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Racializing Arab Cultures

Panel I-26, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • In the “The Arab World and the West in the Post-Colonial Arabic Novel,” Iraqi literary critic Najim Kadhim leaves the postcolonial intellectual with a moral predicament as he wrestles to reconcile his thoughts of the “friendly” Americans and Westerners he met abroad, with the “colonialist…. big enemy of the Arabs” West. While recognizing how the postcolonial Arab discourse has functioned as a counter-response to the West, Kadhim paradoxically urges Arab novelists and intellectuals to move toward a more positive portrayal of the West in Arabic novels. Although the East-West encounter was addressed through a sexual prism, negative portrayals of the Western (White) woman are particularly dominant. The Arab counter-response to Western hegemony and Orientalism was often sexualized, depicted in a “sexual relation between the educated Eastern man and the Western woman,” according to the late Syrian writer George Tarabishi. This paper conducts a comparative analysis of understudied autobiographical novels such as David Du Bois’s … And Bid Him Sing, Idris Ali’s Dongola, and Bahā’ Tāher’s historical fiction novel Sunset Oasis and their portrayals of Black, Egyptian, and White women. Sex and sexuality is a literary device through which the protagonist negotiates his proximity to the power, or a shade of it, that alienates him to validate his existence. Despite offering a sexualized East-West encounter, the three novels in question hardly offer negative portrayals of White women, whereas Egyptian and Afro-Arab women are ghettoized and erased. Drawing on Anne Norton’s critique of Eurocentric ideas of Islam and Muslims, this paper exposes the Eurocentricity of postcolonial male-centric depictions of women in fiction. Norton’s “clash of sexual civilizations” conceptualization shows how the European discourse on sexuality in Muslim societies versus Europe is a misrepresentation and concealment of reality. Such misrepresentations sustain the Islam and the West binary, declaring the latter superior to the former through the sexuality lens, creating the “clash of sexual civilizations” as a subcategory in the ultimate clash of civilization discourse defining Muslim and Western societies. This paper is concerned with how these misrepresentations impact race-consciousness of the reading masses and argues that this Eurocentric treatment of women lures postcolonial male writers into a discursive entrapment, as they consume a false narrative about European sexuality as a frontier. Oblivious to the racial logic undergirding these depictions, these narratives end up centering whiteness while relegating Arab African women to the margins.
  • This phenomenon appears in Arabic novels which were written by bold writers who utilize the fictional techniques such as characters, protagonists, plots, dialogue, monologue, etc., to explore their condemnations the humiliation of black Arabs and their racial social segregation. This monograph argues that Arabic narration highlights the social segregation of black Arabs by: 1) Employing fictional techniques to intensify the light on the psychological impact of this social marginalization practice on Black Arabs and to reflect their frustrations and disappointments; 2) Reflecting the justifications of the Arab social classes’ racial practice towards black Arabs; 3) Exposing the social stratification that has placed black Arabs in social segregation and deprived them of their normal social role. The study sources are the selected novels that reflect the new paradigm of the racial system that relies on black skin and discovers the interconnection between the racial ideology and the Arab society especially; first, it Inspects the racialization of the social structure of Arab countries, particularly through the different Arab cultures.; second, it explores the factors causing the marginalization of Black Arabs, and their social segregation. The selected novels are according to the diversity of Arab countries to which they belong to; first, the Yemeni novel (Black Taste, Black Smell - 2008) internalizes the tribal society and its severe social classifications, from the Gentry (Al-Sada) class to the Akhdam (servant) class and the marginalized ones; second, the Saudi novel (Smell’s Traps - 2003) depicts the racist vision against black Arabs in an extremist conservative society; third, the Emirati novel (Rehana - 2004) by the novelist that traces the plight of the black Arabs after their liberation from slavery in the Gulf states, and describes their frustration towards their society after abolition; fourth, the Sudanese novel (Ankle bracelets of Thorns- 2015) explores the suffering of black Arabs and the depth of their psychological impact under a racial society that rejects them because of their blackness and strips them from any social interaction. This novel observes the social circumstances that outrages racism.; fifth, the Bahraini novel (The Springs - 2013) exposes the social system that adheres to dealing inferiorly with the black Arabs after granting them their emancipation and declaring their freedom from slavery in the Gulf countries; sixth, the Egyptian novel (Leaps of the Gazelle 2002) reflects the Bedouin society in the Egyptian desert and its racial action that marginalized black Arabs.
  • In response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the George W. Bush administration infamously formulated and disseminated a political narrative intended to justify destabilizing changes to America’s domestic and foreign policy. At its core were falsehoods, manipulation tactics, and the rigid binaries of good v. evil, east v. west, and Christian v. Muslim—all of which were based on existing orientalist stereotypes. Arab-American multi-narrator novels, such as Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land and Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans, respond to the dominant narrative by painting complex portraits of the post-9/11 American landscape. Through close readings that analyze the merging of content and form, this paper reveals that Halaby’s and Lalami’s novels offer harsh indictments of the narrative by demonstrating the harmfulness of its lies and manipulation tactics through metaphor and invalidating the narrative's rigid binaries through nuanced depictions of human interaction. Using those narrative techniques, these texts implicate the dominant post-9/11 in the destructive political polarization in the 2000s and the 2010s while subverting persistent modes of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. By foregrounding the Arab-American experience, Halaby’s and Lalami’s novels place Arab-American literature at the center of discourse about post-9/11 America. Mikhail Bakhtin’s notions of polyphony and dialogism as well as Jody Byrd’s concept of cacophony are used to frame the analysis because it’s access to a cross-section of diverse American voices exhibiting varied reactions to post-9/11 events that facilitates the indictment the post-9/11 in these novels.
  • The romanticization of the concept of “exile” in modernist literature has eclipsed the critical distinction between refugees as opposed to other voluntary migrants. While the poetics of exile has fueled literary studies since time immemorial, the legally charged term refugee is defined within a specific discourse of human rights. This presentation looks closely at three memoirs written by refugees fleeing Iran and considers both the poetics and politics of bearing witness to crimes against humanity through personal narratives. Behrouz Boochani’s No Friends but the Mountains written from Manus prison in the Pacific Ocean and Golriz Ghahraman’s Know Your Place are among a plethora of texts written by refugees who have straddled the boarders of fact and fiction in their life stories. In the Postcolonial asylum Farrier criticizes universalization and abstract theorization the figure of exile. He cautions against privileging textuality over the materialist perspective. The neoliberal celebration of the emancipatory powers of travelling ignores the torrid challenges faced by the displaced in gaining asylum. These intimate life accounts become legal texts need to be verified in court of law. However the distinction between fact and fiction in life stories of trauma survivors is murky to say the least. Romanticizing the term “exile” over the legally burdened one of the “refugee” burdens the survivors with a need to dissociate themselves with he title as soon as it is granted. The term refugee is generally associated with the visual metaphor of helpless women and children and, thus, shunned unanimously among the so called “former” refugees who want to distance themselves from their precarious entry point.