Arabs in America, Understanding and Articulating their ‘Arabness’

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Cover Courtesy NYU Press
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.

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.

Despite this, and despite the fact that our parents were encouraging us to adopt the values of middle-class America, the fundamental message in our family and community remained: we were Arab and they were American. It felt like we were living between two worlds, one within the confines of our modest suburban homes and our Arab community, the other at school and in the streets of San Francisco. With each passing year, it seemed more and more impossible to live in such a bifurcated way. I fought with my parents all the time, and because I started to doubt which “side” of me was really me, the demands from both sides just made me want to rebel against everything.

Even as I yelled at them, I knew that my parents only wanted the best for me. Due to my adolescent myopia, I had only the faintest sense of the difficulties of their lives and the concurrent struggle of their immigrant generation to foster cultural continuity in America. Just like I was with my ripped jeans, they too were trying to articulate who they were. It would be years before I grasped how each day they confronted not only the pressures of displacement and assimilation but also the realities of an expanding U.S. imperialist war in the region of their homelands and intensifying Orientalism and anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racist discourses in their new home.

More than thirty years ago, Edward Said argued that “Orientalism” is a European fabrication of “the East,” that “the Orient” is shaped by European imperialist attitudes and assumes that Eastern or Oriental people can be defined in terms of cultural or religious essences that are invulnerable to historical change. Orientalism, he explained, configures the “East” in irreducible attributes such as religiosity or femininity. This political vision, he contended, has promoted the idea of insurmountable differences between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”). Like Said, critics of Orientalism have long argued that essentialist representations of Islam are crucial to Orientalist thought. In Orientalist thought, Muslims, Arabs, and other “Orientals” are hopelessly mired in a host of social ills, the cause of which is an unchanging tradition that exists outside of history and is incompatible with civilization. Feminist scholars have in turn argued that this strand of Orientalist thought has constructed visions of Arab and Muslim societies either as completely decadent, immoral, and permissive or as strict and oppressive to women. This new Orientalism relies on representations of culture (Arab) and religion (Islam) as a justification for post-Cold War imperial expansion in the Middle East, U.S. alliance with Israel, and the targeting of people perceived as fitting the racial profile of a potential terrorist living in the United States, that is, people perceived to be Arabs, Middle Easterners, and/or Muslims.

New Orientalist discourses have birthed a variety of widely accepted ideas: of Arab and Muslim queers oppressed by a homophobic culture and religion; of hyper-oppressed, shrouded Arab and Muslim women who need to be saved by American heroes; of a culture of Arab Muslim sexual savagery that needs to be disciplined–and in the process, modernized–through U.S. military violence. The impact of Orientalism, I began to see, was everywhere. Our Arab community had a plethora of cultural and political organizations that put on music concerts, festivals, and banquets, and a range of political organizations 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. As in many immigrant communities, ours opted to avoid bringing attention to personal matters in public space and among one another. This seemed like a product of fearing both how airing potentially “negative” ideas about us could fuel anti-Arab racism and how we might judge one another for our successes or failures when it came to making it in Amerika. Such pressures manifested in a sense of internal conflict I shared with many of my peers. Throughout high school especially, many of my Arab American peers were devastated by the conflicting feelings of love, pain, and guilt toward our parents and the conflicting ideas about Arab culture that we learned from their generation and U.S. society. We joked about fleeing our community altogether–and some of us did flee. Some of us swore to each other that we would never marry an Arab. These pressures were pushing young people in our community away from each other. In addition, on my trips to Jordan to visit relatives, I learned that many of the Arabs I knew in the Bay Area had more socially conservative understandings of Arab concepts of religion, family, gender, and sexuality than their counterparts in Jordan. I was baffled: why were the stakes of culture and family respectability so high in America?

Articulating Arabness

After I survived the dual gauntlet of high school and what I understood as my parents’ expectations, and after I moved away from their home, I began listening more carefully to the stories of our immigrant parents. I began asking why they came to the United States, what they experienced when they arrived, and what they dreamed of and worked for in the United States. Not surprisingly, our parents’ commitments to cultural continuity were much more complicated than I had understood them to be. As the twentieth century became the twenty-first, I spent several years investigating these cultural ideas and exploring how and why they operated  as such an intense site of struggle for middle-class, second-generation  Arab Americans then growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. I worked with community-based  organizations and did ethnographic research with people who were between eighteen and twenty-eight years old, whose families had immigrated to the United States, primarily from Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. I also worked with fifteen immigrants from their parents’ generation, immigrants who came to the Bay Area between the 1950s and 1970s, an era characterized by increased Arab migration to the United States, the expansion of U.S. empire in the Arab region, and the intensification of colonization, racism, and xenophobia in California. All of my interlocutors were connected, in one way or another, to what many referred to as “the Arab community,” an all-encompassing word representing a wide range of people and ideas.

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. As Nuha, a daughter of Jordanian immigrants put it, “Sometimes it can make you crazy because you can’t get out. I have so many worlds and every world is a whole other world. But in your mind they’re totally separated, but then they’re all there in your mind together. You get to a point that you are about to explode.” Bassam, a Palestinian Arab American who served on the board of the Arab Cultural Center in San Francisco during my research, placed the feeling of Nuha and so many others within the context of America at the turn of the twenty-first century: We have real needs as a community.  We are really under attack. We are being damaged severely in, and by, the U.S. There is a great necessity for proactive behavior and community building. But it conflicts with the way our young people are brought up here. I’m  so sympathetic  to the need to perpetuate  the community  and yet, I’m horrified that the methods we think  we must  use to do so are going to kill us psychologically in this society.

For several years, as I worked closely with teens and twenty-somethings, we shared stories about the norms and expectations of our immigrant communities. From their stories, the themes of family, religion, gender, and sexuality continually emerged. It became clear that these themes formed the backbone of the idealized concepts of Arab culture that circulated in their families and communities,  and were the battleground  on which they, and their parents, and the Arab community, and the looming world of America all wrangled.

And once again, Orientalism was at the heart of this struggle. The dominant middle-class Arab immigrants’ articulation of Arabness through rigid, binary categories (good Arab girls versus bad American girls, for example) was based on a similar framework that guided Orientalist discourses about Arabs. My parents and their peers reversed Orientalism and used its binary categories (liberated Americans versus oppressed Arab women, bad Arabs versus good Americans) differently and for different purposes.  Articulating immigrant cultural identity through rigid binaries is not an unfamiliar resolution to immigrant and people of color’s struggles in a society structured by a pressure for assimilation and racism. As Vijay Prashad argues, this dynamic, while a reaction to political and historical conditions,  is an attempt  to depoliticize the immigrant  experience where culture is articulated not as living, chang- ing social relations but a set of timeless traits. In many ways, my research has been haunted by culture or, more precisely, by Orientalist definitions of culture. As we will see, the uninterrogated naturalization of a dichotomy between an idealized “Arab” and “American” culture among Arab Americans–a reversal of Orientalist discourses– has momentous effects on second-generation young adults. These effects are highly gendered and sexualized. Yet this same concept of Arab culture, usually associated as it is with essentialist understandings of religion, family, gender, and sexuality among Arab communities, allows Orientalist thought to be left intact and activated. Consigned to the cultural, aspects of dynamic, lived experience come to be seen as frozen in time–essentialist Arab traditions that exist outside of history–and this is the same conceptualization that operates as the basis for the demonization  of Arab communities  in the discourses and practices of U.S. empire.

Within the dominant middle-class Arab immigrant discourse that circulated in my interlocutors’ homes and community networks, gender and sexuality were among the most powerful symbols consolidating an imagined difference between “Arabs” and “Americans.” Consider the ways some of my interlocutors described what they learned growing up about the difference between Arab and American culture:

Jumana: My parents thought that being American was spending the night at a friend’s house, wearing shorts, the guy-girl thing, wearing makeup, reading teen magazines, having pictures of guys in my room. My parents used to tell me, “If you go to an American’s house, they’re smoking, drinking . . . they offer you this and that. But if you go to an Arab house, you don’t see as much of that. Bi hafzu ala al banat [They watch over their daughters].”

Tony: There was a pressure to marry an Arab woman because the idea was that “she will stand by her family, she will cook and clean, and have no career. She’ll have kids, raise kids, and take care of her kids, night and day. She will do anything for her husband.” My mom always says, “You’re not going to find an American woman who stands by her family like that … American women leave their families.”

Sam: “You want to screw, go out with American girls. They all screw,” you know . . . that was the mentality growing up.

In the quotations above, concepts of “good Arab girls” operated as a marker of community boundaries and the notion of a morally superior “Arab culture” in comparison to concepts of “American girls” and “American culture.” Idealized concepts of femininity are connected to idealized notions of family and an idealized concept of heterosexual marriage. These ideals underpinned a generalized pressure for monogamy–and more specifically, for no sex before marriage–and for compulsory heterosexuality. In the middle-class communities at the heart of my study, dominant articulations of Arabness were structured by a strict division between an inner Arab domain and an outer American domain, a division that is built upon the figure of the woman as the upholder of values, and an ideal of family and heterosexual marriage.

This jumble of ideals about Arabness and Americanness was the buoy that guided, and girded–but also threatened to drown–the middle-class Arab diasporas in the Bay Area. These ideals created a fundamental split between a gendered and sexualized notion of an inner-familial-communal (Arab) domain and an external-political-public (American) domain–a split that both provided a sense of empowerment and belonging and also constrained the lives of many of my interlocutors. This split was terribly familiar to me, and at the same time, largely undiscussed both in my own life and in the larger Arab American communities.  I have spent nearly a decade trying to decipher the divide within our Arab community between the internal and the external and figuring out how we find meaning and formulate a life within this split.

As my research progressed, I began interpreting the predicament of growing up in new ways. Both my parents and the parents of my interlocutors constantly referred to Arab culture–as the thing that rooted us, and often, it seemed, ruled us. This amorphous entity shaped our calendar and our thoughts, what our goals were and who our friends were. But the more I searched, the harder it became to find this culture. The concepts of “Arab culture” my parents relentlessly invoked were indeed historically grounded in long-standing Arab histories, and yet it became increasingly clear that they were just as much shaped by the immigrant journey of displacement and diaspora and the pressures of assimilation in the United States. My parents’ generation, and through them my peers’ and my interlocutors’, have ultimately been shaped not by a ceaseless and unchanging tradition but by an assemblage of different visions of how we are to make our way in the world. This is why I refer to my interlocutors’ stories as articulations of Arabness.

Articulations of Arabness are grounded in Arab histories and sensibilities about family, selfhood, and ways of being in the world but are also hybrid, syncretic, and historically contingent.  Our articulations of Arabness are shaped by long-standing traditions, by the isolation of running a mom-and-pop store, by the travel of news and stories through the internet and satellite TV, by Arab responses (past and present) to European colonialism and U.S. empire, and by the words and images of contemporary media. The result is in some ways disappointing  to all sides: the stories of my interlocutors expose the absurdity of the Orientalist  discourse so prevalent in America, but they also expose the historical conditions  in which middle-class Arab American claims to hold onto some authentic  notion  of Arab culture have emerged. These articulations offer a long overdue look at the way concepts of community and belonging are made across the diaspora, and provide insight into the possibilities for decolonizing Arabness or rearticulating Arabness beyond Orientalism or reverse Orientalism.

Rearticulating Arabness

As I met more Arab Americans through the late 1990s, I found that young adults were involved in diverse social arenas. I let my research follow wherever the stories, imaginations, and visions of my interlocutors would lead me. I spent a lot of time among the Arab Cultural Center’s networks, the major middle-class Arab American community networks in San Francisco, where I kept meeting people who frequented Arab community events but who found their primary sense of belonging within two interconnected  anti-imperialist political movements. Amid difficulties with many of their parents and the frustrating clash between rigid notions of Arab and American culture, these young adults kept talking about their involvement in either the leftist Arab movement (LAM) or Muslim student activism. The Bay Area, long a hotbed of radical politics of all sorts, had in the preceding several decades birthed this activism.

I was struck by a consistent undercurrent among these activists. Indeed, young adults certainly engaged in typical forms of political activism. They organized demonstrations and teach-ins. They developed grassroots organizing strategies. They attempted to attract other members. They wrote letters and articles and distributed them on the street corner and on the internet. They held press conferences. Yet they also developed deep-seated alliances with each other. They formed alliances, they supported each other, and just as important, they disagreed. In the process, they came up with new concepts of Arabness that challenge the dominant middle-class Arab and U.S. discourses we have seen. From their flurry of activity, from their hopes and their frustrations, I saw how these movements were generating new articulations of Arabness. I gained unique insight into the ways in which dominant Arab and American discourses can be “unhooked, transformed, or rearticulated.” As these young adults were actively working toward ending injustice and oppression, they were also forming new definitions of family and kinship, new ideas of affiliation and belonging, new grounds for the fostering of community. They were remaking and transcending dominant concepts of Arabness and America and putting forth new visions of the future.

LAM and Muslim student activists had different aims and ideologies but had many things in common, and their projects and campaigns often overlapped. It was the late 1990s, and self-determination for the people of Palestine and Iraq was at the top of their agendas. Their movements shared a similar analysis that the United States was engaged in a regional project that aimed to remake the Middle East according to political, economic, and military structures most beneficial to U.S. empire. They concurred that U.S. Orientalist discourses were crucial in legitimizing U.S. empire in the Middle East region. They were committed to replacing Orientalist versions of Arabness and Islam with articulations of self that were grounded in the historical and material realities of immigration and displacement, racism, and U.S.-led militarism and war. LAM’s concepts of self were wrapped up in the framework of secular, leftist national liberation struggles against colonial, imperial, and racial domination. Young adults involved in Muslim student activism worked through a framework that disaggregated the categories Arab and Muslim and articulated who they are as “Muslim First, Arab Second.” They defined Islam as a politically constituted religious framework for addressing racial and imperial injustice and oppression that offered an alternative to Orientalist ideas about them imposed upon them by U.S. society. At times, the articulations of self that emerged in these movements were liberatory. At times, they reproduced constraints that resembled the dominant discourses they sought to transcend.

Muslim student activists were articulating a global Muslim consciousness among a diverse assemblage of individuals of all ages and groups of all kinds. Muslim community organizations, student organizations, and educational and religious institutions; immigrants   and second-generation Americans from diverse countries of origin; African Americans and white Americans; lifelong Muslims and new converts to Islam–all collaborated in shaping this global Muslim consciousness in the Bay Area. As the name implies, this global Muslim consciousness parallels efforts of Muslims worldwide to better their world. “Global Muslim consciousness” does not refer to a formal global Muslim political movement with a unified international structure or network or formal membership; its adherents throughout the world take up different issues and strategies depending on the priorities of their surroundings. In the Bay Area, the Muslim student activists I worked with share a general understanding that fighting injustice in oneself and one’s society is an act of worship. In the Bay Area in the late 1990s, people involved in articulating a global Muslim consciousness focused on a set of issues that they understood  to impact Muslims around  the world–issues that also impact non-Muslims.  They understood that as Muslim Americans, they had a responsibility to address problems emanating from the U.S. government. They took up the U.S. government’s criminalization of youth of color, specifically African Americans in general and African American Muslims in particular. They also took up the U.S. war against terrorism and its impact on civilians in places like Iraq and Palestine and on immigrants and immigrant communities living in the United States.

Leftist Arab Movement

The leftist Arab movement (LAM) is a smaller collective of primarily middle-class college students and graduates between the ages of eighteen and thirty, who bring to their work myriad histories of displacement. Their ideas parallel those of the leftist Arab movements in the Arab world and its diasporas. Most members of LAM are not also involved in Muslim student activism. Yet their efforts emerge out of interconnected  histories, and they often work on similar issues, support one another’s work, and come together in joint projects or campaigns. LAM activists are Iraqis, Egyptians, Palestinians,  Jordanians,  Lebanese; men,  women,  queers; Christians,  Muslims, agnostics, and atheists; recent immigrants  and exiles, and individuals born or raised predominantly  in the United States; computer engineers, nonprofit workers, service workers, artists, and students. Although this diversity con- tributes to a varied and often contentious set of political visions, there are certain matters that bring these activists together.  During the time of my research they were focused on two separate but unified campaigns: one to end U.S. sanctions on Iraq and the other to end the Israeli occupation of Pal- estine. Like Muslim student activists, LAM activists shared this tacit knowledge: Iraqis and Palestinians were dying en masse; the U.S. war on Iraq was looking more and more like genocide; U.S. tax dollars were paying for this; and the world was sitting back and watching.

I tried to move equally between both of these groups of people, interview- ing LAM activists and Muslim student activists alike. Yet because I had fewer avenues into Muslim religious communities compared to LAM’s political community, and because the work of Muslim student activists was more dif- fuse, I spent more time with LAM activists. In addition, I was an active par- ticipant in LAM’s work. I was a board member of the San Francisco chapters of two community organizations that were central to LAM: the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. And I was employed as a manager of the building that housed the main organization LAM worked through at the time and the offices of several leftist, antiracist organizations in the Mission District. During the period of my research, I spent a lot of my time around LAM activists.

And yet, for each struggle LAM waged, I couldn’t help noticing the other struggles that it silenced. Mobilized by daily images circulating in alternative media sources of dead Palestinian and Iraqi children, LAM activists operated as a community in crisis. Operating in a crisis mode meant that certain issues were privileged over others. This was most clearly evident in moments when a few members criticized the sexism or homophobia within the movement.  Such critiques were met with official movement logic: the issue of sexism is secondary to the fact that “our people are dying back home.” Many members, women and men alike, seemed to have internalized this potent reasoning. In this movement, as in many racial justice and national liberation solidarity movements, the official movement logic also subordinated critiques of sexism and homophobia in reaction to racism. Not only were gender and sexuality barely discussed, but the official movement discourse insisted that discussing these internal issues in public could actually endanger the goals activists were fighting for. In fact, many LAM and  Muslim student  activists shared  the belief that  U.S. Orientalist representations  of Arabs and  Muslims, specifically images of hyper-oppressed  Arab and  Muslim women  and  Arab Muslim sexual savagery, were among  the most  common  images Americans  saw–especially from the news media and Hollywood. In this analysis, Orientalist  representations were among the many reasons why so many Americans supported U.S. military interventions  in the Middle East, and why many Americans, particularly liberals, expressed profound empathy for Arab and Muslim women–perceived to be victims of their culture and religion–but little concern over the impact of U.S.-led war on Arab and Muslim human life.

In response, many activists feared that discussing sexism and compulsory heterosexuality within Arab communities would reinforce Orientalism. Both LAM and Muslim student activists tended to relegate matters of heteropatriarchy among Arab and Muslim families, communities, and organizations to the margins. The tacit belief was that activists who publicly critiqued sexism or homophobia within Arab and Arab American communities were no better than traitors to their people. The result–of yet another binary structure–was that attempts to dismantle heteropatriarchy were often confined between two extremes: untenable silence, on the one hand, and the reification of Orientalist representations, on the other. As a result, I spent my days talking with a broad spectrum of Arab American young adults about how an unspoken code meant that some issues could not be talked about; and then I spent my nights going to meetings and events where some members internalized this potent logic, perhaps in different ways and for different purposes. Movements that were inspiring so many young adults around me, while bringing social justice-based Arab and Muslim perspectives to San Francisco’s political milieu, could also replicate some of the debilitating aspects of our communities.

Today, nearly any discussion of the Arab world begins with the terrorist attacks of September 11. The complexity of the Arab world, and of Islam, have for many Americans been supplanted by these devastating acts. These emotions have narrowed and simplified understandings of the world’s nearly 1.5 billion Muslims, the three hundred million Arabs living in Arab nations and the millions of Arabs living in the diaspora, as well as the overlap and variety among these groups. I seek to enlarge our understanding and, as a result, I insist on exploring the world that predates 9/11 while also considering the ramifications of that day. To be sure, the 1990s was a different moment,  one that witnessed both the crystallization of U.S. empire in the Middle East and a restriction, in its own right, of U.S. global military supremacy and the Pentagon’s post-Cold War plan.

Through an analysis of the varied concepts of Arabness within middle-class Arab American families and within Arab and Muslim anti-imperialist social movements, I interrogate the dichotomies that ensnare Arab communities as they clamor for a sense of safety and belonging in the United States. As I acknowledge the remarkable efforts of those who came to the United States from the Arab world, and analyze the innovations of their children as they seek to create new ways of living in the United States, I also hope to unlock the rigid back and forth between Orientalism and anti-Orientalism, and in the process imagine new means of articulating Arabness in America.

Reprinted with permission from Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism by Nadie Naber and published by NYU Press, 2012.

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