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Arab Faces, American Places

Panel IX-8, sponsored byArab American Studies Association, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel examines how visual representations of Arabs, especially in the form of portraits, vary across the history of Arab presence in the United States from the 1870s to the 21stcentury. Portraiture goes back at least to ancient Egypt. Prior to photography, drawn or sculpted portraits, especially the head and face, served to record the existence of famous, wealthy, and/or powerful individuals. With the rise of the mechanical reproduction of images (photography and film) in the first half of the 20th century, portraiture as a major fine art genre became less common. In the 21st century, digital photos and video recordings of faces have proliferated across the various communications. A new digital genre of portraiture, the selfie. There is a complex and rich visual history of Arabs in the United States, that includes black and white photos from the late 19th century immigration era (mahjar) to creative illustrations included in graphic memoirs to Hollywood depictions of Arabs. Interesting, shifts in the media of representation can be mapped onto the changing social and cultural Arab presence in the United States. “Arab Faces, American Places” explores portraiture and other modes of depicting Arabs as central to the process of establishing Arab belonging in an expansive American geography. Panelists read visual representations of Arabs in the Americas in relation to citizenship and racial identification, the media and entertainment industry, cultural affirmation, and self-representation. Panelist also consider the following questions: in what ways are portraits, defined in the broad sense, performances? What are the socio-cultural contexts for the production of specific types of images of Arabs in the Americas? How are the images associated with particular political ideologies, social values, aesthetic trends, and cultural discourses? The panel includes four papers. The first paper focuses on early 20th century photographs of Arabs in the Midwest. The second paper analyzes Arab American graphic memoirs, which serve has self-constructions of the author's body, home(s), landscapes, and lived experiences. The third paper looks at the representation of Estevanico (aka Mustafa Azemmouri), “the Black Arab” named in Cabeza de Vaca’s sixteenth-century account of living among the indigenous people in what is today the US southwest. The final paper explores how Hollywood responded to Trump’s Muslim ban by expanding representations of Muslims and proposes that this expansion is often hindered a crisis diversity.
Media Arts
  • This paper examines several photographs of Arab immigrants in the United States taken during the early 20th century, a period when photography was becoming more accessible to the general public. With the advent of new film technology and smaller cameras, it became more common for individuals to capture portraits of themselves for personal and professional purposes. Arabic-speaking immigrants to the US had photographers take professional portraits in their shops, on the streets, in offices, or in factories. Journalists also took photos documenting the presence of Arabic speakers in varied locations across the United States. Sam Hallick was my maternal grandfather. He settled in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he ran several businesses from 1913 until 1920 before returning to his home village in the Beqaa Valley. While he left no written record of his life in the United States, he did leave an archive of photographs, which speaks to the modern Arab immigrant sense of belonging. The paper is especially preoccupied with the ways that we can read the visual representations of Sam Hallick in relation to the modern social and cultural presence of Arab-speaking immigrants in the first two decades of the 20th century. I interpret the photographs in terms of the individual represented and the context that produced the portraits. What we can gather about Sam Hallick's character and his physical personae, based solely on the visual information in the photographs, and how the photographs tell a particular story about the contexts of Arab settlement in the United States. The paper also explores more generally how images in this archive provide a record of a self-possessed modern Arab presence in the United States.
  • In the 21st century, there has been a wide and compelling growth in the genre of the Arab American graphic novel. Within this genre, it is important to note that many of these graphic novels also fall into the category of graphic memoir. In Arab American literature, we thus see an emerging pattern of Arab American authors using visual art forms as a contemporary mode of testimony and bearing witness to their lived experiences in an increasingly globalized, interconnected, and visual world. With these growing trends in mind, it is worth considering: What does visuality of the graphic medium enable these contemporary authors to do in telling (and drawing) the stories of their own lives? What is being communicated via these illustrations that underscores, complicates, or even replaces the written narratives of these texts? What types of stories cannot be expressed by words alone? This paper will explore these key questions by centering on Arab American graphic memoirs that are self-illustrated, closely reading the ways in which these author-artists use visual art to construct their own lived experiences, landscapes, home(s), and bodies. Though the graphic works I will examine are each uniquely different in their intermarriages of visual art and written word, this paper will illuminate the ways that Arab American author-artists, whom I refer to in previous work as visual hakawatis, are participating in a shared cultural discourse and mode of bearing witness in which written narrative alone does not, and perhaps cannot, suffice.
  • Blurring the lines between fiction and history, Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account enriches our engagement with and understandings of the past and its historical texts. This fictional memoir elaborates on a passing, but noteworthy reference to Estebanico, one of only four survivors of the 1527 Spanish expedition to the “New World” and a figure that has largely been relegated to the margins of History. Despite his obscurity, Estebanico has historically been the subject of a wide range of visual representations that together point to his positioning at the intersection of multiple identities – Arab, Black, African, Muslim, Latino, and Native American. Across these images, various aspects of his cultural, religious, and racial background are privileged to different extents, offering glimpses into very different Histories and belying the complexity of Estebanico’s historical figure and what his story represents. Lalami endeavors to restore Estebanico’s voice in a fictional account that offers a complex image of the man he may have been – his upbringing, faith, circumstances, and capabilities that would lead him towards becoming the first Arab, African, and Muslim traveler in the Americas. A 16th-century Arabic-speaking Moor from Azemmur, enslaved by Spaniards, Estebanico responds to accounts of the journey that were put forth by “servants of empire” and determines to set the record straight by documenting his participation in the Spanish imperial expedition as he witnessed and experienced it. This paper explores how Estebanico effectively questions and undermines the construct of History and the process of historiography – even as he participates in it. This historical novel is consistently grounded in a textuality and intertextuality that expresses the complexity, heterogeneity, and intersectionality of America’s history and cultural identity. A work of historiographic metafiction and an imaginary Arab Muslim slave memoir, Lalami’s text reinterprets the Euro-centric origin story, disrupts the Anglo-American nationalist narrative, and gives voice to individuals and groups whose stories have otherwise been marginalized and suppressed. As an origin story, it speaks to each of these communities as well as other minorities, highlighting the diverse reality of America as a nation that has never been a monolith – neither in race, color, language, nor religion. Estebanico’s history and Lalami’s fictional elaboration thus engage with the nature of America’s national identity and engender an American origin story that is much more inclusive and cross-cultural than what is traditionally depicted.