- Everyday ArabnessThe Poethics of Arab Canadian Literature and Film
North America is seemingly open terrain. Melting pot and multiculturalism have been articulated as cultural themes to which anyone can contribute. But this is theory not practice.—Marwan Hassan, 2002
The everyday is platitude … but this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived—in the moment when, lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity.—Maurice Blanchot, 1987 [End Page 21]
Signifying Terror Marks: Arar and the Masks of Multiculturalism
On November 4, 2003, less than a month after his release from prison in Syria, Maher Arar1 read a statement in Ottawa. The statement starts in a way that I find symptomatic of the signifying burden of being (identifiable as) Arab, and/or Muslim, particularly in the alleged climate of American tragic exceptionality following the airborne attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia on September 11, 2001. Arar commences his statement as follows:
I am here today to tell the people of Canada what has happened to me.
There have been many allegations made about me in the media, all of them by people who refuse to be named or come forward. So before I tell you who I am and what happened to me, I will tell you who I am not.
I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of al-Qaeda and I do not know any one who belongs to this group(2003; emphasis added).
The emphatic and strenuous repetition of the negative marker "not" in Arar's declarative sentences is evocative not only of the predicament of precarious transpicuity (i.e., of Arar's attenuated poetics of disidentification with the alleged terrorist identifications foisted on him), but also, and simultaneously, of a process of self-identification gone awry, throttled if not underwritten altogether by the hallucinatory insinuations of the negative markers that remain indispensable to its exoneration and legitimation. In other words, the negative marker "not" is here also the marker of an identity-in-negation, a hijacked identity—really, an identity condemned to condemn not only what it has come to connote but also, more subtly and systematically, the very experiential content it would have initially wanted to denote, the very fact of being Arab/Muslim (and also Sunni Muslim if we are to abide by the largely motivated Manichean fanaticisms of our historical moment). Perhaps the psychic devastations of such an ambivalent formula of identification can neither be overstated nor overcome, but the superimposed sociopolitical blackmail of which it is a symptom—namely, the incriminating [End Page 22] presumption that all Arabs/Muslims are terrorists or al-Qaeda conscripts until proven otherwise2—needs to be brought under critical scrutiny, exposed, and contested.
In what follows, I shall analyze and theorize the ways in which Arab Canadian aesthetes and littérateurs have grappled with the subtly but largely incriminating discourses about Arabs that have been circulating with variable intensities since the first large wave of new Arab immigrants set foot in Canada (in the late 1960s and early 70s), and have gained momentum during the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) and in the wake of the Gulf War (1990–1991) until they radically intensified in the aftermath of 9/11. Given that Canada's immigration policy vis-à-vis incoming and exiting immigrants/ permanent residents recently shifted from a multiculturalist purview of selective and calculated openness into a frantic policy of preemption and retrospective deportation in the name of national security, Arab Canadians, I argue, found no viable alternative of voicing their growing discontent but to confront the free-floating and intransigent mainstream discourses of Arabness with the individual and lived experiences of everyday Arabs and/or Arab everydayness.
As Marwan Hassan straightforwardly points out in the above epigraph (2002, 160), the multiculturalist agenda of Canada simply falls short of delivering or acting on the promises spelled out in the Multiculturalism Policy adopted in 1971 and later enforced by the Multiculturalism Act of 1988.3 Initially, the 1910 Immigration Act unabashedly prohibited...