A Note on Congo that is in East Africa (or On Disorientating Street Names)
Liora Bigon (Holon Institute of Technology ; Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
In the Israeli context, an article appears from time to time in the local press regarding street naming or more broadly – toponymy. Such thematic engagement normally mirrors deeper historical and political layers in a roughly bipartite and contested territory in terms of ethno-linguistics, inter alia. This popular thematic engagement is thus backed by a considerable corpus of critical research literature on place naming, which has been produced by Israeli geographers and historians. It is safe to argue that the most recurring topics treated in this literature concern ideological (post-)Zionist aspects within the Jewish sector (Bar-Gal, 1989; Katz, 1995; 1999); and, against the background of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, competing spatial challenges with relation to national identity and collective memory (Azaryahu and Kellerman, 1999; Benvenisti, 1997; 2000; Bigon and Dahamshy, 2014; Shoval 2013). As to the local press, only rarely do some non-ideological articles emerge with relation to toponymy. An example that comes to mind concerns a mayor that used his authority arbitrarily to name a street after his mistress; or technical mistakes in the transcription or transliteration of Hebrew, Arabic or Latin names.
Recently, while cycling in one of the neighbourhoods of Holon, a suburban town that borders Tel Aviv, I was suddenly confronted by an intriguing scene. Near the site of the ‘Pillbox’ – a generic name for each of a series of round concrete guard posts built by the British Mandate – my eye caught the contents of a street sign for ‘Brazzaville Street.’ Our topic therefore is somewhat unusual considering the more expected preoccupation with toponymic politisation in Israel\Palestine or with technical orthographic mistakes. (We cannot help but mention, however, that one of the letters in the Hebrew transcription of the French word ‘ville’ in ‘Brazzaville’ is missing on the signpost). Brazzaville refers to the African city that commemorates Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the Italo-French explorer of the Upper Congo River who paved the way for the French colonisation of the area in the mid-nineteenth century. What was intriguing was the street sign’s geographic (dis)orientation.
Beneath the toponym ‘Brazzaville’ on the signpost, there is a short Hebrew explanation stating that the city is “the capital of Congo in East Africa.” Could it be that the former French Congo, part of the French Equatorial Africa (actually the central western part of the continent), including its capital Brazzaville (a territory which is differentiated from its neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Belgian Congo, with Kinshasa [ex-Leopoldville] as its capital) was relocated eastwards a distance of some two thousand kilometers? After all, the ignorance of both the municipal and national governments in such matters could be forgiven: ‘The State of Israel’ had yet to exist in the Imperial period of the European ‘scramble’ for Africa, the same period when Palestine itself was subjugated to the Ottoman Empire, later to be trusted to the British Mandate and its ‘pillbox’ guard positions. It might indeed be an innocent mistake in a country that has never exercised colonial power, at least not officially, not overseas, not in Africa (Gregory 2004; Yiftachel ).
However, a visit in the archives of the town of Holon throws some light on the top-down relations that were symbolically established between the two cities. The street naming is set against the background of the age d’or of Israel-France relations in the 1960s (Suresnes, near Paris, was the first city that signed a ‘twin city’ alliance with Holon); and of the age d’or of Israel-Africa relations at the same time, exemplified in agricultural assistance and infrastructure development. Holon then also established a ‘twin city’ alliance with the city of Tamatave (Toamasina) in Madagascar, a toponym which turned into a street name in the vicinity of ‘Brazzaville Street’. However, following the 1973 War, many African countries aligned themselves with the Arab Block and severed official diplomatic relations with Israel, among them the government of Congo-Brazzaville. In response, Holon’s residents of Brazzaville Street requested their then Mayor Mr. Pinhas Ayalon, to change their street’s name. Ayalon consulted with the Israeli Foreign Office, which examined the matter and decided that the street name should not be changed, opining that one need differentiate between the hostile diplomatic attitude of Congo’s Government and the friendship that exists between the Congolese and the Israeli people. Oddly enough, in spite of the contextual debate that engaged the street’s residents, the city’s authorities and the governmental office – no one apparently ever paid attention to the geographical dissonance implied in the street sign, in relocating Brazzaville from one part of this vast continent to the other. Indeed, the street sign, standing already for fifty years, is intended to facilitate the spatial orientation of Holon’s residents, not of Africans. And from the bottom up, we can only ask to what extent the location, or even the existence of Holon, troubles nowadays the urban majority of Brazzaville; and to what extent the working class residents of Holon care whether Brazzaville is in East, West, North or South Africa.
Azaryahu, Maoz and Aharon Kellerman, ‘Symbolic Places of National History and Revival: A Study in Zionist Mythical Geography’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 24 (1999), pp. 109-123.
Bar-Gal, Yoram, ‘Naming City Streets: A Chapter in the History of Tel Aviv, 1909-1947’, Contemporary Jewry, 10, 2 (1989), pp. 39-50.
Benvenisti, Meron, ‘The Hebrew Map’, Theory and Criticism, 11 (1997), pp. 7-29 [in Hebrew]. For an English version see: Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, trans. M. Kaufman-Lacusta (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
Bigon, Liora and Amer Dahamshy, ‘An Anatomy of Symbolic Power: The Israeli Road-Signs Policy and the Palestinian Minority’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32, 4 (2014), pp. 606-621.
Gregory, Derek, The Colonial Present: Afganistan, Palestine, Iraq (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).
Katz, Yossi, ‘Identity, Nationalism and Place Names: Zionist Efforts to Preserve the Original Local Hebrew Names in Official Publications of the Mandate Government of Palestine’, Names 43, 2 (1995), pp. 103-118.
Katz, Yossi, ‘Reclaiming the Land: Factors in Naming the Jewish Settlement in Palestine during the Era of the British Mandate’, in These are the Names: Studies in Jewish Onomastics, ed. by Aaron Demsky (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1999), vol. II, pp. 63-112.
Shoval, Noam, ‘Street-Naming, Tourism Development and Cultural Conflict: the Case of the Old City of Acre/Akko/Akka’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38 (2013), pp. 612-626.
Yiftachel, Oren, ‘From Sharon to Sharon: Spatial Planning and Separation Regime in Israel/Palestine’, HAGAR Studies un Culture, Polity and Identities, 10, 1 (2010), pp. 73-106.