- Arab American Citizenship in Crisis: Destabilizing Representations of Arabs and Muslims in the US after 9/11
In the short story “Alone and All Together” by Lebanese American writer Joseph Geha, the teenage protagonist Libby (an Americanized version of the Arabic name Labibeh) is watching the events of September 11 unfold on TV in her suburban Chicago home while talking on the phone with her sister Sally (originally Salma) in New York. Distraught by the “strip at the bottom of the screen” indicating “that everything points to the hijackers being Middle Eastern extremists,” Libby declares: “I just wish they wouldn’t say it’s us . . . until they’re, like, sure.” On hearing this, Sally fires back: “Us? . . . What us? . . . We were born here, and so were Mom and Dad, right here in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. . . . What I want to know . . . is when ‘us’ stops meaning ibn Arab [son of Arabs] and starts meaning American!” (53). More than merely pointing to some of the debates within Arab American communities pertaining to the adoption of the Arab American label,1 Sally’s and Libby’s respective espousal and disavowal of a Middle Eastern, or more specifically, Arab identity become symptomatic of a divisive rhetoric that quickly dominated [End Page 532] post-9/11 national discourse. This rhetoric separates the American from the un-American, the patriotic from the unpatriotic, with Arabs and Muslims being squarely cast in the latter category.2
This essay focuses on some Arab American fictional texts that respond to the post-9/11 political and social terrain in the US by capturing and challenging homogenized depictions of Arab Americans, forging in the process revisionary spaces that stand against and redefine exclusionary conceptualizations of US citizenship. In addition to problematizing simplistic types of post-9/11 patriotism that demand a unilateral type of national identity, the creation of these revisionary spaces responds to racial stereotyping, blanket labeling, and discriminatory profiling by insisting on complex representations of Arab Americans.3 The focus on literary texts, specifically fiction, is meant to highlight the role of minoritarian artistic production in shaping discussions of national belonging in the US, particularly following such an intense and traumatic crisis in the history of the nation as the 9/11 attacks.4
The attacks of 9/11, however, do not mark the first or single event that fomented the reductive perception of Arab Americans in the US. They are in fact a recent installment in a long history of national and international crises and conflicts that have repeatedly and consistently underlined the provisional nature of US belonging for Arab Americans. These crises include the Six-Day War in 1967, the 1973 oil embargo, the first Gulf War, and the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center. Such crises position the formation and development of Arab American ethnic and diasporic identities within well-cemented, racialized structures that hold the transnational political relations between the US and the Arab world at their center, relations that are dominated by US political and military hegemony. The intense US domestic and foreign policy changes and the security measures put into place in the months and years after September 11 (including, for instance, the USA PATRIOT Act, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security),5 as well as the extreme US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, make evident that political rather than so-called civilizational or cultural factors inform demonizing depictions of Arab identities, as they exist in the Arab world as well as in the US.6 Such political factors render 9/11, as pointed out by Nadine Naber and others, “a turning point, as opposed to the starting point, of histories of anti-Arab racism in the United States . . . in that representations of ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ have increasingly replaced other representations (that is, the rich Arab oil sheikh and belly-dancing harem girls) and have become more fervently deployed in anti-Arab state policies and everyday patterns [End Page 533] of engagement than ever before” (“Introduction” 4). But more than being a turning point, and notwithstanding obvious continuities in anti-Arab forms of...