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Diaspora 9:1 2000 Cultural Interventions: Arab American Aesthetics between the Transnational and the Ethnic1 Sally Howell University of Michigan [Black American writers in Europe] begin as Afro-Americans, but they are changed into something else which evades that label. Whether their experience ofexile is enforced or chosen, temporary or . . . permanent, time and again they articulate their desire to escape the bonds ofethnicity, national identification, and even "race" itself. Some speak ...in terms ofthe rebirth that Europe offers. Whether or not they dissolve their Afro-American sensibility into an explicitly pan-Africanist discourse orpolitical commitment, their relationship to the land of their birth and the ethnic political constituency is absolutely transformed. The specificity of the black Atlantic can be defined on one level through this desire to transcend both the structures of the nation-state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. —Paul Gilroy, "Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism" Diasporic conjunctures invite a reconception—both theoretical and political—offamiliar notions of ethnicity and identity. Unresolved historical dialogues between continuity and disruption, essence and positionality, homogeneity and differences (cross-cutting "us" and "them") characterize diasporic articulations. Such cultures of displacement and transplantation are inseparable from specific, often violent, histories of economic, political, and cultural interaction— histories that generate what might be called discrepant cosmopolitanisms . —James Clifford, Routes Much of contemporary writing on diaspora stresses, as Gilroy and Clifford do, the inadequacies of national and ethnic identities. As people move (and are moved) across the globe, they transform local identities into new and hybrid forms. Sometimes, people in motion are reborn. They look back on the "land oftheir [first] birth" with a sense of relief—some have escaped, after all—or with pangs ofnostalgia for a time and place that no longer exist. Whether they are "Afro-Americans" traveling to Europe (as in Gilroy's example) or Arab refugees arriving in Detroit, they cannot avoid bringing "the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity" with them. 59 Diaspora 9:1 2000 What is more, as they settle into new nation-states, they must reimagine themselves in unfamiliar contexts ofethnicity and identity. In my work among Arab immigrants and their descendants in Detroit , I have encountered many "discrepant cosmopolitanisms" and, just as often, discrepant localisms. Each interacts with its alternatives ; each, in its way, feeds into the complex process by which Arabs resist, create, represent, transcend, and fall victim to ethnic identity in America. The critical discourse of cultural studies has focused most of its attention on popular, mass-market varieties of communication and collective representation. Against this backdrop, Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer contend that "the black subject is positioned as a mouthpiece ... for an entire social category" (454). Furthermore, when blacks are framed by "the monologic terms of the 'majority discourse,'" they are cast back to the margins, consigned to a black, stereotyped sameness. Arab Americans have only recently begun to experience this heavy weight of representation. Before the late 1980s, it was virtually impossible to find Arab American artists featured in American mainstream media; those who did appear seldom revealed their Arab backgrounds. Diana Abu-Jaber, whose 1993 novel Arabian Jazz received positive reviews in the mainstream press—but a hostile reception among many Arab American readers—writes, "I think the Arab community [in America] is facing the crisis of being represented. There's always the stereotype, the sort of American cliché [of Arabs], and you can shrug that off, but when someone closer to home tries to do a larger, honest portrayal, that's something very new. It's almost a kind of traumatic event" (Evans 42). Arabs in America feel bruised by a media that seems interested only in portraying them as terrorists, oil sheiks, sex-pots, or lechers.2 Arabs are by now so accustomed to negative representations that, unlike most ethnic groups in America, they are likely to resist any public representation at all. Arabs in Detroit, like other marginal, strangely marked communities , have ways of constructing individual and group identities that lie beyond mainstream television channels, art galleries, and publishing houses. There is a difference between representations produced for the mainstream and those produced for local, in-group consumption. The latter can be political, folkloric...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-1568
Print ISSN
1044-2057
Pages
pp. 59-82
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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