Arab-American Autobiography and the Reinvention of Identity: Two Egyptian Negotiations

Article excerpt

This article examines two Anglophone autobiographies by Egyptian immigrants in the United States, Ihab Hassan's Out of Egypt: Scenes and Arguments of an Autobiography (1986) and Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey (1999). The two texts are read as Egyptian negotiations of Arab-American identity in the U.S., in the context of modern Egyptian history and Western perceptions of Arabs, Islam, and Middle Eastern politics. The two texts display radically different strategies of negotiating identity that reflect divergent currents in American cultural politics in the second half of the twentieth century.

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   My story began in Egypt, continues in America. But how 
   tell that story of disjunction, self-exile? In fragments, I 
   think, in slips of memory, scraps of thought. In scenes 
   and arguments of a life time, re-membered like the scattered 
   bones of Osiris. 
 
   Ihab Hassan 
 
   And I am now at the end point of the story I set out 
   to tell here. 
 
      For thereafter my life becomes part of other stories, 
   American stories. It becomes part of the story of feminism 
   in America, the story of women in America, the 
   story of women of color in America, the story of Arabs in 
   America, the story of Muslims in America, and part of the 
   story of America itself and of American lives in a world 
   of dissolving boundaries and vanishing borders. 
 
   Leila Ahmed 

The question of autobiography as a genre with an ambivalent relationship to historical fact and narrative convention has preoccupied U.S. and French theorists since the early 1960s, when autobiography began to command the attention of literary scholars as a legitimate genre. (1) There are at least two reasons for the canonization, in postmodern culture, of autobiography, which had previously (especially in the reign of New Criticism) been regarded as inferior to enshrined literary genres (Morgan 3-4). One reason is the "generally perceived autobiographical turn in the literature [of the 1970s and 1980s], both in Europe and the United States ... particularly ... among those contemporary novelists who appear to be playful practitioners of fictional games or who--from the perspective of their ethnic or marginal backgrounds seem to be in search of their ethnic identity within a dominant white culture" (Hornung and Ruhe 9). Another related reason is the development of feminist and minority criticism, which have questioned the traditional literary canon and brought to the attention of scholars women's and minority writing, especially previously unknown or uncanonical texts, many of which are autobiographical, such as women's letters, fiction, and diaries, and African-American slave narratives. Thus, at a time when postmodern thinkers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault pronounced the "death of the Author"--as part of the poststructuralist critique of the transcendental subject of the Enlightenment--not only avant-garde white male novelists, but also those marginalized by gender, race, and/or ethnicity have shown their vital signs through autobiographical writing (Morgan 11-12, Hornung and Ruhe 9).

I propose to examine two Angolphone autobiographies by Egyptians who have emigrated to the United States, Ihab Hassan's Out of Egypt: Scenes and Arguments of an Autobiography (1986) and Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage." From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey (1999). They are narratives of permanent immigration, of transitioning into a U.S. minority. Rather than engaging in debates over the definition, demarcation, and "policing of the borders" of autobiography as a genre, (2) or even attempting to define a poetics of Arab immigrant autobiography, the more urgent question concerns the kinds of cultural, historical, and discursive intervention that such autobiography makes in the United States. That is, I read these two texts not so much as variations on a literary tradition or canon of autobiography, or as test cases for particular theories and definitions of a genre, but as Egyptian negotiations of Arab-American identity in the U. …