Edward Said's out of Place: Criticism, Polemic, and Arab American Identity

By Aboul-Ela, Hosam | MELUS, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Edward Said's out of Place: Criticism, Polemic, and Arab American Identity


Aboul-Ela, Hosam, MELUS


A crucial issue in understanding Arab American identity is how it might be differentiated historically from other ethnic or "hyphenated" American identities as well as mainstream European American identities. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the invasion of Iraq, and the increased propensity by the United States government to link the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories with the "War on Terror," aspects of this issue have crystallized around questions of United States foreign policy. These recent developments have clarified what both my personal experience and my reading in Arab American culture have led me to believe for some time: that a dissident relationship to United States foreign policy in the Middle East is foundational to the experience of many Arab Americans and to a potential sense of Arab American community. Indeed, this dissent from American foreign policy has played the role for Arab Americans that a long history of concrete and codified legal discrimination has played for African Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and Native Americans. Unique histories created a sense of separateness that was an important foundation for a communal identity.

This article uses the work of Edward Said, both his critical writing and especially his memoir Out of Place, as the proving ground for its claim that a dissident relationship to United States foreign policy is a large component of Arab American identities. Out of Place is particularly emphasized because it is arguably Said's most writerly work. It is the most likely of his books to appear on a syllabus dealing with fictional representations of American immigrant experience. Yet it reflects certain unique characteristics of Arab American experience better than some of the more obvious candidates for inclusion on this hypothetical syllabus. Such a positioning of Said's work contrasts with an alternative view of Arab American culture that sees it as music, poetry, fiction, and

other fine writing infused with ethnic color, treating Arab American experience as a set of specific anthropological details related to cuisine, courtship, religion, language, and various social practices. This second, more widely held conception (which Edward Said's work fits into with difficulty, if at all) emphasizes a set of details that distinguish Arab American life from that of all other Americans. Yet, it also underscores a basic form or structure holding these details together that parallels all other ethnic American groups and places Arab Americans into a vague American melting pot.

The post-September 11 moment in Arab American history has seen an acceleration of interest in this second, more mainstream, "multicultural" idea of Arabs in the United States. In the past five years, Arab Americans have been included in the cast of Def Poetry Jam and featured at comedy clubs. Several anthologies of poems or stories and even a few novels have appeared by writers of Arab descent; while the vast majority of this work has held to a high artistic standard that suggests Arab American diversity, its packaging has usually been opportunistic and openly ethnic. (1) A good example of the recent discourse around Arab American arts is a series of articles that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. The first of the four articles, written by Jonathan Curiel and titled "The Voices of Arab Culture: Arts from Ancient, Diverse World Stir Interest in the West," includes the following passage:

      Arabs are united by an ancestral language (Arabic) and an
   ancestral homeland (the Arabian Peninsula) that gave birth to
   a Semitic people who've changed the course of human history.
   The footprints of those changes can be seen in Arabic culture.
   Even more than politics and military issues, culture is a gateway
   to understanding a world of distant capitals and disparate
   religions.

      Although Islam is one of several faiths that Arabs practice,
   many Arabs are secular, so it's not surprising that--citing the
   works of just one author--Naguib Mahfouz has populated his books
   with characters who are areligious [sic] or critical of religion. 

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