Identity is inherently performative, and the theaters of the Arab diaspora are just another testament to this truth. Our identities are performed for ourselves and for each other, in a handful of co-existing theaters, that narrate the story we tell ourselves concerning our Arab-ness and its authenticity. Some of us have corporate jobs and come home to rooms decorated and furnished with sentiments of Arab grandeur and charm. Others turn 18 and take mission trips back to our ancestral lands, but our missions are poorly defined and too often voyeuristic on local communities. Some shun any association with Arab culture for a set of reasons all anchored on inferiority, and absorb themselves into mainstream white culture. Conversely, some enter the industrial-complex of MENA work: think tanks, humanitarian aid, and journalism.
Most of us have felt stuck grasping for authenticity between the deeply racist West where we live and a Middle East where we are no longer locals. And our theaters are not constant or linear: each person has probably been a passive actor on stage before switching to a more deliberate narrative.
No doubt, non-Arab readers living in their own diasporas will relate to these realities of performance. But one aspect of Arab existence does make our diasporic identities worthy of a special, reserved critique: That we have seen and continue to see war.
There is a difference between seeing war and experiencing war. There are two realities for the Arab in MENA and the Arab in the West. And our privileges as Westerners need to be put in check.
The Arab in MENA can take a selfie with incendiary bombs falling in the background. Their schools are bombed, their soccer games end in mass funerals, hospitals are attacked, and one destroyed neighborhood in one country is often mistaken for another.
The Arab in the West sees the war on TV, and experiences ideological war at the grocery store when a random customer shouts at them “to go home.” I personally have a long list of memories like this growing up through the public school system in Sugar Land: Of teachers who refused to call on me in class for the year, teachers who stayed silent when I was publicly called a terrorist, teachers who refused to let me use class equipment, and teachers who advised me against wearing hijab. We all know it used to be very bad, and know that its gotten bad again, and yet…
Arabs in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya live in war and post-conflict zones. The West isn’t perfect, but it is a huge privilege not to live in a war zone.
Experiencing ideological war and experiencing physical war are two different things.
All of this brings me to the main point: That Arab Americans (and overlappingly, Muslims in the West who who engage in and comment on conflict countries in part because the majority of the population is Muslim) need to be mindful of the space we take up in conflict abroad.
All in the Diaspora wish to remain connected to the meta/physical “home.” But when “home” is experiencing war in different contexts (from the occupation of Palestine to 2003 Iraq, to Post 2011 Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, etc.), it requires that we take varying positions on each of those conflicts that are in favor of the safety of the local population and aligns with local narratives. By far the most disappointing offenders have been the Pro-Palestine activists and journalists in the West, who have been adopted into the Western Left and oppose any type of type of no-bombing zone in Syria. This same group often uses the conflict in Yemen to fit into its anti-US imperialism narrative, thereby dividing activists, consciously or unconsciously, along those communication lines. I am sure there there are other micro- and macro- incidents to critique through this lens. Bottom line: it is possible and ideal to be anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism (not just American imperialism), pro-revolution, and always willing to mobilize against a government bombing civilians, even when it’s not the US.
Practically, what does being mindful of Western Arab privilege look like?
Being mindful fundamentally means creating a community that includes MENA locals. Because we live in a world where the West dominates, native English speakers will always be at an advantage in every aspect: attention, access to opportunities, etc.. Read and listen to local writers and activists. Center their work, promote their work, and celebrate their work with your networks.
Being mindful looks like centering access from the non-Western Arab’s point of view. From their point of view, access to work in a conflict or post-conflict zone looks increasingly difficult. Civilians are often hired by INGOs at a much lower pay-rate their their Western counterparts, if at all. If you’re a civilian and you don’t know English, your options in life have been severely slashed as affluent Arabic-speaking countries are extremely reluctant to open their borders, much less hire, civilians from conflict zones. Access to education is also difficult: Students who want to continue their education will not only have to know English, but study, pay, and pass the TOEFL.
Remember that as people in the Diaspora, we don’t need to go to the front lines of war to be apart of “the story.” We can change our communities in the West to be more welcoming to asylees and refugees. A simple example: If displaced persons come to America, they’re going to be applying for jobs…but we all know that part of getting the job is knowing where jobs posted. Or knowing who posted it. Making connections with locals displaced from conflict and being interested and engaged in their success is a form of social justice.
Conversely, there are Arabs in the West who have reverse immigrated and invest their life’s work in supporting local populations. Respect to them, and anyone who invests themselves to support others: our lives are short, and the greatest meaning we can derive is through service.