[This article is one of six contributions to the Jadaliyya roundtable launching the Latin East Initiative. Click here to read the introduction or read other contributions by Amal Eqeiq, Eman Morsi, Rania Jawad, and Ali Mirsepassi.]
For those of us who have been involved in this conversation between Latin American studies and Middle East studies, the conference, especially here in the context of NYU, offers a welcome opportunity for engaging in cross-border perspectives and intersectional geographic imaginaries, contributing to the formation of what could be referred to as “trans-regional studies.”
Thank you to the panelists for the wonderful presentations. In the following, I would like to make a few brief comments about the contributions of the papers, while also remarking more broadly on the issues at stake in this cross-regional conversation. Defying essentialist definitions of national identity, the papers engage in the decolonization of knowledge. The papers also represent a salutary transgression of the standard protocols of Area Studies that would encourage us to restrict our thinking to the narrow framework of region-based analysis, which is often embedded in nation-state formations. Stepping out of that presumably well-defined terrain has not generally been encouraged. But comparative studies (especially in the form of South/South dialogue), as well as intersectional connectivities, are increasingly on the academic institutional horizons. The texts here reflect this effort to engage in cross-regional analysis, deploying various approaches and methodologies, including comparative studies and transnational studies.
Within the context of Palestine, meanwhile, the notion of “the transnational” has at times been rejected. For example, applying the term “transnational” to Palestine in a 2011 “Thematic Conversation” at the Middle East Studies Association, generated quite understandable, perhaps inevitable, anxiety, since it was viewed as negating “the national.” Precisely because of the persistence of the colonization project of Palestine, the investment in the idea of nationalism remains pertinent. And since Palestine has been denied and suppressed for so long, not only in the public sphere but also within academia, the move to “transnationalize Palestine” has been sometimes regarded with suspicion. But the papers here eloquently demonstrate that “the transnational” should hardly be regarded within a stagist narrative, as though we must go through “the national” to achieve “the transnational.” Rather, the two signify different perspectival modes and analytical prisms. I think that we are at a point of the conversation where there is a tacit understanding that “the transnational” could be articulated in conjunction with claims for indigeneity and the ongoing critique of settler-colonial formation that generated the dislocation and dispossession. “Transnationalism” therefore is not simply a descriptive term for the way people/bodies, cultural products, images/sounds, and ideas move across national borders, but rather a prism through which we understand those movements. Indeed, the papers offer vivid examples of this traffic across national spaces and regional boundaries, which result in complex political identifications and cultural belongings.
Although the notion of the “transnational” emerged in the late 80s as part of a hegemonic neoliberal euphoria—and thus cannot fully escape the gravitational pull of “transnational corporations”—it has also been deployed in critical discourse as part of globalization-from-below. As such, it has generated “the transnational turn” in scholarship. Some of the presentations throughout the conference have deployed the “transnational” to refer to the solidarity movements operating between Palestine and Latin America in the post-67 era. The category is useful in helping us understand the complexity of the dissemination of liberation discourses. At the same time, it would be useful to recall here that during that tri-continental revolutionary era, the notion of “transnationalism” was not in circulation but rather the leftist concept of “internationalism,” which was particularly significant for the struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism. It is therefore not a coincidence that Tariq Dana’s paper evokes the notion of “internationalism,” when chronicling this period. “Internationalism” here functions in a double sense, i.e. to refer to: a) revolutionary conferences, meetings, and training programs that literally formed a cross-border event, taking place both in the Middle East and in Latin America; and to: b) the liberation discourse that envisioned moving beyond what Fanon called “the pitfalls” of nationalist ideology.
When it comes to this history of Latin American solidarity with Palestine, the question for all the panelists would then be: where do “nationalism” and “internationalism” begin and where and when do they give way to postnationalism and transnationalism? Obviously, there was a major difference between anti-colonial struggles premised on class-based internationalism and those on bourgeois nationalism. How should this history and ideas be understood in relation to contemporary notions of transnational indigenous solidarity? In order to avoid anachronist deployment of terms, furthermore, it would be useful to clarify in what sense we currently use the “transnational” in relation to these nationalist/internationalist revolutionary ideologies. We would need to eschew the retroactive introjecting of “transnationalism” in an era when “internationalism,” along with a “tri-continental,” “third-world” and particularly pan-Arabism were commonly deployed. And instead, we can deploy the notion of “the transnational” as an analytical mode applicable to an era where the prevalent terms were “nationalism”/ “internationalism.”
The theme of anti-colonial solidarity with Palestine runs through the various papers. Sara Awartani’s presentation, in particular, highlighted the political solidarity in the case of the Puerto Rican independentistas by closely examining the case of Lolita Lebrón. In such work, the emphasis is placed on narrating the structural analogies of the respective colonial situations and the parallel ideologies of liberation struggles—analogies and parallelism that produce the matrix for comparative studies of decolonization. Nadim Bawalsa’s presentation, meanwhile, emphasized the links between the migrant community – Palestinians in Chile—and their place/country of origins —Palestine. Here the examination of solidarity focuses on the sustenance of memory and the multi-generational affiliation with ancestral indigenous places in the exilic Latin American geography. While such analogies and linkages are meaningful, at the same time, it would be helpful to address the relational situations of dislocated communities, and their shifting positionalities within various contexts. Since an indigenous community in one context may become part of the settler apparatus in another, we might speak about what could be called “relational indigeneity.” The colonization of what is now known as “Puerto Rico” by the U.S., as we know, was preceded by the Spanish colonization of the Taínos and their island, Borikén. How do the indigenous peoples of Chile, such as the Mapuche, regard the Middle Eastern immigrants, some of whom might have collaborated with rather unsavory rightwing regimes? Thus, along with comparative studies of settler-colonial formations and linked solidarities among anti-colonialist movements, it would be equally vital to highlight the shifting positionalities of communities across geographies. In this sense, Palestinians in Chile are hardly a transposed Palestine, as movement across borders and the new interactions and intersections shape new identity formations and complex political identifications that could be progressive in one instance and regressive in another.
Border-crossing of Middle Easterners to Latin America must also take on board the formation of new identities formed through new interactions, shaping novel modes of cultural syncretism. I am reminded of a Palestinian-American friend married to a Puerto Rican woman, who calls their children “Pale-Ricans.” This humorous ethnic coinage sheds light on this important aspect of narrating the complex relationship between the Middle East and the Americas, suggesting that mixing is palimpsestic, even within modern history. The term “turcos,” as we know, is a misnomer that dates back to the travel documents issued by the Ottoman Empire to the immigrants from Greater Syria. The name, which has persisted even after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, is historically associated, as Nadim indicated, with negative images first of dishonest street peddlers, and later of corrupt politicians. The term has also been used to call attention to “the exotic” as a presumably positive image of a seductive Orient. At times, it has also been used as self-designation, appropriated to assert origins of multi-religious and multi-ethnic backgrounds of the immigrant. The early arrivals in the late 19th century and early 20th century were largely of Christian and Jewish backgrounds. The proportion of Muslims among immigrants has increased in recent decades.
Border crossings of people and the multi-directional flow of global media have become factors in new transnational identity formations. Amal Eqieq’s presentation addressed the questions of visuality within a comparative indigeneity framework, while also revealing the transnational aspect of such political identification. The discussion of the cross-regional movement of artists highlights the ways in which they incorporated images from Mexico and Palestine to generate visual lexicon of unity, especially as embodied by the “To Exist is to Resist” mural paintings. As artists/ activists move across borders, they re-signify the walled public sphere of Israel / Palestine and US/Mexico, linking the geographical distant settler-colonial dispossessions. The merging of the sombrero and the kuffiyeh can be said to parallel the corn plant and the olive tree—as both a metaphor and a metonymy for indigeneity. Indeed, as Omar Imseeh Tesdell demonstrates, indigenous modes of farming became instrumental in shaping the entangled political aspirations in Palestine and Mexico. The interweaving of indigenous symbols generates a kind of visual hybridization that highlights cultural flows across regions. In doing so, solidarity is no longer framed as operating between two disparate histories/geographies; in such instances, Palestine becomes a trope of resistance beyond the actual site of Palestine.
I would like now to return to the point concerning the history of Latin America and the Middle East. It has been suggested here that there actually was solidarity with Palestine throughout the revolutionary Third world movements, expressed not only among intellectuals in Latin America but also in Africa and Asia. In this sense, indeed, the Latin America/Palestine solidarity operates on a revolutionary continuum. At the same time, there is a specificity to the case of Latin America in relation to the Middle East, having to do with Iberia and its crucial role in the formation of Latin America. The “two1492s,” to wit the Reconquista and the Conquista—as Robert Stam and I argued in Unthinking Eurocentrism (1994)—form a metonym for a series of inter-related historical processes, including: the colonization of the “new” world; the Edicts of Expulsion against the Jews and Muslims; the Inquisition against marranos and Moriscos; and the TransAtlantic slave trade. In this sense, the entire world still lives under the shadow of that cataclysmic moment of 1492. Examining the discursive connections between the two 1492s affords us a historically grounded way to retell the story of Eurocentrism in its Orientalist and Occidentalist articulations, with a slightly different emphasis from the way it has been told by Edward Said (Orientalism, 1978) and later by Walter Mignolo (The Idea of Latin America, 2005.) Even before Columbus, the conquista itself, I suggested elsewhere, was already informed by the "proto-Orientalism" of the Reconquista of Iberia. Columbus, in this sense, can be seen as the first Orientalist, even in the sense of imagining himself to be actually in the Oriental "land of the Great Khan." (Shohat, “Area Studies, Gender Studies, and the Cartographies of Knowledge,” Social Text 72, Fall 2002) Columbus globalized Orientalism by linking the West and the East Indies. Empowered by the land and material wealth stolen from the Americas, Europe and its transoceanic neo-Europes, subsequently colonized North Africa and the Middle East as a prelude to colonizing most of the world.
The Latin American imaginary is deeply shaped by its ambivalent relation to Iberia, which could be seen as a kind of “the Sephardi/Moorish un/conscious of Latin America.” (Shohat, “The Sephardi-Moorish Atlantic: Between Orientalism and Occidentalism,” in Evelyn Alsultany and Ella Shohat’s Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of the Middle East in the Americas, 2013). The notion of “Tropical Orientalism” allows us to read the Latin American imaginary of the Orient against the backdrop of a Moorish-Sephardi unconscious, thus highlighting not only the positive cross-Atlantic historical, discursive, and cultural links between "the Orient" and "the Occident," but also the anxieties that such links provoked. In the negative sense, Iberia is seen as a site contaminated with “Moorish blood” that explains underdevelopment vis-à-vis the North. But at the same time, Iberian heritage is site of romantic flexibility that explains the lack of phobia about miscegenation, in contrast to the North. (Shohat/ Stam, “Tropical Orientalism: Brazil’s Race Debates and the Sephardi-Moorish Atlantic” in Paul Amar (ed.) The Middle East and Brazil: Perspectives on the New Global South, 2014). In such narratives, the figure of the Sephardi-Moor played an important role in the Oriental narrative of Latin American identity—whether as negative or positive—even prior to the arrival of the Turcos. Here the Latin versus the Anglo-Saxon corresponded the Weberian idea of North versus South, but ultimately only reflect the ideologically-projected constructs of Latinism and Anglo-Saxonism. (Robert Stam/Ella Shohat, Race in Translation: Culture Wars Around the Postcolonial Atlantic, 2012).
The final point has to do with another misnomer. Just as the name “Middle East” is highly problematic—“middle” in relation to which geographical vantage point?- so is the term “Latin America.” For our conference, the notion of “the Latin,” evokes the idea of the “global South” in implied opposition to the imperial “North.” At the same time, however, the term embeds the settler-colonial history of Latin America itself. As a Euro-derived term it implicitly elides indigenous and African cultures because it reflects the conceptualization of the Americas as defined exclusively vis-à-vis the Spanish and Portuguese world. Unlike most of the Third World/ Global South, Latin America was shaped by Euro-dominant settler colonialism. The resistance to U.S. imperialism, however valid, sometimes sidesteps Latin America’s own historical embeddedness in colonial settler-states’ formations. It is, therefore, crucial to formulate the concept of indigeneity not only comparatively but also relationally, situating it historically and politically in its various contexts; its shifting of meanings depending who is claiming it and vis-a-vis whom.