Attending to this issue's theme of borders and margins, this essay is a personal reflection on the challenges of living in the United States as an Arab, particularly in light of the lack of complex knowledges about Arabs in this country and the assumptions and stereotypes that come with that.
And so the shelters the mind makes up are crisscrossed by borders, weighted down as a tent might be by multiple anchorages, ethnic solidarities, unselvings.~ meena alexander, the shock of arrival1
The jolting experience of a migration, a relocation, a home departure, or a home return remains elusively hard to articulate, explain, or describe. But there are moments that emerge, weighty moments that become selectively representative, significant, even when inexplicable, condensing a litany of feelings and encounters into palpable, heavy capsules that we carry around in our pockets, rattling around like change, reminding us of who we are and where we've been.
A couple of years ago, my ten-year-old daughter came to me concerned that the violin tune she had been practicing for a school performance (labeled “Jewish Folk Tune” in her book) was in fact the Israeli national anthem, and as a result she did not want to play it. Growing up in a politically vocal Arab American household and traveling back and forth to Lebanon every summer, where they encountered the effects of long histories of Israeli bombings and occupation and the lingering marks of the fifteen-year Lebanese war, both my daughters fully knew the implications of the Israeli national anthem and what it means to play it. As an Arab immigrant myself who was born and raised in Lebanon, and who experienced firsthand the realities and effects of Israeli aggression, bombardment, invasions, and occupation (in addition to the violence and precarities of the other segments of the Lebanese war and its aftermath), I found the reality that my daughter would come home playing the Israeli anthem to be unfathomable.
Even though having to contend with such an incident was not a first, the seemingly innocuous shift from folk tune to anthem was seismic for us as a family, unraveling a crisis (how can we raise our kids in this country that does not know us?), and demanding further emotional labor and time to explain to the school and the teachers why playing the Israeli anthem was unacceptable. Every time such an incident occurs, I am left wondering: Are explanations actually effective, or do our concerns and experiences remain largely illegible in the limited political lexicon of mainstream America? Why should legibility even be a goal? For how can I describe standing as a nine-year-old on my parents' rooftop watching the Israeli army drop phosphorus bombs on “West” Beirut (where part of my extended family lived) during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut in 1982 (the same bombs used to illuminate the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila that summer)? How do I describe the horror snaking up from the pit of my stomach when watching the coverage of Israel's airstrike near the Lebanese town of Qana, where 106 people were killed and 116 injured while seeking refuge in a United Nations compound during Israel's 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath, one of many similar operations? How do I capture the anxiety of having no electricity for days on end after yet another Israeli bombing of the electricity plant in Beirut, and of living with the daily threat of the next Israeli bombardment, invasion, attack (throughout a 15-year “civil war” in Lebanon)? Or of the long-term effects of Israel's 33-day war on Lebanon in 2006, which quickly escalated a few days before my spouse and I were scheduled to move for good from the United States to Beirut with our three-week-old twin daughters? How do I convey all that to someone who doesn't have the political vocabulary to process such experiences without risking the dreaded but inevitable expressions of pity, discomfort, or awkward (albeit empty) apologies?
To me, the incident with the Israeli anthem is not surprising or unique, for it is just yet another reminder (in a series of many) of the violent erasures or at best the illegibility across the US landscape of the experiences, histories, and realities that we as Arabs carry with and within us as we cross borders, migrate, and move away from our Arab homes. For even when we speak, we are often unheard or misheard, misidentified or stereotyped, especially when we don't perform or “fit” the perceived image du jour of an Arab, which continues to fluctuate, encompassing terrorist, refugee, oppressed women, fundamentalists, or simply, producers of exotic foods (depending on the political moment, national anxieties, or liberal propensities).
I have to navigate a world where how people perceive my difference can be a source of threat, cultural and culinary curiosity, or exoticism: “Oh, you're Middle Eastern, I love hummus.” I spent a good hour once listening to a woman who was cutting my hair reminisce about her childhood friend's father, who was “also Lebanese!” and always made them a dish that sounded like “lick my jeans.” “Do you know it?” she exclaimed. Many reactions are harmless despite the sharp violence of limited knowledges, but I'm always wary and careful. When I find myself alone at home with a plumber who barks “What's your nationality?” at me once he hears my accent, I inch a bit closer to the door in case I need a quick exit, because we both know that “American” was not going to be an acceptable answer for either of us. Or the movers who stomped around our house visibly fuming after hearing my mother speak in Arabic to my daughters. But of course, prejudiced assumptions and the rejections and judgments attached to them are not in any way linked to any one class or social status. For in my experience, academics, affluent folks, and individuals who pride themselves on being worldly and knowledgeable can be judgmental and racist, although privilege, training, and resources have taught them to carefully conceal their ignorance and racism. Once, right after having arrived from Beirut back to the US college town in which I lived, and feeling completely homesick trying to find traces of the people I left behind in the bodies and the language surrounding me, I ran into a professor from another department. Wanting to display how “in touch” he is with news from the Arab world, which was dominated at the time with the coverage of the garbage crisis pervading Lebanon, he announced, “Oh, you must be happy to be back from the garbage country” (or it might have been country of garbage—I was too stunned by his words to remember them accurately). I looked him in the eye saying, “Actually, it's terrible to be back,” and walked away, with so much more that remained unsaid.
The complexity of our worlds and the rich, nuanced communities that we hail from and seek to reenact and reestablish in the United States is in conflict with the simplistic, flat, one-dimensional mainstream image of who and what is an Arab. And there is the dilemma: How do we continue to live and survive in a country that does not really know us, and subsequently does not love us, with knowledge, intimate and deep knowledge, being at the core of love, in all its complexity? In his 2016 essay “Black Study, Black Struggle,” Robin Kelley addresses student activists, “led largely by black students, as well as coalitions made up of students of color, queer folks, undocumented immigrants, and allied whites” across “nearly ninety campuses,” who rose up against institutionalized racism on their university campuses in the aftermath of the Ferguson, MO, protests.2 Poignantly drawing out the conundrums and shortcomings of “seek[ing] love from an institution incapable of loving them—of loving anyone, perhaps,” Kelley insightfully challenges efforts to portray institutional recognition and acknowledgment of racialized and minoritized bodies as a form of love, and its attendant sense of belonging.3
Such constructions and conceptions of love and belonging are premised on academic institutions positing themselves as a “welcoming place, [complete with] a nurturing faculty, and protective administration.”4 As Kelley points out, such purported commitments are meant to replicate the care and love of a family unit (notwithstanding all the complications of family relations) and community support. But students, especially students of color, end up instead feeling alienated and ostracized, for the politics of institutional recognition (even when selectively applied) of course is not premised on the kinds of intimate and complex knowledges that yield radical, empowering acts of love. The love that institutions, academic or otherwise, are capable of is instead premised on self-interest and self-promotion under the guise of diluted and flawed understandings of diversity and inclusion. I build on Kelley's discussion of love in the academic setting to ruminate further on the implications and minefields of living in spaces in which the experiences and knowledges we carry with us across oceans have no resonance in the collective and public spaces we inhabit and, when spoken, only affirm our illegibility. Like Kelley, I question and increasingly reject the goal of achieving legibility (that is, rectifying stereotypes, attempting explanations, repeatedly translating ourselves), especially when the labor of such legibility falls flatly on my back and the backs of fellow Arabs, primarily women. Those of us who are positioned within academic institutions are faced with the responsibility to recognize the ways in which such academic institutions often carry out the work of the state in their expectation of, if not downright demands for, acquiescence and conformity.5 In doing so, we reject the probationary love and belonging at the heart of these institutions' self-serving interest in us. We reject implicit and explicit national and institutional demands to be grateful for being “included,” and most importantly, we reject the mechanisms of US multiculturalism that pit communities of color against each other, leaving them to scramble for resources within structures that constantly reify the power of white privilege.
Such rejections are threatening to institutional powers (academic, national, or otherwise), and the costs of refusal are high, especially if cross-racial coalitional work, US-based community support, and strong transnational connections to our homelands are absent. The word Arab itself is deemed a threat if not a downright insult. A student once gingerly asked if it was really okay to refer to me as an Arab, which let me know that in her world, the word Arab was a dirty and insulting one. With the Arab label itself being so steeped in bias and racism, our rejections and refusals to acquiesce and assimilate (that is, shed our Arabness) are used to further confirm our undesirability, unbelonging, and foreignness (with the words “Go back to where you came from” ringing in our collective ears). The ultimate expectation of Arabs in this country is to prove that they're the “good” kind, the kind that is the opposite of, and better yet the kind that denounces, the constructed image of the “bad” Arab that mainstream America has carefully and painstakingly pieced together through the media, through state discourse, through selective and truncated political and national narratives, and so on.6 The “bad” Arab is a conglomerate of monster and devil, an ultimate evil devoid of all humanness, intellectual thought, or political motive.7 Every Arab then who encounters America, whether they are American or not, inevitably has to contend with or navigate the expectation to embody, perform, or affirm (whether explicitly or implicitly) the counterpoint of the “bad” monster Arab, through conciliatory actions, behavior, or discourse.
This insistence on proving a recognizable Arab humanness (one that is ultimately dehumanizing because it is based on sympathy/pity) shapes Arab lives in the United States in fundamental ways. Not only does it determine our initial access to US entry (who is allowed to migrate to the United States and who is not) but it also dictates the levels and degrees of violence, discrimination, and racism that Arabs have to contend with on a daily basis. Ultimately, the yardstick used to determine Arab humanness is premised on where Arabs are perceived to fall in their proximity to whiteness, a fraught determination shadowed by a long history of Arab racialization in the United States. Such racialization comes in direct but unsurprising contrast with Arabs' official racial categorization as “white” in the United States, an outcome of early Arab immigrants' bid to be legally classified as white given that access to citizenship was contingent on whiteness. The logics behind the coupling of citizenship and whiteness nevertheless still linger in dominant performances of US citizenship and patriotism.8
The act of ascribing humanness to Arabs (the proof for which nevertheless falls on the shoulders of Arabs themselves) ultimately becomes a dangerous but imminent tool for mainstream America to selectively commit to so-called human rights calls or to justify its violent, imperial, and criminal wars in the Arab world (and beyond). This stance is shared by people on the right and by liberals alike, echoed widely in national discourse, extending from state declarations to the everyday and the quotidian. Around a year after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I was sitting in a crowded airport waiting for my delayed flight, eyeing the news coverage of the war on the TV and trying to drone out the strained conversation of strangers around me while trying to read my book. The conversation of two other stranded travelers commenting on the news coverage of the Iraq war broke through my concentration. Pointing to the fleeting images shown on the TV screen of unnamed Iraqi children in unnamed towns, a white woman turns to the man beside her and states, “But you know, they don't really love their children the way we do.” After quickly getting over my initial moment of shock (not surprise, but shock: still often the first reaction to micro- and macro-aggressions), I turn to her and say: “Actually, we do love our children as much as you do.” In retrospect, this answer remains perpetually insufficient (with so much more that could be said!), but at that moment, my answer needed to be an assertion of love in the face of a violent erasure, even though it ends up sounding like a plea to acknowledge our humanity. This lingering conundrum of eliciting additional erasure and illegibility by speaking against discrimination and defamation was confirmed by the woman's hurried and dismissive mumbled response, “Of course you do.”
Writing about Asian American art and identity in The Shock of Arrival, Meena Alexander asks: “What does it mean to arrive in America?” where
the shock of arrival … is replayed, over and over again, through the thematics of passage, arrival and dwelling, figurations that permit us to make sense, however minimally, of the rupture between desire and the actual, between intimate memories and a place where one is rendered strange, where the body is marked as Other.9
The shock registers that Alexander points to are significant, particularly given their multiplicity, for a US arrival (and the burdens attached to it) is never singular or relegated to one instance. The arrivals of immigrants (as well as for subsequent generations of “Others”) are recurrent and circuitous, inevitably instigating continuous shocks/disruptions/dislocations that demand attention, interrogation, and engagement, all of which ultimately assert and shape states of constant unbelonging. Such challenges, however, do not mean that we can easily fit back into the folds of original homelands whose landscapes are constantly shifting and changing. For home returns, for those of us who can physically return, are themselves forms of arrivals and rearrivals that demand negotiation, thus replicating and echoing the pain and “shock” of diasporic marginalizations and unmoorings. It is in these recurring, familiar, and strange moments of cognitive shock that we remain suspended, eschewing complacency, perpetually alert, resisting erasures, foregrounding dissent, weaving communities of solidarity and alliance.