Language and Time

Language and Time


Research Overview

The Jordan case study tackled the issue of language and time by taking a multidisciplinary approach. We took recourse, in particular, to tools from history, philology, and ethnography in order to understand how language operates over time in constraining or otherwise liberating displaced people in the Levant. Our focus was on the term ‘refugee.’ How does the term reformulate the inherited identity of a displaced person according to modern statistical and legal categories? May such reformulation disable their agency over long stretches of time? How do historically inherited means of coping with protracted crises in the Levant give rise to other indigenous terms?

In pursuing these questions, we undertook 1) literary analysis of archival documents describing the limits of humanitarian language for conceiving of refugees; 2) historical research into the ways in which governments and prewar agencies made sense of forced displacement in the context of protracted crisis in the Levant; 3) philological study of how the rich and textured root structure of the Arabic language inspired a set of indigenous terms in Arab-Islamic history, which were used to describe forced displacement; 4) interviews with displaced people living in Jordan to better understand how these indigenous terms still operate today beyond the lexicon of policy.

By better understanding the historically-mediated and indigenous forms through which displaced people have conceived themselves in the region, and subsequently disseminating our findings through the lexicon of policy, we challenged the bureaucratic institutions tasked with regulating humanitarian aid – including governments, INGOS, and UN agencies. In turn, local communities and researchers were at the heart of the project’s undertaking, both in terms of its initial design and the direction it has taken. As the project aimed towards deriving forms of agency from within local communities and their inherited linguistic terms, we prioritized their involvement at all stages, including training local research assistants and translators.

Thinking about language in confronting the effects of a protracted crisis requires patience. It demands that we suspend the impulse to gauge the normative practice of policy or social science with the faith that a careful consideration of language would invariably benefit our long-term thinking about the fate of displaced people. We thus proposed that language affects not only the terms deployed by academics in the humanities and social sciences, but also the concrete and social resources extended by the current stakeholders on the ground. We shared the findings of the project with our network of policy makers, civil society groups, and members of government.

In terms of outputs, we wrote a short book in Arabic which describes our literary, philological, historical, and ethnographic approach and findings. That book, titled How Does the Refugee Enter Language?, is in preparation for publication in Jordan. We are also translating the book into English in order to publish a bilingual edition. In addition to a variety of discursive outputs, we created a sculpture which thematized how displacement may take many forms and showcased it in Amman. We hosted discussions, both within the seminars and independently of them, about the role of the visual and sculptural arts in bypassing the limits of discursive articulations of identity.

From Research to Teaching

Building on our Rights for Time work, we applied for and received a grant from a sister network Education, Justice, and Memory (EdJAM). Through the grant, we built a curriculum for teaching about the past through indigenous history, literature, and language; developed a pedagogical approach for the curriculum with a focus on individual expression; implemented two seminars in Arabic, based on the aforementioned curriculum and pedagogy, in Amman; and shared the experience through several formats, including academic papers, a policy report, and an anthology of student writing.

The curriculum offered seminar members written and oral historical resources, literary models, and local frameworks for confronting past violence. These critical discourses were put into tension with vernacular, legal, and state-sanctioned historical narratives. Structural accounts of violence included the ethnonationalism of the modern state; the class structure of urban society; and neocolonial hierarchies. Specific historical events included the Nakba and the Naksa in Palestine, the Syrian and Lebanese civil wars, and the Gulf wars. Writers included Burhan Ghalyoun, Salma Jayyusi, Samira Azzam, Ghaleb Halaseh, Abdulrahman Mounif, Ghassan Kanafani, Tahir bin Jaloun, and Hisham Sharabi.

In addition to history, literature, and sociology, we cultivated elements of our Rights for Time research on the term refugee and its alternatives. What made the curriculum unique is that it underscored the indigenous ways in which violence may be coped with. As such, it resisted models of reckoning which have their basis in western history and theoretical paradigms which are neocolonial in their applicability in the Arab world. As such, the curriculum may inform other attempts in the Global South to achieve indigenous ways of knowing about the violent past.

Students were invited in the last two weeks of the seminar to write in their own terms. Having begun the work of reckoning with the past, they translated their experience to life after the seminar. We mentored each member through office hours and one-on-one meetings throughout the seminars, as we have done before in order to support their social, civic, activist, and academic pursuits. We specifically invited members to write in the form of a letter. The definition of the letter was left for each member to determine. The letters, as a result, ranged from self-expression to manifestos, to be kept private or published widely. The act of deliberate writing is a necessary step for each member to take responsibility for their individual reckoning, and to begin thinking about impacting their community.


Abdullah Mohammad is lead researcher on the Jordan case study and a fellow with the Rights for Time network. He is the founding director of the Institute for Critical Thought, where he builds original curricula and teaches seminars in a variety of academic and non-academic contexts, and a Herchel Smith Fellow at the University of Cambridge. He has undertaken ethnographic work in the US, India, and Brazil, and lectures internationally about education and the humanities.

Rana Dajani is co-PI with the Rights for Time network and a thought leader with extensive experience in research and social programming in the Arab region and internationally. She is especially versed in how social initiatives may be implemented with a view to long-term health benefits. Her network of senior government officials, humanitarian organizations, and grassroots movements allowed her to advise the Jordan case study on how to steer through difficulties while maintaining a critical and constructive stance.

Sanabel Alfar is a faculty member at the Institute for Critical Thought, where she convenes seminars on comparative literature and poetics. She holds doctoral degrees in Arabic literature and criticism, and her research spans the history, theory, and practice of classical and contemporary Arabic writing. A celebrated teacher, Sanabel has taught language, literature, and criticism for ten years. Sanabel’s recent research with the network focused on the literature, history, and philology of the term ‘refugee.’

Rights4Time · Rights for Time case study in Jordan