- Response to Waïl Hassan
When I first read Waïl Hassan's paper on Ameen Rihani and the rise of the Arab-American novel, I was about to board an airplane returning to the US from Abu Dhabi. The business class lounge at Abu Dhabi international airport (especially at the liminal hour of midnight) was a perfect setting for thinking about the persistence of questions and central tropes that Hassan addresses. For, as starkly as anywhere in the region, this Emirate embodies a contemporary version of the issues and tensions that Hassan so ably traces for the emergence of Arab-American literature at the start of the twentieth century.
The city of Abu Dhabi confronts the visitor with these tensions visually and in the terms of capitalist consumption, with one of its ultramodern malls nearly abutting the old dhow fishing harbor. Such visual signals embody Abu Dhabi's (and Dubai's) attempts to become entrepôts of a new Middle East; combinations of pre-civil war Beirut, Las Vegas, and the Mid-America Mall; the crossroads of some old and persistent trade and migration routes, positioned not only on top of lakes of oil but also between the Indian subcontinent and the former Ottoman lands, between the Red and the Med.
Cultural translation is constantly evident there, bridging and colliding with traces of Orientalist presence. It was intriguing to find in Abu Dhabi's sparkling new cultural heritage center (adjacent to Abu Dhabi's only surviving building that is older than 50 years, the fort and former residence of the ruling family) an exhibit of Orientalist European painting with the Arab peninsular region as its subject. Entitled "Salute to the East," the presentation suggested that the exhibit organizers saw this as a straightforward, [End Page 276] transparent rendering of local scenes. What does it mean that this exhibition appears, seemingly uncontroversially and unproblematized, at the heart of Abu Dhabi's cultural establishment and adjacent to its one historical building? Does it suggest great cultural confidence, or does it name a troubling elision of historical realities, of the political and financial interests and ideological preoccupations that shaped Orientalist representations? (Perhaps the Emirates, having never been fully colonized, can accomplish this with greater psychological ease than would be true of other entities in the region, although the Emirates were "British" as the Trucial States.)
Of course, Abu Dhabi poses interesting questions of ethnicity, postcoloniality, subalternity, and power: there, "the native" is a tiny minority, whereas roughly 80% of the residents are Indians, Philippino/as, Chinese, and other Arabs (Palestinian, Egyptian, Sudanese), silent workers in terms of local cultural discourse. On the other hand, like early Arab-American writers, today's native Abu Dhabi elite is situating itself with respect to a hegemonic discourse—"powerful" then, as Hassan labels it, "hegemonic" now, though multiply contested. The local business, professional, and intellectual elite positions itself self-consciously in world culture, as cultural translators. If people in Abu Dhabi are still situating themselves in relation to Orientalist concepts, then like Rihani, Gibran, and others, they are doing so actively, within a web of agential relations, and yet in ways that may obscure and elide local questions of political and economic hierarchy. For cosmopolitan Arabs, the kinds of translational work that Hassan finds in Rihani's Book of Khalid (1911), the binarizing categorizations and the attempts at synthesis shaped partly by the troubling legacies of Orientalism, remain critical and are always in process.
Hassan's insistence on thinking about Arab cultural discourses through Arab-American Anglophone writing, from its inception over 100 years ago to the present, importantly enriches the study of Arab/Arabic cultural production in this century even as it speaks to the kinds of cultural translation in situ that Abu Dhabi's footprint manifests. As Arab societies contentiously blend the latest North American youth culture artifacts with postmodern representations of "Arab heritage" (as in the facades of many Abu Dhabi skyscrapers), and as Arab-American Anglophone writing surfaces with new density on the North American cultural scene, Hassan is delving into the history of that presence and its manifold impact. He opens to us a realm of texts drawing...