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New Texts Out Now: Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth After 9/11

[Cover of Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, [Cover of Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, "Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth After 9/11"]

Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth After 9/11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Thea Renda Abu El-Haj (TRAEH): Unsettled Belonging is a deeply personal book. I came to the US to attend Swarthmore College in the early 1980s. Having grown up in Iran and Lebanon, and traveled often to spend time with my family in Palestine, my political consciousness was shaped by ongoing fallout from legacies of colonialism. It was not an easy time to articulate a political commitment to justice in Palestine. Even among the many left-leaning political activists who were working hard to oppose South African apartheid, and US backed genocidal wars in Central America, I consistently heard a fierce refusal to engage with justice for Palestine. Palestinians remained framed simply through the lens of “terrorism.” I had to fight (thankfully with the support of some fabulous professors) to be allowed to do a senior thesis about Palestine. Moreover, although I was confronted by racist discourses about Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and so forth, there was no context within which to talk about global racial formations that render these groups racialized Others.

Later, as the second intifada unfolded in 2000, and the popular media projected an almost uniform message about Palestinian terror and violence as the cause for Israeli repression, I wondered what it was like to be a young Palestinian American trying to articulate a sense of belonging, and a political commitment to Palestine in this broader climate. And, as a person whose work was centrally concerned with race and racism in educational settings, I wanted to explore how Palestinians (along with other groups) experienced the racialized landscape in their schools and communities. These concerns became even more salient the following year after 9/11. And my project was born.

In writing this book, I wanted to give readers a close up view of the ways that the United States’ contemporary role as an imperial power has everyday consequences for young people in their schools and communities. The “clash of civilizations” ideology that has justified US militarism in too many countries seeped into everyday interactions framing Palestinian Americans as “impossible subjects” of liberal democracies. I wanted to illustrate how Palestinian Americans (similar to other communities framed by the US “war on terror”) are racialized by political ideologies. These are communities too often left out of discussions of racism in the US context. And, I also wanted to show the significant consequences this had for young people’s experiences with disciplinary systems, and academic achievement in their schools.

At the same time, I wanted readers to understand the creative and dynamic ways that young Palestinian Americans respond to this political landscape. I show how they articulated what I call bids for citizenship—demands for inclusion and justice for Palestinians both within the US, and in relation to the aspiration for a free Palestine. Against popular views that see children and youth from im/migrant communities as, at best, navigating, and more typically, being torn between “home” and “host” identities, I wanted to show how young people are actively engaged in cultural, social, and political practices that challenge these simplistic perspectives on migration.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

TRAEH: Anchored by an ethnographic account of how Palestinian American youth from a transnational community experience and navigate the politics of citizenship and belonging in their everyday lives in school, Unsettled Belonging explores broader questions about education, nationalism and citizenship in relation to globalization, transnational migration, and the US “war on terror.” I show how Palestinian American youth lay claim to transnational forms of citizenship that allow them to mobilize economic, political, and social rights across international borders. At the same time, I illustrate their everyday encounters in their schools with a complex and nuanced set of nationalist and imperial ideologies that position them as “impossible subjects” of the United States. The book raises normative questions about educating for national citizenship in contemporary times when new forms of globalization lead more and more people’s lives to be shaped within transnational social fields.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

TRAEH: On the surface, Unsettled Belonging is a huge departure from my first book project. Its central concern with how young Palestinian Americans forge a sense of transnational belonging and citizenship in the era of intifada and the “war on terror” might seem far afield from my first book, Elusive Justice. In that book, I explored how powerful public claims about educational justice play out within local school contexts. I examined how even when practitioners try to build more just, equitable school contexts, these efforts often are marooned on the shoals of fundamental, invisible values, assumptions, and structures that lead to inequality. However, underneath these two very different research projects, rest a commitment I have, as an anthropologist of education, to document how broader contestations about justice and rights unfold in the everyday practices of our schools.  

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

TRAEH: I hope that this book will find a broad audience of readers interested in a range of topics: Palestinian diaspora, Palestinian and other Arab American communities; youth studies, with a focus on citizenship and activism; im/migration studies, globalization and education; race, nation, and education; and citizenship education. I expect the book will appeal to both academic and general audiences, and it is my sincere hope, also, that teachers who are concerned to understand the experiences of students like the Palestinian Americans will also read and wrestle with the book.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

TRAEH: I’m working on a project in Lebanon with my colleague Garene Kaloustian of the Lebanese American University. Across the world, education is tasked with rebuilding societies torn apart by conflict. Comprehensive educational reform policies, underwritten by international aid organizations and national and supranational institutions (such as US AID, the World Bank, and the European Union) imagine rebuilt educational systems that promote equality, “social cohesion”, and active citizenship for populations riven by conflict. Our work explores how these policies unfold and are re-made by teachers and children within the everyday practices of schools.

Excerpt from Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth After 9/11

From the Introduction

For Khalida Saba, September 11, 2001, was no ordinary day. It was the first day of her freshman year at Regional High, a large city public school in the northeastern United States. Although it was not the first day of the new academic year, it had taken a few weeks for her parents to successfully register Khalida and her sister, and as a result the girls were beginning their freshman year a little late. Khalida had just returned from a seven-year sojourn in her family’s small village in Palestine. Born in the United States, Khalida, accompanied by her mother and siblings, had moved to the occupied West Bank when she was seven. Her parents had decided to raise their children in their family village so that Khalida and her siblings would develop strong roots in Palestine, Arabic language fluency, and a deep knowledge of cultural, religious, social, and political life in the bilād. This arrangement worked well until the second Palestinian intifada against the Israeli military occupation began in 2000. The harsh Israeli response to the intifada destabilized the little normalcy that had existed previously under the routine and pervasive restrictive conditions of military occupation; the increasingly punitive military repression of the uprising led to severe disruptions of economic, social, cultural, and political life. Among these many disruptions to everyday life were frequent school closings, and largely for this reason, Khalida’s family decided to return to the United States in order to ensure that the children would be guaranteed an education.

Khalida was familiar with the unsettled emotions that a transition to a new school in a different country engendered. She had weathered these feelings of not quite fitting in when she first went to Palestine. She remembered her initial struggles as she learned a new language and was teased by peers who thought she was too “American.” She anticipated similar experiences and feelings as she began her journey at Regional High. Unfortunately, Khalida’s transition to high school and a new country would unfold in quite unexpected ways, beginning from the very first day that she reentered the US educational system. Nothing could have prepared her for what she would have to face in the coming months and years.

Khalida’s story of beginning high school on September 11, 2001, is intimately bound up with another incident that occurred there on that day. As news of the attacks spread, the school district decided to close all the city schools and send students and employees home. Regional High’s principal, Jack Moore, was in the midst of juggling the complex task of shutting down one of the largest high schools in the city when a teacher marched into his office. Mr. Moore recounted that the teacher demanded he “round up” all the Palestinian students in the school. The principal was shocked and recalled that he responded, “That’s absolutely insane. Why don’t you just put a target on their backs?”

I begin with these two stories to illustrate the countervailing politics of belonging and citizenship with which this book is centrally concerned. On the one hand, I focus on how young Palestinian Americans navigated and constructed belonging and citizenship across transnational social fields. At the same time, I examine their encounters with an exclusionary politics of belonging emerging out of the routine practices of everyday US nationalism inside their schools—a politics of belonging that was in place well before September 11, 2001, and that remains steadfast to this day. At the heart of these stories—and of this book—rests a question about disjunctures of citizenship. Taking an anthropological perspective on citizenship as lived experience through which people negotiate “the rules and meanings of political and cultural membership” (B. A. U. Levinson 2005, 336; see also Ong 1999; Rosaldo 1994; Yuval-Davis 2011), I analyze a fundamental schism between the ways the Palestinian American youth experienced and constructed transnational citizenship and belonging, and the ways they were positioned as “impossible subjects” (Ngai 2004) of the nation, despite their juridical status as citizens. I focus on school as the central site at which this disjuncture unfolds, for it is the primary state institution through which young people from im/migrant communities encounter normative discourses of citizenship and belonging. Tracking this disjuncture as it manifested in the everyday lives of young Palestinian Americans, I have three primary goals in the book. First, illustrating the complex, flexible ways that the Palestinian American youth navigated belonging in transnational social fields, I shift from a focus on youth identities to an account of how these social identities are intimately bound up with questions of citizenship. Second, I aim to deepen our understandings of the processes through which im/migrant youth are racialized, focusing on the specific logics of everyday nationalism. Finally, I raise normative questions about educating for national citizenship in contemporary times when more and more people’s lives are shaped within transnational social fields.

As members of a community engaged in an ongoing political project that aspires to independent statehood, the Palestinian American youth (and their families) engaged in myriad everyday practices and long-term strategies that constructed and reinforced a sense of belonging to a Palestinian national community. Khalida’s parents’ decision to raise their children in Palestine was not unusual for their community. Khalida and many of her peers had spent long stretches of time living in Palestine. Through their experiences there, they developed an affective rootedness to place and people—one that engendered a sense of belonging to the bilād. However, all of the youth with whom I worked, even those who resided solely in the United States, were engaged in everyday practices in their families and communities that constructed a sense of belonging to Palestine and its people, through economic, social, cultural, and political activities. This Palestinian community, similar to many across the world, was committed to building and maintaining national consciousness across the generations (Hammer 2005; Schulz 2003). As such, and as I show in this book, through her experiences in Palestine, Khalida developed a deep sense of being Palestinian, one that informed (and was, in turn, constructed anew through) everyday practices in the United States.

Khalida and other Palestinian American youth with whom I worked rooted their senses of belonging to Palestine, but they also counted themselves as US citizens, and they valued the power of this rights-bearing citizenship. Although, as I show, Khalida did not feel American in the same way that she would describe feeling or being Palestinian, she saw herself as a US citizen. Rather than being a primary source of belonging, for Khalida citizenship was a valued asset through which people leverage rights to economic, social, political, and cultural resources across transnational fields (Abu El-Haj 2007; Dyrness 2012; Maira 2009; Ong 1999; Sánchez 2007). US citizenship allowed Khalida and her family to access a range of rights that were limited or unavailable under the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As illustrated by her story, when schools were closed in Palestine, it was her US citizenship that made it possible to continue her education. At the same time, it was her family’s economic opportunities in the United States that supported many of her relatives in Palestine who were unable to make a sustainable living there. Citizenship, as lived experience, entails practices through which people act upon the world, negotiating social, cultural, and political membership (Abu El-Haj 2007; García-Sánchez 2013; B. A. U. Levinson 2005, 2011b; Lowe 1996; Lukose 2007; Maira 2009; Mangual Figueroa 2011; Ong 1999; Ríos-Rojas 2014; Sánchez 2007; Tetrault 2013; Yuval-Davis 2011). Critically, for Khalida and other members of her community, this lived experience of citizenship does not signal an opportunistic or instrumentalist view. Rather, these young people’s awareness of unjust conditions such as statelessness; the abrogation of basic civil, human, and political rights many Palestinians face; and the heightened surveillance and scrutiny faced by many Muslim communities (and those mistakenly thought to be Muslim) in the United States led many to be deeply committed to the ideals of equality and justice that they believe should be guaranteed to all people.

Khalida and other Palestinian American youth constructed and negotiated belonging and citizenship across transnational social fields and in relation to different national imaginaries (of which I will say more shortly). As a consequence, the sense of belonging and citizenship that they developed was complex and mutable, responsive to the multiple cultural, social, economic, and political contexts across which their everyday experiences unfolded. Unfortunately, the lived sense of citizenship and belonging that these young people developed was markedly different from the normative view of American citizenship they encountered most directly in their schools.

This normative view of citizenship was rigid and exclusionary, and it positioned their community as dangerous “Others.” The fact that a teacher at Regional High asked that the Palestinian American students be “rounded up” even before it was clear that the September 11 attacks had anything to do with Arabs or Muslims (and, in fact, had nothing to do with Palestinians) illuminates that Palestinians (and a widely cast net of similarly positioned communities) were prefigured as outsiders to, and enemies of, this state (Cainkar 2009; Jamal 2008; Gerges 2003; Suleiman 2002).

In this book, I center attention on US nationalism as a key mechanism through which an exclusionary politics of belonging is forged in the everyday practices of our schools. I show how the educational experiences of the Palestinian American youth were inextricably bound up with these everyday negotiations over the boundaries of the US national imaginary (Abu El-Haj 2010). Who belongs to this nation? Who is “self” and “Other”? What kinds of people are viewed as capable of being “American” citizen-subjects? These questions implicitly and explicitly pervaded everyday discourse and practice at Regional High, and deeply affected the educational experiences and opportunities of the youth in this study.

[Excerpted from Thea Renda Abu El-Haj, Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth After 9/11, by permission of the author. © 2015 University of Chicago Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.] 

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