian background.
That day, he had managed to find a meagre selection of vegetables. As he walked back through the ravaged streets, every step felt like an eternity and every sound a potential threat. Sabri’s path led him closer to a dreaded checkpoint controlled by a faction known for their ruthless tactics. He cautiously approached. His fingers tightened around the handles of the grocery bag, avoiding direct eye contact with the armed militants.

“Hey, you there!” One of the militants barked, “Open the bag,” with an air of dominance in his voice. He reached into the bag, rummaging through the vegetables. He pulled his hand out of the bag, holding up one tomato, its vibrant red skin shimmering in the harsh sunlight. “What is this?,” his voice like ice.
In the few fleeting seconds that passed, unable to figure out the situation, Sabri’s mind raced. Being his constant companion, I decided to take action. I am not one that engages in grand displays of heroism. I like to lurk in the shadows and only come out to intervene when I sense something is wrong. I do it when I believe my unique talents are desperately needed.
It was this checkpoint’s wicked test – a linguistic trap to determine one’s identity based on a single word: the word for “tomato”, I figured. I jumped right in, modifying the silent clear “n” in Sabri’s “Bandora” to one with a delicate lingering sound, weaving myself around the “n” and guiding his tongue to say “Banadoura” to mould his accent into a Lebanese one. This minor accent meant the difference between life and death. Sabri responded, “Banadoura”.
The militant’s eyes bore into Sabri’s, searching for any sign of deception. Seemingly satisfied with the response, he motioned Sabri to pass as he lowered the tomato, unaware of my intervention that had just occurred.
As Sabri walked away, his heart pounded in his chest. He could hardly believe he had survived the test. In the midst of the chaos, I, ‘Fatha”, the diacritical mark, his constant companion, was the hero who had literally saved his life, giving him the power to reshape his destiny with a minor accent change. I am aware that sometimes it may seem as though I am an insignificant detail of language, but in that instance, Sabri saw me as his guardian angel.
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