Arab American Literature in the Ethnic Borderland: Cultural Intersections in Diana Abu-Jaber's Crescent

Article excerpt

Critical inquiries into Arab American literary studies have often questioned the relative absence of this community from the ethnic canon, with feminist writers like Joanna Kadi describing Arab Americans as "the Most Invisible of the Invisibles" (xix). Such a statement situates this community vis-a-vis other ethnic groups in terms of a discourse of invisibility that, although varying between one group and another, still acts as a common ethnic marker. The isolated enclaves that ethnic groups in the US occupy, however, separate them not only from a hegemonic center, but more importantly from each other. This essay shows the ways in which author Diana Abu-Jaber contributes in her second novel, Crescent (2003), to the inclusion of works by and about Arab Americans in the ethnic studies category, suggesting ways to bridge the barriers separating Arab Americans from other ethnic minorities. Proceeding with an overview of Arab Americans' position in the US, followed by a discussion of borderlands in ethnic studies, this essay will then shift to an analysis of Crescent, carving out in the process a space for Arab American literature in what I will refer to as the ethnic borderland: a constructive space in which interethnic ties between and within different communities of color could be established and maintained.

The term ethnic borderland draws upon Gloria Anzaldua's definition of "[b]orderlands [as being] physically present wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different cultures occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy" (Borderlands 19). Abu-Jaber's Crescent situates Arab American literature in the ethnic borderland while also embodying, on a small scale, such a ,borderland. The novel features various intersecting cultures and maps different minority groups (including Arabs, Arab Americans, Turks, Latinos, and Iranians) that occupy the same geographical and ethnic space. The setting of the novel, which takes place in a part of Los Angeles referred to as "Teherangeles" due to the large number of Iranians living there, gives form to the novel's borderland. Thus, by creating (through literature) a borderland of ethnic intersections, Abu-Jaber exemplifies a necessary addition to the multiplicity of borderlands that Anzaldua points out in Borderlands/La Frontera, including "[t]he psychological borderlands, the sexual borderlands and the spiritual borderlands [in addition to the geographical ones]" (19). In fact, the ethnic borderland includes all of the aforementioned ones, placing them in dialogue so that they ultimately transform and influence each other.

Positioning Arab American literature within the ethnic borderland, however, necessitates first the delineation of the Arab American community's current ethnic/racial categorization in the US. Rendering visible these ethnic and racial markers that draw the dividing lines between Arab Americans and other ethnic communities is the first step toward making them pliable.

Plagued by Whiteness: The Dubious Position of Arab Americans in the US

The Arab American community currently faces a quandary in terms of its racial classification. With the US Census Bureau situating it within the "white" category, this group has no legal position within the spectrum of minority cultures from which it can legally articulate its communal concerns about discrimination. These ambiguous racial positions drive the likes of Helen Samhan, Executive Director of the Arab American Institute, to state that the current federal white categorization of Arab Americans from the Middle East and North Africa within the "white 'majority' context" does not resolve confusions regarding their racial status (219).

Arab immigration to the US is characteristically divided into three phases: the first one extending from 1885 to 1945, the second from 1945 to 1967, and the third from 1967 to the present (Naber 1). …