“The issue isn’t just the crime of the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land, because a bigger crime followed—the crime of the imposition of silence on an entire people. I do not speak here of the silence that follows what in the language of psychiatrists is called ‘trauma,’ but of the silence imposed by the victor on the vanquished through the power of language”
Elias Khoury, Children of the Ghetto
What do we do with words—mostly used in ‘imperial languages’—that simultaneously resist expansion from new contexts, but travel widely and are used to define lives and experiences that differ?
Three rather loaded words make the case for a new approach to language.
‘Ghetto.’ ‘Depression.’ ‘Trauma.’ All three words conjure specific contexts alongside their specific definitions. For different reasons and by different forces. All three, however, despite the specificity of what they refer to, are also often taken to be universals. Though they travel, they do not take on the specific meaning of their destinations, as—for example—words like History, or Human (in the Rights sense), which have become the subject for activist and revisionist scholarship that has expanded what might be included in these words-become-categories. Expanding ‘History’ to include Women’s History, Postcolonial History, Black History, and the history of other minorities has undeniably enriched perceptions of the past. Human, likewise, as it was codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has come under similar scrutiny, and been similarly expanded to incorporate diverse cultural, sex/gender, and national realties. For ghetto, depression, and trauma (and countless other words) however, it has come to seem difficult, and even undesirable, to re-define or expand their imaginative possibilities.
Take ‘ghetto.’ A word “intentionally and generically referring to a place of obligatory Jewish residence,” ghetto has been transferred or used figuratively, as the OED notes, to describe ‘any’ similar isolated group. Its meaning has not otherwise been changed by later usages. The relative uncertainty about the word’s origins (there is some disagreement as to whether the term comes from a Germanic root or from Italian) has meant a conceptual and temporal narrowing reinforced by a contemporary policing of usage—sometimes vitally, sometimes ideologically, but always narrowly to encompass a long history of anti-Semitism.
While ‘ghetto’ may have been used to refer to other locations and experiences, in other words, the standing definition only allows the term to be ‘transferred’ or figurative. The lived and narrated realities of other ghettos are thus destined to remain subsets of a policed ‘original.’ These other contexts can make a claim on the term, but the term will never claim them back. So at most these other spaces are ‘ghetto-like’ –even when communities develop unique, perhaps parallel, but not derivative meanings. The most recent novel by Lebanese author and public intellectual Elias Khoury offers an urgent prompt to think through the difference between ghetto and ghetto and the problems that arise when language (in this and most other cases, imperial languages) limits their possible meanings.
Khoury’s novel centers on an impossible-to-tell story—one without documents, with untold memories, and oftentimes without a language capable of telling it. Awlad al-ghetto (literally: Children of the Ghetto) was published in Arabic in 2016. It is a story told by Adam, a foundling raised in the Palestinian city of Lydda, who tries to write about his ‘beginning.’ His writing project becomes almost coterminous which the drive to discover what happened in Lydda, which for approximately one year after the summer of 1948 and in the wake of the Palestinian Nakba, found itself in a newly declared Israel, surrounded by barbed wire keeping residents from . Khoury’s work details the starvation, the forced labour of clearing out homes and burying bodies, and in a harrowing chapter titled ‘Sonderkommando,’ of burning them as well. Its residents called it the Lydda Ghetto.
Ghetto was not a familiar word for the characters; they “didn’t know what the word ‘ghetto’ meant or where it came from. All [Adam’s mother] knew was that the people of Lydda heard it from the Israeli soldiers.” Without reference to Europe, it came to define a lived-in space for a period of time and was taken up into a people’s history. It came from elsewhere but took on new meaning. The only teacher left in the city tried to quibble about the semantics, lamenting “these idiots don’t know that we don’t have ghettos in our towns and call the Jewish districts the ‘Jewish Quarter’ just like any other quarter of our cities, so it makes no sense.” Despite his objections, “the general conviction among the fenced-in city’s people continued to be that ‘the ghetto’ meant the Arab Quarter.” What it meant to live in Lydda for that year was not the figurative use of ‘ghetto,’ nor had the word precisely transferred, since its ‘official’ meaning was not claimed. Rather, the sound of the word across languages—from Italian, German, Polish, or French perhaps, maybe via Hebew, or Yiddish, and heard in Arabic—came to signify a very particular experience, which in turn became part of the larger story of the Nakba; of expulsion, displacement, and fragmentation. The seeming impossibility of expressing the Lydda Ghetto with ‘ghetto’ stymies Adam, Khoury’s protagonist, who laments that in trying to write with inflexible words: “I find myself before the corpse of a language for which we can find no grave because it has taken up residence on our tongues and is killing us.” For Adam, ghetto is a dead word, but it is also the only word, so it stays on his tongue, preventing the story of ‘us’ from being written—the story of the people of Lydda, of the Nakba, of collective memory, or even history.
Is there a way to distinguish ghetto and ghetto? To maintain the inherited meaning of ‘ghetto’ but also use the word to write, speak, and think about the Lydda Ghetto so as to maintain the specificity of that experience? How can a word take on new contextual meaning while preserving the dominant form, and acknowledging their connection? In her Prozac Diaries, Orkideh Behrouzan uses the Farsi depreshen to distinguish the word from its English corollary. In contemporary Iran, she shows, “depreshen differs from clinical depression.” In fact, she claims, the word acted as a sort of medicalized permission to publically address the impact of an array of violences that accompanied the Iran-Iraq war. In giving depression an accent, she “problematizes global paradigms of mental health and provides a paradigmatic case.” So the category of depression gains a cousin with the same name and a different life history. The ‘original’ definition remains, but it gains a depth of field. With two linked words, we are offered not only a new paradigmatic case, but assumptions about what depression means (and how it came to mean it) are also exposed.
Words must wear their context. In new climates, they may also need to shed that context. Adding an accent can work to signify these shifts, however, only up to a certain point. Behrouzan also uses toromā to open up a “cultural critique of the concept of trauma.” But how many accents can trauma carry? And what do we do when dominant or “unaccented” concepts of trauma exist across contexts simultaneous to their accented cousins? In Arabic ‘trauma’ is sadma, a word that means ‘shock’ in its classical sense. Sadma, along with many other psychoanalytic terms, has absorbed the Freudian notion of trauma, which was itself built in the context of research on railway accident victims. Both presume an event that is somehow out of the norm. Sadma continues to be used as a calque for ‘trauma,’ even as the definition of trauma has shifted in its dominant context. In its general usage, however, sadma simply denotes ‘surprise,’ something sudden, a collision or an unexpected event. It has not—like depreshen—evolved its own exclusive meaning. Like ‘ghetto,’ however, its use either as sadma or as trauma clouds over a very real, very urgent, and devastatingly longstanding experience that has no single word to mark it. Trauma is multilingual; it speaks with many accents in many languages.
How trauma came to be defined in Europe and later the United States is part and parcel of the history of imperial conquest, of industrialization (from the widespread use of trains to the mechanization of warfare), and of colonization. The concept of trauma, moreover, has embedded within it a colonial-era sense of time, an Imperial notion of the possibilities of the ‘real,’ and an assumption that—like the train derailments—trauma is fundamentally based on a single ‘event,’ not a generalized or longstanding condition. Its meaning hinges on a notion of time as ‘progressing’ such that, in order to be properly recognized, the eruptive moment of trauma must be over. Real life is what happened before trauma, and what must be regained. So what happens when trauma doesn’t end? Or when the very notions of chronology and periodization fail to ‘order’ or make sense of the individual or community enduring the trauma?
The Nakba is but one example. Reducing it to an event actually prevents many of the experiences it precipitated from becoming visible. A typical account would begin the ‘event’ of the Nakba in the winter of 1947 when tensions between all forces in Palestine reached a near-fever pitch. It ‘ends’ the winter of the following year when most of those who would be expelled, had been. At that point the ‘catastrophe’ was over. It wasn’t over for Adam, who lived some six more months within barbed wire after the ‘end.’ It wasn’t over for the other Palestinians in the newly declared Israel who from that period until 1966 lived under military rule. It wasn’t over for the refugees who sat in tents and tin houses for decades waiting for return. Palestine and Palestinian scholars more and more insist that the Nakba be interpreted less as an event, and more as a shift of forces that initiated a new logic—one that rested on their deterritorialization.
In this light, it is not an ‘event’ that is ‘trauma’ but a set of processes—processes that allowed the Nakba to ‘happen’ but that never really stopped happening. Without a resolution, or at least the sense of one, the Nakba is not an event closed off in history. There is no ‘normal’ time that comes before and after. This is how ‘trauma’ theory silences all the multilingual, multi-accented, and variously related meanings of trauma.
This is not, Khoury’s protagonist confirms, “the silence that follows what in the language of psychiatrists is called ‘trauma,’ but of the silence imposed by the victor on the vanquished through the power of language.” In other words, the so-far failure to find a way to critically and conceptually handle the realities of circulating words can also inflict violence. Without a theoretical tool, we might at least in the meantime approach text and context through the possibility that words do not mean what the dictionaries say, and let them in some fashion be defined from within their unique and complex contexts.
 Khūrī, Ilyās. Awlād Al-Ghītū, Ismī Ādam: Riwāyah. Bayrūt: Dār al-Ādāb lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʿ, 2016. Translated into English by Humphrey Davis, and published in as My Name is Adam: Children of the Ghetto. London: MacLehose Press, 2018.
 Debenedetti-Stow, Sandra. “The Etymology of ‘Ghetto’: New Evidence from Rome.” Jewish History, vol. 6, no. 1/2, 1992, 79.
 “ghetto, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018.
 Debenedetti-Stow, 79.
 Which references the squads made up of Nazi death camp prisoners who were forced to burn mass quantities of human remains, mostly gas chamber victims.
 Khoury, My Name is Adam, 322.
 Khoury, My Name is Adam, 322.
 Khoury, My Name is Adam, 323.
 Kloury, My Name is Adam, 266.
 Behrouzan, Orkideh. Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016, 26.
 Behrouzan, 26.
 Behrouzan, Orkideh. “Ruptures and Their Afterlife: A Cultural Critique of Trauma”. Middle East – Topics & Arguments, Vol. 11, Nov. 2018, 131.
 El Shakry, Omnia. The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt. Princeton: Princeton Univ Pr, 2017 , 59, 112.
 Fassin and Rechtman give an excellent overview of how trauma has come to mean what it does today, tracing the development of the concept from its beginnings in train derailments to the Post-War sacrilization of the idea, the post-vietnam medicalization of what became a condition, and the NGO-ization of what became a humanitarian issue. See: Fassin, Didier, and Richard Rechtman. The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
 Fassin and Rechtman, 275.
 Realism reached its peak during alongside the colonial movement. Scholars like Timothy Mitchell and Shazad Bashir point out that constructions of time –that are characteristic of realism—become the norm under colonial Europe. See, for example: Bashir, Shazad. “On Islamic Time: Rethinking Chronology in the Historiography of Muslim Societies.” History and Theory. 53.4 (2014): 519-544; and Mitchell, Timothy. Colonising Egypt. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1991.
 Benny Morris in his 1948 puts the “First stage of the War” in November 1947, see: Morris, Benny. 1948. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, Chapter 3.