Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Suha J. Sabbagh

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Suha J. Sabbagh

Article excerpt

The brilliant West Indian physician and social theorist Frantz Fanon was one of the first to speak of "the other" in colonial society. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon wrote of the agonizing ambivalence of the oppressed, and of their struggle to retain their own identity in the face of the insidious and sometimes overwhelming urge to identify with the colonizer and view themselves and their culture as the always inferior "other." A decade earlier, the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote, in The Second Sex, of woman as "other," defined in her own eyes as well as man's by the values and standards of male society.

Dr. Suha J. Sabbagh, director of the Institute for Arab Women's Studies in Washington, DC, knows and writes of both worlds. As a Palestinian woman who grew up in Israeli Haifa, she has lived with what she calls "the constant issue of identity" since her earliest years.

The Limits of Co-existence

Growing up in a Christian Palestinian family living in what had become a Jewish neighborhood, the young Suha was aware that her family had "a different set of traditional norms" than her neighbors, who, nevertheless, accorded her family respect. (In part, she believes, this was because they were viewed as "Christians" rather than "Arabs.") Sabbagh learned to accept and appreciate cultural differences, an experience which, she says today, "informed my whole life and prompted me to seek a solution."

This co-existence, however, "ended at the neighborhood borders," where Arabs were second-class citizens in every respect, in a society where the Hebrew-speaking majority spoke Arabic only when cursing.

To add yet another degree of cultural confusion, Sabbagh attended a French parochial school whose curriculum "centered around the conquests of Napoleon," and where she thus received an education that prepared her "to live in Europe rather than the Middle East."

In 1965, Sabbagh came to the US to complete her education, studying, and then teaching, art history in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In the '70s, she moved to Madison to obtain her doctorate in comparative literature. Studying theories of society and culture, "always related to identity," she wrote her thesis on Frantz Fanon and the cultural aspect of colonization.

It was in 1975, as a student at the University of Wisconsin living and working with other Palestinians, that Sabbagh began to feel "a stronger sense of Palestinian consciousness and identity." She points out that prior to 1967, Palestinians living in Israel and in what were to become the occupied territories had virtually no contact with each other. Cultural differences had developed from 1948 to 1967 between the more urban Israeli Palestinians and the generally rural West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. The Palestinians living in Israel had lost some of their cultural identity by having to adapt to their new situation. After 1967, with all of Palestine under Israeli control, however, these barriers began to break down.

Sabbagh moved to Washington, DC in 1982 and worked for four years as a researcher at the Institute for Palestine Studies. She then spent a year at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies doing post-doctoral work on Palestinian women. Looking back, Sabbagh says she made the shift to women's studies at just the right time: the intifada, which erupted a year later, has focused attention on, and changed the lives of, Palestinian women as never before. Indeed, without their heroic contributions, the intifada would not be alive today.

This reality sharply contrasts with the traditional view in the Western media and social sciences of the Arab woman as either a docile victim and shrouded nonentity, or, upon removing her veil, as an exotic sexual object. Sabbagh attributes these stereotypes to the fact that Western observers and "orientalists" based their impressions on the women they were able to meet -- typically entertainers and courtesans, and not average Arab women on the street. …

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