- On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings by Ella Shohat
Pluto Press, 2017, xv + 464 pp. ISBN 978-0745399508, $115.00 hardcover; ISBN 978-0745399492, $30.00 paperback.
At first glance, renowned cultural critic Ella Shohat's recent collection, spanning thirty years of scholarship and activism, does not appear to be a work of life writing. A visionary contribution to (multi)cultural studies, it ranges across disciplines (history, film, literature, sociology, media), ethnicities (Arab, European, Asian), locations (Israel/Palestine, Iraq, the US, Brazil), and genres (scholarly articles, personal essays, interviews, speeches) to offer helpful new ways of thinking about identity, politics, and culture in the Middle East and beyond. Yet, fundamentally, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements is also a profound work of radical life writing, grounded in an individual life and directly addressing other lives, emerging from and remaining true to the complexities and contradictions of intensely lived experience.
"In my writings, I have often felt a survivor's desire to tell again and again about the 'hidden injuries' of translocated class, race, gender, and sexuality" (347), Shohat confesses. Middle East Monitor recognized this aspect of On the Arab-Jew [End Page 455] when it named the book winner of the 2017 Palestine Books Award for Memoir. Shohat herself describes her work as a "kind of portable shrine" to "taboo memories, . . . a monument to my parents and grandparents who have lived in between hostile zones, a fragmented testimony not simply to the raw facts, but also to the labyrinthine intricacies of emotions" (128). Born in Israel/Palestine to displaced Iraqi Jews, Shohat carries within herself the trauma of her family's "ruptured and dislocated history" (78), a consequence of "rival essentialist forms of nationalism" (107). "In many ways I think I lived and internalized my parents' and grandparents' pain," she writes, "to an extent, I believe that my writing about the subject was also a mode of translation: translating their pain into words; giving voice to their sense of loss" (373).
Shohat's own experience of living under Zionism was one of "profound and visceral schizophrenia" (66). As a child, she shuttled between her family's privately Arab world and the public world of official Israeli (Jewish) culture, ashamed of Arabic, uncomfortable in Hebrew, and discovering in English "a kind of free zone immune to those painful conflicts of Hebrew and Arabic" (127). Throughout her work, Shohat insists on "reclaiming the part of my identity and history that was denied me: my Arabness" (375). She proudly deploys the term "Arab-Jew," challenging the assumption that it is an oxymoron and inserting the hyphen between "Arab" and "Jew" in order to make the case for "for re-membering a world at once culturally Arab and religiously Jewish" (2). Remembering the links between Arab and Jew also offers a palimpsest and vision for the future, suggesting "potentialities" beyond contemporary "impasses" (375).
As she eloquently "translates" her own and her family's experiences, Shohat also moves outward to analyze the political/cultural conditions that generated those experiences. I can think of only two other writers whose cultural/political analyses are so explicitly and productively rooted in their lives: Edward Said and Frantz Fanon, both "organic intellectuals" (157) who inspired and served as models for Shohat, and whom she honors in this collection that traces her own intellectual and personal genealogy.
The collection consists of four sections: (1) The Question of the Arab-Jew; (2) Between Palestine and Israel; (3) Cultural Politics of the Middle East; and (4) Muslims, Jews, and Diasporic Readings. In each section Shohat presents exemplars of her prolific work in chronological order, allowing us to trace the evolution of her thought. Readers will find here canonical, groundbreaking essays, such as "Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims" and "Dislocated Identities: Reflections of an Arab Jew," along with occasional pieces, including remarks presented in 2001 at New York University, "Reflections on September 11," and a satellite broadcast conversation conducted in 2009 by Rasha Salti and Layla Al-Zubaidi about a showing in Beirut of...