Arab American Racism Essay Scholarships

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In recent years, we have seen the rise of a rich body of immigrant literatures, including many powerful works by Arab-American women who have set out to interrogate their own, often fragmented, identities. Unlike earlier generations of Arab-American writers, these women are consciously building bridges to other communities of color. Deriving strength from feminists, black theorists, and postcolonial thinkers, they are wielding their pens to chronicle decades of racism, oppression, and marginalization in the United States, and to begin uncovering the particularities of their own ethnic histories.

This article will focus on the works of three writers with a Palestinian heritage: Diana Abu-Jaber, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Suheir Hammad.

Collectively, Arab Americans have been subject to decades of racism, discrimination, negative stereotyping, and hostility in the United States. Arab-American women, in particular, face additional pressures due to the gendered nature of Arab-American society and the role they are often thrust into of maintaining an Arab identity for their families and communities. Their ability to communicate freely about the challenges they face as Arab women is often compromised by concerns about deepening already debilitating stereotypes about Arabs in America. For many years, the real or perceived need for unity among a beleaguered minority has hampered an honest discourse by Arab-American women about topics as controversial as honor killings, arranged marriage, and patriarchal structures.

These circumstances have had profound implications for the works Arab-American women writers have been able to publish - or not - and the way they are eventually packaged and marketed.

....the reaction from within the Arab-American community can be fierce if it perceives any kind of attack or challenge to its prevailing social and familial structures, especially from one of its "own." This breeds an insidious form of self-censorship that has, until recently, kept Arab-American literature from engaging in unabashed discussions of sexuality, incest, or even mental health issues.

At the same time, the reaction from within the Arab-American community can be fierce if it perceives any kind of attack or challenge to its prevailing social and familial structures, especially from one of its "own." This breeds an insidious form of self-censorship that has, until recently, kept Arab-American literature from engaging in unabashed discussions of sexuality, incest, or even mental health issues. By contrast, women writers in the Arab world have long explored lesbian relationships, incest, and other subjects that remain largely taboo in the Arab-American world.

The writers discussed here are forging a new discourse, although their approaches and choice of media differ widely. Diana Abu-Jaber is a novelist who teaches creative writing at Portland State University. Her award-winning 1993 novel, "Arabian Jazz," brought the story of an Arab immigrant and his two daughters to a mainstream U.S. audience, and W.W. Norton published her new novel, "Crescent," in April 2003. Naomi Shihab Nye is an accomplished poet, essayist, and anthologist who has also published several children's books and a novel in recent years. Although her Arab heritage is an important factor in her work, Nye's writing draws on and reflects a wide variety of cultural contexts and sources, including the Southwest where she lives and the many places she has traveled. Slam poet Suheir Hammad draws inspiration from her poor, working-class childhood in Brooklyn, where she grew up mostly among Puerto Rican children, went to terrible public schools, and experienced firsthand what it means to be poor and colored in America.

In her first novel, "Arabian Jazz," Abu-Jaber navigates a terrain fraught with overlapping cultural mores and tackles subjects that have long been taboo in both American and Arab society. She confronts us with racism, abject poverty, female infanticide, and incest, all set against the backdrop of one immigrant family's struggle to carve out an identity in upstate New York. Using multiple narrators and continually blurring the lines between past and present, the book provides a potent materialist critique of America, while casting an equally skeptical eye on the patriarchal vestiges of the Arab world. One of the main characters, Jemorah, begins to develop a clear view of the racism that surrounds her. After a devastating encounter with her loathsome boss Portia Porschman, who concludes that Arabs "aren't any better than Negroes," Jemorah sees her familiar world through altered eyes, reflecting her growing realization of the marginal position she occupies in U.S. society.

Abu-Jaber inherited her Irish-American mother's coloring, which she describes as "an acceptable Anglo-pale," but she is all too well aware of this country's "real issue" with color and the mixed messages that children of color receive. Growing up, she and her two sisters were encouraged, even forced, to identify with their Arab heritage, but their relatives were also constantly exhorting them to stay out of the sun to protect their milky white complexions so they could pass as white Americans. Yet Abu-Jaber firmly identifies herself as a woman of color, even choosing to keep the Arabic family name that caused her so much grief and misery as a child, and still requires tedious explanations, especially since the post-September 11 backlash. Worst of all, she says, is that sinking feeling when acquaintances express surprise that she identifies as an Arab at all, since she is so light-skinned.

Poetry has been a particularly important form of expression for Palestinian Americans and Naomi Shihab Nye is the best-known Palestinian-American poet by far. Widely anthologized, honored with many awards, and featured in Bill Moyers' public television series, "The Language of Life," Nye has taught poetry in schools for over two decades, traversing the country and the globe. Born to a Palestinian Muslim father and a German-American mother, Nye has also written several children's books, as well as a coming-of-age novel marketed to teens and young adults. Like other second-generation poets, Nye has a keen and global sense of injustice. For instance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clearly an important theme for Nye, but she has also produced an illuminating cycle of poems on Latin America.

In a similar vein, Suheir Hammad, who has been active in the struggle to free U.S. political prisoners, insists she cannot close her eyes to other situations of oppression or injustice and remain human. If exiled Palestinian poets have seen their mission as riveting the spotlight to the tragedy of Palestinian existence, then their daughters and sons are busy building bridges, connecting their experience to that of mainstream America - and importantly, to other marginalized communities.

Nye, whose poetry touches on many themes, including questions of identity, motherhood, friendships, and death, has an unusually positive interpretation of her bicultural heritage and says she felt lucky to benefit from the dual perspective inherent in her parentage. Being bicultural, she writes, allowed her to maintain some sense of "otherness" or detachment. Throughout her work, Nye challenges rigid boundaries of identification, calling attention instead to the multiple and often overlapping categories that constitute identity, including gender, ethnic origin, religion, and geography.

While Abu-Jaber employs humor and parody to get her point across, and Nye illuminates the connections among things and people by focusing on the minute details of daily life, Suheir Hammad adopts a much more direct and combative style in her poetry, which is written to be performed orally. Born in a refugee camp in Jordan in October 1973, Hammad came to the United States when she was just five, after a brief sojourn with her father and then-pregnant mother in Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war. She grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, hanging out with Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Haitian, and African-American kids, listening to hip hop and speaking Black English, all the while negotiating the boundaries of her life as a Muslim girl in the fast and dangerous world of America. Her poetry throbs with the rhythm of urban life, a hip-hop beat pulsating to the words as they damn oppression, racism, fascism, and violence in any form - in the war zones of our families, streets, and nations.

A regular on the New York hip-hop scene whose work has been broadcast on the BBC World Service and Pacifica Radio, Hammad is fervently and unabashedly political, voicing her support for causes ranging from the campaign to free death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. She has raised funds to aid Afghan children and provide health care to Palestinians injured in the new Intifada (or uprising) which began in September 2000, and regularly volunteers in juvenile detention centers and prisons.

Hammad locates herself proudly as a woman of color, as evidenced by the title and content of her first book of poetry, "born Palestinian, born Black." The title is taken from "Moving Towards Home," a poem African-American poet June Jordan wrote in response to the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps after Israel's 1982 invasion, in which Jordan proclaims: "I was born a Black woman/ and now/ I am become a Palestinian."

Like Nye and Abu-Jaber, Hammad is conscious of the connections among people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups. Uncovering racism and sexism in her essays and poetry, Hammad urges women of color to accept themselves as they are. Risking the wrath of the conservative Arab community, Hammad also begins to expose sexual abuse and harassment of women-within her family, the Arab community, and the larger world, cognizant that this is not a problem confined to her culture: "This story I've heard whispered in all languages, all accents." Hammad faces sharp criticism from the Arab community itself for daring to tell such stories. As in Diana Abu-Jaber's case, many would rather silence Hammad's voice than grapple with such difficult subjects as sexual abuse or incest.

As evidenced by these three writers, Arab Americans are increasingly identifying as, and with, communities of color, but their status as "minorities" remains ambiguous within the racialized discourses of ethnic studies, legal rights, and feminist scholarship.

Much has changed in the past five years - and one can fairly speak of a burgeoning field of Arab-American artistic endeavor. Efforts to analyze Arab-American women's lives and their expanding cultural production are still in their infancy, but even a short excursion into this arena underscores the richness of the material being produced by writers like Abu-Jaber, Nye, and Hammad - and the depth of their insights.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)

Copyright 2003 © by Al Jadid

Said, Edward Out of Place (Knopf, 1999). the book tells the story of Said’s upbringing in Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and the United States, and the saga of his family’s experiences, most significantly in the 1947-48 period. Said’s book is not only a superb memoir and a fascinating personal and family portrait, it is also an invaluable contribution to the narrative of the Palestinian experience and the development of an Arab-American consciousness.
Abinader, Elmaz. Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991). A loving look back to the immigrant experience in 1916-20 and the family’s life in Lebanon and the U.S. The story of three generations based on diaries, letters, interviews.
Abourezk, James. Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1989). From his early years as the son of a Lebanese immigrant to his Senate career; a champion of American Indian self-determination, supporter of a Palestinian state, critic of PAC money, defender of small farmers, and founder of ADC.
Abraham, Sameer and Abraham, Nabeel, eds. The Arab World and Arab-Americans: Understanding a Neglected Minority (Detroit: Wayne State University, Center for Urban Studies, 1981). Articles include a survey of the peoples and cultures of the Arab world, Arab American identity, stereotyping and education, multicultural and bilingual education, and approaches to teaching about the Arab world.
Abraham, Sameer and Abraham, Nabeel, eds. Arabs in the New World: Studies on Arab-American Communities (Detroit: Wayne State University, Center for Urban Studies, 1983). Articles address immigration patterns, residential settlements, occupations, religious institutions, assimilation and acculturation of Arab Christians and Muslims. Case studies cover Arab American communities in Detroit — Yemenis, Iraqi Chaldeans, Lebanese Maronites and working class Muslims in the Southend neighborhood. Has useful bibliographies.
Abu-Laban, Baha, and Zeadey, Faith T., eds. Arabs in America: Myths and Realities (Wilmette, IL: Medina University Press International, 1975). Articles on the Arab image in the mass media, the institutional bases of stereotypes (Orientalism, textbooks, church school curricula, fundamentalist Christianity), the question of Palestine, Arab American auto workers in Detroit and Yemeni migrant workers in California.
Abu-Laban, Baha & Suleiman, Michael W., eds. Arab-Americans: Continuity and Change. Arab Studies Quarterly 11, nos. 2-3 (Spring, Summer 1989). 20 multidisciplinary essays on Arab American identity, art and politics.
Adeed, Patty & Smith, G. Pritchy. “Arab Americans: Concepts and Materials” in Teaching Strategies for Ethnic Studies (6th edition), James A. Banks, ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997). 22-page article surveys three waves of immigration, discusses Arab culture and values.
Ashabranner, Brent, An Ancient Heritage: The Arab American Minority (NY: HarperCollins, 1991). For teens. Based on personal interviews with Arab Americans, many of them ADC members. Covers Arab American history, culture, values. Abundant photographs.
Aswad, Barbara C., ed. Arabic Speaking Communities in American Cities (New York: Center for Migration Studies and the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 1974). Articles cover Arab immigrants in Edmonton, Alberta, and Dearborn, Michigan; immigrants from Ramallah; Maronites in Detroit; Muslims in the Southend neighborhood of Dearborn; "Syrian" Americans; and bilingual children. Bibliographies.

Aswad, Barbara C. and Bilge, Barbara, eds. Family and Gender Among American Muslims: Issues Facing Middle Eastern Immigrants and Their Children. (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1997). Arab, Turkish, Iranian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants. Social and historical analysis of the Muslim immigration.
Christison, Kathleen. “The American Experience: Palestinians in the U.S.” Journal of Palestine Studies 18, no. 4 (Summer 1989).
Dwairy, Marwan. Cross-Cultural Counseling: The Arab-Palestinian Case (New York: The Haworth Press, 1998). Outlines Arab-Palestinian culture, psychological aspects, socialization personality, cultural attitudes toward mental health, and crosscultural issues in therapy.
Gibran, Jean and Gibran, Khalil. Khalil Gibran: His Life and World.
Haddad, Yvonne Y. “A Century of Islam in America” (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1986). 13-page survey of native born and immigrant Muslims in the U.S., including 2-page bibliography.
The Muslims of America. (1991).
Haddad, Yvonne and Smith, Jane. Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: State University of New York, 1994). 22 articles on religion, immigrant communities, and the sociology of Islam and Muslims. Covers Lebanese, Yemenis, Iranians, Turks, and African Americans in 13 cities; topics include the role of women, minority status, identity maintenance.
Hagopian, Elaine C. and Paden, Ann, eds. The Arab-Americans: Studies in Assimilation (Wilmette, IL: Medina University Press International, 1969). Includes discussion of the absence of political organization among earlier generations of Arab Americans and the greater politicization among more recent generations, who see no contradiction between American identity and serious concern for their families’ homelands.
Hooglund, Eric J., ed., Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States Before 1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987). Essays provide an overview of Arab immigration, Arab community studies in Birmingham, Boston, El Paso and Maine, and biographical studies on Philip Hitti, Khalil Gibran and Gregory Orfalea.
Joseph, Larry. “Tale of Two Waves: The Arab-Americans of Brooklyn.” (Brooklyn Bridge, July 1997).
Kadi, Joanna, ed. Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists (Boston: South End Press, 1994). Essays and poems by 40 women, exploring issues of family, ethnicity, culture, politics and individuality. Explores both the joy and the pain in the Arab heritage; being Arab in America, being American in the Arab world. The effect of Middle East political conflicts on personal relationships in the U.S. The personal experience of discrimination. Challenges stereotyped perceptions of the relationships of Arab and Arab American women and men. Many of the essays are autobiographical, insightful, and eloquent.
Kayal, Philip M. An Arab-American Bibliographic Guide (Association of Arab-American University Graduates, 1985). 40 page listing of books, articles, periodicals, reference works, and unpublished materials.
McCarus, Ernest, ed. The Development of Arab-American Identity (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994). Essays on dilemmas of ethnic groups, early immigrants, Arab Christian and Muslim communities, issues of identity and the Arab image, and anti-Arab racism.
Majaj, Lisa Suhair. “Two Worlds: Arab-American Writing” Forkroads (Spring, 1996). Recounts the personal meaning of her discovery of Arab American literature and how it enhanced her own sense of ethnic identity. The 17-page discussion ranges from early 20th century writers to the expanding body of self-aware Arab American literature today.
Marston, Elsa. The Lebanese in America (Lerner Books, 1987). For young people.
Mehde, Beverlee T., ed. The Arabs in America, 1492-1977: A Chronology and Fact Book (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1978). Discusses prominent Arab Americans and notable events, religious and social organizations. Has relevant documents.
Naff, Alixa. The Arab-Americans New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Children’s book for grades 5-8, 110 pps. Early immigrants from Syria-Lebanon beginning in the 19th century, the process of assimilation, post-WWII immigrants from across the Arab world, the current resurgence of ethnic awareness.
Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985). Early immigrants before World War I; thoroughly explores their experience as cross-country peddlers, their business and social ties and their rapid assimilation and transformation into Syrian Americans.
Orfalea, Gregory. Before the Flames: A Quest for the History of Arab-Americans (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988). 100 years of Arab American history through both analysis and anecdotes, archival research and dozens of interviews across the country. A colorful, readable, insightful discussion. Has personal stories of Arab Americans in 20 cities, such as Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Vicksburg, Cedar Rapids, North Dakota, Texas and California, including the story of Orfalea’s own family and his visit to his grandfather’s village in Syria. Has useful bibliography.
Pulcini, Theodore. “Trends in Research on Arab Americans” Journal of American Ethnic History 12, no. 4 (Summer 1993). Review of the literature on the rise of Arab American ethnic identity.
Schefelman, Janice Jordan. A Peddler’s Dream Illus. Tom Shefelman. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992). A young Lebanese American man overcomes many hardships as he travels the countryside by foot to seek his fortune. He eventually becomes owner of a large store and is able to provide a secure life for his family. This novel portrays the experience of many Arab immigrants in the 19th century.
Shain, Yossi. “Arab Americans at a Crossroads” Journal of Palestine Studies XXV, no. 3 (Spring 1996). The various political strategies of Arab American organizations for influencing U.S. Middle East policy. See footnotes for other articles on Arab American political activism.
Shakir, Evelyn. “Arab-American Literature” in New Immigrant Literatures in the United States, edited by Alpana Sharma Knippling (Green Press, 1996).
Shakir, Evelyn. Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States (Praeger, 1997). From Christian peasant immigrants of the late 19th century to their assimilated granddaughters, rediscovering their ethnic heritage and fighting today’s political battles, and the recent, mostly Muslim, immigrants. Corrects stereotypes of Arab women as passive and downtrodden; presents a diversity of articulate and spirited women in a complex cultural situation. Based on personal interviews, census records and club minutes.
Suleiman, Michael. “The Arab Community in the United States: A Comparison of Lebanese and Non-Lebanese” in The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration, edited by Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi (London, I. B. Tauris, 1992).
“The Arab-American Left” in The Immigrant Left, edited by Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996).
Taking Root, Bearing Fruit: The Arab-American Experience (Washington, DC: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 1984). Oral history of Arab American communities: North Dakota, Vicksburg, New Castle, Flint, and Providence. Filled with anecdotes and the story of the voyage of one young immigrant at the turn of the century.
Taking Root Vol. II. (Washington, DC: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 1985). Oral history of Arab American communities: Allentown, Birmingham, Boston, Brooklyn, Detroit, Jacksonville, Portland, San Francisco, Utica, Worcester, MA. Yemeni farmworkers.
Younis, Adele L.; Philip M. Kayal, ed. The Coming of the Arabic-Speaking People to the United States (Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies, 1995). A study of Lebanese and Syrian immigration to the U.S. and the life and culture of the early immigrant community. Explores why they came, the image of American in the Near East, and the role of missionaries and other Americans in Ottoman Syria.
Zogby, John. Arab America today: A Demographic Profile of Arab Americans (Washington, DC: Arab American Institute, 1990). 42 page booklet. Analysis of data from the 1990 Census, including settlement patterns, family and individual characteristics, education, occupation, income, regional variations, and immigration during the 1980s.
ADC Times (Washington, DC 202-244-2990). ADC bimonthly newsletter covering current ADC campaigns and Arab American issues. Goes primarily to ADC members.
Al-Hewar Magazine (Vienna, VA: 703-281-6277;; Bimonthly magazine, covering Arab American issues and Arab culture, religion, politics and civilization.
Al-Jadid: A Record of Arab Culture and Arts (Los Angeles: 213-957-1291). Quarterly newspaper covering Arab and Arab American cultural issues.
Al-Nashra (Alexandria, VA: Arab Media House; 703-551-2071). Monthly newspaper covering Arab American and Arab world issues.
The Arab American News (Dearborn, MI: 313-582-4888). Weekly bilingual newspaper covering Arab American and Arab world news.
Beirut Times (Los Angeles; 213-469-4354). Weekly bilingual newspaper covering Arab American and Arab world news.
The News Circle (Glendale, CA; 818-507-0333). Monthly magazine covering Arab American and Arab world issues.
“Arab Americans.” Video, 30 min., 4th-10th grade. Examines Arab American immigration. (Available from AWAIR, 510-704-0517).
“Arabs in America.” Video 28 min. (Wolf and Friedlander, Center for Near East Studies, UCLA, 1981). Arab immigration since the 19th century, problems and adjustments, old photos, interviews, special focus on Michigan and Illinois. (Available from AWAIR).

“Benaat Chicago (Daughters of Chicago): Growing up Arab and Female in Chicago.” Video 30 min. 1996 (Jennifer Bing-Canar, Mary Zerkel, American Friends Service Committee, Chicago). Mothers and daughters on Chicago’s southwest side, intergenerational issues, stereotypes and racism toward Arabs and Arab women, pride in their cultural heritage. (AFSC, 312-427-2533).  

“Palestinian Portraits.” Video, 22 min. (Simone de Bagno, United Nations) Palestinian Americans discuss their deep-rooted identification with the culture, history, land and future of Palestine. (Available from AWAIR  

Tahrir Radio Show: WBAI 99.5 in New York City. Live-streamed on the Internet at <> Covers Arab American, Arab, Muslim and Middle East issues and culture. Hosted by Barbara Nimri Aziz. <Http://>

“Tales from Arab Detroit.” Video, 45 min. 1995. (Joan Mandell, Olive Branch Publications). American-born children of Arab immigrants and their parents trying to pass on cherished traditions and language in a world of McDonalds and MTV.. Poetry, song, dance, and everyday life. Traditional storytelling and the new stories being told as they are lived.. (ACCESS, 313-842-7010).

Arab American Almanac, Joseph Haiek, publisher. (Glendale, CA: News Circle Publishing House, 1992). 448 page book listing Arab American organizations, press and media, religious institutions, leaders. 100 pages on Arab civilization (math, science, philosophy, language, music, poetry and art) and Arab American literary figures (Gibran, Naimy, Rihani, Hitti, Madey). Also has information on each Arab country and on Arab American organizations in each state.     

The Arab-American Directory (Arlington, VA: Arab Media House, 1995-96). Lists information on each Arab country, Arab ambassadors-embassies-consulates-UN missions, notable Arab Americans, Arab American organizations, businesses, Arab culture. Published annually.
Arabic Business Directory (Falls Church, VA: Arabian Advertising Agency). National listings of businesses, organizations, etc. Published annually.
Arabic Yellow Pages (Playa Del Rey, CA: ATW, Inc.) National 488 page directory of businesses, organizations, etc. Published annually.
Aramco World Magazine. March-April 1975/Nov.-Dec. 1976/Sept.-Oct.1986 issues on Arab Americans. Photos. July-August 1990 – Arab American poets.
 "Living Memories: How to Do an Oral History" (Washington, DC: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 1985). Booklet, 16 pp.
National Museum of American History, Naff Arab-American Collection (1880-to date). Articles and books; taped life histories of 1st and 2nd generation Arab Americans; personal, family and organization documents; newspapers, magazines and newsletters; photos, music and artifacts.
William Abdallah Library newsletter. Brief current information and historical materials. (55 Emmonsdale Rd., W. Roxbury, MA 02132).
1990 Census. “Profiles of Selected Arab Ancestry Groups” (Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Ethnic and Hispanic Branch). Socio-economic data on Armenian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian Americans. Document CPH-L-149. (Also: Document CPH-L-89. Lists ancestry and country of origin for population in each state.)

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