Growing up in Canada to immigrant families, language was a cultural equalizer; no matter where people of my parents’ generation were from, English was the language of both home and street. Despite Canada’s self-imaginary as a ‘mosaic’ nation, English (and for the other side of the family in Quebec, French) was the language that celebrated diversity. It was not until the start of my University career in September 2001 that I began to realize how much English-as-equalizer also meant a default isolation—only certain ideas and arguments circulated in English. I had little access to information that might disprove or contradict the worrying positions being taken in North America in the autumn of 2001 and its aftermath.
Dusting off the mandatory French of primary school classes, I headed to North Africa to learn Arabic. These beginning days saw a far greater improvement of my French than anything else, except a growing awareness of the politics of language and its unique relationship with power. While being able to jumble new Arabic words with old French ones on the streets of Fes was convenient, it spoke to an uncomfortable colonial legacy. The impossible work of ‘untangling’ Berber vocabulary from the formal Arabic I set out to learn was another early lesson in the complexity of communication systems and the powers that determine them. A Masters in Arabic Literature with a focus on Palestinian novels brought me to the ‘Levant’, to a new set of dialects and language politics. Here, ‘Arab’ referred less to a language group than to a politics of occupation. In Palestine, the power of language reinforces colonization, re-naming cities and re-imagining history.
Current research uses Arabic Literature to interrogate existing theoretical frameworks where questions are often asked in ‘English.’ Rather than having texts ‘respond’ to questions they themselves do not pose, my own project for Creative Multilingualism, Telling the Terrible, looks to works from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to produce an alternative set of ideas that can converse with, and ultimately redefine the English (and largely Post-War) notion of ‘trauma.’ The project is a case study, and a way to think through the academic usage of theoretical terms that come loaded with cultural and linguistic histories. Not only this, it aims to foster conversations about how—by using a multilingual lens—we can learn to ask questions about the very words with which we ask, and then learn to pose new and better ones.
Following her work with Creative Multilingualism Nora took up an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation early career fellowship at the Freie Universitat Berlin, continuing her work on concepts and representations of ‘trauma’ in Arabic Literature, and joined Rights for the Time / Time for Rights Network Plus, a collaborative interdisciplinary project based at the University of Birmingham, as partner coordinator.