On my flight back from Philadelphia to Detroit, after having participated in the 122nd MLA Annual Convention, I sat next to a young man whom I overheard speaking Arabic in his cell phone. I said “salaam” in Arabic, and the young man was surprised and astonished: “how did you know I am Arab?” he impatiently asked, clearly disappointed to be found but viscerally eager to put me to task for it. I said I just overheard you speaking Arabic in your cell phone. Well, then, he said, “for your information, I am not Arab, I am American.” “That’s fine,” I said, “but you speak Arabic, no?” I deliberately asked the question in Arabic with an accent that is neither Tunisian (as mine normally is) nor fluently Palestinian (however I have tried to sound like one), and I followed it up with an English translation.
The young man looked at me with a smirk and said that he cannot possibly be Arab because he was born in the United States and his father was also born in the United States. He went on to add, however, that he considers himself American first and Palestinian second, that is, American Palestinian, but definitely not Arab. Obviously, whether Palestinians are Arabs or not is not for me to decide, but I wanted to leave a fringe of doubt about my knowledge of Palestine or about how Palestinians (or few of them at least) prefer to define themselves.
So, I went on to my next question, and I asked, “Why don’t you call yourself ‘Palestinian American’ then?” He said, “No, I am American first and then Palestinian.” “Well, I said, that’s fine, but how did you know that I myself am Arab?” It was not the swiftness of his response that shocked me but the tone of his voice, snobbish, intransigent, and ultimately condescending. “Yes, he said, you are!” It was perhaps the first time that someone so confidently and unequivocally determined and judged my racial identity at one and the same time. Not that I prefer the fluidities of postmodern identities and their sometimes overwrought and annoying slippages, flaunted narcissisms and paranoid self-consciousnesses, but that I have always casually adhered to a measure of identity without having ever closed it off to whatever might interpellate, enrich or expand it. I therefore cannot imagine myself contradicting someone identifying me as Arab (even though fewer and fewer would identify me as Tunisian and fewer still would identify me as Canadian), yet what this young man seemed to be implying by categorically adjudicating about my Arabness is that, unlike him, who is self-consciously American Palestinian, I cannot be redeemed or delivered from my Arabness since I wore it on my face and cannot possibly go “face-off.” So, I am trapped! I wear my face and my face marks me as Arab. He however seemed to enjoy wearing a different one, and that’s partly why he was devastated when I confronted him with a forgotten one that happens to be an Arab face. Otherwise, our decent but, I must admit, very disturbing conversation would probably have not taken place.
Even though I have no problem with the way people construct narratives of their own identities, I was quite surprised and shaken by this young man’s absolute disidentification with his “Arabness” (and to a lesser extent, “Palestinianness”) and wondered whether he would really be identified as such by mainstream America. Since when have self-professed multiculturalist societies ceased to identify individuals and peoples separately from where they descend or come from? More importantly, how come that this whole media-authored paranoia against Arabs in the United States has insinuated itself in the minds and hearts of a growing portion of Arabs who are born and raised in the United States in such a way that it compelled them to censor their ownmost Arabness? Gone are the times when to be Arab meant to be articulate and to speak with impeccable clarity, and not synonymous with being sentenced to hang in the everyday news like a parasitical fly at your lunch table.
I do not mind accepting whatever narrative identity this young man put forward, only if it were that simple! What I suspect is that what I witnessed is just another example of a pervasive wave of Arabs born in the United States, Britain, France or in Canada who speak Arabic (some of them don’t but they can still have the “luxury” of Arabic names) and relate to a national identity (Palestine, Algeria, Lebanon, etc.) but who insist that they are not Arabs. What I suspect, in other words, is not whether the likes of this young man is comfortable with his Americanness but whether or not he is not disavowing his Arabness, however near or distant it might be. Obviously, this is not something that should be of any concern to me if I did not note the young man’s disappointment, confusion and surprise when I spoke to him in Arabic and implied that he was Arab.
The question is not whether people are free to identify, refashion and reinvent themselves the way they like, but whether it is psychosocially salubrious to do so if the propelling forces are nothing more than the propagandistic and media propagated paranoia against Arabs and Muslims. Is it healthy to self-identify oneself as triumphantly American or as part-time American Palestinian if such an identity is instituted by a privatized and naturalized denial or disavowal of one’s ownmost ethnic identity? This young man (25, he told me) works in the Arab world and is a budding diplomat and has the potential to become a major player in the agonizing process of bringing peace to the Palestinians, a besieged people whose political and cultural energies are perennially being taxed beyond human creativity, endurance and persistence. How can this young man who has internalized a paranoid perception of Arabness be able to understand his own people, let alone himself or the way other Americans, unlike him, see him?
I once asked a friend of mine why is it that a lot of Arab Americans (who are Muslims, born-Muslims or of Muslim descent) choose non-Arab names for their own children? She told me not to be “judgmental” since I “don’t know the traumata that young children with Arab names go through at American schools.” I obviously understood the point, even though I still don’t believe that one can correct a wrong by perpetuating it. So, by calling your child Ray or Isabelle, do you think, given the intensive profiling systems and the unquenchably crooked interest in people’s ethnicities, do you think you’re building a better future for your child or that you’re somewhat protecting him or her from the radar of ethnic profiling?
Whether an Arab can never become American, ought not or must never become American is not the point, but rather that education (at the school system level in particular) should confront children with difference early on in their lives and decolonize rather than colonize their impressionable minds. If all children’s names go by Ray or Isabelle, etc., when is a child going to be exposed to different names? Plus, the argument that children suffer discrimination at school, while evidentially true, should not encourage parents to opt for mainstream or culturally-friendly names for their kids.
What if your sensitive and anti-imperialist child grows up one day and accuses you of treachery, of giving her a name that does not coincide with her cultural allegiances or affiliations? What if? How would you feel as a parent? You might indeed give your child a hard time by calling him, for instance, Mustafa, Ali, and especially Osama, but you might also give him and yourself the occasion to debunk prejudices and to generate a model Osama that might eventually redeem the name from its combustible connotations. Rather than asking whether there can be a different Osama, a different Saddam, are we suggesting that there cannot be a worse or better one? Are we just supposed to toe the line and let the Media continue stereotyping Arab culture? So what if I insist on calling my child Osama, what? Do you think we should let history determine our fates or determine the direction of history through our familial, local and grassroots struggles even with little and small-scale actions, as small as the decision upon the name of your next child?
The other part of this problematic of narrative identities is not that some people construct themselves differently or in whatever manner they want to, but that they do so in the belief that they attach superior values to their own selves by pursuing a certain narrative rather than another one. The young man I met on the plane identified me as Arab immediately, as if he were impatiently sentencing me for having myself (and mistakenly so, as he tried to convince me) identified him as Arab. Did Arabs descend so low that it is an insult to be called “Arab”? Oh, have I just realized this now after the hurly burly has been done and the war lost and won? No, not at all, I heard about it before but it is always news to me: why should I get accustomed to it? Why should I beg to be appeased? Why should one get used to this maligned posture of Arabness both inside and outside the Arab world and among Arabs themselves?
My problem with identity politics is the racist gesture that inaugurates and sustains it. For, this young man sees himself as American, even though he is also a part-time Palestinian who speaks Arabic and works in the Arab world. The very fact that he viscerally denies the qualification to be Arab or to be taken for or identified with one is expressive of a certain value system at work in the parts of the collective unconscious of later generations of Arab Americans. This value system does not apply to all Arab Americans since I have seen and heard many of them reclaim a distant Arabness and actively identify with one, but it is always disheartening to learn that the young and bright are unwilling to identify with what Edward Said once called a “lost cause” but are in fact reenacting the official stance vis-à-vis Arabness induced by the media and the legacy of cumulative defeats of Arabs in their decolonization struggles against the triptych—Zionism, American and European postcolonial colonialism.
Is really the very experience of being Arab nowadays a lost cause, nothing but a source of despondency and anguish? Did we come to accept this fichue position? If we are politicized and vulnerable, should we not identify even more enthusiastically with our own vulnerability rather than vacate it for misguided appropriations of prestigious and safer American or European identities? And how on earth are we going to convince the world to identify with our “lost causes” from the Mashriq to the Maghrib if we cannot identify with the signatures of those causes, with Arabness? If Arabness and Arabs are two lost causes in one, can we not at least afford the dignity of sportsmanship and reckon with those losses and try to initiate narrative departures and reconfigurations rather than change camps altogether? Today, apart from Iraqis, Palestinians continue to be the most vulnerable living Arabs in the Arab world, being as it were exposed to the besieging military machine of their nuclear oppressor; is it not more dignifying for Arabs to identify with Palestinians rather than to disidentify with Arabness? Should not the world identify with Palestinian exposure and vulnerability as it had once identified with Jewish vulnerability? Should not each of us unilaterally disengage with identity politics and invest in identifications with victims of injustices wherever they are? We ought to find a way to become, at least until further notice, all Palestinians, all Arabs…
NOURI GANA is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature & Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He recently published, “Everyday Arabness” in CR: The New Centennial Review 9.2 (2009): 21-44, and edited, Writing While Arab, cluster of essays in PMLA 123.5 (2008): 1573-1629. He can be reached through his faculty page.