What do you know? Languages help you understand terrorism

I’ve recently been on vacation in Spain. I went to enjoy myself and learn more about the Basque language and culture. Because of the attacks of July 14, in Nice, France, I learned about my own society in the US.

On a Spanish train, I was handed a Spanish newspaper, El Pais, which is well-known and mainstream there. On page 2 I read an editorial that ended,

With every terrorist act we re-make the war, militarize our democracies, prolong fear, and lose our identity little by little.[1]

Right below that, I read another with the conclusion,

For the moment, by anti-anxiety means, the French are resisting. But war isn’t going to stop. And every day, more war, fear, and the danger of desperation grows. There the ultra-right Front National party lurks, to regain the votes of those who want quick solutions.[2]

I never read anything so tough in the US mainstream press. The call for calm and anti-violence astounded me. It reminded me that learning another language is a political act, because it disrupts the point of view that my country, society, and community repeat to themselves and to me.

I read this news through what I knew of Spanish society, its history and modern situation.

    • Most importantly, Spain began as the front line between what we now call the “clash of cultures” between the Christian and Muslim worlds. The Muslims spread quickly across North Africa after the death of Mohammed, and ultimately stopped in Spain–or Al-Andalus, as they called it. This was a Muslim country for many centuries before the Christians conquered the Muslims here in what was called the Reconquista, since the Christians imagined that they were taking “back” what had been Muslim for longer than Christian. Hence, they understand on a historical level what the tensions between the two religions mean.
    • Furthermore, the Spanish people of my generation and older still remember themselves as children under the a military dictatorshiop of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. In some ways similar to the trauma of the infamous Inquisition after the Reconquista, neighbor betrayed neighbor as freedom and self-expression were repressed. They have already experienced the extremes of a militarized police state.
    • Until the past couple decades, many Muslim immigrants from North and West Africa began their journey on Spanish shores. I remember meeting many Moroccans throughout Spain since I traveled back and forth between then back in the mid-90s. Muslim immigration thus does not produce the same visceral reaction in Spain as in the US.
        When I read articles in Spanish periodicals about terrorism in general and about the Bastille Day attack more specifically, I am reading ideas formed by Spanish writers for Spanish readers. I’m eavesdropping on the unedited conversation of people with real experiences of Muslims, fear, and loss of individual freedom.

As an American, I need to hear how others perceive a situation that is locked in certain themes and tropes and poles in my own society. The depiction of the situation is not reported “better” in the Spanish press (granted, based on a single newspaper), but multiple interpretations of events through the lens of different communal memory offer me a way to see more deeply.

I accessed this lens through a resource available thousands of places on-line and in cities and towns in every state of the US: Spanish. I learned Spanish, and I found a way to connect with a society that offers a lot for me to learn. This language influences and deepens how I understand and experience real events of the utmost importance.

How has language broadened your view of the world?

[1] Con cada acto terrorista re-hacemos la guerra, militarizamos nuestras democracias, prolongamos el miedo y perdemos poco a poco nuestra identidad.
[2] Por el momento, con ansiolíticos, los franceses resisten. Pero la guerra no se va a detener. Y cada día más de guerra, de miedo, el peligro de la desesperación aumenta. Ahí acecha el ultraderechista Frente Nacional para recoger los voos de loso quierent soluciones rápidas.

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8 thoughts on “What do you know? Languages help you understand terrorism

  1. Pingback: Mediterranean bloodshed | Marcus Ampe's Space

  2. I think this article has actually helped me understand the American reactions at the moment better. Our newspapers here (Australia) probably aren’t as hard-line as the Spanish one, but definitely nearer that end of the spectrum. The American mentality we see unfolding sometimes seems so foreign we can’t understand it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Buidheag

    “…the unedited conversation of people with real experiences of Muslims, fear, and loss of individual freedom”
    I’d rephrase this if I were you.
    I don’t think you can “experience Muslims” the same way you experience fear or loss of identity.
    Muslims are not a feeling, they’re real people, just like you.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Buidheag

        Much better!

        I also find very interesting the choice of words in various languages – whether for official reasons or not – e.g. French government and media did not use the words “guerre d’Algérie” until fairly recently, British press used to report on the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, and Spain continues to talk about “el problema catalán”… 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  4. For me, learning Spanish has enabled me to venture into ‘worlds’ I never new existed. My perception of the world grew even though I have always considered that I was global in my thought process. The world has shrunk for me and talking to others, especially people in Venezuela, has allowed me to see their problems in a different light than one would gather through news.

    Liked by 1 person

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