Monday,19 March, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Monday,19 March, 2018
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Far from insouciant

Gamal Nkrumah interviews Nadine Naber, author of the newly released Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics and Activism

Nadine Naber
Nadine Naber
Al-Ahram Weekly

“My book does not represent general Arab-American experience. It is based on the in-depth stories collected over nine years of second-generation young Arab-Americans who are primarily political activists,” the author says, candidly. The personal, for her, is political, and this is not just an outdated cliché.
Numerous Arab-Americans have covered themselves in glory in recent years. But that is not the overriding theme of Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics and Activism. The author, Nadine Naber, associate professor in the Programme in American Culture and the Department of Woman’s Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, is interested in the cultural aspects of political activism in the Bay Area, and she is particularly preoccupied with how counter-narratives, embracing sexuality and gender, transcend what she describes as the restrictions and limitations of orientalist and conventional nationalist articulations of self and ground concepts of religion.
Naber tackles these themes by scrutinising sympathetically the lives of young Arab-American political activists in the Bay Area of California in and around San Francisco. By doing so, she enunciates the dilemmas of the Diaspora.
The author details the personal and political repercussions of these dilemmas in an engaging manner, highlighting the intimate correlation between means and ends. The interviewees Naber contacted for her book appear to be passionate believers in social justice and equity, economically and before the law. Some avoid standard western forms of these ideas, as defined in political creeds such as socialism.
Public shaming may be the only recourse available to the young activists. Failure to act will guarantee their status as pariahs. In the chapter in her work entitled “Dirty Laundry”, Naber interviews six women activists from the Leftist Arab Movement (LAM). “What brought them to LAM were multiple, irreducible experiences of displacement and their plural engagements with US empire, all of which coalesced into a shared feeling of outrage and an urgent sense that they could not sit back and watch the destruction of the region and their homelands,” Naber insists.
“Taken together, my interlocutors’ stories provide us with a language and a framework for conceptualising the way hetero-patriarchy, co-constituted with multiple, interlocking power structures, such as immigration and class, contributes to the intra-communal tensions that often ensnare our movements,” Naber expressively explicates.
Politics without economics is considered meaningless in western democracies, and particularly in America. The course of Naber’s interlocutors’ careers in political activism can be traced through their own personal narratives. For some, there were abrupt breaks with the past and with their Arab cultural backgrounds. For others, there was a turning point or conversion.
“It is intra-communal hierarchies, such as those related to gender, that we often fear to discuss in public because they might be used to reify the very orientalist discourses that rely on notions of ‘Arab patriarchy’ to justify imperial violence, war and racism,” the author notes.
“Girls’ behaviour seems to symbolise the respectability of our fathers and our families, as well as the continuation of Arab culture in America,” Naber says. “Despite a broad diversity in family origins and religious values, and despite access to socioeconomic class privileges, nearly all of these young adults told a similar story: the psychological pressure to maintain perceived ideals of Arab and American culture felt overwhelming and irresolvable.”
The author is forthright and outspoken. But she does not claim to be speaking on behalf of all Arab-Americans. “Like all projects, this one inevitably has its own biases. In airing some voices, I have no doubt I am creating some silences. My own subject position impacted the way I related to people and the reasons why I came to narrate some stories more than others,” Naber stresses.
“Virtually, no scholarly research exists about Arab immigration to the San Francisco Bay Area. I gathered the accounts I narrate in this chapter by spending time among community-based networks, listening to people’s stories, and scouring through community-based events and gatherings that brought together Arab immigrants from Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. Most early Arab immigrants who set up Arab community-based collectives in the Bay Area were from these countries,” the author recounts.

ARABS IN AMERICA: Naber notes that today a majority of Arab-Americans hail from countries like Egypt and Iraq and from North Africa. Arab-Americans, the author asserts, have become increasingly viewed as something of a “problem minority” by mainstream America. “The ways in which Arab-Americans began feeling the impact of US empire in their own lives in the United States crystalised the sense that one could potentially be perceived as the ‘enemy within’, particularly if one were politically engaged in activities that countered or critiqued US government policies in the Middle East,” she observes.
If it had had an ounce of shame, the Reagan administration would not have “targeted seven Palestinians and a Kenyan for deportation, a civil proceeding, on charges of being affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), then the second-largest faction of the Palestine Liberation,” Naber remembers.
However justified their resentment, Arab-Americans should think long and hard about their integration into the mainstream American political scene. Young Arab-Americans are also determined to take part in the political developments of their ancestral lands. Their moral debts to the old-timers are huge, and even Naber acknowledges this truism.
The ever-greater expectations of the second and third-generation Arab-Americans also have to be taken into account. “I was born in San Fransisco, three years after my parents arrived in the United States from Jordan. Over the next 20 years, my family moved several times across the Bay Area, creating for me a childhood and a sense of community that was both rigidly structured and ever changing,” the author said.
“Throughout my childhood, ‘culture’ felt like a tool, an abstract, ephemeral notion of what we do and what we believe, of who belongs and who does not. Culture seemed to be the way my parents exercised their control over me and my siblings.” These are important subjects, and they should be addressed. The priority now is to find the themes that will unite the generations, old and young.
“The same fight I knew from my aggrieved conversation with friends and families was playing out in the homes of countless other Arab families. The typical generational wars… were amplified into a grand cultural struggle,” Naber says. “Another articulation of Arabness that circulated in the Bay Area during these years privileged a commitment to the self-determination and decolonisation of the Arab world. In the 1950s, some old-timers were working in solidarity with pan-Arab anti-colonial nationalist organisations in the Arab region. By the early 1970s, Arab nationalism in its various guises and modes had taken on a distinctly socialist dimension.”
“Several old-timers recalled the Arab student organisation at San Francisco State University as one of their first experiences of forming a collective ‘Arab’ identity,” the author said.
The tumultuous developments in the Middle East gave a new lease of life to second and third-generation Arab-Americans. Naber insists that they must reject the xenophobic and isolationist policies of the right-wing Republicans and rednecks. The grievances of Arab-Americans of the second and third and fourth generations are serious, pointing to the failings of due process and governance in the United States.
The handling by successive US governments of this crisis of confidence is hard to pass off as some oversight or bad governance by the US political establishment. However, the grievances of the youth of today also hark back to the injustices of yesteryear.
“The impact of orientalism, I began to see, was everywhere. Our Arab community had a plethora of cultural and political organisations that put on music concerts, festivals and banquets, and a range of political organisations 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,” observes Naber.
Over the past two decades activists needed to place religious identity above ethnicity. Arab nationalism suddenly appeared to be scarcely visible internationally. A supranational pan-Islamic movement became the predominant political expression of Arab-Americans.
This shift in ideology had active political effects. New notions of political Islam became attractive to a broad cross-section of Arab-Americans. Old-timers, and in particular secularist and leftist-inclined Arab nationalists, were highly critical of the new developments. “In the 1990s, local and national Muslim organisations with diverse membership were established,” Naber remembers.
“Arabs in America are more conservative than Arabs back home,” the author asserts. Her study explains why this is the case.

THE US AND THE ARAB WORLD: What does all this mean for US policy in the Arab world?
“Muslim student organisations participated in a range of Bay Area political events that scrutinised the Israeli occupation of Palestine through a discourse framing Palestinian solidarity as a unifying issue for Muslims globally,” Naber notes.
“The global spread of technology, including satellite television and the Internet, what one activist calls ‘the era of Al-Jazeera and the Internet’, has directly exposed Muslims from multiple racial/ethnic communities to events in Palestine on a daily basis and has inspired and intensified attachment to the Palestinian cause and people, concretising transnational links among a multilateral constituency of Muslim student activists,” Naber continues.
“In the Bay Area, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Malaysians, Filipinos, Africans and African-Americans united as ‘Muslims’ with their brothers and sisters in Palestine,” she elucidates.
“A new development came out of this moment: the centrality of religion as an organising framework for Palestine-solidarity activism in the Bay Area. Within the framework of global Muslim social justice, the movement for Palestine solidarity in the Bay Area became more expansive than it had been in the past. Bay Area Arab and Muslim political organisations, along with a range of anti-war activist networks, organised mass marches that coincided with similar events worldwide.”
While the future of Arab-Americans is more or less certain, the future of Arabs back home is less so, and fragile political institutions invite meddling by Washington.
It is clear from Naber’s work that Arab-Americans are standing on a foundation that, while not firm, at least is tangible, even if they have been kept at arms length for being involved in politics back home.
There is also middle ground on which Arab-Americans have a chance of building a better future: the rich Arab cultural heritage now buttressed by American democracy.
 “Being Arab is about being a certain way; knowing what is abe (shameful); knowing how to give mujamalat (flattery); knowing how to act at azayim (gatherings) and weddings; drinking shai (tea) or coffee; talking about politics so much; getting up for an older person; respecting your elders; looking after your parents and taking care of them; judging people according to what family they are from; marrying through connections. This list highlights a combination of cultural ideals taken from interviews with middle-class, second-generation young adults.”
 “I interrogate what I refer to as the politics of cultural authenticity, a process by which middle-class Arab diasporas come to herald particular ideals as markets of an authentic, essential, true, or real Arab culture,” Naber explicates. “I map the historical and political conditions that give rise to the concepts of Arab culture that second-generation young adults learn from their parent’s generation.”
A bolder set of Arab-American leaders is also emerging. “In the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s, middle-class articulations of Arabness provided Arab diasporas with a framework for conceptualising themselves that, to a certain extent, challenged US orientalist and racist discourses about Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East,” the author notes.
“A logic that resembles masculinist nationalisms heavily informed the politics of cultural authenticity in the Diaspora and operated to circumscribe my interlocutors’ lives and behaviour. My interlocutors articulate Arabness in terms of an authentic, unified Arab culture and community; they simultaneously reference internal communal differences in power-laden, hierarchical terms.”
“My parents were really liberal about guys. I would tell them when I had a crush on someone. I told my mom when I lost my virginity, and, when I freaked out about it, she’s the one who got me the pregnancy test … I’ve even told them I’ve done drugs,” she confesses.
“These things require immigrants to celebrate an apolitical expression of culture and it doesn’t permit them to critique politics and power,” Naber points out.
Photographs of Muslims praying in front of the San Francisco City Hall drive the point home. “After I survived the dual gauntlet of high school and what I understood as my parent’s expectations, and after I moved away from their home, I began listening more carefully to stories of our immigrant parents,” the author says.
“Not surprisingly, our parents’ commitments to cultural continuity were much more complicated than I had understood them to be: Arabs in America, Arab-America inside the empire, the colonised within, so to speak, in the belly of the beast,” she explains.

ARAB ACTIVISM IN AMERICA: “In the Bay Area, activism over Iraq took the form of teach-ins, film showings, benefit-concerts, tabling, public protests, and the publication of advertisements, articles, and letters to the editor in campus newspapers. Muslim student activists, in collaboration with a range of Muslim community-based organisations, played crucial roles in the peace and justice movement that was working to end the sanctions on Iraq,” she enucleates.
“These Muslim spaces, and the concepts of Islam that circulated within them, are produced out of a set of historical conditions that gave rise to a vibrant period of institution-building among diverse Muslims in the Bay Area in the late 1990s.”
“The coalition included socialist organisations, student groups, civil rights groups, and Muslim peace and justice organisations. To this coalition Muslim activists brought a collective narrative about Iraq that proliferated in Bay Area mosques, at Muslim student conferences, on e-mail lists and Websites shared by Muslim activists, in the speeches of the imams presenting at public protests, and in the literature of Muslim social justice organisations,” Naber declares.
Chapter two of her book focuses particularly on the family. “Every single person examined in the book is between 20 and 30 years old,” she explains. “Women are used by both the colonisers and the anti-colonial colonised peoples, including Arabs,” Naber elucidates further.
Born and raised in San Francisco in a progressive neighbourhood, the Castro, Naber was imbued with the culture of resistance. Oppression, familial or otherwise, sires rebellion. “The Bay Area is a hotbed of racial politics, tensions and histories of radical movements,” Naber notes. “We’ve got to analyse and understand Arab-America within a transnational framework,” she spells out.
“How is my book related to Egypt and the 25 January Revolution?  I believe that there is a strong correlation,” Naber interjects. Chapter three, entitled “Muslims First, Arab Second,” is a particular eye-opener.
“There is a need for specificity. There is no such thing as a general Arab-American experience. Arab-American lives are shaped by an interplay between the different dynamics both in America and in their ancestral homelands,” Naber declares. “Despite its specificity, my book offers a broad and complex picture of the local and global forces shaping Arab-American lives.”
“I strategically ended the book with August 2001, even though I continued to do research after 9/11,” Naber said. “A world existed before 9/11. The US empire in the Middle East was flourishing before 9/11. The beginnings of US global supremacy were in the making. My book reclaims the dynamics of the1990s,” she muses. “Arab-American studies only started after 9/11.”
Naber also warns that “sexism in the movement cannot be reduced to a cultural phenomenon. Chapters four and five of my book deal specifically with six women activists in the Bay Area, members of a particular leftist Arab movement. The logic of the emergency, of Palestine and Iraq in the 1990s, and the image of Mohamed al-Durra haunted Arab-Americans.”
“People are dying back home. How can we in America be complacent? Washing our dirty linen in public is therapeutic,” Naber notes. “Women found themselves silenced. Women are accomplices to orientalism if they don’t talk openly. US college campuses, fighting parents, encountering nationalists and cultural nationalists [are all issues], and race is an additional factor. Whether an Arab girl is to marry a black Muslim man, using the Qur’an to have race debates, having to contend with racism,” all these are live issues.
 “Political activists committed to Palestinian self-determination, particularly people with loved ones in Palestine, seem more captivated by cell phones, satellite television, and the Internet than ever before,” Naber notes. “But personal stories from Palestine circulate through local constellations of family and friends, religious, cultural, and political networks, and alternative television and Internet outlets,” she concludes.

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