Arabic, Self and Identity: A Study in Conflict and Displacement

Arabic, Self and Identity: A Study in Conflict and Displacement

Arabic, Self and Identity: A Study in Conflict and Displacement

Arabic, Self and Identity: A Study in Conflict and Displacement

Synopsis

Arabic, Self, and Identityuses autoethnography, autobiography, and a detailed study of names to investigate the links between conflict and displacement, and between the Self and group identity. In the process it raises questions about trauma and globalization, underscoring the complex roles of language and identity in society.

Yasir Suleiman frames his findings against a far-reaching critique of the dominant, correlational approach in Arabic sociolinguitics. He argues that this approach does not sufficiently explore the link between language and the major narratives of identity and conflict in the Middle East. Instead he advocates for combining this approach with qualitative studies that are nevertheless aware of the limits of interpretation and the positionality of the researcher. This combined endeavor, Suleiman says, can generate a richer understanding of the sociopolitical underpinnings of language, and help to bridge the gaps between the various disciplines that converge on language as a field of investigation and analysis.

Excerpt

This book builds on my earlier research on the link among the Arabic language, identity and conflict, which I explored at some length in The Arabic Language and National Identity: A Study in Ideology (2003), A War of Words: Language and Conflict in the Middle East (2004b) and a series of other publications, some of which are listed in the bibliography of this book. But it also provides a major new direction. The point of departure in my earlier research was the role of language as a marker of national identity and the possibilities this offers for language to become entangled in the social and political conflicts of the Middle East, both intranationally and transnationally. Although language use, representing the functional role of language, is a form of action, the role of language in group-identity marking and in national and transnational conflicts is mainly delivered through the symbolic construction of identity and the concomitant exercise of symbolic violence. Under normal circumstances, the symbolism of language blends into a banal or quotidian view of identity that is hardly noticed in everyday life. However, its potency comes to the fore in situations of strife or conflict when it becomes particularly urgent to mark the boundaries of the group or the Self as a form of (sometimes atavistic) self-defence. Social and political conflicts propel language-based identity beyond the realm of banality to one of high relevance to society. As Gramsci (1985: 183) writes, ‘every time the question of language surfaces [in society], in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore.’ This facet of language-in-society underlies its ability to serve as a proxy for the expression of extralinguistic anxieties and simmering problems in social life. Observing language and tracking its potency in society are, therefore, a good barometer for accessing deeper anxieties and problems that might surface in the sociopolitical realm if triggered by social and political tensions.

The present study builds on my interest in these symbolic realms of signification. As in my earlier work, it approaches the Arabic language as a marker of identity and as a factor in sociopolitical conflict in society. However, it also departs from this perspective in some important ways. First, it shifts the focus of interest from group identity to personal or individual identity, the Self, although group identity continues to be of paramount importance in understanding language in society. It is, in fact, impossible to . . .

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