Louise Cainkar, Pauline Homsi Vinson, and Amira Jarmakani, Sajjilu Arab American: A Reader in SWANA Studies (Syracuse University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you create this book?
Louise Cainkar, Pauline Homsi Vinson, and Amira Jarmakani (LC, PHV & AJ): The driving motivation for the project of building a reader for the field arose from our desire to provide scholars with the reader that we wished had existed—to support our research and later our teaching—as we were entering academia. In both the more specific field of Arab American studies as well as in ethnic studies more broadly, there has long been a tremendous need for a comprehensive and multidisciplinary reader in Arab American studies. In developing the first comprehensive reader in Arab American studies, we also sought to collect some of the most foundational and visionary scholarship for the growing field of critical Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) studies in the Americas.
The project had several other distinct goals, including to: position Arab American studies within critical race and ethnic studies; historicize and situate critical conversations on US imperialism in relation to the war on terror; summarize foundational conversations on race and the racialization of US Arab and US SWANA communities; provide some critical context for discussions of the racialization of US Muslims more broadly; and conceptualize “Arab American” as broader than the United States.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LC, PHV & AJ: Sajjilu Arab American: A Reader in SWANA Studies registers and reflects on major developments and central concerns within the field of Arab American studies and its intersections with the fields of US Muslim and SWANA American studies and in relation to fields such as Asian American, transnational, American, Middle Eastern, race and ethnic, and migration studies.
Our vision has been to shape a reader that did not aim to be canonical but that instead remained open to—and even invited—revision. While we do want to honor foundational scholarship in the field, we never wanted a “best of” collection, nor a teleological narrative that forces the idea of a single, clear beginning of the field, much less a current arrival point. We therefore immediately dismissed an organizational framework that would privilege linearity. Following our own multiple points of entry to the field as editors, we sought work that reflected the rich variety and overlapping points of inquiry within the field. Out of the resonances and tensions among them, we identified six themes: the advantages and pitfalls of naming (the field); migration and movement across borders; race and racialization; securitization, empire, and the war on terror; representation and orientalism; and cross-racial and cross-ethnic solidarities.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
LC, PHV & AJ: Books are always the product of a series of thought collaborations; an edited reader takes such collective scholarly work to yet another level. This reader would not be possible without the years of work and the steadfast endurance of scholars in the field to carve space in the academy for Arab American and critical SWANA studies. In this sense, credit is owed not only to each of the contributors to the collection, but also equally to the many scholars—cited and not cited—whose work created and enriched our field/s. This work thus offers an extension of our previous efforts as scholars and editors working in conversation with others in the field of Arab American studies.
One important extension of our previous work and departure from the established norm is the collaborative feminist approach we took to gather and frame the essays we collected about our field. In addition to compiling and editing the work of each of our contributors’ essays, we also, as editors, collectively wrote the introduction to the reader and the essays that framed each thematic part. Our process for co-writing was both intensive and adaptive—a process that evolved along the way. We took turns taking the lead on writing various thematic introductions; we collectively edited these introductions, rotated who rewrote each section introduction, and collectively edited the whole work again. In this way, we honored each of our areas of expertise while simultaneously making room for fresh perspectives on each topic. In the sometimes overwhelming (and constantly growing!) set of comments that spindled down the right-hand side of our shared google docs, we challenged, supported, and uplifted one another. Throughout this truly feminist and transformative writing process, we learned many things about the field, given our varied content-areas of expertise; we learned a great deal about writing and editing; we validated each other’s experience of being marginalized in the academy; and we learned a great deal about each other. Our hope is that at least some of this transformative process translates to the volume’s readers as well.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LC, PHV & AJ: We want the book to reverberate across different types of fields and to resonate with a wide range of readers. We would like it to be a game changer in discourses about Arab Americans in the United States and elsewhere. We hope the book will be adopted in undergraduate and graduate courses in Arab American studies, critical Muslim Studies, US Muslim studies, critical SWANA studies in the Americas, critical race and ethnic studies, diaspora studies, Asian American studies, American studies, and all adjacent fields/disciplines interested in incorporating this historically underrepresented perspective.
Given the burgeoning scholarship on anti-Muslim racism in a number of fields and disciplines—not all of which is in conversation with one another—we hope it offers a go-to reference for scholars of US imperialism, the war on terror, and policing of BIPOC communities, as well as those in US Muslim studies who are interested in some of the key scholarship that laid important groundwork for our overlapping fields.
As our section on solidarities highlights, we also hope that readers will find both resonances and inspiration for intersectional, coalitional, and solidarity work that considers Arab American/SWANA studies in relation to questions of space, geography, race, ethnicity, class, nationality, gender, sexuality, and abolition. Finally, considering the ways that Arab American studies has become weaponized in campaigns to thwart its integration into K-12 and college level ethnic studies curricula, we think the reader will provide helpful context for scholars and activists as well as high school teachers offering ethnic studies courses.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LC, PHV & AJ: The process of assembling this reader has provoked conversations among scholars about the potential for a critical SWANA studies journal, which ideally could germinate and support compelling directions in the field.
AJ: My new project, Weapons of Mass Dissemination: Apprehending Anti-Muslim Racism in Cyberspace, is engaged with feminist surveillance studies and abolitionist data justice. I investigate viral digital culture, and the underlying algorithms that drive it, to ask after its impact on Muslim, Arab, and SWANA lives. How do such digital circuits of anti-Muslim racism serve as conduits for apprehending Muslims, where “apprehend” refers both to creating disinformation and to capture? I argue that popular perceptions about Muslims, as filtered through stereotypes and misinformation circulated in digital products like memes, can also spread anti-Muslim sentiment, reify disinformation about Muslims, and—perhaps most concerning—build the technical and representational structure to apprehend Muslims. The viral spread of gendered, anti-Muslim images, enabled by surveillance technologies, serve to normalize the type of domestic surveillance that can also lead to the capture and incarceration of innocent people, framed as terrorists or enemy combatants in the war on terror.
PHV: I am currently finalizing a book manuscript on the subversive potential of storytelling in Arab American writing, which is tentatively titled Transporting Tales: Echoes of the Thousand and One Nights in Contemporary Arab American Literature. The essay I have in our reader is related to this work. In addition, I will be focusing on teaching and institution building in Arab American studies. To that end, I have accepted a one-year visiting appointment at the University of Michigan-Dearborn (2022-2023) where I will be teaching courses in Arab American studies, including literature, and where I will serve as interim director of the Center for Arab American Studies, a role that dovetails very nicely with the collaborative work I have been undertaking with Louise and Amira on this reader.
LC: I have a few projects underway. I am completing an article entitled “Racial Control under the Guise of Terror Threat: Policing of US Muslim, Arab, and SWANA communities” which is an investigation of the ways in which the state uses tactics similar in method but different in name to police Arab/Muslim/SWANA and other BIPOC communities. In other words, it puts the domestic war on terror in the context of programs such as the war on drugs, Jim Crow, Japanese interment, Native American removal, Operation Wetback, and so on. It further demonstrates with data that the state has little to show in results (i.e., capturing terrorists) despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps more) on the domestic war on terror, suggesting why it needs to use unsavory informants and entrapment to show effectiveness. Another project focuses on resettling Afghan refugees in the United States, placed in the analytic contexts of the discourse of saving Afghan women, the twenty-year US occupation of Afghanistan, the male-oriented, patriarchal US refugee resettlement system, and the requisites of asylum stories. This project has both trauma-informed, restorative, community-engaged components and research components.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-2; 29)
“Mostly my stories choose me, I do not choose them” (Majaj 2007, 406). The words of the Arab American scholar and poet Lisa Suhair Majaj resonate with the aims of this project—namely, to tell the story of Arab American studies not as a single defining account but as a narrative that reflects the complexity, tensions, and richness of the field. As the storytelling metaphor suggests, our process has been to engage the origin stories of the field, to think about the themes that dominate how those stories have been told, and to reveal the political and institutional contexts that have shaped Arab American studies. Insofar as origin stories operate as creative fictions, we have also sought both to disrupt and to build on the narrative logics that have so far framed the field, with the aim of stimulating conversation about the formation of the field of Arab American studies and also about the possibilities for its future directions.
From a young age, we are taught to understand stories through the narrative coherence of a beginning, middle, and end. The problem with such narrative neatness is that it obscures the messiness of a good story, smoothing over shifts in perspective and temporal anomalies, normalizing experiences, and heightening particular aspects over others for dramatic effect. In relation to the story about the field of Arab American studies, when the privileging of narrative coherence takes the shape of a chronological arc, it can flatten the sorts of tensions that make the field more interesting and vibrant. In our telling of the story of Arab American studies in this introduction, we aim to strike a balance between the coherence of a neat story and the generative potential of messiness in telling a complex and ever-expanding tale.
At the same time, because linearity can have the benefit of providing an organizing structure on which to hang an overall understanding of what has been at stake in field formation, we begin this introduction with an overview of some of the dominant themes and narratives in Arab American studies. In other words, we describe some of the common stories about the field, and then we point to some of the problems with these sorts of origin stories and the ways they can inadvertently produce and solidify orthodoxies even as they also miss important strands within the field. We then describe our rationale for organizing the reader thematically, a structure that foregrounds our aim to bring attention to cyclical patterns, disruptions, continuities, and divergences in the process of field formation.
In keeping with the spirit of storytelling with which we began this introduction, we round out our discussion by telling our own academic stories in relation to the field of Arab American studies. Our academic trajectories are inextricably bound up in the gradual formation of the field, and we tell our stories as a way of contextualizing three of the major obstacles that impeded field formation: struggles to render the field legible, resistance to framing Arab Americans as racialized, and a general climate of censorship in relation to work on Palestine and on Arabs more generally. The title we have chosen for this collection, Sajjilu Arab American: A Reader in SWANA Studies, speaks to these three obstacles in that it demands recognition for the field. From the Arabic word sijil, سجل, which carries the meanings of both “recording” and “registering,” the word sajjilu intentionally echoes the opening lines of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Identity Card,” or “Bitaqat hawiyyah,” which begins, “sajjil ana ‘arabi” (سَجّل انا عربي). Using the imperative form of the verb, the opening line means, “Register/Record/Write Down: I am an Arab.” First published in 1964 and composed while Darwish was in an Israeli prison, his poem replays an exchange at an Israeli checkpoint and gives voice to the Palestinian speaker’s defiant challenge to the absurdity of having to be registered by a state institution that would also erase his identity and deny his claim to the land. Choosing the plural imperative in place of a universal masculine singular, our title both echoes and expands on the opening words of Darwish’s poem. While the imperative demands recognition and simultaneously insists on the idea of having our histories recorded and recognized, the plural invites a broader coalition into that demand. Though our reader focuses on Arab American studies, our subtitle also locates this work within the broader umbrella of critical Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) studies, and it addresses the multiple conflations that affect the overlapping, contingent, and historically situated experiences of SWANA Americans. Our intent is to highlight our collective efforts to record our own stories in their multiplicity and variety, to foreground the importance of decolonizing geographies, and to acknowledge the historic invisibility of Arab American studies even as we have faced the hypervisibility of domestic surveillance and policing of our communities. These struggles of recognition, racialization through surveillance, and racialized exclusion affect everyone from the larger SWANA region—Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Assyrians, Kurds, Chaldeans, Imazighen, and Armenians, among others.
The cover image we have chosen further communicates the complexity of resistance and control that we signal in our title. The image is of two mirror halves of a passport photo of Elaine Hagopian, a central figure in the development of Arab American studies, who has donated her photos to the Arab American National Museum and has generously agreed to allow us to use her image on the cover. Resonant on multiple levels, this image evokes the refusal to be boxed in even as it directly references state efforts to control and manage us—for instance, in government registries, identity documents, FBI files, and border crossings. The image also invokes a symmetry that eludes closure, as one half is in color, and the other is in grayscale, suggesting a dichotomy that is unstable and inviting a refusal of sorts and an alternative within. Together, the title and cover image carry the force of an injunction to inscribe that which has been elided even as each captures a central tension between the constraints of institutional mechanisms and the possibilities for escaping them. Sajjilu Arab American: A Reader in SWANA Studies registers and reflects on major developments and central concerns within the field of Arab American studies, its intersections with the fields of US Muslim and SWANA American studies and in relation to fields such as Asian American, transnational, American, Middle Eastern, race and ethnic, and migration studies.
As Lisa Suhair Majaj says in the interview with which we begin this introduction, “Language carries residues of meaning, and once we start allowing these subterranean layers to emerge and interact we discover that language has a movement of its own, like breath” (2007, 406). Like any scholarly field, Arab American studies should be understood as living, breathing, and constantly evolving. In crafting one narrative about it here, we also acknowledge the power and potential of language—like breath—to be life giving and to always hold open the potential of telling the story in a different way. We offer this reader as an invitation to conversation, debate, and, ideally, new and continued growth of the field.