How do you scream in Arabic?

Why did Trump, Bolton and Mattis refuse to listen to the tape of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder? Because of Arabic?

Tunisians demonstrate with saws on Tuesday November 27 in Tunis against the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the country [Hassene Dridi/AP]

“We have the tape,” US President Donald Trump finally admitted that there is a tape-recording of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – but then he immediately added: “I don’t want to hear the tape, no reason for me to hear the tape.” When he was asked why, he said: “Because it’s a suffering tape, it’s a terrible tape. I’ve been fully briefed on it. There’s no reason for me to hear it.” 

He elaborated further: “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it … It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”

It was good to see the man who had no qualms about dropping “the mother of all bombs” (MOAB) on Afghanistan or arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth to slaughter Yemenis had suddenly developed a gentle soul and felt he could not handle hearing the suffering of a single person being strangled.

Soon after Trump revealed he had refused to listen to Khashoggi’s murder tape, we learned something else from John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, about this tape. “No, I haven’t listened to it,” he echoed his boss. “Why do you think I should? What do you think I’ll learn from it? Unless you speak Arabic, what are you going to get from it … I don’t speak Arabic.”

That was much clearer now. We now learned the late Jamal Khashoggi was screaming in Arabic when he was being strangled by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s henchmen. We can therefore also surmise from Mr Trump and Mr Bolton’s remarks, that the butchers attending to him were also sawing him in Arabic – and in fact, to paraphrase Senator Lindsey Graham’s words, even the saw was smoking in Arabic. That makes a lot of sense now.

Soon after Bolton, US Defense Secretary James Mattis also said he had declined to listen to the tape because he too “cannot understand that language”. He curiously would say the name of the language in which the scream was screamed and the victim was murdered.

Let us be honest though: Can we really imagine Donald Trump or John Bolton speaking and understanding Arabic (or any other language for that matter) – they who commit their atrocities only in their pidgin English?

Still, their dodging of the Khashoggi tape got me thinking: How do you scream in Arabic?

Giggling in Armenian, chuckling in Amazigh

Not knowing how Arabs scream in Arabic I decided to Skype a few friends in Morocco, Tunisia, all the way to Egypt, Palestine, even in Oman and Kuwait and Jordan and ask them to scream in Arabic for me a little bit. They all started laughing hysterically, which was not useful.

One Lebanese friend who is a professor of philosophy started giggling in Armenian, another Tunisian friend, a literary critic, went into a stupor in French. My Moroccan friend was still chuckling in Amazigh when I hung up. A Palestinian friend from inside Israel sneered in Hebrew. All of that came to nought.

So how in the world do Arabs scream?   

When that bit of what anthropologists call ethnography did not get me anywhere, I decided to do a little research to see if there was any insight into how Arabs scream in Arabic.

It turns out scientists too have been wondering how and why we humans (Arab or otherwise) scream. I came across this study in which we learn: “Scream science is a new area of study, so David Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, and his co-authors collected an array of screams from YouTube, films and 19 volunteer screamers who screamed in a lab sound booth.”

This was a good start to learn more about how Arabs scream, but in this piece, I read there was no indication that Professor Poeppel and his colleagues had included in their study any Arab screaming, particularly when that said Arab is being strangled. Perhaps the Turkish media could send them the tape to include in their study.

From regular phonation to a chaotic regime 

I did, however, find an interesting passage in Poeppel’s paper published in the journal Current Biology: “Screams result from the bifurcation of regular phonation to a chaotic regime, thereby making screams particularly difficult to predict and ignore … While previous research in humans suggested that acoustic parameters such as “jitter” and “shimmer” … are modulated in screams, whether such dynamics and parameters correspond to a specific acoustic regime and how such sounds impact receivers’ brains remain unclear.” 

I thought that was it: “the bifurcation of regular phonation to a chaotic regime” was the key to it. Even Kellyanne Conway and her habit of chewing on English words could see her favourite alternative facts in this.

The man enters a consulate and says hello, ahlan wa sahlan, I am here to obtain this form to be able to marry all in “regular phonation”, but suddenly a gang of 15 butchers dispatched by a lovely Saudi prince friend of Jared Kushner and Thomas Friedman jump on him and start strangling him until the poor thing bursts into “a chaotic regime” of inconsolable jitter and shimmer. And such particular “acoustic regimes”, especially when dispatched in Arabic, would make no sense to Bolton, Mattis, or even Trump for that matter.

At this point, I remembered that the one person in Washington who did listen to that tape was CIA chief Gina Haspel, herself a world authority on how Arabs scream under torture. “Current CIA director Gina Haspel,” we have learned, “talked in detail about torturing a terror suspect by means of waterboarding and other controversial methods while she was running a secret black site in Thailand, according to previously classified cables.”

Ms Haspel could write a whole book on the linguistics of Arab screaming, as it were. “Heavily redacted documents, many of which are believed to have been written by Ms Haspel, reveal a previously undisclosed level of detail about the methods being employed by the CIA following the 9/11 attacks and after George Bush launched his so-called war on terror.” 

Alas, she still has not published such a book.

I scream, you scream

Science and psychology, as well as banned and official media, were helpful but not definitive in my question to understand how Arabs scream. In desperation, I looked around and found myself standing in front of “The Scream” (1893) by the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch, where I thought perhaps his rendition of the primordial scream of humanity in reaction to the criminal stupidity of our species needed an Arab update.

I happened to be talking with the eminent Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and asked him point blank if he ever did an Arab scream. He looked at me with his pair of piercing bright eyes and said: “Are you blind, my entire work is about Arabs screaming?”  

I bade Dia Azzawi goodbye, thanked him for his magnificent work, went home and sat myself down with a warm cup of karak, thinking.

Khashoggi’s screams – I began telling an imaginary jury – as he was being strangled by a gang of Saudi assassins, were not in Arabic or in any other language.

Those were the primordial cries of a people from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to the next, maligned and brutalised by a sustained history of tyrannical abuse. In that Saudi consulate, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) had ordered the butchering of not just one dissident, but the assassination of a whole human chorus for freedom.  

Meanwhile, the moral affliction of the ruling class in the US, now institutionalised in Trump’s White House and mitigated through MBS’s buddy Jared Kushner is symptomatic of something far more elemental.

They rule the world with blind eyes, deaf ears, and dumb tongues, having been lobotomised out of any sense of human decency. The Arabic that Donald Trump, John Bolton, and Jared Kushner cannot understand does not come from a secret tape from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. That Arabic is screamed day and night, loudly and clearly, from Palestine to Yemen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.