Arabs in America, Understanding and Articulating their ‘Arabness’

Moving beyond a singular immigrant identity and the hangover of Orientalism, young west-coast Arab Americans move toward leftist Arab movement and Muslim student activist groups.

| March 2013

  • Arab America
    Writing from a transnational feminist perspective, Nadine Naber reveals the complex and at times contradictory cultural and political processes through which Arabness is forged in the contemporary United States. In “Arab America,” she explores the apparently intra-communal cultural concepts of religion, family, gender, and sexuality as the battleground on which Arab American young adults and the looming world of America all wrangle.
    Cover Courtesy NYU Press

  • Arab America

Arab Americans are one of the most misunderstood segments of the U.S. population, especially after the events of 9/11. In Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (NYU Press, 2012), Nadine Naber tells the stories of second-generation Arab American young adults living in the San Francisco Bay Area, most of whom are political activists engaged in two culturalist movements that draw on the conditions of diaspora—a Muslim global justice and a Leftist Arab movement. As this struggle continues, these young adults reject Orientalist thought, producing counter-narratives that open up new possibilities for transcending the limitations of Orientalist, imperialist, and conventional nationalist articulations of self. Theses possibilities ground concepts of religion, family, gender, and sexuality in some of the most urgent issues of our times: immigration politics, racial justice struggles, and U.S. militarism and war. The following excerpt introduces the cultural sea change and its roots.  

I was born in San Francisco, three years after my parents arrived to the United States from Jordan. Over the next twenty 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. Through- out 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 that my parents exercised their control over me and my siblings. The same fight, I knew from my aggrieved conversations with friends and relatives, was playing out in the homes of countless other Arab families. The typical generational wars—about whether we teenagers could stay out late at night, or whether we could spend the night at our friends’ slumber parties—was amplified into a grand cultural struggle. The banalities of adolescent rebellion became a battle between two “cultures,” between rigid versions of “Arab” and “American” values. To discipline us, our parents’ generation invoked the royal “we,” as in, “No, you can’t go to the school dance, because we don’t do that.” Here, “we” meant “Arabs.”

I hated these words. I hated these declarations of what “we” did and didn’t do. And yet they worked. Sort of. I came to understand a set of unspoken rules: that Arab girls don’t wear mascara or that going to a party with a boy will offend the memory of my grandparents.  Sometimes I actually upheld them. Or, more often as time went on, I simply tried to hide these parts of my life from my parents. Because even worse than disobeying my parents was the threat—always present in my house, in our extended family, and in our community  centers—that I might be betraying my people, a term that signified anyone from the Naber family to everyone in Jordan to all Arab Christians to all Arabs. Transgressing these unspoken rules was understood not as mere adolescent rebellion but as a form of cultural loss, of cultural betrayal. And even worse, each moment of transgression seemed to mean the loss of Arab culture to “al Amerikan,” that awesome and awful word that could encompass everything from the American people to the American government to the American way of life (at least as my parents seemed to imagine it).

Our Arab community, like so many immigrant networks, was wildly diverse, comprised of Muslim and Christian Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian families. And yet our parents’ generation seemed to have a remarkably similar idea of what “American” and “Arab” meant. They seemed to share a tacit knowledge that Amerika (America) was the trash culture, degenerate, morally bankrupt, and sexually depraved. In contrast, al Arab (Arabs) were morally respectable—we valued marriage, family, and close relationships. It was not only our parents who put this pressure on us. What we learned at school and from the U.S. media reinforced this dichotomy, perhaps in different terms.

But as with all products of human belief, there were caveats, and shades of grey, and matters of proportion.  Our immigrant parents’ generation disproportionately pressured girls to uphold their idealized demands of Arab culture. Girls’ behavior seemed to symbolize the respectability of our fathers and our families, as well as no less than the continuation of Arab culture in America. Particularly as my girlfriends, cousins, and I hit puberty, the pressure seemed to intensify. I couldn’t wear my trendy jeans with the tear down the side for fear that al nas (the [Arab] people) would curse my sloppy clothes and bare skin, as if the tiniest sign of rebellion would let down the entire community. By the time my friends and I graduated from high school, young women’s bodies and behaviors seemed to be the key signifiers in the stereotyped distinction between Arabs and Americans. The amorphous and seemingly arbitrary pressures and distinctions and rules felt outrageous. My friends and I would joke about what would happen when we came home after going out with our American friends. One night, a friend came home late, and her mother was, as usual, waiting for her at the front door. Before she walked in, her mother remarked, “Why didn’t you stay out there with the slutty girls and the trash?”

Compounding matters, our parents raised us in predominantly white suburbs and encouraged us—in certain ways—to assimilate. They encouraged us to befriend the “American kids” and helped us dress up for colonial days at school. And many of us watched our fathers change their names from Yacoub, Mohammed, and Bishara to Jack, Mo, and Bob when they arrived to their grocery and convenience stores as the sun rose. It was only later that I came to understand  that they had changed their names not only for assimilatory purposes but also after being called “dirty Arab” or “Palestinian terrorist,” or after customers refused to shop at their stores.

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