Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

The Hyphenated Identity and the Question of Belonging: A Study of Samia Serageldin's the Cairo House

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

The Hyphenated Identity and the Question of Belonging: A Study of Samia Serageldin's the Cairo House

Article excerpt

The hyphenated identity is a term that implies a dual identity, an ethnocultural one, and evokes questions and debates regarding which side of the hyphen the person belongs to. Such questions often loom large in the minds of immigrants, those who leave one country for another, one culture for the other. The hyphen makes them liable to be seen as oscillating between their two cultures and feeling a conflict or a tension arising between cultures. Sometimes immigrants manage to assimilate at the expense of their original and ancestral culture or, at the other end of the spectrum, they fail to blend in with their new environment. In other cases they try hard to maintain an equilibrium between the two, which is not an easy thing to do. The literature produced by writers of a dual or a hyphenated identity is likely to discuss these questions and to have a multicultural and multiethnic dimension. It often exists in countries that are largely composed of immigrants, and the US is a prominent example. (27) It previously assumed the famous label of the melting pot where immigrants from different parts of the world were supposed to start afresh and to relinquish their ethnic identities. They were required to adapt their old values to what Martha Boudakian defines as the "white supremacist U.S. mainstream culture, wherein ... people of color are urged to consider ... [themselves] physically, historically, and ideologically white" (Boudakian 35). (28)

With the passage of time and the birth of consecutive generations from various ethnic backgrounds, some of these ethnically diverse immigrants started to take and show pride in their ancestral pasts and insist on demonstrating their dual identities. Consequently, to use Maha El Said's words, "the melting pot myth was replaced by the 'patch-work quilt' and multiculturalism gained the foreground in [the] American society" (El-Said 3). However, the ancestral past and culture, which later generations of immigrants revived, were influenced by their American background. This attitude resulted in the emergence and strong presence of certain ethnic groups that assumed a "hyphenated identity," and, according to El Said, "the hyphenated American became a striking feature of American culture" (El-Said 7). This "ethnic revival is fundamentally based on a search for one's root, a search for ancestral links, a search for a group to belong to creating a self that has a continuity between past and present" (El Said 5). It manifested itself in the literary productions of writers of ethnic backgrounds and resulted in "the upsurge of 'ethnic literature' in the United States in the 1970s" (Abindaer, "Mahjar" 1). Thus, we started to hear of the African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and recently, Arab-Americans. Joanna Kadi, an Arab-American writer, shows her pride in the term Arab-American or Arab-Canadian saying: "It allows us to reclaim the word Arab, to force people to hear and say a word that has become synonymous with 'crazy Muslim terrorists.' It affirms our identity and links us to our brothers and sisters in Arab countries" (Kadi xviii). (29)

The literature produced by Arab-Americans and other writers of various ethnic groups has enriched American literature and created "new traditions." It has caused a change in its "venues, sensibilities and themes" and made it a "continually evolving multicultural literature" (US Society and Values 2). Consequently, to quote Samia Serageldin, an Arab-American writer, "the American literary scene, once the preserve of the sweeping Great American novel, has increasingly come to reflect the trend of celebrating diversity as Americans of various ethnicities discover their hyphenated identities" ("Reflections and Refractions" 192). A voice that has recently been discovered is that of the Arab-Americans who have been described by Joanna Kadi as "The Most Invisible of the Invisibles" (Kadi xix). Their literature, according to Elmaz Abinader, another Arab-American writer, "is experiencing a renaissance," and she attributes it to the "recent atmosphere in the United States of enjoying and celebrating literature of culture and immigration" (Abinader, "Mahjar" 11). …

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