“In France, we say ‘an angel passes by;’ in Spain, ‘a Bishop is born;’ in Portugal, ‘a poet is dead.’ I’m glad that I could place a long silence in one of my films.”– Raoul Ruiz
In French, the expression “téléphone arabe” has two meanings: 1) An oral communication and, furthermore, a rumor or unreliable information; 2) A kid’s game which consists of whispering a word to one another in a circle: the first person whispers a phrase in the ear of the second, the second tells the heard phrase to the third, and so on until the last player says it out loud, usually giving way to a collective frenzy due to the – voluntary or involuntary – deformations the initial phrase has undergone through its multiple repetitions.
One day, I noticed that the word “telephone” written in Arabic created a semantic short-circuit with the French expression “téléphone arabe” (Figure 1):
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Indeed, the word “telephone” written in Arabic is particularly Arabic only for the non-Arabic speaking person; someone who speaks Arabic will only read the word “telephone” since the Arabic connotation will naturally not be perceptible (Figure 2). This linguistic fact is not a theoretical construct open to speculative arabesques. I found it just as it was, like one finds a mushroom, one of these irreducible organisms that thrive in the dark corners of language and resist translation through their shady existence.
To share this curious finding, I decided to make a word-object out of it, a neon sign that I installed in a public space. Neon, of course, is a classical medium of conceptual art – one thinks of Joseph Kosuth’s tautological neon piece titled A Four Colour Sentence (1965-1967), or Bruce Nauman’s visual puns like none sing/neon sign (1970), for instance. I thought it was funny to make a hybrid object within this tradition but install it in a more anonymous public space instead of in the institutional frame of a museum; to set it somewhere it could generate cultural jamming instead of within a white cube where it would have more likely received a proper reading. Moreover, the hegemonic language of the art world – the language through which the type of conceptual statement my piece refers to becomes legible – is American and its alphabet is Roman. In this context, Arabic calligraphy seemed like a productive displacement, a bit like Peter Sellers in The Party: a mistake that gives birth to an eventful turn-out. [End Page 152]
To build the word-object I asked an Arabic-speaking friend to write the word “telephone” in Arabic. Among the different linguistic possibilities, that classical Arabic noun, (phone), and its seemingly arbitrary etymology, seemed more appropriate to me than the dialectal phrasing, (telephone), as it partly derived from French.
Telephone #1 (Brussels, 2005)
In the spring of 2005, my neon Téléphone arabe is hung on the parapet of the railroad bridge overhanging the art space for which I conceived it (Figure 3). A few days after its unveiling, the piece is vandalized.
We will never know the motives behind certain gestures. This being said, I came to realize some time after the destruction of the neon piece that I might have committed a clumsy translation mistake in this public setting, a mostly North African-populated neighborhood of Brussels. In fact, in Arabic, the expression “téléphone arabe” does not refer to a rumor. This is actually a colonial phrase, a derogatory term to describe oral cultures of Northern Africa. It was a way for the occupying forces to represent the indigenous populations as unreliable. The phrase “téléphone arabe” is therefore untranslatable in Arabic since...