Nadine Naber, Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism. New York: New York University Press (Nation of Newcomers Series), forthcoming in 2012.
Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?
Nadine Naber: As part of my work in Arab American Studies for the last fifteen years, this book is, in part, an internal critique of my own field and much of my own previous scholarship. Most Arab American Studies research—important and necessary as it is—has taken one of two approaches. First and foremost, there are analyses that interrogate the historically specific and changing effect of US government and media discourses about the Middle East on Arab American lives. This mode of analysis—perhaps in resistance to the sensationalist Orientalist focus on “backward,” “uncivilized” Arab and Muslim “culture”—remains all but silent on intra-Arab American relationships and differences, most critically those associated with gender and sexuality, as well as on any other issue falling under the rubric of “culture.” A second and less prevalent approach emphasizes “cultural” analyses, and is built upon the same assimilationist frame as the dominant middle class Arab American discourses. From this perspective, Americanization appears as a struggle between an essentialized “Arab culture and tradition” that immigrants brought with them, and the dynamic “modern” culture they encountered in the US.
This book has been driven by my dissatisfaction with both approaches, and more broadly, by a commitment to answering the question: How can Arab American Studies scholars respond to Orientalism in ways that do not reinforce it, or encourage Arab-bashing? I have aimed to create an alternative model of Arab American identity, one that does not rely on the bifurcated and ultimately false options of the “effeminate cultural” self and the “masculinist political” self. While the former depends on and deploys an Orientalist logic, the latter claims to counter that logic through its critique of politics, war, and racism. But neither approach is sufficient for the study of gender and sexuality as lived relations of difference, power, and belonging in Arab American lives. But as all of us know, these problems are not merely academic ones; as we have seen, they are shaping the lives of people around the world every day and are entangled in the new Orientalist discourses that reify and legitimize imperial racism, military violence, and war.
Based upon research among middle class Arab Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area, the book is also auto-ethnographic and has grown out of deep personal investments. Looking back on the Arab communities I grew up with in the San Francisco Bay Area, I began to see that the impact of Orientalism was everywhere. Our Arab communities had a plethora of cultural and political organizations to put on music concerts, festivals, and banquets, and a range of political organizations that focused on civil rights issues and homeland politics. And yet there were no resources for dealing with the difficult issues within our families and communities—whether related to family, gender, sexuality, religion, or beyond. As in many immigrant communities, ours opted to avoid bringing attention to personal matters in public space and amongst one another. This seemed like a product of both fearing how airing potentially “negative” ideas about us could fuel anti-Arab racism and how we might judge one another for our successes or failures when it came to making it in Amerika. These pressures were pushing people in our community away from each other. In addition, on my trips to Jordan to visit relatives, I learned that many of the Arabs I knew in the Bay Area had more socially conservative understandings of Arab concepts of religion, family, gender, and sexuality than their counterparts in Jordan. For years, I have been baffled over why the stakes of culture and family respectability are so high in the US.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
NN: The book is based upon in-depth ethnographic research among eighty-six second generation young adults between 1998 and 2001. I believe that historically and politically situating an ethnography of Arab American life in the 1990’s can challenge what has become a disempowering habit of viewing 9/11 as an essential break or rupture, more properly understood as an unprecedented “state of crisis,” instead of understanding it properly as an extension if not intensification of a post-Cold War US expansion in the Middle East.
Through an analysis of the varied concepts of Arabness within middle-class Arab American families and within Arab and Muslim anti-imperialist social movements, I interrogate the dichotomies that ensnare Arab communities as they clamor for a sense of safety and belonging in the US. The book begins with an exploration of dominant middle class immigrant discourses that circulate in my interlocutors’ homes and community networks—such as the concept of good Arab girls vs. bad American(ized) girls. From their stories, the themes of family, religion, gender, and sexuality emerge. These themes formed the backbone of the idealized concepts of Arab culture that circulated in their families and communities, and are the battleground on which they, and their parents, and the Arab community, and the looming world of America all wrangle.
The book then moves to stories of young adults committed to anti-imperialist activism who are re-articulating dominant “Arab” and “American” narratives of family, gender, sexuality, and religion. One group of activists committed to ending state violence against immigrants, racism, and imperial war crafts a global Muslim social justice consciousness. Through the language of “Muslim First, Arab Second,” these young adults challenge racism, militarism, and white middle-class assimilation and the limitations of middle-class Arab cultural politics and their Muslim communities. Another group of feminist activists developed two campaigns in the late 1990s as part of a leftist Arab movement. One campaign entailed launching a “divest from Israel movement” in the US and the other was aimed at ending US-led sanctions on Iraq. Through their activism, these women articulate an emergent feminist and queer anti-imperialist politics, a politics that provides us with a language and a framework for conceptualizing how heteropatriarchy, co-constituted with multiple, interlocking power structures (such as class, race, and empire) specific to the diaspora, shape the inner-communal tensions that often ensnare Arab American movements and communities.
Drawing upon feminist ethnography, cultural studies, and women of color and transnational feminism, this book names diasporic feminist critique as a de-Orientalizing theory and method for seeing and interpreting the histories and stories of Arabs in the US. This book illustrates that these apparently “cultural” concepts cannot be explained through Orientalist frameworks that abstract “culture” from history. Rather, they emerge against the highly invasive and shifting relations of power central to contemporary US neocolonialism and imperial formations and emanate from transnational sources and structures—Bay Area politics and social movements, imperial discourses and projects, and the experience of belonging to a “diaspora of empire.”
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NN: While developing this book, writing for multiple audiences was among the most momentous challenges. I saw myself writing both for academic audiences and for Arabs and Arab Americans and their social movements (each with their own set of complexities). Challenging US-led empire and war was among the social justice agendas that mattered most to the activists with whom I worked. Yet a dominant current in US academia is hostile to Arab and Arab American political narratives, often censoring those that call US empire into question, especially in relation to Palestine. The ways that many Arabs and Muslims view the 1990s, although shared by many (often marginalized or targeted) scholars and activists throughout the world, contests much of the standard discourse prevalent in the media and supported by the government. This contested, and in many ways delegitimized, understanding of the recent relations between the US and the Middle East is woven through my interlocutors’ narratives. Indeed, it contradicts much of what our mainstream media has been telling us for the last two decades. Tenure procedures as well as the process of publishing also tend to reify positivist concepts of objectivity and call for distance between the researcher and research participants.
Balancing these demands, I positioned myself as an auto-ethnographer who aims to narrate each story, place it in a theoretical, historical, cultural, and political context, and provide some sort of background, analysis, commentary, or interpretation. I was also concerned that some of my interlocutors would want this to be more of an activist how-to book than I was willing or able to write. I cannot control how this book will be read. Any time women of color and third world women write about sexism and homophobia within their families or communities, they risk having their words re-routed back through a colonialist, racist, or Orientalist mindset, and misinterpreted as examples of their people’s potential for violence and backwardness.
J: What other projects are you working on right now?
NN: I am currently conducting research with Zeina Zaatari on feminist and LGBT activism in Lebanon in the context of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 2008 civil conflict in Lebanon. The research developed through our active involvement in the Arab Families Working Group, a research collective. I am also actively involved in the group Critical Ethnic Studies, and we are planning for our second conference, to be held in Chicago in 2012. Finally, I am currently co-organizing the conference “Contemporary Research in Arab American Studies: New Trends and Critical Perspectives,” a conference in honor of Michael Suleiman to be held at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, November 4-6, 2011.
[A majority of these responses are excerpts from Nadine Naber, Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism, forthcoming from New York University Press in 2012. For more information, visit the New York University Press website here.]