The White Masks We Adorn: Reclaiming Language Through Decolonisation

In this post, Pakhtun Pakistani, Madiha Abbas (MA) and Indigenous Kabyle, Riadh Ghemmour (RG) engage in a reflexive and critical dialogue to speak about how the use of certain hegemonic languages in a decolonial work might re-inscribe power and forms of coloniality and disregard minoritised communities’ cultural and linguistic heritage. Whilst doing so, we ponder over the Khudi (One’s self) and the connection of the self to ⴽⴰⴱⵢⵍⴻ ⵙⵛⵔⵉⵒⵜ (Kabyle script). The narrative endeavours to answer fundamental philosophical questions such as Bulleh Shah’s ‘Who Am I’?. The provocation also draws on the lived experiences of the authors’ ability to speak multiple languages namely Urdu, Arabic and North African Indigenous Kabyle languages.

Dialogue between MA and RG:

MA:  ‘Water nor dust are neither what makes me. I am not a flame. I am not wind. I am not pure. I am not vile. I’m no Moses and I’m no Pharoah. But, Bulleh, who is it that I am? Bulleya, who am I?’

I grew up listening to this song, lying in between my sister and mother in a tiny bed. My brother lay on a mattress on the floor – this song blasting through the tiny second hand speakers he had bought from his first pay as a junior doctor. I remember asking my brother what it meant. For I did not understand Punjabi at the time. He translated the song in Urdu with much ease and spoke of how the singer questioned his existence – for he knew not who he was. My childish mind could not comprehend the philosophical depth of this question and frowned at the simplicity of its answer. ‘Well surely, I was Pakistani, surely I was Madiha, who else were I to be?’. My brother had laughed at my response and had told me one’s self is far too complicated to just be one thing. This question of who I was and my brother’s response, stuck with me for a long time. 

I only found the answer when I read Iqbal’s concept of  خُودی Khudi (One’s Self) in his book the Secrets of the Self. Iqbal spoke of Khudi with pride, dignity and respect. To identify with Khudi was to connect with Allah, to win His grace and to write your own fate. Iqbal said: 

خُودی کو کر بُلند اتنا کہ ہر تقدیر سے پہلے

خُدا بندے سے خُود پوچھے بتا تیری رضا کیا ہے

‘Raise yourself to such eminence, that fate, before writing your destiny is compelled to ask, what is your will’ 

I was indeed, what I had said as a child. I was me, I was Khudi. I never questioned my existence after that and associated strongly with my culture. Until I moved countries. 

I saw that I started to dissociate with my culture – my Khudi. I wondered why that was. I bore several answers to this question as I spent time in the UK. But the most prominent answer was language and the White Mask I adorned. How do you feel about that Riadh? 

RG: I strongly resonate with your experience, Madiha. Growing up in Algeria and being educated in both Western and non-Western universities, at some point in my life, I devalued my parental language (le Kabyle) and had little interest in embracing my cultural identity, thinking that I needed to explore other languages and cultures to fit in the world – mostly hegemonic languages such as English and French. A Kabyle proverb says, ‘ⴰⵍⴰ ⴰⴳⵀⵢⵓⵍ ⵉ ⵢⴻⵏⴻⴽⵔⴻⵏ ⵍⴰⵙⵙⴻⵍ-ⵉⵙ’, meaning ‘only an ass who denies its origins’, and I believe this strongly links to what I am trying to explain. 

I like your metaphor of the ‘White Mask I adorn’ because I felt I was also romanticising Eurocentric languages at the expense of my native languages to be accepted – like I was unconsciously ‘forced’ to embrace something just because it appeared ‘mainstream’ and ‘valid’ to me, but later when I discovered decolonisation as a healing process, I have entered a therapeutic phase to reconnect with my native languages and cultural Indigenous belongingness. I would like to share with you this quote from Kenian activist-scholar, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who wrote an instrumental book, entitled ‘decolonising the mind’, who said, ‘If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment.” and I think this has stuck with me. What are your thoughts, Madiha, on the role of decolonisation in restoring and proclaiming our parental languages. 

MA: Thank you for resonating with me and for sharing your experience Riadh. I find your journey with decolonisation inspiring and love how you associate decolonisation with healing. It made me think of the Aeta women – an indigenous group in the Philippines. These women resisted colonisation through their unique healing practices. Healing for them centered around focusing on their Khudis – their spiritual, mental and psychological well-being. For the Aeta women this well-being could only be achieved through a strong association with one’s culture, traditions and worldviews. They believed that without an understanding of your culture – your Khudis, you were not functioning, you were sakit (sick). Thus, decolonisation is indeed a healing process. For I believe without knowledge of your own culture and identity you will never fully be yourself – just a kathputli (a puppet) at the hands of this colonial world – sakit

In terms of answering your question – I must mention the Aeta women again. Having been robbed of their cultural ways of knowing at the hands of colonial practices, the Aeta women lamented the fact that the younger generation had lost their local language. This is since, language for them is a prerequisite for the preservation of their culture and traditions – with language you could dismantle colonial mind-sets in the lives of the colonised and remind ‘the oppressed to look back and admire what they have lost both culturally and spiritually’ Torres (2019). This is since culture is embedded within language and is thus, an imperative tool in decolonisation.  Unfortunately, I strongly resonate with the Aeta women healers – as I believe you do as well. Pakistan is a country with 74 languages, 89% of which are indigenous – each beautiful, unique and intrinsic in their own way; yet none of these are treasured by its nationals. Pakistanis instead cherish and covet the English language.  Pakistani English or Paklish was first recognised in the 1970s – a result of British rule over the Indian subcontinent for 200 years. British rule enforced English to be used in domains that held power, such as the civil service, the officer corps, the armed forces, the higher judiciary, universities, prestigious newspapers, radio and entertainment. Colonial policies thus left English a marker of elite status and the language of power. To this day – English together with Urdu is the official language of Pakistan – a constant reminder of the country’s colonial past. A reminder with the maximum cultural capital. A reminder taught to all school-level Pakistani students. A reminder used to shun those who cannot afford higher-education. A reminder used to separate the elitist from the poor. A reminder used to degrade Pakistani language and culture. Forcing Pakistani’s to question their khudis – becoming sakit in the process. It astonishes me Riadh, why anyone can refuse to cherish and sustain 74 languages for the sake of one that carries with it a history laden with captivity, oppression and heartbreak. How do you feel about this in terms of the Kabyle language? 

RG: This is so poignant, Madiha. I can clearly see the social, cultural, psychological and political disruption which British colonialism had on Pakistan to comprise [your] خودی (khudis) identity creating historical trauma. To answer your question, Kabyle language and North African Indigenous languages have also been subjected to such oppression throughout the years, but [our] case is different. Apart from the French colonialism which still has major implications on the Algerian linguistic identity, Indigenous languages were suppressed during the Islamisation of North African – not being confused with Arabisation. Growing up, I often felt as an outsider which led me to question my Kabyle language and culture – luckily I can still speak it – in order to fit within the local and universal ‘norms’. Decolonisation activated my critical consciousness to trouble such thinking and claim back what I had to let go – my language, my culture, my/our existence through healing and healing collectively as Angela Davis stated during the EDN seminar in February 2021. To conclude this enriching and eye-opening conversation, I do believe decolonisation and language need a process of collective healing grounded in critical self-reflection.   

ⵎⵢ ⵉⵏⴷⵉⴳⴻⵏⴻⵉⵜⵢ ⵡⵉⵍⵍ ⵍⵉⵯⴻ ⴰⵏⴷ ⵍⴰⵙⵜ

(My Indigeneity will live and last…)

Concluding thoughts/remarks 

As demonstrated above, the co-authors believe language is integral to shaping one’s identity, culture, knowledge and sense of empowerment. However, colonial legacies have maintained a hierarchy of languages and homogenic modes of communication suppressing other languages which has inherently caused several to dissociate from their heritage, namely khudis. 

Therefore, it is important to celebrate students’ capital and various forms of linguistic diversity through projects like the Decolonial Knowledge Production and Anti-Racist Pedagogy project where we (the authors) find space to express our ideas and share reflections and information in whatever language and mode of communication, and we believe that does justice to decolonisation and pluriversality which is a core aspect of our work. Readers might find this text ironic given the fact it is mostly written in English, but we should not forget that through having such dialogue and small initiatives, we can raise awareness and sustain a better future for producing knowledge in multivocal ways of communication. 

Image credit: © Riadh Ghemmour and Madiha Abbas

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