Betwixt & Between

Photo Credit: Muhammad Saleh

All too often, Arabs and Muslims of the West describe their lives as experiences of being “caught between worlds.” The ability to feel at home escapes many of us as we try to reconcile and forge new identities across time and space. For many, if not most, trying to figure out “who we are” is a taxing process that requires us to answer to two seemingly antagonizing worlds. The social stigmas of our cultures hold strong from within, while xenophobia and Islamoracism rage on outside.

Well known scholar and father of postcolonial studies, Edward W. Said (pronounced sa’eed), described his early life as a boy’s life lived “between worlds,” in Cairo and in Jerusalem, until he was a young man of twelve years. He would later move to the United States, which would further intensify the chasm he felt.

In 1935, Jerusalem was under British control during the days of the British Mandate for Palestine. In November of that year, Said was born to Wadir and Hilda Said, a Christian Palestinian couple. Said’s father would later become a U.S. citizen and serve in the U.S. Army during the First World War. Said himself would go on to become a prominent literary theoretician and founder of postcolonial studies. In 1978, he would publish a seminal work that would change history.

In 1947, Said enrolled in the Anglican St. George’s School in Jerusalem. Despite high intelligence and academic achievements, Said was a troublesome student and was expelled from Victoria College in 1951. He was sent from Egypt to the U.S., where he attended Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, an elite college-prep boarding-school. There, he endured a psychologically difficult year of social alienation. Nonetheless, Said excelled academically, and achieved the rank of either first (valedictorian) or second (salutatorian) in a class of 160 students.

He would later say that, in retrospect, his parents’ decision to send him so far from the Middle East was much influenced by “the prospects of deracinated [uprooted] people, like us, being so uncertain that it would be best to send me as far away as possible.” The realities of a wandering life—of interwoven cultures, of feeling out of place, and of being far from home—affected Said to the degree that, in adult life, the themes of dissonance continually arose in the academic, political, and intellectual works he wrote. For many Arabs and Muslims of the West, this theme remains as intensely important today as it was for Said then.

Said matured as an intellectual, earning his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from Princeton University in 1957 and 1960 respectively, followed by a Doctor of Philosophy in English literature from Harvard University in 1964. In 1963, he joined Columbia University, as a member of the English and Comparative Literature faculties, where he taught and worked until his death in 2003. Despite his many intellectual achievements, Said’s battle with his identity as it related to language continued throughout his adult life.

Said’s publication of Orientalism in 1978 was a watershed moment for the Arab global community, for it was the first critical analysis of the culturally inaccurate representations that formed the bases of the Western study of the Eastern world.

“Orientalism,” he proved, is a way of perceiving that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. 

While the Western narrative on Islam works around the clock to convince the world that Arabs and Muslims are inherently dangerous and imminent threats to democracy, many of us are at a loss for how to respond. The orientalist, Islamoracist narrative has intensified such that most Arabs and Muslims in the West either pander to the hate-filled rhetoric, or they have been silenced altogether.

The alienating sense that one is at home neither in the West, nor in one’s own homeland exacerbates the already difficult process of self-actualization. Living betwixt and between worlds, Arabs and Muslims of the West face unique sets of challenges, most of which threaten their psycho-social health and wellbeing. As a result of exile, xenophobia and social stigmas, we are a highly fragmented and stagnant community in desperate need of hope and change. 

 

Our charge as #OneUmmah

Despite Said’s canonical research and reflections from his own life—all of which have remarkably illustrated the ways in which Western imperialism has and continues to dominate, misrepresent and harm Arabs—we continue to be subjects of orientalist ideology. Today, these misrepresentations have swelled to include the entire Muslim world. Arab and Muslim millennials are grappling with highly complex sets of issues, which not only threaten our psycho-social health and wellbeing, but also, our human and civil rights.

The political struggle that Arabs and Muslims face is a human rights issue with one common oppressor: white supremacy and imperialism. What unites Arabs of all faiths and Muslims of all ethnicities is not that we are “essentially” one and the same. Rather, it is the imperialist force that continues to target people who are, or who may look Arab and/or Muslim, that makes us a collective group. At this hour, orientalism and the essentialization of our diverse community has bred widespread ignorance, fear, and hatred of Arabs and Muslims, placing our human rights under severe threat.

While there is no doubt that policies and structures are working against our sovereignty and livelihood, we are struggling to safeguard our human rights and civil liberties in large part due to the divisions within our own community. In simpler terms: we’re too busy fighting each other. We’re foolishly distracted, investing our energy in dogmatic debates while bombs are being dropped on us (literally and figuratively).

It is our responsibility to see clearly and dodge resiliently the distractions of our differences, differences which our common oppressor recognizes and exploits. There is a space and a way for us to address our differences; to engage in critical discourse on fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. But, we can no longer afford to disengage and disconnect due to difference.

How do we unite at this urgent time and overlook the divisions that exist between us? How do we prevent our common oppressor from exploiting and capitalizing on our differences?

This is our charge. This is the challenge we have courageously taken on at The Between Arabs Project.