Dear fellow Arabists, disability rights activists, and critical disability theorists:
Assuming everything goes according to plan, I will be abroad in the Middle East (most likely Egypt) in a year from now for Spring 2014. I'd like to try an experiment of writing my blog posts for Autistic Hoya while abroad in Arabic (and I don't mean writing in English first, then translating; I mean, writing in Arabic). This is both purely for (masochistic?) fun and to help improve my language abilities.
Now as some of you may already know (e.g. the Arabic speakers and Arabists reading this), Arabic lexicon operates off of what is known as the "root" system, where similar concepts and words related to those concepts share the same root letters. Most roots are three-letter roots (though there are apparently four, five, and six letter roots as well). Root letters always appear in order, but may have other consonants and vowels (and suffixes and prefixes) inserted between and around them.
The root letters for "disability" are "عوق" or "3-w-q", so "disabled" is "معاق" or "m3aq." And that's fine with me. In fact, I used this word and permutations of this root in a solo presentation for Arabic class in the fall on the history of the disability rights movement, in a group presentation for Arabic class this spring on Ed Roberts's life, and in a solo presentation for my other Arabic class this spring about violence and murder of disabled people by family members.
Now, given that in addition to writing about disability in general, I also tend to write a lot about autism in particular, I'm running into a problem with the word for "autism" that appears to be in use in Arabic (including on the website of a Center for Autism in Jordan). This word is "التوحد" or "al-tawahhud," which uses the root letters "وحد" (w-h-d) attached to the concept of oneness, aloneness, etc.
(For reference, the Egyptian Autistic Society's name in Arabic is جمعية التوحد المصرية or Jam3iat Al-Tawahhud Al-Misriyya. It uses that word. So do the other centers, institutes, etc. related to autism in countries where Arabic is the predominant language.)
Naturally, I find this offensive.
While in English, the word "autism" derives from the Greek root "auto," meaning "self," as in "drawn into the self," or "trapped inside the self," which is equally offensive and for the same reasons, our language simply doesn't draw on such etymological roots as much as Arabic does (with roots embedded into every noun and verb and adjective and adverb, and even prepositions). The word "autism" has largely been reclaimed by actually autistic people.
So basically, here's my dilemma.
I'm not Arab nor am I a native Arabic speaker.
I am, however, Autistic.
And I'd like to refer to myself and to people like me, using a word that I don't find horrendously offensive and that, within the context of the Arabic language, doesn't have such terrible associations (with regard to what they imply about autistic people.)
I remember my friend Kassiane, who's been studying ASL for a long time, mentioning that there's only one sign she's ever seen for "autism/autistic" that isn't offensive, that doesn't imply brokenness or somehow being locked inside one's mind (which is a horrifically offensive and ableist idea). She said that while she defers to actually Deaf people on pretty much everything else ASL-related, she refuses to refer to herself in an offensive way.
Thus so here. I'm not intending to be appropriative or to barge into the communities of Arabs and native Arabic speakers as some type of knight in shining armor on a white horse with my idea of "Here is a Much Better Word to use because I Am Superior," but rather to find a word that uses a root or roots that are not offensive and don't carry the connotation of being trapped inside my mind and only aware that I, Lydia Brown, and no one else in the world at all, exist.
Here are my preliminary thoughts.
I'm thinking that if I/we/you can't produce a single word (noun and nisbah adjective forms, perhaps) for autism and autistic, perhaps it would be best to use some combinations of words as in, in a phrase, either noun-adjective or iDaafa construction.
This root, حرف, or h-r-f, has to do with slanting off of something or deviating from things, according to the extremely long entry in the Hans Weber dictionary. Some examples of this root are as follows:
الانحراف (al-inhiraaf) -- (noun) deviation or digression
انحرف (inharrafa) -- (verb) to diverge, deviate, depart, digress
I like the idea of using something deriving from that root, though I think it would best be used in a noun-adjective phrase or an iDaafa.
Here's the part where I, as a humble second-year undergraduate Arabic major, turn the task over to collaboration with Arabists, actual native Arabic speakers, and other disability rights/theory folks, for suggestions and actual work.
Please make good use of the comments section. If your browser won't allow you to comment using Blogger, shoot me an email to lydia (at) autistichoya.com with the name to publish your comment under, so I can have all the comments for this discussion posted to one place.
And if you know of any other efforts around this idea that I don't know about (either because I'm not fluent in Arabic and tend to flounder when searching the internet in Arabic mode or because they're occurring in some private discussions somewhere), please do share!