Suleiman: Arabs in America
There is much reason to be thankful for Michael Suleiman's important, challenging collection of essays, Arabs in America. The history, sociology, politics, and literature of Arab Americans--once academic anathema--comprise several anthologies and two single author books in recent years. Some of these collections are filled with sociological jargon and the tedious, often self-evident conclusions that pervade the social sciences. With respect to the subject of Arabs in Detroit, the city containing the largest number (200,000) of Arab Americans in the United States, something like supersaturation has occurred. Three contributors here, for example, deal with Detroit. However, there is much new and compelling material in this anthology, particularly in its second half, from which to comb and learn.
The book is comprised of six parts: profiles on specific communities; Arabs and the American legal system; youth and the family; health and welfare issues; political activism; and Arab American identity negotiations. (The identity section at the end could have been switched with the more pedestrian communities section at the beginning to profit.)
One of the most original pieces in the collection is Suad Joseph's "Against the Grain of the Nation--The Arab-." Undoubtedly the reader will squint at that dangling hyphen after "Arab," wondering if it is a typographical error. But there is method here; as Joseph puts it, "There is an enduring representation of 'Arab-' as not quite American--not quite free, not quite white, not quite male, not quite persons in the civil body of the nation" (p. 257).
If one is backward--Joseph finds that this is the overall impression of Arabs in U.S. culture--why should anyone pronounce his or her name correctly? How can one achieve self-determination if one is not, in some vital way, a self? Joseph takes on some of the more disturbing examples of this, such as the return of campaign checks given by Arab Americans to presidential and congressional campaigns, the hysteria over Iraq, and even a contingency plan to detain Arab Americans, in the event of war, at a camp in Oakdale, Louisiana. She also does a fair job of rebutting some of the more prevalent misconceptions about the veil, polygyny, and clitoridectomy in the Arab world. But her conclusion is strikingly, if awkwardly, current: "The prospects are better now than they were before 1967, but as President Clinton's silence or reticence to act on Israel's invasion of Lebanon in April of 1996 or the October 1996 uprising in Palestine and his propensity to bomb and kill Iraqis; and as the news blackout on the presidential candidacy of Ralph Nader all indicate, the hyphen is still open" (p. 268).
There are other echoes of this theme in Helen Hatab Samhan's interesting and thorough "Not Quite White: Race Classification and the Arab American Experience." Samhan also tackles the ongoing debate over whether or not Arab Americans should seek special favors under the affirmative action laws. (I, for one, am against this because with the second largest rate of self-employment in the nation and a fairly high per capita income, it is the last thing Arab Americans need, and I always have felt that any economic or educational perks in this society should be divided up on the basis of economic need, not race.)
For those who might think Arab Americans came to the political table concerning violence in the Middle East only since 1967, Lawrence Davidson has some surprises. In his fascinating "Debating Palestine: Arab American Challenges to Zionism, 1917-1932," we learn that the Palestine Antizionism Society, as early as 1917, staged a demonstration of 500 in Brooklyn against the Balfour Declaration, warning that "flooding the country against its natural capacities (would) force an emigration of the rightful inhabitants" (p. 230).
Although Therese Saliba ("Resisting Invisibility: Arab Americans in Academia and Activism") is not strictly accurate in asserting that Arab Americans "remain absent from multicultural histories of America" [see, for example, Visions of America (Persea Books), American Mosaic (Houghton Mifflin), and New Worlds of Literature (W. W. Norton)], she is correct about the absence of this community in ethnic studies programs (p. 307). I know of no Arab American literature or Arab American history courses anywhere in the United States, and, although I have serious reservations about racial compartmentalization in the teaching of our literature and history, the omission is glaring. At the same time, Lisa Suhair Majaj gives us an insightful look at the work of Naomi Shihab Nye and David Williams "in relation not only to group identity and concerns, but also to the global multiculture" (p. 320).
From a close inspection of antiterrorism law to a look at Arab American health (high rates of hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes), the Suleiman anthology provides new prisms through which to see the Arab American experience. Sometimes the lessons are analogical. For example, the essays by Sharon and Baha Abu-Laban on Canadian adolescents presenting "the best of times, the worst of times" (as do most adolescents of any ethnic stripe) are revealing, although more so of Muslim children of immigrants, who formed the majority of their sample group. Their data shows that 59 percent of young males look "unfavorably" on a young Arab Canadian woman going out on dates and 72 percent frown on marrying outside the community (pp. 120-22). These predictable, Old World attitudes disappear in a generation or two, as my third-generation sons and their Irish-American mother would quickly attest. However, it is yet to be determined how much intermarriage has occurred among Arab Americans as a whole--the future of the community's identity, frankly, lies in that phenomenon, as it does for every other ethnic group entering the inevitably colder, broader pool of America.
No one has a better grasp of the occasionally odd, even bizarre experience of Americans of Arab extraction than Michael Suleiman. His generous gathering of recent scholarship on this community puts cogent facts and ideas, if not face, to name and is especially informative for those who know little about Arabs in America.
Gregory Orfalea is the author of several books, the latest of which, Messenger of the Lost Batallion, concerns his father in WWII.