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Rethinking Resistance and Transnationalism in the Middle East and its Diasporas

Session IX-15, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel makes use of transnationalism as an analytic with which to rethink resistance movements in the Middle East and its diasporas. While social movements and liberation struggles are often viewed by scholars and media commentators within national frames, panelists bring attention to the ways in which transnational circuits of power, communication, and cultural work are key to the formation of these movements as well as to our understanding of them. In connecting sites as diverse as Vietnam, Palestine/Israel, Iran, Chile, Kurdistan, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and the United States, this panel identifies and analyzes a series of specific transnational coordinates seldom discussed in Middle East studies scholarship. For example, what structural antagonisms and possibilities for solidarity exist between Vietnamese refugees in Israel and the Palestinian liberation struggle? How do Iranian youth’s reckoning with the 1988 “Great Massacre” of leftist political prisoners in their country speak to related traumas of “disappearance” in Chile and Argentina? In what ways do Kurdish and Syrian displaced people challenge the nation-state form altogether across the Syrian-Jordanian border? How do the transnational impacts of imperial warfare, policing, and surveillance converge in the experience of the Yemeni diaspora in the United States? Panelists explore these interconnected questions across multiple contexts to highlight points of analytical convergence and divergence. Further, these examinations together also conduct a critical engagement with memory—whether the “forgotten war in Yemen,” the politics of memory among Vietnamese-Israelis and Iranian youth regarding the Vietnam War and the Great Massacre respectively, and the entanglements of past, present, and speculative futures in Kurdish movements for autonomy. The remembrance of past and ongoing traumas is understood as part and parcel to movement-building across the papers in different ways. Panelists’ examinations are drawn via interdisciplinary methodologies including analysis of literature, poetry, oral history, community-engaged digital storytelling, and critical ethnography. Ultimately, these papers engage in conversation around overlapping and interrelated struggles among different refugee, indigenous, and working-class communities worldwide.
  • This paper grapples with the vexed positionality of Vietnamese refugees and their descendants in Israel-Palestine via a relational reading of Vietnamese Israeli and Palestinian poetry. In the late 1970s, following the end of the Vietnam War and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, the State of Israel granted asylum and eventual citizenship to 366 refugees from Vietnam. In government speeches and media reports, Israeli leaders drew parallels with the Jewish history of Holocaust refugees, even as they elided the contemporaneous history of ongoing Palestinian displacement and refugeehood. Vietnamese Israelis thus became implicated in the Zionist nation-building project, positioning them in a structurally antagonist relationship to the Palestinian liberation struggle: what I call the “refugee settler condition.” This paper turns to poetry to think across these structural antagonisms and to probe possibilities for solidarity between Vietnamese Israelis and Palestinians, along shared experiences and formal thematics of forced displacement, listless travel, and restless memories. Via a relational close reading of Vaan Nguyen’s book of poetry, The Truffle Eye, and Mourid Barghouti’s long-form prose poetry, I Saw Ramallah, I attend to incessant translations between the unstable signifiers of native, settler, refugee, and exile in these texts. Destabilizing the very categories that divide Palestinians and Vietnamese Israelis under the refugee settler condition, I posit an exilic poetics that critiques the settler colonial state’s forms of exclusion in favor of more pluralized modalities of belonging. Key to my analysis is an engagement with temporality: a critique of linear narratives of autochthony in favor of recognizing what Barghouti calls overlapping “shape[s] of time” (shakl awqātinā fīhi).
  • This paper is based on an ethnographic study of Yemeni Americans in the Bay Area that focuses on the impact of the war in Yemen, the Muslim/Arab/African travel bans, and the COVID-19 “emergency.” Since 2019, I have been doing research with Yemeni Americans in Oakland, who occupy a niche in ownership of corner stores and have been essential workers in small businesses where transnational issues of racial capitalism, imperial warfare, policing, and surveillance converge. Yemeni Americans have also struggled to support families in Yemen during the US-backed war since 2015 that has destroyed the country, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis (at least since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan). Trump’s travel bans and other US immigration restrictions targeting Yemenis have compounded the devastating effects of the US-backed siege of Yemen, separating Yemeni families across global borders and undermining transnational survival strategies. However, these stories have been missing in public discussions, despite the centrality of Yemen to the US-led War on Terror. This research is part of a community-engaged project which included digital storytelling in order to create a counter-archive based on collective memory work by Yemeni community members of different generations. This paper highlights the perspectives of Yemeni Americans engaged in community organizing and antiwar activism, some of whom have participated in protests and produced spoken word poetry to create awareness about the “forgotten war” in Yemen or challenged the conflation of Yemen with a war zone. Among Yemeni Americans, the war is a complex and divisive issue as for all exilic communities that have endured decades of war, Western colonization, and foreign intervention in Yemen’s internal struggles and experiments with sovereignty, Marxism, separation, and unification of North and South Yemen. The erasure of the war on Yemen is intrinsic to imperial amnesia and the strategy of deliberate forgetting of US imperial violence. Yemeni Americans have also been targets of ongoing surveillance and counterterrorism projects, which have (by design) contained public political expression and created a climate of fear and divisiveness due to “surveillance effects.” I argue that counterterrorism and surveillance represent a model of counter-insurgency that rests on cultural and social re-engineering by the military-spy state and regulation, as well as self-disciplining, of the community. I will discuss how the often covert forms of policing of Yemeni Americans, as for SWANA and Muslim Americans generally, expands and deepens the debate in the US about policing, antiblack violence, and abolitionism.
  • In the early 2000s, Marxist student groups began to form at several Iranian universities for the first time since the government’s violent campaign of repression against leftist political prisoners in the 1980s. This campaign culminated in 1988 when thousands of Marxist and other leftist political prisoners who had participated in the 1979 revolution were executed by the postrevolutionary regime. In the early 2000s, the memory of this massacre was barely over a decade old, yet its hold was not strong enough to stop the rebirth of leftist student groups. In this paper, I explore the origins of this resurgence as well as the continued anxieties of Iranian political leaders regarding its trajectory. For nearly two decades, these political elites, including both reformists and conservatives, have time and again condemned the resurgence of the left in the Iranian student movement. I explore oral histories with a number of key leaders in the movement at that time as well as the discourses of political elites throughout the 2000s and 2010s to argue that one outcome of the resurgence has been a challenging of the historical erasure of the state’s violent repression of the left in the 1980s, a history that continues to exist in the shadows, silenced and distorted by the Iranian state. Building from the work of scholars who have studied related campaigns of terror and “disappearance” against leftist sympathizers and revolutionaries in Chile and Argentina, I connect these struggles over historical memory to the struggles of Iranian student activists to come to terms with and honor the memory of the 1988 massacre. I argue that the continued rhetorical admonitions and outright repression against the student left by political leaders, most recently on display following the 2019 “Aban” uprising against the high cost of living, is motivated by elites’ anxiety of both the excavation of erased past trauma and that of the persistent belief for a different future espoused by these youth.
  • Bringing together elements of critical refugee studies, Indigenous studies, and speculative studies, I employ a framework of radical speculation to think about the ways displaced people engage in resistance movements while strategizing for survival. Using personal narrative, story-telling, and archives, this paper is a preliminary exploration of several sites in which displaced Syrians are working to (re)build their lives, communities, and environments in precarity. In particular, I am interested in some of the ways Kurds, and Syrians in general, engage in radical moves towards self-sovereignty through (sometimes speculative-based) community organizing, story-telling, and an insurrectional politics all while in displacement. Primarily, I look to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), the Kurdish-led and women-pioneered de facto autonomous region born from the instability of the Syrian civil war. The NES governing system, which consists of secular communes and a bottom-up governing system that brings together traditional Kurdish practices and leftist Kurdish ideologies includes aspects of radical refusal, insurrection, and speculation. Of particular interest is how these social and ideological structures can be (re)built in the refugee camp, as seen in the Kurdish camp of Berxwedan. Finally, I am interested in the spatiotemporal dimensions of the camp, especially as they are conceptualized as temporary spaces of passing-through despite the lived reality of those residing in them. Camps are intended to be transitory, often in a continuous state of assembly at or near borders, yet many refugees have nowhere else to go. I examine some of the insurrectional and radical politics of living being enacted by Syrians in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, including “illegally” dismantling and rebuilding the camp to create more permanent structures. My questions, while not dismissing the inherent oppression and violence of displacement, seek to examine displacement and the refugee camp spatially and temporally, not only as a contentious place of passing through but also as a site of living, creativity, and transformation; one which experiments with sovereignty outside of an inherited nation state; a site for a possible commons that models a more sustainable, queer mode of living.