Arab-American autobiography and the reinvention of identity: two Egyptian negotiations.
My story began in Egypt, continues in America. But how tell that story of disjunction, self-exile? In fragments, I think, in slips of memory, scraps of thought. In scenes and arguments of a life time, re-membered like the scattered bones of Osiris. Ihab Hassan And I am now at the end point of the story I set out to tell here. For thereafter my life becomes part of other stories, American stories. It becomes part of the story of feminism in America, the story of women in America, the story of women of color in America, the story of Arabs in America, the story of Muslims in America, and part of the story of America itself and of American lives in a world of dissolving boundaries and vanishing borders. Leila Ahmed
The question of autobiography as a genre with an ambivalent relationship to historical fact and narrative convention has preoccupied U.S. and French theorists since the early 1960s, when autobiography began to command the attention of literary scholars as a legitimate genre. (1) There are at least two reasons for the canonization, in postmodern culture, of autobiography, which had previously (especially in the reign of New Criticism) been regarded as inferior to enshrined literary genres (Morgan 3-4). One reason is the "generally perceived autobiographical turn in the literature [of the 1970s and 1980s], both in Europe and the United States ... particularly ... among those contemporary novelists who appear to be playful practitioners of fictional games or who--from the perspective of their ethnic or marginal backgrounds seem to be in search of their ethnic identity within a dominant white culture" (Hornung and Ruhe 9). Another related reason is the development of feminist and minority criticism, which have questioned the traditional literary canon and brought to the attention of scholars women's and minority writing, especially previously unknown or uncanonical texts, many of which are autobiographical, such as women's letters, fiction, and diaries, and African-American slave narratives. Thus, at a time when postmodern thinkers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault pronounced the "death of the Author"--as part of the poststructuralist critique of the transcendental subject of the Enlightenment--not only avant-garde white male novelists, but also those marginalized by gender, race, and/or ethnicity have shown their vital signs through autobiographical writing (Morgan 11-12, Hornung and Ruhe 9).
I propose to examine two Angolphone autobiographies by Egyptians who have emigrated to the United States, Ihab Hassan's Out of Egypt: Scenes and Arguments of an Autobiography (1986) and Leila Ahmed's A Border Passage." From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey (1999). They are narratives of permanent immigration, of transitioning into a U.S. minority. Rather than engaging in debates over the definition, demarcation, and "policing of the borders" of autobiography as a genre, (2) or even attempting to define a poetics of Arab immigrant autobiography, the more urgent question concerns the kinds of cultural, historical, and discursive intervention that such autobiography makes in the United States. That is, I read these two texts not so much as variations on a literary tradition or canon of autobiography, or as test cases for particular theories and definitions of a genre, but as Egyptian negotiations of Arab-American identity in the U.S.
This approach relies on some theoretical assumptions about autobiography and the autobiographical process that are best stated at the outset. Based on contemporary notions of reality as socially constructed in language, theorists of autobiography hold, contrary to conventional wisdom, that "autobiography is not and cannot be a way of simply signifying or referring to a 'life as lived' ... there is no such thing as a 'life as lived' to be referred to. On this view, life is created or constructed by the act of autobiography" (Brunner 38). (3) Further, the dialogical, interpersonal dimension to all kinds of narrative erases conventional distinctions between fiction and autobiography, on the one hand, and on the other, between autobiography and other kinds of non-fiction writing, including historiography, philosophy, literary and cultural criticism, and so on. If novels are always to some degree autobiographical ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi!"), autobiography is inevitably novelistic, always making use, whether consciously or not, of familiar conventions and techniques of storytelling (Eakin 295, Gergen 90). In fact, Henry Miller went so far as to hold that all "writing is autobiography," and likewise Paul Valery believed "that there is no theory that is not in fact a carefully concealed part of the theorist's own life story" (Klinkowitz 118). This is not, of course, to suggest a return to crude notions that fiction is to be interpreted in terms of the author's life, or vice versa, that all autobiography is nothing but fiction, but rather that the autobiographer, like the novelist and the theorist, engages in a particular kind of discourse. Discussion of autobiography would more profitably focus on the kinds of socially constructed and sanctioned narratives it mobilizes, and on the kind of discourse it constructs, than on its "truthfulness."
From this perspective, I propose a reading of the texts in question as negotiations of Arab-American identity in the U.S. Given the marginal status of Arab-Americans in the U.S., similar to the marginality of other minority groups like Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics whose identity is determined by, and in relation to, the dominant majority culture, "self-writing tends to be participation in the multiple discourses that establish and reestablish this 'self.' It is by definition a revisionary activity, inasmuch as it reinscribes a prescribed subjectivity in another register, intervening in the social construction of identity" (Hite xv). Thus the negotiation of identity in minoritarian autobiographical discourse tends to perform a double operation: contesting the identity assigned by the dominant majority discourse while at the same time utilizing its sanctioned narrative procedures in order to enter into its regime of truth. In other words, it is not enough for the marginalized autobiographer to undermine socially constructed identity; he/she must be able to engage the dominant discourse dialogically in order for his/her intervention to negotiate a viable identity effectively. As Leigh Gilmore points out, "[w]hether and when autobiography emerges as an authoritative discourse of reality and identity, and any particular text appears to tell the truth, have less to do with that text's presumed accuracy about what really happened than with its apprehended fit into culturally prevalent discourses of truth and identity" (ix). Brunner enumerates some such discourses, which he calls "conventional autobiographical genres" that
reflect idealized cultural patterns. Many are familiar: the selfless seeker after the public interest, the sacrificing family man, the Bildungsroman with its assurance of learning from experience, the ironic and detached observer of the absurdities of the contemporary human condition (in any age), the guardian mother shielding the young, the seeker after spontaneous self-expression, the forgiving victim of society's outrages, the apologia of the misunderstood public man, and so on. (Brunner 40)
To these "idealized cultural patterns" I would add that most Western readers would expect an Arab immigrant's autobiography to follow two general trajectories: the self-reliant (male) achiever of the American Dream, and the Arab/Muslim woman who escapes from the oppressive patriarchy of her native culture to freedom and independence in the West. From this perspective, it is possible to advance the thesis that Arab-American autobiography is constrained, for better or for worse, by two unspoken requirements: first, that it construct a selfhood that is intelligible in light of American paradigms of subjectivity, and second, that it address Western ideas about Arabs, Muslims, Middle Easterners. The first condition requires Arab-American autobiography to construct narratives of self-emergence that conform to the doctrine of individualism (usually with some variation on the theme of pursuing personal freedom, independence, and the American Dream), while the second requires such narratives explicitly to thematize issues like cultural difference, Islamic practices, and Middle East politics. Arab-American autobiography's "apprehended fit into culturally prevalent discourses of truth and identity" (Gilmore ix) depends on meeting those requirements.
While Western assumptions, stereotypes, and narratives shape the reception of texts by and/or about Arabs and Muslims, it is in directly challenging those dominant ideas that Arab-American autobiography--and Anglophone Arabic literature in general--charts its embattled cultural, historical, and political space in the West. There is no clearer illustration of this than the highly mixed reception of Edward Said's Out of Place: A Memoir, on the one hand a lyrical and endearing account of the early life of a prominent Palestinian-American, but on the other hand a searing narrative of the tragedy of Palestinian dispossession which the dominant Zionist discourse in the West erases. (4) Here, the autobiographical project not only constructs the subjectivity of the individual author (a success story of individual self-emergence), but also the subjectivity of an entire people, and further does so by directly undermining the truth claims of a dominant ideology (Zionism), which insists that Palestinian collective subjectivity does not exist. In Said's case, we can observe two simultaneous discursive operations: his entry into what Brunner calls a "conversation of selves" in the U.S. context conforms to a prevalent notion of subjectivity, while at the same time anchoring the subject in the collective Palestinian experience. The two operations in a sense justify Said's lifework as a committed scholar and political activist, work that begins with his entry into professional and public life in the mid 1960s--the point at which the memoir ends--so that the memoir provides a personal context and prehistory to his lifework. In fact, it is possible to read his latest book, Reflections on Exile (2000), a collection of essays written between 1967 and 1998, as an intellectual quest that picks up a life story from the point at which Out of Place (1999) leaves off, the titles of both books clearly modulating the same (individual/collective) theme of displacement.
Said's case is paradigmatic because he is easily the most prominent (and not surprisingly the most controversial) Arab-American. He, therefore, allows us to gauge the force of discursive intervention of other Arab-American autobiographies. The autobiographical narratives of Hassan and Ahmed have not stirred a similar controversy (owing to the lesser notoriety of these two authors), nor do they negotiate their authors' identities in the same fashion. Said is, after all, Palestinian, while Hassan and Ahmed are Egyptian, and even though Said spent a significant part of his early life in Egypt, he hails from a different history, one that is entangled with Egypt's, of course, but is nonetheless distinctive. Unlike Hassan and Ahmed, Said's involuntary exile as a dispossessed Palestinian lays a special historical burden on him, and determines his identity in ways that have little bearing on Hassan and Ahmed. Thus we find, for example, that the two Egyptians are quite skeptical about the very notion of Arab identity implicit in Said. Nevertheless, Hassan and Ahmed represent two radically different cases both in relation to the question of cultural and historical identity and in the way they negotiate their position in the West in relation to Western discourse on Egypt, the Arab world, and Islam. Those differences indicate that the category of "Arab-American" itself is far from unitary or monolithic; it is an American construct that risks erasing important cultural and historical differences among those designated as "Arab," even though the category makes it possible for the highly diverse communities of Arabs in America to speak with a collective (though marginalized) voice in the first place. (5)
Ihab Habib Hassan "was born on 17 October 1925, in Cairo," but remarks that "though I carry papers that solemnly record this date and place, I have never felt these facts decisive in my life" (Out of Egypt 2). Child of an upper-class land-owning family, he paints in very broad strokes the picture of a childhood spent moving from one place to another (his father was governor of several rural provinces), punctuated by visits with, as Hassan describes them, an unspeakably cruel, unscrupulous, and pathetically dysfunctional set of uncles and aunts. As a schoolboy, he "grew up with fierce fantasies of liberating Egypt" from British rule (24), and for that purpose was intent on entering the military academy after secondary school. He also despised Britain's pawns, "a decadent royal house and a landed oligarchy, inept, venal, and vain" (25). When his parents forced him to study engineering, he came to see it as his ticket out of Egypt. He worked very hard hoping to win a government scholarship to the U.S., and secretly planned to stay there. In the U.S., he abandoned engineering for literature, earned a Ph.D. in English, accepted a post at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and launched a distinguished career as a literary critic who pioneered the study of postmodernism in the U.S.
As noted above, Hassan does not draw a distinction between criticism and autobiography. Thus, in the postmodernist fashion which he himself helped to shape, Hassan's own critical (and "paracritical") works are interlaced with entries from his journals, as in The Right Promethean Fire, which opens with "A Personal Preface" where he describes the book as "a fragment of an autobiography, meditation on science and imagination" (xxi). His other critical books abound in autobiographical reflections on his temperament, personal life, and journey from Egypt to the U.S. Further, he has written about autobiography as a genre (especially in The Postmodern Turn. Selves at Risk, and Rumors of Change). By the same token, his autobiography is the product of a "'sabbatical to write a book about the humanities' that turned out to be more a book about myself" (Out of Egypt 5). In Rumors of Change, he asks rhetorically:
Can a life ever be translated into words? ... Can a life still in progress ... ever grasp or understand itself? ... Can we ever distinguish between fact and fiction in autobiography, any more than we can in our media? Is not memory sister to imagination, kin to nostalgia or self-deceit? ... Is not autobiography, therefore, itself a quest rather than the record of a quest, a labor of self-creation no less than of self-cognizance or self-expression? ... And does not this quest, this labor of self-creation, in turn affect the real, living, dying subject?" (188-89).
Out of Egypt must then be read as an effort not so much to render Hassan's "life as lived," but as a "quest" and a "labor of self-creation" that complements and extends his work as a critic, and at the same time as a discursive reinvention of his identity. Since the boundaries of the book are so mutable, autobiographical discourse spills out into theoretical interventions, and vice versa.
The autobiographical discourse (and Hassan's critical project), as I read it, constructs Hassan's identity as an American--not an Egyptian-American or Arab-American, but as one whose chosen national and intellectual affiliation abrogates any ties to Egypt and its culture: "Roots, everyone speaks of roots. I have cared for none" (4). He presents himself instead as one who wholeheartedly embraces that most cherished of American doctrines, individualism, positing an ahistorical, transcendental selfhood: "I am in the American grain, a tradition of men and women who crossed an ocean to reinvent themselves" (Rumors of Change 251). Significantly, his work focuses primarily on mainstream (white, male) American literature, and his philosophical orientation is, once more, characteristically American--Emersonian self-reliance and the pragmatism of William James. This is to some extent surprising, given that postmodernism, Hassan's primary interest, is most often inspired by French theory--deconstructive, speculative, anti-foundational. I would argue, therefore, that Hassan's "Americanist" brand of postmodernism can be read autobiographically as an expression of his willful "reinvention" of his American identity.
This willfulness is discernible throughout Out of Egypt, which opens thus: "On a burning August afternoon in 1946, brisk wind and salt of the Mediterranean on my lips, I boarded the Abraham Lincoln at Port Said and sailed from Egypt, never to return." Surveying the scene (dominated by the building of the Compagnie de Suez and the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps) from the deck of the "Liberty Ship," he "could only think: 'I did it! I did it! I'm bound for New York!'" (Hassan 1). This opening scene--which inaugurates a non-linear, discontinuous narrative incorporating mystical and philosophical speculations, reflections on King Kong and Beauty and the Beast, and self-reflexive meditations on the autobiographical act that include an imagined interview between "Autobiographer" and "I.H." (91)--establishes Hassan's personal relationship to Egypt. As the title evocatively suggests, this Egypt belongs equally to colonial discourse (as much of a fixed essence as Isak Dinesen's Africa, described in her autobiography, Out of Africa, which Hassan frequently and admiringly mentions and whose title he echoes), and biblical discourse (land of bondage, "Eternal Egypt" ). The rapturous disbelief of the twenty-one-year old at having earned a passage to freedom--from a despised family and a colonized, "prodigal, corrupt, cruel" Egypt (4)--to the Promised Land, and the pride taken by the autobiographer forty years later at having never returned, set the tone for the narrative and establish its trajectory. In retrospect, the gratuitous symbolism of what he at one point calls the "Great Escape" (87), by sea like the ancient Israelites, aboard a "Liberty Ship" named after the U.S. president who freed the slaves, turns almost into a sign of fate, suggesting a divinely-ordained destiny. Hassan's opening move, the evocation of colonial stereotype and the biblical myth of the Exodus, clearly appeals to what Gilmore calls "a culturally prevalent discourse of truth and identity" (Gilmore ix), and uses that discourse (archaic though it may be) to legitimate the autobiographer's claim to American identity.
Hassan describes himself as a "psychological exile" (106), and reports that during the decades following his Exodus, he was beset by a recurring nightmare of being forced to return to Egypt (108-09). The son of a high-ranking government official, he did not, like the biblical Israelites and so many immigrants to America, free from persecution or poverty: "What ... had I really hoped to discover in America? It was ... scope, an openness of time, a more viable history. I also looked for some private space wherein to change, grow; for I had not liked what I foresaw of my life in Eternal Egypt. And so I left--no, fled" (107). Numerous other statements reinforce an essentialist conception of Egypt, repeatedly described as "Eternal" not to evoke its long history, as might at first appear, but to brand it as "something closer to a curse, a fate" (16), a land static, unchanging, irredeemable (14, 92-93). Once in Athens he had an "intuition of Egypt":
a stifling moment of heat, dust, noise, young men in short sleeves drifting through shabby streets, old ornate buildings, their cornices, caryatides, peeling on hovels below--most of all, the sense of durance, merciless contraction in the gut. It was, finally, an intuition of prisons: hospitals, asylums, monasteries, dungeons, any occluded relation or caved-in self." (108)
On Egypt "the sun rose in the clear, dry dawn of history and now has set, perhaps never to rise again" (112); as for America to which he "deliriously" emigrated, it is "a land violently dreaming the world into a better place." The final note: Egypt is trapped and crumbling under the weight of the past, while America is making the future--"Out of Egypt, into middles, passages, falling into true time" (113). The final words of the text more than fulfill the expectations carefully elicited in the opening scene. The romance of America is undiluted: the Promised Land, the Shining City on the Hill, the Land of Freedom and Opportunity, the polar opposite of Egypt. As Jerome Klinkowitz observes in his study of Hassan's critical and intellectual project as a whole, Hassan "believ[es] with William Blake that America is indeed another portion of the infinite" (Klinkowitz 120). The metaphysics of America lift it, like Egypt, out of history.
It would be warranted to dwell on the ironies involved in the fact that Orientalist stereotypes are recycled by one who fled Egypt because he could not liberate it from the colonizers, or that Manichean metaphysics is trumpeted by one of the prophets of postmodernism. Utopian thought, of course, always depends on symmetrical opposition between metaphysical ideals and a fundamental rejection of history. If Hassan's Egypt is "Eternal" and unchanging, his America is Utopia--etymologically, a non-place. How is it possible to maintain this romance after forty years of living in the U.S.? Partly, of course, discursively, by constructing Egypt, forty years after leaving it, as America's polar opposite. And partly also by historical negation: America was once, like Egypt, a British colony, except that unlike Egypt it reinvented itself; never mind that America was a settler colony that all but annihilated Native Americans and enslaved millions of Africans. Interestingly, some critics have complained that, unlike so many other immigrants' autobiographies that tell of painful transition, difficult adjustment, and the challenge of racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice (Durczak 143), Hassan says very little about his transition into America (Beard 24, Falcoff 48-49). By contrast, Hassan is content to offer only a "brief celebratory assessment of an open and friendly America" (Durczak 143), implying an easeful Americanization (144, n. 19), and abrogating the therapeutic function of autobiography (143). Instead, autobiography severs his cultural and historical roots in exchange for a transcendental conception of selfhood consistent with idealized patterns of immigrant autobiography in America: "the country's autobiographers have told usually optimistic stories, in which they praised the power of the individual, or the cult of hard work and success" (12).
It is not surprising, therefore, that Hassan feels no affinity with, and indeed becomes highly critical of, recent developments in the humanities that have foregrounded questions of colonialism, race, and ethnicity in critical and theoretical debates. Postcolonial studies is for Hassan the product of an alien "ideological world" whose inhabitants, he writes with subtle nuance, "speak to [him] in a mildly foreign accent" (Rumors of Change 24A, emphasis added). To Hassan, the "true American" who regards his "birth in Cairo [as] fortuitous, an accident, not a destiny" (243) and proclaims to be "in the American grain" (251), postcolonial studies is--simplistically and reductively--no more than "self-absolution" of the formerly colonized who "locate all virtues in the colonized, all vices in the colonizer" (249). As for ethnic and minority studies, which emerged after hard-won battles for Civil Rights in the 1960s, giving voice in the academy to the long-suppressed experiences of African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and other marginalized groups, they are merely "tribal" and "ludicrous." He, therefore, rejects for himself the title of Arab-American. "Arab-American is to me redundancy, pleonasm. Is not America a land of immigrants rather than exiles?" (250). Besides the obvious omission of Native Americans, who never emigrated but were colonized and decimated, and African-Americans, who did not come to America by choice but by force as abducted slaves, the statement ignores vast inequalities based on ethnic, racial, and national origin in the U.S., and which postcolonial and ethnic studies make central to their inquiry. The statement also endorses uncritically the perennial academic normalization of white, Eurocentric, middle-class, male perspectives, tastes, and judgments. Arabs and Arab-Americans, whether they choose to or not, have long been targeted for stereotyping, discriminatory practices, and overt as well as covert racism. It is true that the U.S. remains among the freest and the most hospitable countries to immigrants, but it is also a country where in practice some have always been more equal than others. In such a context, Hassan's insistence on a utopian notion of America and on the doctrine of individualism is an extravagant luxury for marginalized minority groups.
Leila Ahmed takes a radically different stance. Born in 1940 in Cairo, she was the child of an upper middle-class Egyptian father and an upper-class mother of Turkish ancestry. She attended British colonial schools and then Girton College, Cambridge, where she obtained a degree in English. When she returned to Egypt, the family circumstances began to change dramatically. A prominent engineer, the father chaired the Nile Water Control Board and the Hydro-Electric Power Commission when he opposed, for ecological reasons, Nasser's project to build the High Dam. His defiance of Nasser's orders to keep silent brought the government's vicious persecution and harassment to the family, which included refusing for four years to issue their daughter a passport so that she could return to England to pursue her graduate work at Cambridge. Enormous effort and the intercession of family friends finally enabled her to leave, and eventually she earned her doctorate. After brief employment in England, she went to work in Abu Dhabi, where she was appointed to a commission charged with planning women's education. Her exposure to American feminist texts and the intellectual upheavals in the U.S. academy in the 1970s eventually drew her to the U.S., where she became for many years a professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, before joining Harvard Divinity School in 1999.
If Hassan's Egypt remains suspended in biblical-mythical time, Ahmed's Egypt is firmly anchored in history. A Border Passage, like Ahdaf Soueif's and Samia Serageldin's novels, offers readers in the West a crash course in modern Egyptian society, history, and politics. These books are not only interesting as autobiographies, novels, and autobiographical novels, but are also educational for readers for many of whom Egypt, and the Arab world generally, tends to be little more than a place of ancient archaeological interest, biblical mythology, Oriental romance, despotism, religious fanaticism, and terrorism--a place summed up by a handful of images and cliches: King "Tut," sand dunes in the desert, camels, veiled women, The Arabian Nights, Hollywood mummy thrillers. Writing directly in English, writers like Ahmed, Serageldin, and Soueif are able to circumvent some of the complex grids that govern the choice, translation, publication, and marketing of Arabic texts in the West, and to control their representation of Egypt in a way that even Naguib Mahfouz and Nawal el-Saadawi could not. (6)
There are vast differences between the autobiographical discourses of Hassan and Ahmad, but the similarities are worth noting at the outset. Both, after all, chose to emigrate to the U.S. Both belonged to Cairene families that enjoyed considerable privilege and suffered (in the 1940s in Hassan's case, in the 1950s in Ahmed's) a reversal of fortune when they fell out of favor with the regime. Both belonged to the Westernized elite, receiving European education, learning both English and French,
and knowing Arabic so poorly that their most traumatic school experiences in Cairo revolve around mediocre achievement in Arabic (Out of Egypt 61-62; A Border Passage 147-48). Both, however, harbor bitter recollections of the colonial era in Egypt. While in secondary school, Hassan dreamt of entering the military academy in order to become an officer in the army and drive the British out of Egypt, a task later undertaken by Nasser and his Free Officers organization (Out of Egypt 66-67). Ahmed meanwhile resents the racism and chauvinism of British colonial schoolteachers and curricula (A Border Passage 143-46, 151-52, 154), and felt enormously betrayed and disillusioned with the British during the Tripartite Aggression (Suez Crisis) of 1956 (166-70). She does not neglect to mention the fact that the U.S. played a decisive role in forcing Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from Egypt. These similarities account for their choice of the U.S. as adoptive country over England or other European countries. Both also despised the corruption of King Farouq, and in Ahmed's case, also Nasser's Soviet-style dictatorship, which destroyed her father and all but derailed her academic dreams (179-205). By then Hassan had begun to "ignore" Egypt altogether (Out of Egypt 14).
They differ, however, in that Hassan sees that corruption as endemic and congenital to Egypt, while Ahmed's historicizing approach complicates political events, her experience, and her evolving consciousness. While the defining moment in Hassan's relationship to Egypt is his "escape," as he puts it, aboard the Abraham Lincoln, what defines Ahmed's relationship to the country is a sense of nostalgia and irreparable loss. And while Hassan's autobiographical discourse serves to embalm his Egyptian past and to substantiate his claim to American identity, Ahmed's functions to disentangle and reconstruct her past in Egypt and England and to connect it more vitally to her American present. Thus while Hassan's narrative is fragmentary, elliptical, and whimsical, A Border Passage is unified, dialogical, and expository. Hassan mythicizes Egypt and America, whereas Ahmed connects them and undermines essentialist representations of them. Hassan also conforms to the classic American ideology of (masculinist) individualism, Ahmed works with another conception of selfhood that emphasizes the role of social, cultural, and historical variables in relation to individual consciousness and agency. Many of those differences may be attributed to gender and generation--Hassan was born in 1925 and published his most significant work between 1961 and 1980, in the waning years of the ancien regime of New Criticism and its insistence on literature's insularity from politics and history; Ahmed was born in 1940 and began to publish in the early 1980s, in the wake of the social upheavals of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and the revolution it incited in the academy, with the rise of feminism, the Black Arts Movement, and women's and ethnic studies programs, and in the aftermath of the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), which inaugurated postcolonial studies. These revolutionary changes occurred after Hassan had established his fame as a critic and have left him, and many other scholars of his generation, cold and bemused: scholars like Said and Ahmed speak to him with "foreign accents."
Yet all three are similar in that Ahmed's autobiography, like Said's and Hassan's, is both an extension of her academic work as well as an exposition of its prehistory. A noted scholar of women's studies, Ahmed has made the question of women in Islam the focus of her academic career since her arrival in the U.S. Her major book, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (1992), surveys the history of gender discourses in the Middle East from ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean civilizations, to those of Judaism and Christianity, the emergence of Islam, and on to the present. Ahmed also makes the question of gender in Islamic societies central to her autobiographical narrative, whose subtitle announces that the Border Passage is From Cairo to America--A Woman's Journey. This gesture immediately addresses the implicit requirement of Arab women's autobiography in the West that it comment on the status of women in Muslim society. But the Western thirst for lurid stories about the oppression of Arab and/or Muslim women is never satisfied, nor does the book narrate the story of a woman's "great escape" (Hassan's phrase) from oppressive traditional society to freedom in the U.S. In fact, she seems deliberately to conjure up stereotypical narratives in order to deviate from them, and to show the vacuity of their essentialist assumptions about the existence of discrete, separate, and opposed cultural identities.
A Border Passage is a narrative of connectedness rather than separatism. It begins and ends in Cairo, sounding a note of nostalgia and yearning that comes to resonate for her with Jalaludin Rumi's Sufi conception of the human condition; she prefaces the narrative with an epigraph from his poetry: "To hear the song of the reed/Everything you have known/must be left behind" (ix). She then notes that "in Sufi poetry this music of the reed is the quintessential music of loss" and that in Rumi's poetry, "the song of the reed is the metaphor for our human condition ... Cut from its bed and fashioned into a pipe, the reed forever laments the living earth that it once knew, crying out, whenever life is breathed into it, its ache and its yearning and loss. We too ... says Rumi, remember a condition of completeness that we once knew but have forgotten that we ever knew" (5). The autobiographical relevance of the metaphor of the reed is all too obvious--the immigrant cut off from her native land and culture, "the living earth [she] once knew," who writes about her exile and tries to recover thereby the condition of "completeness." That condition is recoverable through connecting, or reconciling, the past and the present. In contrast to Hassan, whose resort to mythical and Orientalist discourses of opposition forecloses such connection, Ahmed's autobiography--her own song of the reed--seeks to dissolve discursive and ideological barriers between past and present, Egypt and America, "East" and "West."
The theme of connectedness frames the autobiography. She opens the narrative of her life thus: "It was as if there were to life itself a quality of music in that time, the era of my childhood, and in that place, the remote edge of Cairo. There the city petered out into a scattering of villas leading into tranquil country fields. On the other side of our house was the profound, unsurpassable quiet of the desert" (A Border Passage 3). In the "Epilogue," Ahmed writes of a recent trip back to Egypt and a visit to Cairo's City of the Dead; contemplating the use of burial chambers, which date back to Pharaonic times (even though many Egyptians today mistake it for an Islamic practice), she thinks of Rumi's funeral, when "Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus, as well as Muslims, walked in his procession, weeping." She then closes the autobiography with this anecdote: "Rumi's cat, who had meowed piteously through his last illness, refused to eat after his death and died a week later. Rumi's daughter buried her at his side. Symbol, she said, of Rumi's deep connection with all beings" (307). The theme of connection is embedded in Sufi thought (Rumi being one of its foremost representatives) which seeks to uncover the oneness of being; in the gratuitously symbolic geography of her parents' house at the edge of the city, connecting the urban with the rural and the desert; in the physical congregation of the dead in burial chambers; in the communal grief of members of all faiths over Rumi's death; and finally in the emotive bond between Rumi and his cat, who joins him literally in his grave. Along the way, she finds this sense of connectedness in the Qur'an, in Mahatma Gandhi's philosophical outlook which combines Western education with Hindu philosophy, in Hassan Fathi's architecture, in her father's prescient ecological vision, and in the work of "Rachel Carson, Barbara McClintock, and other women pioneers of Western scientific thought ... [whose] originality ... sprang in part from their rootedness in a different cultural ethos--a women's ethos of connectedness--different from the ethos of competitiveness and individualism of the men of their culture" (35). This ethos of connectedness, then, sharply distinguishes Ahmed's autobiographical discourse from Hassan's, which revolves around individualism. The deep sense of connectedness also guides Ahmed's autobiographical discourse as it undermines Orientalists conceptions of Egypt, the Arab world, and Islam that impede sympathetic understanding of them.
Ahmed's autobiographical discourse, then, constructs a personal identity that departs from individualist notions of the self's autonomy, in that selfhood is inconceivable outside of its cultural and historical context, both in Egypt and in the U.S. For instance, she begins by describing recollections from her happy, early childhood "in a world alive ... with the music of being," a world confined within the walls of the family home's garden, where she communes with the trees, learns to identify the distinctive sound the wind makes ruffling the leaves of each kind, and watches the distinct shapes of their shadows falling on her bedroom wall at night. She then provocatively declares that
it is not in those days and those moments that my story begins. Rather, it begins for me with the disruption of that world and the desolation that for a time overtook our lives. For it was then that I began to follow the path that would bring me---exactly here. And so it is with those years and their upheaval and with the politics that framed our lives that I must begin. (5)
The immediately noticeable thing here is that she chooses the starting point for her story, but rather than simply beginning with it, she first describes an Edenic existence of childhood, a time unmarked, as it were, by any significant events, being instead an undifferentiated period of (subjectively) primordial harmony and bliss. The function of this gesture is at once to dramatize the moment of "disruption"--the Fall, so to speak--and to identify it as the true beginning of her story. The deliberate evocation of the biblical story of the Fall is clearly designed to enhance the autobiographical discourse's "apprehended fit into culturally prevalent discourses of truth and identity" (Gilmore ix). At that liminal moment she falls into history: the social upheavals and the national politics of the day forever disrupt "the music of being" and become impossible to disentangle from her life. The autobiographical project then becomes an effort not to distill an individual life out of history, but to reconstruct that life, and the identity of the autobiographer, more fully in the context of history.
This conception of selfhood necessitates locating the individual life within the intersecting grids of national, class, gender, and racial identity--both in Egypt and in the West (first in England, then in the U.S.). In Egypt, for instance, the problematization of national identity begins for her in 1952 when she suffers traumatic punishment at the hands of a schoolteacher for failing, then refusing to try, to read from her Arabic textbook. Arabic had been a neglected subject in the colonial schools she attended, and although the family for the most part spoke Egyptian Arabic at home, she was not educated in either Modern Standard or Classical Arabic. Her father was an upper middle-class professional who was enthralled by the West and none too keen on having his children learn Arabic. The mother did not share the father's enthusiasm for the West, but by virtue of her Turkish upper-class background, she was accustomed to leaving the day-to-day activities of raising children to a Croatian nanny who did not know Arabic. The revolution of 1952 ended the colonial period and jolted the country into a new era of Arab nationalism. The teacher was a Palestinian refugee, dispossessed as a result of the creation of Israel in 1948, and obviously with enormous stakes in the idea of Arab nationalism. The rebelliousness of the twelve-year-old against the newly-required study of Arabic, followed by pain and shock at the punishment she receives not only represent a childhood trauma, but become central to Ahmed's intellectual development as she later investigates Egypt's millennial sense of identity and the histories of European colonialism in the Arab world, Jewish settlement in Palestine, Egypt's complex involvement in the conflict over Palestine since the 1920s, the rise of Arab nationalism in the region and the pivotal role of the British in promoting it, and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. This leads Ahmed to the belief, which she later finds historical arguments to substantiate, that Egypt has not always been, and should not necessarily be considered as, Arab (10-11). The autobiography investigates the enormously complex history of this and other issues, not in the manner of a historical survey, but tracing Ahmed's own developing understanding of them as she probes her own past:
My relations with Miss Nabieh [the Arabic language teacher] were only a symptom of the times: of the battering and reshaping of our identities that the politics of the day were subjecting us to. I would be marked by everything that was happening, not just by Miss Nabieh. Only when, in the process of writing this book, I began to examine this memory and others, and the history in which they were entangled, would I come to that realization. (148)
The numerous lengthy sections of historical narrative reflect Ahmed's own personal development as an individual and as a scholar. The result is a life story that gives a personal perspective on Egypt's history in the twentieth-century. Understanding or recounting the personal life is inconceivable without reconstructing that history, at the same time that the personal perspective illuminates the collective history with insights that often escape standard historiography--such as, for instance, the extent to which Nasser's brand of Arab nationalism destroyed intimate social and personal relationships among Muslims, Christians, and Jews (172-75).
In Cambridge the question of identity immediately becomes even more entangled as she experiences "the mute, complicated confusions of my exilic Arab identity, my identity as an Arab in the West" (238). This "exile" is of special kind, since she was not an exile in the common sense of one banished from her country; if anything, she was prevented from leaving it by Nasser's government. It is rather the inverted exile of one forced into a particular category, "Arab," to which she feels she does not belong as an Egyptian. The reasons for this feeling of non-belonging have to do with her abhorrence of Nasser and his aggressive brand of Arab nationalism, and with her discovery later of Britain's role in encouraging Arab nationalism during WWI in order to weaken the Ottoman Empire, a role that renders Arab nationalism and Arab identity for Ahmed (who problematically conflates the two) a colonial invention and an instrument of colonial rule (265-69). However, in England, and later in the U.S., Arab identity, as well as a host of other categorizations, are imposed upon her willy-nilly:
"One is not born but rather becomes a woman," goes Simone de Beauvoir's famous dictum. I obviously was not born but became black when I went to England ["in British English 'Black' meant all ... non-Europeans" (207)]. Similarly, of course, I was not born but became a woman of color when I went to America. Whereas these are political identities that carry, for me a positive charge, revealing and affirming connection and commonality, my identity as an Arab, no less a political construction, is an identity that, in contrast, I experience as deeply and perhaps irretrievably fraught with angst and confusion. (237-38)
When complicated by racism, Arab identity becomes fraught with anxiety, for in the West she could not "[e]motionally ... fully side with the Arabs insofar as Nasser was their spokesman and universally adulated hero. But it was even less possible for me to side with the bigoted British racists and their stupid diatribes against Nasser and the Arabs" (239). Furthermore, "[i]n Egypt the sense of falseness and coercion would be there in a political sense, but at least in ordinary daily life I'd just be another Egyptian, whereas in the West it's impossible for me ever to escape, forget this false constructed Arabness. It's almost always somehow there, the notion that I am Arab, in any and every interaction" (255-56). Like the words "African" or "Negro," "the word 'Arab' ... comes, in European tongues, internally loaded in the negative" (266):
"Arabs" meant people with whom you made treaties that you did not have to honor, arabs being by definition people of a lesser humanity and there being no need to honor treaties with people of a lesser humanity. It meant people whose lands you can carve up and apportion as you wished, because they were of a lesser humanity. It meant people whose democracies you could obstruct at will, because you did not have to behave justly toward people of a lesser humanity. And what could mere arabs, anyway, know of democracy and democratic process? (267)
Furthermore, in the West "being Arab was profoundly implicated, of course, in what has proven to be one of the most painful and intractable political problems of our day, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict" (239), not just on a political or collective level, but on a personal level as well. A perfect stranger on a bus in Cambridge once asked her with a broad smile if she was Israeli, only to spit on her when he realized that she was Arab! There are, then, she concludes, "two notions of Arab that I am trapped in--both false, both heavily weighted and cargoed with another silent freight": the Western notion steeped in negativity (and which she writes as "arab"), and the Nasserite notion of Arab, which subsumes all historical and geographical particularities into a monolithic identity. Both notions "imput[e] to me feelings and beliefs that aren't mine. They overlap in some ways, but they are not ... identical" (256).
But these two false constructs aside, there is certainly a third possibility that Ahmed does not consider, and that is the notion of Arab identity as a function of a common language, culture, and history, and a sense of solidarity in the face of a common historical challenge of which the appalling behavior of the Cambridge stranger on the bus illustrates with eloquent crudeness. There is little doubt that Ahmed's class background, like Hassan's, availed her of a first-rate colonial education that deliberately proscribed any viable grounding in the Arabic language, literature, and heritage--the historical repository of Arab cultural identity. This education foreclosed the development of a secure sense of Arab identity that could resist colonial, nationalist, and racist constructs. This dimension of Ahemd's "exilic Arab identity" remains unresolved in her narrative, although it reveals itself in a highly resonant encounter with the Lebanese Arabophone novelist Hanan al-Shaykh. At a lecture in Cambridge, and to a large crowd including many Arabs, al-Shaykh relates how she became a writer:
Her paper, about how she became a writer, was full of evocations of ... her youthful discoveries of the classics of contemporary Arabic literature, and of poetry read and heard and ideas exchanged under apple trees. It began, almost at once, to work its enchantment. As the minutes passed, the faces around me grew perceptibly happier, mellower, more relaxed.... I found myself thinking enviously that this was what I would like to be writing, something that would affirm my community in exile. Something that would remind its members of how lovely our lives, our countries, our ways are. How lovely our literature. What a fine thing, whatever it is people say of us, what a fine thing it is, in spite of them all, to be Arab; what a wonderful heritage we have.... What wouldn't I give, I sat there thinking, listening to her quote Arab poets, to have had that in my past, all that wealth of Arabic literature that nurtured her as a writer; what wouldn't I give now to have all those poets and writers to remember and write about and remind people of? (253)
Soon, however, Ahmed's antipathy to literary Arabic, seared in her mind since that traumatic childhood incident involving the Arabic language teacher, surfaces, and together with her lack of training in it, compel her to realize that she appreciated the lines recited by al-Shaykh "only the way I might the poetry of a foreign tongue" (253). And yet her skepticism about Arab identity leaves her feeling
like a Judas among these friends.... Was it even imaginable that ... sitting there among them--two Lebanese, one Palestinian, one Iranian, three of the four of them having been made homeless one way or another by Israeli aggression or by some spin-off of that conflict--was it conceivable that I could say, "Well, actually I am looking into this whole question of the Arabness of Egyptian identity, I am trying to really look at it, deconstruct it ..." It was completely unimaginable, impossible, inconceivable. (254)
At that moment, she feels the need to convey "to them solidarity and support," but at the same time, in the absence of a strong bond with the Arabic language and its heritage, the notions of Arabness propagated both by Nasser and by Western racism render the quest for identity extremely vexed for someone who, to her credit, "just do[es] not want to live any longer with a lie about who I am" (255).
Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia justify themselves, in part, by perpetuating the perception of women's status in Arab and Muslim societies as oppressed and degraded. A striking thing about Ahmed's story of growing up female in Egypt of the 1940s and 1950s is her depiction of life in the "harem," the women's quarters in her maternal grandfather's house. An upper-class Turkish version of the segregation of the sexes, the harem has long fed Western fantasies about the "Orient." Two chapter titles in A Border Passage feature the word "harem," Chapter Five ("Harem"), which depicts the daily life of her female relatives, and Chapter Eight "The Harem Perfected?"), which surprisingly narrates her life as an undergraduate at Girton College, Cambridge. Once again, Ahmed seems to evoke Western stereotypes in order to undermine them, in this case by boldly suggesting a structural similarity between what tends to be regarded as "medieval" Islamic institutions and modern Western ones. In Cairo, her mother and aunts repaired daily to their mother's rooms in the family house after their husbands left for work in the morning. The daily routine transported them to an exclusively women's space, since life in their own households (with their all Egyptian husbands) was not only desegregated, but quite Westernized--Ahmed's parents, at least, engaged a European nanny for their children, educated them in European schools, and sent them to college in Europe. Yet when Ahmed arrived at Girton (a women's college), she found it to be
a deeply familiar world to me. In some ways indeed Girton represented the harem perfected. Not the harem of Western male sexual fantasy or even the harem of Muslim men, fantasy or reality, but the harem as I had lived it, the harem of older women presiding over the young. Even the servers here ... were women, and from these grounds ... the absence of male authority was permanent.
These women's spaces, she finds, were nurturing, and she regrets their disappearance (in post-1952 Egypt, "Land Reform" and other expropriation policies effectively transformed the lifestyles of the upper classes, and in England, Girton was desegregated in the late sixties): "I have been privileged to live in two harem communities, a Turco-Egyptian one and a British one. And it has been my destiny, too, alas, to live through the ending of both" (183). Those spaces, especially the Turco-Egyptian harem which Ahmed describes in considerable detail, sustained what was in effect a women's ethos, a women's way of knowing, and even a women's Islam, which were all distinct from men's (121-24).
Looking retrospectively from a point in time when militant fundamentalism has spread widely, she recalls that "Islam, as I got it from them [her grandmother, mother, and aunts], was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical." She further describes this Islam as a way of being in the world rather than "elaborate sets of injunctions or threats or decrees or dictates" (121). She sharply distinguishes it from "the official (male, of course) orthodox interpretations of religion," derived from ancient commentaries and still propagated, a thousand years later, by male clerics. What she describes, in effect--accurately or not--are a dynamic, female, orally transmitted religious culture, and a static, rigid, militant, male, religious culture of literacy. Ahmed herself comes back, half-heartedly, to complicate this gender categorization by saying that "after a lifetime of meeting and talking with Muslims from all over the world, I find that this Islam is one of the common varieties--perhaps even the common or garden variety--of the religion. It is the Islam not only of women but of ordinary folk generally, as opposed to the Islam of sheikhs, ayatollahs, mullahs, and clerics" (125). The latter, nevertheless, is "the Islam of the arcane, mostly medieval written heritage in which sheikhs are trained, and it is 'men's' Islam ... [a] minority of men" (125-26). The Islam of women and "ordinary folk generally," she contends, is based on the "oral and aural" experience of the Qur'an:
what remains when you listen to the Qur'an over a lifetime are its most recurring themes, ideas, words, and permeating spirit, reappearing now in this passage, now in that: mercy, justice, peace, compassion, humanity, fairness, kindness, truthfulness, charity, mercy, justice. And yet it is exactly these recurring themes and this permeating spirit that are for the most part left out of the medieval texts or smothered and buried under a welter of abstruse "learning." (126)
Arguing (the scholar here extrapolating on her autobiographical experience) that this "oral and aural Islam is intrinsic to Islam and to the Qur'an itself, and intrinsic even to the Arabic language" (127), predating literacy (written Arabic was not codified until the eighth century), Ahmed contends that "literacy has played a baneful part both in spreading a particular form of Islam and in working to erase oral and living forms of the religion" (128). Once again, Ahmed's old grudge against written Arabic makes her blame literacy as such (Arabic literacy, not English or French, for example), rather than the persistence of medieval scholasticism. It is doubtful if those "oral and living forms of the religion" are in danger of disappearing, for they obviously thrived until they were transmitted to her in the mid-twentieth century. But the greater problematic here lies in Ahmed's polarization of literacy and orality, and further the conflation of this polarity with another, that of male/female, which in turn is conflated with yet a third, fundamentalist/moderate Islam. Hardly does one encounter such slippage in the work of the Arab scholars, critics, philosophers, and theologians who have in recent decades been actively challenging patriarchy, traditional interpretations of Islam, and fundamentalism. Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, Hassan Hanafy, Nawal el-Saadawi, Muhammad Sa'id al-'Ashmawi, and Nasr Abu-Zayd, to name but a few, have never dismissed literacy, the classical Arabic heritage, or the shari'a out of hand. On the contrary, they have engaged traditional clerics and fundamentalists in critical debate. Thus the linguistic dimension of Arab identity that Ahmed wrestles with throughout her autobiography, and which remains unresolved in her quest for identity, also shapes her scholarship.
This form of alienation may have contributed to Ahmed's decision to move to the U.S., but at any rate she gives two reasons for choosing the U.S. over England or elsewhere in Europe. One was the possibility of professional advancement for an Arab: "All three [of her siblings] had found that in Europe (England, Switzerland, and Germany had been their bases) they simply could not advance in their professions beyond a certain point. In America, they told me, things were different. Even though people had their prejudices, if you had the ability and the qualifications you could move forward in America" (291). The other was the rise of feminism:
In America, social ferment and activism formed the backdrop to the new intellectual perspectives that were emerging. In England, or at least in Cambridge, there was no parallel ferment either on issues of race or of gender that I might have connected with. By the end of my graduate student days I had essentially acquiesced in and accepted my own proper invisibility from scholarship and the proper invisibility and object status of my kind. The passion and joy of thought and understanding would come back into my life only after I had gone to Abu Dhabi to work and begun to feel driven by my need to understand, as the Iranian Revolution crested, our history as Muslim women, and the possibilities that lay ahead; simultaneously I began to read the exhilarating feminist books coming out of America. Placing Muslim women at the heart of my work was in a way ... a refusal of my invisibility. (237)
Once in the U.S., however, she was confronted by anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia within the feminist movement itself. In the early eighties, she remembers, she and other Muslim feminists were met with belligerent responses at women's studies conferences "for trying to examine and rethink our traditions rather than dismissing them out of hand," the assumption being that
whereas they--white women, Christian women, Jewish women--could rethink their heritage and religions and traditions, we had to abandon ours because they were just intrinsically, essentially, and irredeemably misogynist and patriarchal in a way that theirs (apparently) were not. In contrast to their situation, our salvation entailed not arguing with and working to change our traditions but giving up our cultures, religions, and traditions and adopting theirs. (292)
But such racism was also directed at other non-White feminists, and Ahmed found herself in the company of other minority critics--African-Americans mainly--who challenged it (293). Toward the end of the book, she writes the passage quoted in the epigraph, marking "the end of the story she set out to tell" (296), and the beginning of another story, that of her life as a member of an American minority.
Twenty years after moving to the U.S., Ahmed's professional success confirmed the truth of her siblings' counsel, which had reiterated the idea of America as the land of freedom and opportunity. But she understands her position in the U.S. as already predetermined for her, avant la lettre, by the majority culture, as a woman of color, an Arab, and a Muslim--regardless of how vexed those constructs may be for her emotionally and intellectually. Rather than submitting to the ideological content of these representations, her autobiographical discourse turns those predetermined positions into sites of contestation, critique, redefinition, and reinvention of identity. This critical engagement with the dominant discourses in the U.S. is matched by her efforts to "rethink," as she writes in the passage just quoted, the heritage of Islam, and to "argue with" and "work to change" her native traditions. Her critique of shari'a and her attack on what she considers the "lies" of monolithic nationalist ideology are efforts--however laden with unresolved tensions--to reform conditions back home in Egypt. These efforts bespeak a dialogical conception of Arab-American identity that works backwards and forwards to establish productive and transformative connections between cultures "in a world of dissolving boundaries and vanishing borders" (296).
Becoming American, then, has involved two radically different negotiating strategies for these two Egyptian immigrants. Both strategies are embodied in autobiographical narratives that have what Brunner calls "verisimilitude" and "negotiability" (Brunner 45), allowing them to enter into a "conversation of selves" (47) with their (primarily American) readers. However, they do so by drawing upon the resources of two different "culturally prevalent discourses of truth and identity" (Gilmore ix). Hassan marshals biblical and Orientalist stereotypes of Egypt in order to distance himself from his country of birth and to prove that he is an American at heart. This strategy appeals to essentialist notions of national and cultural identity based on Rudyard Kipling's colonialist maxim that "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." By contrast, Ahmed's negotiation of identity draws upon multiculturalist discourses--feminist and postcolonialist, mainly--in order to interrogate essentialist conceptions of identity of the kind Hassan utilizes, and to affirm her right to difference. In a sense, the two autobiographical discourses and their negotiating strategies embody a fundamental tension within postmodern culture at large, a tension that has come to be known in the early 1990s as the "Culture Wars." Hassan and Ahmed have sided with different warring camps, and part of their claim to American identity rests on the fact that they have pledged allegiance on the same American battlefield. While in the largely liberal academy, at least, Ahmed's side has won the day, in the public sphere outside American universities, victory is less than certain, what with the tireless rehearsal of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis (itself issuing from the neo-Orientalist establishment within the academy) and the backlash against Arabs, Arab-Americans, and Muslims (or those mistaken for them) in the wake of the catastrophic events of September 2001. These developments threaten to entrench essentialist and separatist conceptions of identity and to give America's "culture wars" a violent, global dimension. This Apocalyptic new context, with the attendant rhetorics of Crusades, Jihad, and Good vs. Evil, redoubles the need for dialogical reinventions of identity not just in America, but also throughout the world. (7)
(1) In the U.S., one of the earliest such studies is Roy Pascal's Design and Truth in Autobiography. Other important books include Elizabeth Bruss, Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre; James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, which includes an important bibliographical essay by Olney, 3-27; William Spenglemann, The Forms of Autobiography: Episodes in the History of a Literary Genre, which also includes an excellent bibliographical Essay; and Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation. In France, Philippe Lejeune has produced several important books on the subject, notably Le pacte autobiographique, which has exerted considerable influence on subsequent work both in France and in the U.S.
(2) Lejeune has advanced a controversial definition of autobiography ("Recit retrospectif en prose qu'une personne reelle fait de sa proper existence, lorsqu'elle met l'accent sur sa vie individuelle, en particulier sur l'histoire de sa personalite" [14--Lejeune's emphasis]). This definition has been challenged on several counts, as Brunner points out (41-42, 46, 48). In another vein, John Sturrock has explored at length the vexed relationship between theory and autobiography, since unlike novelists, for example, autobiographers do not tend to write, nor are they usually read, within a specific literary "tradition."
(3) In light of recent research on the brain and the processes of memory in the fields of cognitive and social psychology, psychiatry, and neurobiology, Paul John Eakin points out, "[t]he notion that autobiographical memory is socially and culturally constructed may at first seem counterintuitive. From Rousseau's Confessions on down, readers have been conditioned by the ideology of individualism to think of autobiography as a theater in which the self's uniqueness, privacy, and interiority are on display" (295). Instead, Eakin invokes the concept of "social constructivism" advocated by developmental psychologists like Kenneth Gergen, Katherine Nelson, Robyn Fivush, Peggy Miller, Catherine Snow, and Dennie Palmer Wolf, who have researched the ways in which children, for example, assimilate narrative patterns from parents and environment, then use those patters in describing their own (autobiographical) experiences (Eakin 295). Thus according to Gergen, "To report on one's memories is not so much a matter of consulting mental images as it is engaging in a sanctioned form of telling" (Gergen 90). All of this lends weight to Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the "dialogic imagination," which "displaces the essentialist ideology of individualism that makes of the 'self' an atomized privacy, a unified and unique core isolable from society and 'representable' in autobiography" (Smith 48).
(4) Even before Said's memoir appeared in bookstores, the right-wing pro Zionist New York magazine Commentary, which had viciously attacked Said before, ran a story (in its September 1999 issue) by Israeli researcher Justus Wiener who accused Said of lying about his birth in Jerusalem, the ownership of a family house there in which he spent part of his childhood, and other details attesting to Said's Palestinian roots. Astonishingly, the libelous article was quickly excerpted in London's Daily Telegraph and New York's The Wall Street Journal, both known for pro-Israeli leanings. Not surprisingly, many newspapers subsequently published articles defending Said, but the affair as a whole illustrates, among other things, the embattled status of Arab-American writing in general, and in particular, the personal risks, as well as the public opportunities for debate, involved in constructing an autobiographical narrative that challenges dominant ideology.
(5) As expressed, for example, by organizations like the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Arab-American Action Network, Arab Women Solidarity Association, North America, and others.
(6) Some of the ways in which Mahfouz and el-Saadawi have been appropriated in the West are explored in my study of "'La litterature mondiale et l'enseignement de Naguib Mahfouz aux Etats Unis" and in Amal Amireh's "Framing Nawal El-Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World."
(7) I am grateful for the insightful comments and helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this article by Christopher Breu and the anonymous referees of Alif: A Journal of Comparative Poetics.
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|Author:||Hassan, Wail S.|
|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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