Building Bridges through Literature

By Araceli Villanueva

 Sabah Hamad, a graduate student  who is combining Arabic, Hebrew and Black Studies.

Sabah Hamad, a graduate student  who is combining Arabic, Hebrew and Black Studies.

Languages build bridges, says Sabah Hamad, a UC Santa Barbara graduate student in Arabic, Hebrew Literature, and Black Studies. Hamad believes that being able to communicate with people from other parts of the world is rewarding and offers a better understanding of their beliefs and traditions.

Hamad is a Palestinian-American who believes that much of  the Israel-Palestinian conflict has to do with the misunderstanding and bias, made worse by ignorance of Palestinian and Israeli literature and languages. In a recent interview, she discussed these issues and how she is pursuing interests in Middle East cultures through the Religion Studies Department.

As an Arab-American, what motivated you to want to learn both Arabic and Hebrew? What’s the appeal to you?

I grew up knowing Arabic. However, I found it amazing how, every time I visited Palestine and saw my cousins, they were able to slip in between both languages so easily. Throughout my trips too, I have noticed that there are people around me and authorities who are speaking Hebrew, and it does make me feel like I have less power because I cannot communicate, I cannot understand. So part of my reason to study Hebrew was to empower myself in a way.

Also, it is to understand the literature that is happening inside Israel, because there are a lot of Arabs in their stories and a lot of times the literature changes after every war so I want to see how the interactions change every time.

It is important when you’re making an argument to understand the context that you’re working with. And it would be very restrictive if I would only focus on Arabic sources. It is important that I fully understand what is happening in that area throughout time. I want to be able to understand both sides and differences between generations.

I have noticed that languages create bridges. If you speak more languages, you can communicate better.

Why did you decide to focus on these three disciplines —Arabic, Hebrew and Black Studies?

While doing my undergraduate studies I started to realize that much of my yearning to know both languages was rooted in my realization that many injustices around the world were happening because of the oppression of people. And the only way to fully understand it was by being able to communicate with everyone without any biases.

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For example, many of the people who identify as victims of oppression feel guilty for being oppressed. It’s almost like they felt some shame for being oppressed and I wondered “Why would they feel guilty when they are the ones being oppressed?” An example is author Constantine Zuraq who published “The meaning of Al Naqba” (the catastrophe) back in 1949. In the book, he mentioned that the Palestinians lost their land because they were not strong enough.  This goes to show how the same community that was being oppressed also blamed themselves for what had happened.

I was talking to my friend who is a Syrian refugee living in Turkey. She was saying that many of reactions from Turkish people were like “Why did you leave your country? You’re the reason why your people can’t fight back!” so this type of blaming of “you should stay” and “you should fight your own battles” is very ignorant of the realities of violent acts.

I don’t know enough about Black Studies, but I can see how this pattern of oppression relates to this community too. So it is something I want to keep learning about.  

Being a minority in America has always been hard, but in the current political climate, tension between Arabs and certain American political groups has gotten worse. As an Arab Muslim have you noticed discrimination from professors or students towards you that has affected your academic engagement?

I definitely have. In fact more than once.  One of my professors at LeMoyne College, in New York, [where Hamad completed her undergraduate education], warned me against participating in any organization which deals with Palestinian human rights and politics such as SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine). She said that she saw many talented students lose on opportunities because of their involvement with Palestine.

In fact, when I first came to Santa Barbara I chose to not to be a teaching assistant my first quarter because of my Palestinian background. Not because I was ashamed of my culture, but because I was so scared of being accused of being biased.

In the past, during my undergraduate years, I wrote about Palestine and my paper got shut down by my professor. I have not written about Palestine at UCSB yet, so let’s see!

What are your plans for the future? And how do you hope to use your knowledge in these three important disciplines to achieve your goals?

In the future I want to be able to teach neutrality. In western literature, Arabs are always described in animalistic terms or mute. Palestinians in Israeli literature are always absent. Hopefully after my Masters, I really want to teach a class in Palestinian and Israeli literature. I would use the same time period and use a text from Palestinian literature and one from Israeli literature and look for perspectives on the same issue.

I want to show the representation of the voices that have been silenced for too long.

Araceli Villanueva is a fourth-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Global Studies.