Although I’ve had a copy of Nadine Naber’s book, Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism almost since it first came out in 2012, I finally got to crack it open and read it in the first half of this summer. And I’m so glad I did.
Naber’s interrogation and extrapolation of Arab American lives and activism in the Bay Area, particularly through Leftist Arab organizing, is a testimony in research that is done ‘with’ rather than ‘on’ or ‘for’ minoritized populations. As Naber herself puts it in the acknowledgements section, “[t]his book was born collectively, through ongoing relations with friends, colleagues, and activists” (p. vii). Her immersion in movement work flies in the face of positivist methodological leanings that not only purport that research should only be done from an objective outsider standpoint, but that research can even be objective. In fact, the acknowledgements section of this book is itself a valuable contribution, showcasing in less than three pages how years of personal, political, and academic relationships and communities inform Naber’s worldview, and are thus ultimately present in the research, as well as writing process. I read those three pages as a challenge, whether intended or not, to researchers and writers to deeply reflect on and be actively aware of as much as possible of what we are steeped in well-before before our pens hit paper – or fingers hit keyboard, etc.
In Arab America, Naber weaves in historical migration patterns to situate the context within which her ethnographic study was conducted. What I particularly appreciated about the way in which she did this was that “history” was not just something that was presented early in the book as something that happened before the study, but rather as a continuously unfolding process that dynamically interacts with the Arab and Arab American community in the Bay area at the time of her study, influencing waves of political involvement and meanings of communal and individual identity. In a way, she amplified what she had done previously with herself in the book’s acknowledgements pages, showcasing the ways in which geopolitics plays out to influence meaning, bringing the global into the local. From thereon, Naber expertly and continuously destabilizes static and singular notions of “culture” and “Arabness.” By discussing and deconstructing the politics of cultural authenticity, she breaks apart the binary of culture as an “ahistorical and unchanging” (p. 249) entity that gets passed on from one generation to the next, and political discourse as something that is in constant disarray.
Told mostly through the narratives of young adults involved in the Leftist Arab Movement, and at times more specifically through the perspectives of six women (some of whom Naber also worked with through the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association), she builds towards and proposes a diasporic Arab feminist critique. Naber contends that “[t]his approach has provided me with a resolution to the difficulties of critiquing issues such as patriarchy and the pressure for compulsory heterosexuality among Arab communities [which she had earlier presented as the challenges of airing ‘dirty laundry’ to a racist, Orientalist, and Islamophobic society] without reifying Orientalism” (p. 249). This critical approach is one that complexly interconnects realities of U.S. war, colonialism, and militarism, with immigration politics, and racial, gender, and queer justice struggles. Naber has gifted us with the worldmaking processes of her interlocutors (as she refers to the people she worked alongside with in the study) to provide us with counter-narratives towards the constructions of new possibilities of being.
That this book was not written with a higher education and student affairs audience specifically in mind, should by no means dissuade postsecondary educators from diving into it. Aside from the fact that many of Naber’s interlocutors were college students who were involved in campus and community activism and organizing, we have to dislodge ourselves from only being willing to listen when we are the primary intended audience. And it’s not just because students do not exist in a campus bubble uninterrupted by the rest of their lives, but also because institutions themselves do not exist in an apolitical vacuum, unencumbered by or with no influence over national and global discourse, surveillance, militarism, occupation, and migration patterns. This book exemplifies a multicultural queer and feminist intersectional analysis that is not watered down by attempts to categorize and violently administer identities (Spade, 2015), produced and reproduced for institutional and/or state purposes of dominance and docility.
Naber, N. (2012). Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism. New York, NY: NYU Press.
Spade, D. (2015). Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, & the Limits of the Law, 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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