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Common Challenges, New Opportunities: Connections between the Middle East and Latin America

Session V-01, sponsored by Arab American Studies Association (AASA), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

RoundTable Description
While it can be argued that the legacy of the Pink Tide in Latin America has spurred some of the most recent work on the development of South-South initiatives, our contemporary moment has also seen a resurgence of interest in previous moments of Latin-East connection. Scholars across disciplines have begun to recenter the historical ties between Latin America and the Middle East in myriad ways: through new histories of Islam in the Caribbean and Atlantic World, archival investigations into the formation of diasporic communities in Central and South America, comparative accounts of Cuban-Palestinian poetics, as well as long durée investigations on moriscos in colonial Latin America during the early modern period. What larger processes, connectivities, and possibilities do these works bring to light? What historical conjunctures have led to a rapprochement between scholars of Latin America and of the Middle East? How has renewed attention to the Latin-East informed our awareness of global inequalities and of the potential of new political solidarities? This cross-disciplinary roundtable endeavors to answer these questions through a series of methodological and theoretical conversations on the growing subfield of the Latin-East by discussing the unique challenges and opportunities of studying these two regions in conjunction. The program will feature short introductory statements from panelists, followed by discussion on the following topics: diasporas and migration, historical moments of cultural exchange, intertextual connections between Arabic and Hispanic literatures, political solidarities, and current and past Latin-East contact zones. We will also address research approaches to archives, ethnography, language training, pedagogy, and map a textual analysis of the subfield.
  • Journalist Roberto Valencia observed in El Faro that “Those who have come from Palestine are power in El Salvador. Power. The country cannot be fully explained without the Handal, the Zablah, the Hasbún; without the Simán and Salume; without the Bukele. But that power is relatively new.” Indeed, today there are close to 100,000 individuals of Palestinian descent in the small Central American country of El Salvador which in comparative perspective is close to the total amount of Palestinians in the countries of the European Union. Collectively, they weld significant political and economic influence which includes El Salvador’s current President to notable leaders of business, industry, and politics. Yet, as Valencia suggests, this ascendency and power is new. During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Palestinians were caught at the cross-sections of racialized regimes of movement and migration in the western hemisphere. Initially referred to as turcos (alluding to their origins from an Islamic Ottoman Empire), the majority of Palestinian migrants to El Salvador were primarily Christians from Bethlehem. These Arabic-speaking Christians from an Islamic empire in Asia were rendered as suspect and imbricated in a web of racialized identities at a time when xenophobia against foreign Chinese immigrants and local afro-descendent and indigenous communities was widespread. My participation on this roundtable discussion draws on this diverse history of Palestinian migration to El Salvador to think through unexpected yet important historical connectivities between Latin America and the Middle East. I consider how narratives of this migration are remembered and articulated within communal, national, and international histories of Middle Eastern migration to the western hemisphere. I focus on methodological considerations—how oral histories from Palestinian-Salvadoran differ from the nationalist Salvadoran narratives and provides critical context for early twentieth century sources on Palestinians held at the National Archives in El Salvador.
  • In 1964, the Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish published his second collection of poetry, Awraq al-Zaytun (Olives Leaves), which included a passionate panegyric to the Cuban Revolution. “I haven’t dipped my pen into the wounds of the truly wretched / I haven’t read the literature of the Cuban poets,” Darwish admits, “but I’ve learned so many things from Cuba.” Nine years before Darwish wrote his poem, the Cultural Committee at the Bandung Conference had concluded that the work of decolonization had to concern itself with the sphere of culture, the nature of consciousness, and the social function of literature. Over the next two decades, “cultural decolonization” became a project that united militant intellectuals across what began to be called “the Third World.” While scholars have recently started paying attention to internationalist cultural production during the Third-Worldist period, most have limited their studies to discrete languages and geographical arenas. My participation in this roundtable stems from my interest in offering a new way of thinking about the symbolic space of the Third World, which served as a vibrant contact zone between Arab and Latin American intellectuals. I take seriously that, despite the constraints of language and distance, Palestinian and Cuban writers engaged with transnational imaginaries of each other’s anti-colonial struggles, shaping literary and aesthetic currents as they did so. Poets like Darwish and Fayad Jamís, for instance, revitalized the genres of the ars poetica and the dramatic monologue as a way of capturing the ideological fantasy that they each construed as the ‘voice’ of the people, and placing far-flung revolutionary subjects in relation to one another. In this way, they helped to generate a conception of poetry tasked with discursively linking disparate struggles. My hope is thus to contribute to our understanding of how strategies of solidarity and cultural decolonization were elaborated between Palestine and Cuba, providing a basis for comparison with other settings in the Global South.
  • My research addresses the construction of the Americas as a frontier in the Mediterranean war of the Iberian powers against the Ottomans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Although the Ottomans had, in retrospect, not been successful in crossing the Atlantic, this does not mean that the Spanish colonial administration did not perceive them to be a serious threat to their colonial project in the so-called New World. In addition to this, sources produced by writers, artists, conquistadores, local indigenous allies of the Spaniards, colonial administrators, and church officials in the Americas reveal that the Spanish Crown instrumentalized the so-called 'guerra contra el turco' to galvanize local forces in the Americas to support Spanish aspirations in the Mediterranean. In addition to this, the idea of regulating 'Ottoman' mobility was at the center of the Spanish colonizing enterprise. The restriction of the mobility of people who could hinder colonization efforts, based on the idea of Limpieza de Sangre, was important in this regard. The Americas was imagined as a 'Muslim/Moorish-rein' space. However, the idea of the 'Turk' as an enemy was much more complicated and should be addressed beyond the clear-cut dichotomy between Christians and Muslims. In my presentation I attempt to make sense of the way in which the Orthodox communities inhabiting Ottoman figured in the Spanish colonial imagination. These communities pushed the Spanish Crown to specify their understanding of the Americas as a space of Catholic conversion and their own role as representatives of global Christianity in the war against the Ottomans.
  • At the turn of the nineteenth century, as a result of economic and social crises, tens of thousands of people migrated from the Levant to Brazil. There, they constituted the largest Arab diaspora outside the Middle East. Mostly hailing from present-day Syria and Lebanon, they published newspapers and magazines in Arabic, founded literary associations, created philanthropic organizations, and fostered a movement of long-distance nationalism. Despite the economic, intellectual, and political contributions they remitted to their homelands, those migrants and their descendants are still relegated to the footnotes in the histories of the Levant. In my contribution, I will draw on the historical experiences of Arabic-speaking migrants in Brazil to argue that the diaspora was a fundamental part of the region they left. I will also claim that we cannot understand the political and intellectual histories of the Levant without integrating its diasporas. Historians of Syria and Lebanon have notably struggled with incorporating diasporas in their understandings of the region. In part, because they tend to take the nation-state as a fundamental unit of analysis. Migration is a transnational phenomenon and, as such, cannot be approached solely through area studies. Historians of Brazil have also failed, to a certain extent, to properly contextualize the lives of the Arabic-speaking peoples who arrived while the country was transitioning from an empire to a republic. Relying on social science frameworks, these scholars were focused solely on the integration of Syrians and Lebanese (or lack thereof) into society. By taking these two historiographies together, scholars can finally have a more comprehensive picture of what–I argue–was one of the transformative events of Levantine and Brazilian history.
  • My research traces routes of migration, literary circulation, and cultural exchange between the mashriq – the Arabic-speaking regions of the Eastern Mediterranean – and the mahjar, or Arab diaspora, in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Americas. I pose the question of whether we can speak of an “Arab Atlantic:” a fluid space of cultural production and transatlantic identity formation that is nonetheless fragmented by national boundaries, racial hierarchies, and unequal citizenship laws. I approach this space through a variety of texts ranging from Abdurrahman al-Baghdadi’s account of his travels to Brazil 1865-1868, in which he spends three years among West African Muslims, many of whom were survivors of the Malê slave revolt in Bahía, to George Assaf’s al-Nāziḥ (the Displaced), a book of poems written from Buenos Aires in the 1910s, addressing Lebanese in the mashriq during their struggle against Ottoman rule. Reading these texts within the context of shifting national and imperial boundaries of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, and race-based immigration and citizenship laws that developed in the early twentieth century, I ask: what are the possibilities and limits of an “Arab Atlantic” framework for studying diasporic movements and imaginaries? What tropes of cultural pluralism or exclusion circulate in writings of this transatlantic space? How are mahjari writers writing their racial, ethnic, national, and imperial belongings and affiliations? And how do they grapple with the inter-imperial history of the Atlantic as one marred by chattel slavery – in historically Ottoman domains and through its very different lineage in the Americas? I engage with recent scholarship in Arabic and American Studies on transnational mahjar writing, and critical studies of race, migration, and multilingualism in Middle Eastern, Latin American, and Black Studies to suggest that tracing mahjar mobilities through what I am provisionally calling the Arab Atlantic is a crucial yet overlooked lens for examining ideals and tropes of cultural pluralism and their socially and legally constructed racialized limits.
  • Hamid Mir is a Pakistani journalist that interviewed three times Osama Bin Laden and was questioned for doing so. How was it possible that a Muslim journalist reach the most wanted man? He became suspicious for being an accomplice or he was seen as incapable to be professional just for being Muslim. Robert Fisk, an English journalist that also interviewed Bin Laden, told him that he was being praised for that interview instead. The problem was the Muslim background of Hamid Mir. This anecdote helps explaining the double standard mainstream media use to distinguish the “good fellows” from the “bad ones”, the “professional journalism” from the “partisan one” but as well, the “relevant lives” and the “irrelevant ones”. This Orientalist narrative that considers the “other oriental” as inferior, savage, violent or childish has been around ever since Muslims and Christians fought for the same territories back to the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, this narrative became acceptable in mainstream media after the 9/11 and it fed the Islamophobia. It is this narrative that has been also part of the mainstream media in Mexico, one of the causes of a genuine confusion among Mexicans about Arab culture and Islam. Firstly, the ordinary Mexican citizen, the one that is not familiar with West Asia or North Africa history and culture, believes that Arab and Muslim are the same thing. Mexicans tend to believe that Islam is equal to terrorism too. They are not aware that the country with more Muslims in the world is not Arab nor that most of Muslims in Mexico are converts. Even though there is a well-assimilated Lebanese community in Mexico, Mexicans do not see them as Arabs, because they are Christians. In fact, Christian Syrian and Lebanese migrants in Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century instrumentalized their Christianity and their French upbringing to fit in. Arabs are welcome in Mexico if their faith is not visible. That is why usually foreign Muslim women unveiled are best accepted than Mexican converts using veil. This paper tries to explain how a foreign narrative affects Mexican Muslims and how Arabs and Muslims around the world have succeeded or not to integrate into Mexican society. Does mainstream media narrative make integration more difficult for this group of people? Does the Mexican miscegenation discourse is able to accept new elements of national identity?