State Censorship, Woman At Point Zero, and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison

Today I gave a presentation in my “Modern Arabic Literature” class on state-censorship. Well, first I put on a play, using some scenes from the frame narrative of Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero (slides 8 and 9 include the relevant text), then used the slides below to dig deeper into the text. In the scenes, a psychiatrist tries to get access to a death row inmate (the woman who will be the narrator once we’ve completed the frame) and gets into the kind of veiled discussion of the corrupt authorities.
"Oppressive language does more than represent violence: it is violence."--Toni Morrison
When I lived in Qatar, one of the most important lessons I learned was how to speak tactfully. I learned how to turn on the censor in my head, tuned for the kinds of speech which are illegal in Qatar as well as how to make friends in a slightly more formal society. As someone who thinks the best product of my country is a commitment to civil rights, it was vital for me to learn a little of what it means to grow up in a state where speech is not free.

In my presentation, I tied together 3 pieces of Arabic writing with passages from Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. I first read it when my favorite English teacher in high school, Dr C, handed it out. I’ve re-read it several times a year ever since. It has probably done more to shape my conception of the moral responsibilities of writers and speakers than anything else, and the imagery is compelling. Woman at Point Zero was an example of the chilling effects state censorship has on normal human expression. A speech from a current leading Egyptian Presidential Candidate, Amr Moussa, was a non-fiction example of:

Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.

The final, grotesque, example came from Sun’allah Ibrahim’s The Committee, on the self-violence which self-censorship can bring. I won’t spoil the ending, but involves what the Leviathans would call, “bibbing”:

It was only after the Arab Spring that I learned to distinguish from the tact of my friends in the Middle East who had grown up as or with the children of diplomats and the fearful vagaries which smart and critical people are forced into in a state of censorship. I am hoping that the other students in my class won’t have to learn that difference alone. Here’s the full presentation, under Creative Commons 3.0, like everything else here:

PS: For an extra bonus, and as an object lesson as to how subtle and insidious censorship can be, as you go through the presentation keep an eye on the black bar on the right. Most of the class didn’t notice until it took up 2/3 of the page and I’d turned all the black text white to fit.

Inspirational Quote:

“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced,complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence;it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.”–Toni Morrison

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