ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (amal)
I'm on a listserv dedicated to research methods; so's one of my dissertation advisors. During a conversation about using novels for social science research and teaching, my advisor made a proposition: all social scientists are failed novelists. My immediate reaction, from the part of me that spent the years of 1998-2000 identifying primarily as a writer, was along the lines of "Who're you calling failed?" In general, I've been thinking about the relationship between writing fiction and writing ethnography as I pick my way through my fieldwork-oriented chapters. Apart from the fact that I'm constrained by adherence to actual data, many of the elements of writing I'm doing don't strike me as so different from the ones I practiced as a short story writer: conveying character, theme, tone, meaning through carefully chosen details and scenarios.

Writing the 'other,' writing about people not like you in some significant way, is hard. Those of us in fandom are just coming off a year of debate on the subject of when and how to do it right, but it's a constant concern for researchers too, at least those of us who feel a normative duty to our research subjects. I constantly worry about how I'm describing Arab American communities, and thinking about how others, including others with whom I have serious disagreements, might use what I say, and what possible interventions I might make to forestall this.

I'm thinking of this now because I just picked up Matt Beynon Rees's mystery novels set in Palestine. Rees is a journalist who has lived in Jerusalem for many years and covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for Time Magazine. His novels feature Omar Yussef, a refugee and teacher in an UNRWA school, and are murder mysteries with political intrigue thrown in for fun. There are four novels in the series: The Collaborator of Bethlehem, A Grave in Gaza, The Samaritan's Secret (set in Nablus), and The Fourth Assassin (set in Brooklyn). Sadly, my library only had the last three, but I ordered them and picked them up eagerly.

I've read through them now, and find that they're inspiring me to think much more than I would have expected. To be blunt, they're not very well written; Rees doesn't seem to be very good at characterization, and so most of his characters fall flat. I also find myself very dissatisfied with them as fictional representations of Palestinian life and politics. They aren't overtly or intentionally racist, and Rees is clearly familiar with and positive towards Palestinians. But being a nice guy doesn't make your work unimpeachable, sadly, as we all know.

Because I found them so interesting, I'm planning on doing three posts on them, because I have kind of a lot to say. In this first one, I talk about the ways that Rees uses language, particularly the distance between Arabic and English, and the ways I think that his decisions are othering, and representative of the broader trend towards othering in his work. In the second, I'm going to talk specifically about The Fourth Assassin's discussion of Arabs in New York City, which has particular issues that strike me as someone who is also writing a book set, largely, in Bay Ridge (and as someone who's worked at the UN, which is the other major setting of the book). In the third, I'm going to talk about the reception of Rees's fictional works, which I think help indicates precisely how the things he establishes are problematic.

Inshallah: the beginning of our problems )

Look for my post on The Fourth Assassin and on the reception of these books in the days to come!
ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (amal)
Whitewashed: America's Invisible Middle Eastern Minority, by John Tehranian

One of the great ironies of the experiences of Arabs and other Middle Easterners in the US is that, legally, they're white. Yes, that's right: persons from the Middle East and North Africa are considered white by law, yet pretty much nowhere else in American society. The reasons why lie in the early history of Arab immigration to the US at the turn of the 20th century, the politics of migration and citizenship before the 1924 Immigration Act, and the political project of assimilation that was key to immigrant incorporation at the time; their effects remain, despite the fact that the reality of being Arab-American has changed over the past hundred years. This book begins with Tehranian's personal story of not receiving a job offer, and being told it was for diversity's sake: they wouldn't give the position to a white man. "Thats not what they say at the airport," he responded.

This book was recommended to me by a scholar of Middle Eastern American communities, who said he thought it represented a new perspective on the question of race and Middle Easterners in the US. So I eagerly picked it up at my next library run (hey, I don't invest until I'm sure). Reading it, I could see the appeal; Whitewashed is clearly written, concise, and covers a great deal of material in a short span of pages. It's a book that is accessible enough for a lay person, and includes a large number of personal anecdotes, yet it also uses the very productive lens of critical race theory, which I don't see much of in the literature.

And yet, all is not perfect, sadly. )

(Total aside: for folks who are interested in digital culture and law (as I know so many DW-ers are), Tehranian's next book, Infringement Nation, looks really interesting; here is a publicly available paper by him with the same title. Key quote from the abstract: "We are, in short, a nation of copyright infringers.")
ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought - New Essays
by Steven Salaita

I read this slim volume of essays about a year ago, for the simple reason that it was on the shelf in the Arab-American studies section of NYU's Bobst Library (E184, right at the end of that aisle on the fifth floor...what, like you don't have certain sections of the library memorized?), and I hadn't read it yet. I'd enjoyed a previous book of Salaita's, Anti-Arab Racism in the USA, and was interested to see where he was going. My first impressions of the book were overwhelmingly positive; I believe I actually read the entirety of "Open-Mindedness on Independence Day," a scathing critique of a Thomas Friedman column, to the first person I saw after I read it. I wrote a review of it at the Livejournal community 50books_poc (for people aiming to read more books by people of color) to encourage others to pick it up. In particular, I loved the book's prioritization of questions of discourse and meaning, his exhortation in the final essay to please listen to Arabs when they speak, rather than rendering them impossible to speak with. This is exactly the line of argument I'm developing in my dissertation, under the rubric of "discursive misrecognition." (You can read more about the way I'm formulating this concept vis-a-vis critical theories of recognition in this paper.) When I began designing the syllabus for the course I am teaching this semester, called The Middle East in Diaspora, I ordered it for the students without a second thought.

Then I reread it.

I still like the book. In fact, I might like it more... )


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