A new book, Arab Worlds Beyond the Middle East and North Africa, published by Lexington Books, celebrates the achievements and acknowledges the challenges of the new communities that Arabs have built around the world and shows examples of societies that have embraced the Arab diaspora, and societies that have sidelined these communities. The book is edited by Dr. Mariam Alkazemi, an assistant professor of public relations in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and Dr. Claudia E. Youakim, deputy director of knowledge management and research at the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership for Women at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
The book contains contributions by Manal al-Natour, Iméne Ajala, Aisha Sahar Waheed Alkharusi, Diogo Bercito, Richard M. Breaux, Youssef Chouhoud, Jodor Jalit, Bessma Momani, Michael Ahn Paarlberg, Rigoberto Menendez Paredes, Naomi Sakr, Nawroos Shibli, Christine Singer, Jeanette Steemers, and Rita Stephan. The book cover is designed by visual artist and ABPA Institute advisory board member Manal Deeb.
Dr. Alkazemi and Dr. Youakim graciously answered questions by phone about this exciting book project.
What inspired this new edited volume?
Dr. Alkazemi: For me, I met Claudia about 10 years ago, and I actually didn’t know she was Arab for the first two years. When I found out she was Arab, she was telling me that her family moved to Chile before they moved to the United States, how there was this huge population of Arabs in Chile and I was kind of mind-blown. At the time, I traveled a lot, and I sat next to this guy on an airplane. I was a graduate student, and he was telling me his name was Kareem. I said, “Kareem, are you Arab?” and he said, “My name is Kareem Roberto, I’m from Mexico.”
It was super interesting – in 2015, I found myself in Argentina and all of the candy wrappers had Arabic language, and I was so surprised. Everywhere I went, I said, “Wow, there is a connection here.” The issue is, there is this connection but I couldn’t read about it much in the media. I wanted to explore how Arab communities are in different places, and then suddenly – and Claudia and I had kind of joked about it while we were eating ice cream, “We’ll write a book about it one day.”
I got an email invitation to work on a project related to this. I emailed Claudia about it and I said, “Claudia, I’m not going to do this without you. Do you want to do it?” and she said yes.
Dr. Youakim: Generally speaking, it’s really interesting because I’m a child of Palestinian immigrant parents, and growing up, you just think about it from one direction: people from the Middle East come to the United States. I didn’t really know of various migration patterns, except for my dad, who lived in Chile. From Jerusalem, they got pushed out to Bethlehem, and then he immigrated and starting working with my uncle in the jewelry business they had back home in Bethlehem. They continued to work in the jewelry business in Santiago, Chile, and then they moved to Chicago. My uncle married a Chilean woman; they have children. My cousins are half-Chilean, and I would hear about Chile a lot. My dad speaks Spanish and his siblings also do.
I also grew up in a Latinx community so it was really interesting to me because I couldn’t find stories about this other than hearing about it from my dad, or knowing that my cousins were ‘halfies’ or as one of our chapter contributors says, Chilistinos (Chilean-Palestinian persons). I didn’t really hear about this other than that.
What inspires me are personal stories which shed light on the experiences and nuances that come with settling in a new place. For instance, how do people navigate that place? How are the national policies of a place? How do they make it more difficult or less difficult for ethnic or religious minorities, especially to integrate into their new home or host society?
I’m really fascinated, and my primary research topic is focused on children of immigrants; how they come to terms with their national ethnic racial identities; how they come to make sense of their belonging. Like their parents, who they think they’re very different than, each of their identities are very complex. They’re trying to navigate two worlds but in different ways, and how society welcomes and challenges each of their identities in their own right.
My personal story has made me interested in studying this and connecting with other like-minded people like Mariam. Very often, we talk about how we’re in-between two worlds in a way, and how that makes us a community. This is kind of a new identity – being Arab-American is a thing on its own; you’re not one or the other but you’re a mesh of both. It inspired this book so that’s pretty awesome!
What were the criteria or guidelines for the content that’s presented in the book?
Dr. Alkazemi: I looked up my records before we started talking and we had 34 submissions, so it would’ve been 34 chapters. We had limits. We submitted the book call very widely around the world; different fields like historians, sociologists, communication professionals, across so many different places. We had some hopes – not all of these hopes were realized but I think we accomplished a lot. What we wanted was to look at different regions of the world – we didn’t want to make it all U.S.-centric. We didn’t want to make it all European. We have a chapter from Singapore and several chapters from South America.
We’d hoped to get a chapter on the African continent. There are Arab communities in both East Africa and West Africa but we weren’t able to, which is a little bit disappointing. We also had gotten a chapter that we were so excited about. It was about Arab cuisine (Iraqi) in Australia. We had all of these hopes. We wanted work that dealt with politics, but we also wanted content from all these different places; work that really celebrated the culture as well as talked about the difficult parts of immigration.
We have chapters about why in France, they don’t refer to people as Arabs but they refer to their immigrants as Muslims. There are chapters on how in the United States, when Arabs are Christian or Muslim, they integrate differently. We have chapters from the history of the Arab community in both Cuba and Singapore. It’s so cool because I read all the time and I’ve not read anything like it. It’s a very unique perspective.
Dr. Youakim: Yes, it’s exactly that. In some ways, it’s expected in a volume on migration where people are leaving their homeland and immigrating to another space, there’s many hurdles. Then we see also that there are many persons of Arab descent that are also holding leadership and political positions. In places like Brazil, for example, there are a lot of chapters that deal with talking about trends of social and political climate and identity and integration, and challenges with integration in one’s society that are created or framed by things like the state and law.
There are some celebratory chapters too, talking about what Mariam was just saying – about music or cuisine. It was, for us personally, something that we held onto and that we’d reference even in ongoing conversations. It brought happiness to us to see something other than speaking about the Arab world and just focusing on challenges and complexity of identity in a way that was more celebratory, basically.
Dr. Alkazemi: Claudia is a sociologist; I’m a communications scholar. We’re so different in our fields, so both of us really wanted to break away from this very discipline-centered view of scholarship. Not only did we want it to be interdisciplinary, we wanted to be a little bit open-minded about what we accepted. In fact, two of our authors aren’t even scholars, they are diplomats.
We also wanted to open it up so it’s not just academics that are reading this. We want this book to be accessible to different kinds of people. From the very beginning, we wanted to keep an open mind on “whose work are we going to accept?” and “what are the topics we want in the book?”
Dr. Youakim: That’s a great segue to mentioning the cover of the book. We were thinking about how we really want this to be interdisciplinary, and what do we want the cover to look like? Covers of books, especially when you’re working with a publisher, there’s a pretty standard way of presenting the cover. We were thinking, “OK, well, in what way can we make our cover more intriguing for someone to pick this up that maybe wouldn’t pick this up otherwise?”
We connected with Manal Deeb, an artist who is part of the Palestinian-American diaspora and she lives in D.C. Her art is amazing. She’s a feature in the Palestinian-American Museum; she’s very globally renowned.
Dr. Alkazemi: She’s had exhibits at the United Nations. She’s a very cool artist! After she heard about what cover we wanted, she let us pick it out and even wrote an interpretive piece too.
Dr. Youakim: We are actually featuring her work. She does a lot of expression about being a part of the Palestinian diaspora. Not only is she part of the diaspora, and her art speaks to being and living in exile as a Palestinian person, it speaks to our book and as part of her experience being in our storyline.
Dr. Alkazemi: That was Claudia’s idea – that’s one of the things I love about Claudia, thinking outside the box – that’s a form of scholarship, in our opinion. Our cover is not just something to sell a book but the cover itself is exactly an expression of diasporic identity. Even if people might not enjoy reading so much, the cover itself is thought-provoking and expressive.
Dr. Youakim: We did want to push the boundaries on how we define interdisciplinary work, and especially coming from an academic environment where interdisciplinary means historians work with sociologists, and that’s a breakthrough. But we wanted to cross boundaries and go with the arts, and we want to hear about music and cuisine. We wanted to have a little bit more of that.
It’s also restricted by the topic because you’ll see that although we include art, it’s hard to be celebratory when you’re drawing about being in exile, so there’s this paradox that Manal Deeb is working around. Phenomenal artist.
In the spirit of being interdisciplinary, when we have a panel (usually academics have a panel of speakers and then each person discusses their work), we definitely want to integrate her as being part of that panel and for her to talk about and feature her artwork. It expands the community of scholarship and what it means to write or express oneself about the Arab diaspora.
How do you anticipate that readers will perceive the book, become affected by it, or reflect on their own stories of their travels?
Dr. Alkazemi:What do you learn in school? If you learn anything, it’s to question. How many times have you read an award-winning book where you’ve gotten to criticize it in your classrooms? That’s the learning process. The learning process consists of criticizing things; not necessarily criticizing something because you can do better than it, but that’s how you learn – you learn by criticizing. What could this person do better? What are they trying to say?
I actually do anticipate lots of criticism because other people will able to publish articles as a result of criticizing other peoples’ work. I also anticipate some praise because there isn’t really anything comparable right now. I hope that over time, we’ll see more and more interesting articles that blend disciplines and perspectives.
Dr. Youakim: I totally agree. For each piece or each contribution, the story is just paused, it doesn’t end, so someone picks it up and continues writing about it. What Mariam was saying is that part of what we wanted to see in the book, for example, is chapters and stories about East and West Africa and Arab diasporic communities there, but we weren’t able to do that. Maybe that could be a book in and of itself about the continent and Arab diasporic communities, or communities in Africa. Starting this is a ‘phase’ and then there could be other phases – it’s definitely not exhaustive. We’re not arguing that at all.
We’re looking at it like it’s starting a conversation about migration patterns outside of the Middle East, and they’re not uni-directional; they’re going in all sorts of ways. People even move. The fascinating part of their stories, not only the settlement stories, is why people leave. How the migration patterns and what we call in sociology the “push-and-pull factors” from one’s home country to a host country – why that happens. How people end up in different places. Even though they are from the Arab Middle East North Africa (MENA), someone can end up from Lebanon to Brazil, and from Palestine to Chile, and from Syria to Connecticut in the U.S. It’s really interesting.
Dr. Alkazemi: My hope is that we can give something encouraging that helps people understand themselves better, creates stronger communities; listen to other peoples’ stories. That’s exactly the hope.
Can you discuss the importance of understanding Arab communities to inform a more nuanced, inclusive approach to the study of the Arab diaspora?
Dr. Alkazemi: There’s all this rhetoric around the world, that globalization is a thing of the past. Actually, the world is really interconnected. I feel like sometimes we’re trying to understand ourselves, or even like Claudia – when you and I met. We have a lot of differences in our identity. Our families come from different countries with different religions. You’re in sociology, I’m not. Don’t we all want to understand ourselves by understanding where we came from? I feel like it’s a human thing.
Examples of our book come from all over. They come from Singapore, Germany; literally communities that are Syrian or Lebanese. Not just from the Levant, it’s really from all over. There are articles about the first recorded Arabic music in the United States. Around the world, we’re so interconnected and it’s very important to learn about how individuals are struggling to assimilate and to learn from other peoples’ experiences and understand themselves more.
The book is important to me. I’m one of these kids who, growing up, always read but never felt like anything I read helped me understand myself. I needed more self-understanding and there was just so little.
For me, my hope is that this book inspires people to look at how this Arab community had to adjust gender roles in Connecticut so that they can adjust better to the United States. Or look at people politically organizing in Brazil and Argentina; there are Arab communities. This book is about giving examples that help us see how interconnected we are, but also help us understand ourselves as communities, as groups of people.
Dr. Youakim: The media doesn’t highlight stories in a nuanced way. Media is a great source and medium but it definitely shouldn’t be the only source of learning material. The unfortunate reality is that people do that. The average person doesn’t have the context but also a diverse sense of what they tune into. If you’re tuning into one channel, you’re going to get a sort of reporting that is then filtered through whatever that framework is. You’re always going to be limited to what you know. That’s part of it.
This book is to expand that conversation, to expand the fact that the Arab immigrant community is diverse in itself. There are different experiences within that and what it means, depending on where you are at in the context. It’s very context-based. Mariam and I also talk about this – there is a sense of responsibility that minorities always feel to explain to other people about themselves.
Looking at the authors and the contributors, even to our chapters and the stories, it’s not that far-removed, where someone’s identity is an extension of their work. We see a lot of that in the social sciences, in media studies, and sociology because there’s a lot of misconception and misunderstanding about peoples’ identity. They want to shed light on this, to embed it. It’s not a one-person experience, this is a problem at-large.
We’re trying to shed light on this problem. This is where the book comes in as a helping hand here too – and maybe someone isn’t interested in picking up this book for any other reason than maybe the book cover attracts them.
How can we get the word out to other people? We could just start with the context of this book and hopefully people pick it up and can then continue to have this conversation and add to the nuances, because we’re scratching the surface here with the compilation.
Amongst the compilation, are there any stories that really stand out, that remind you of yours or others’ experiences?
Dr. Alkazemi: In a lot of these chapters, I felt like we were traveling. It was during a pandemic. I’ve been to the Arab district in Singapore, so when I was reading it, I could ‘feel’ the streets. It’s always really hard for me to read about high school kids or trying to make sense of “what am I?” especially in regard to ethnicity.
When you’re a little kid, you should just be a person. There’s so much that I do personally relate to, that sometimes you feel like you just don’t belong anywhere, and I wanted to acknowledge that. There are some chapters that deal with that.
There are stories about reconciling identity. There are some challenges. We were young kids, I was four of five years old when suddenly, Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. My family is from Kuwait. We were in Washington, D.C. I just remember taking my mom to a movie about refugees when I was in college and she was very hysterical and in tears. I said, “Mom, what happened?” and she said, “That was like us.”
Reading about refugee children in Germany, watching stuff on TV, that’s probably why I became a media professor because I grew up always watching TV, worried about war. There’s a lot of pieces of humanity but there’s also challenging moments. In the music chapter, it was very happy and upbeat and from way before any of us were born, in the 1920-1930s.
Parts of this book were personally being able to relate to. Parts of this book are like me and Claudia saying we have to take a step back and see what different authors are contributing, so it’s not just about us and our lives and our experiences.
There were several scholars that I’d never met, and hearing their thoughts, the questions that they wanted to raise. I never even once thought about why in France, the Muslim category is considered mostly North African, not Arab. When I went to Belgium for a conference in the early 2010s, I remember this guy saying, “I can’t believe you’re not Moroccan!” I said, “Why do you think I’m Moroccan?” He kept asking me questions, and it was the only time in my life that someone kept insisting I was Moroccan. I’ve gotten lots of different questions about my background. In this book, I don’t think we necessarily imposed our view on people. We were just open to peoples’ stories.
When people wrote about refugee children in Germany and how they watched TV, it resonated with me, but I understand what it’s like to want to reconcile your identity to belong somewhere. It’s really not so personal because we’re not even the authors of the individual chapters, we just selected them from a group of 34 (there are 11 chapters in the book).
Dr. Youakim: The submission of chapters: We could only fit a third of what we got in. That also speaks to the amount of encouragement for future scholars who also want to continue to write about this. There’s a lot of interest in it within the academic community so I’m sure that speaks to outside of the community as well.
Dr. Alkazemi: We contacted maybe 10 different anthropologists about the Africa chapter and they’re from so many different countries. There were Dutch people, universities all over the world. All of them were working on other things.
One individual said in an email, “It’s like waiting at a bus stop. Sometimes you get lots of requests to write chapters and sometimes you don’t.” That was his email back to us. We asked, “Will you write a chapter?” and he said, “No, I’m already working on too many,” and then he gave us that bus stop analogy. The book takes on a life of its own. You have a deadline with a publisher; you have to wrap it up eventually.
Dr. Youakim: And it’s limited: limited chapters, limited words, limited submission time, so all of those things impact the submissions that you get. The stories in the book that stand out or that remind me of experiences – it’s interesting because I want to be more celebratory and that kind of thing, but a lot of it is a challenge; challenging or negotiating one’s identity.
It’s difficult and I always think of parents and children, about the intergenerational experience. Parents are seeing their children grow up differently than themselves, and they themselves are trying to acculturate, or get used to a different place.
At the same time, children are challenged. They’re challenging the views and values of their parents but then they’re also challenged by the views and values of their peers. What’s right or what’s wrong? It’s difficult.
More or less, some chapters speak to that. It’s a solid theme too and contributes to the storyline of immigrant families or immigrant communities, or living outside of an immigrant community. Each one comes with its own set of challenges and privileges.
What does it mean to live in an ethnic enclave which is predominantly where people of your ethnic identity live? Presentation of self might be really high and maybe the values of my community is not how I see myself. Now I have to think about filtering that when I’m around people who are like me, or maybe I stop hanging out somewhere else because I don’t want to deal with that today. These things are stories that are the pros and cons of the community itself.
Dr. Alkazemi: If you don’t want to deal with the issues of the community, you have to deal with someone else’s community’s issues.
Dr. Youakim: It’s just interesting to see how people negotiate these values. It also speaks to “the group is not monolithic,” meaning they’re not all the same. We don’t all have one solid experience as immigrants, as Arabs. There could be more than one community of Arabs in a city and they could not interact with each other. There are different factors that might divide or unite them. For example, religion seems to be quite a significant one, or class. The same as other communities of other ethnicities and other races – we tend to self-segregate.
As Arabs, the other thing is not thinking about the group monolithically. Some persons hold onto tradition more than others. People are more religious than others. There’s such a wide variation within the group and you see that, and that’s really highlighted in the book and in the chapters. Within each chapter, you see a sense of that.
Is there an area globally or in the U.S. that captures your research mentality, where you might think, “that place contains a treasure trove of migratory perspectives”?
Dr. Alkazemi: I moved to Michigan State University in 2007 to 2009 to try to meet Arab-Americans and my parents got married in Michigan. I heard about Dearborn. The moment I got there, I realized, “I’m not going to belong here.” Claudia and I both talked about this; where do we feel like we belong? Where are there people who might have stories? Is there one location where you might be able to find more stories than others?
I don’t think that the location is that relevant because Arabs are everywhere. That’s the whole point. There’s Arabs everywhere you go. It’s very weird how you find out about it. You’re veiled and everybody says “did you go to the mezquita?” and you ask, “What’s mezquita?” and it turns out, that’s “mosque” in Spanish.
It’s so interesting when you learn about where there are Arabs. You walk into a grocery store and someone speaks in Arabic and you think, “Whoa, someone’s speaking to me.” I’ve met so many people with red hair and they’re Arab. I had no idea that there’s really a lot of diversity.
Dr. Youakim: It’s really interesting because typically, yes, there’s definitely the communities and the community at-large – just what we capture in this book, but there’s unique stories. For example, in the Southwest side of Chicago in the Bridgeview area, there is a Catholic high school and the majority of students are Muslim students because the ethnic enclave in Bridgeview is Palestinian-Muslim. It’s said that there’s more Muslim students in attendance than Catholic or Christian students.
Dr. Alkazemi: I was telling my Catholic friend that, and he didn’t believe me. He said, “Why would anyone go to a Catholic school if they’re not Catholic?” I said, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know it happens!”
Dr. Youakim: Places like that are a unique study opportunity because they’re also taking religious classes. How are they integrated within the school curriculum? Are there prayer rooms? How is that welcomed and what are the tensions? There are too many; I couldn’t possibly satisfy your question. There’s just an infinite amount of stories and an infinite amount of opportunities.
Dr. Alkazemi: If you’re asking, “how can one navigate culture?” Make friends. That’s the extrovert in me, “Make friends.” I don’t know what’s a better way to look at it. If I was to go to a new city and call my friends and say, “this is where I’m going,” they’re going to tell me cool restaurants to go to. They tell you where to go and when you go to these different places, eventually you open up to people and you find out, meet with them, talk with them. Sometimes your friends have cousins in these different cities – it’s interesting how the world is actually so small.
How does the global media shape and represent Arab diasporic identities? Can you offer your thoughts on how this can change in a more positive way?
Dr. Alkazemi: One of the chapters we have in the book is by a historian in Cuba. He is a cool, cool guy. We found him being interviewed by a newspaper somewhere in the world, and my friend knew that we writing about the Arab diaspora, and she said, “You need to check this out.” I emailed him on LinkedIn and we started a conversation. Media representations around the world – foreign policy usually drives media stories about countries outside the United States, and that’s why what you usually see is stories about terrorism, crisis, civil war, natural disasters, famine, diseases like polio.
It’s very sad, honestly, but even though the media was once conceived as a tool for public education, it’s really in some ways just following reports by governments to try and keep those in power accountable. And what do people in government talk about? Foreign policy objectives.
The cool thing about our book is we tried to be a little broad. We keep referring to this music chapter, but it was written by an ethnomusicologist, and he went back to all these newspaper archives and tells you the exact addresses where there were music stores.
I ended up calling my dad who used to go to New York City 1960s, and asked him, “Dad, where did you buy music?” and he said, “Washington Street.” I said “Gosh. Dad, do you remember the place?” and he said, “I can’t remember, it was so many years ago.”
There are stories in the German media chapter; it was about kids who are refugees and how they made friends or how they didn’t make friends, and the stress of waiting for their paperwork to go through the system. Narratives like this, even though they’re sad sometimes, they help people who don’t know what it’s like to be a refugee – even me. They help us have more empathy for people, to know what challenges they go through, to see what they go through even as young kids trying to make friends.
That’s really important – not just to talk about the challenges but to empathize and humanize. They’re people at the end of the day.
Dr. Youakim: I echo what Mariam said. It’s to humanize, and hopefully, with each one of these stories, with each one of these chapters, I hope that it can just continue the conversation in a positive way by adding to that sense of humanity; the human component. People aren’t numbers when they migrate, for example, or when they’re pushed out of their home country for whatever circumstances.
Typically, in the global media, they’re a statistic, or when you see them featured, it’s like some extreme or extraordinary situation – like a boy is found on the shore. It’s not an outlier situation. People aren’t numbers. That boy had a name and a family and a community. Touching on the human aspect.
For students, graduates, or practitioners in your respective fields, how might they look at this book under the lens of their areas of focus? How can members of your discipline use this compilation of stories?
Dr. Alkazemi: I have more general information. Anyone can learn – you don’t have to be a Masters or PhD student. This book is for all people. My advice, even for my graduate students, even for my undergraduate students, even for my brothers and sisters, is to learn from people around you but also read. Being born into an Arab family doesn’t mean you know anything about “Arab-ness.” Just because you’re born Muslim doesn’t make you knowledgeable about Islam.
You might notice a few things in the world around you, but you don’t have an understanding. Even if we’re writing about disciplines, for example, like history. How many times have I had to stop writing a communication article and look up a historical event and look up how it’s interpreted so I can understand communication a little bit better? How many times have I had to do that? So many times.
I feel like just reading about culture can provide self-understanding, can provide more clarity for developing – whether it’s in the humanities or science narratives or new ways to test theories.
There’s something about learning in that way that’s satisfying. Realizing something through reading and reflection – it’s satisfying but also surprising at times. Sometimes you learn something and say, “Oh my gosh! That’s why my aunt used to do that.” How many times has that happened?
I hope that people go to read this book, not just because it’s a book written by people with PhDs, but that it’s an interesting and provocative book.
Dr. Youakim: In sociology, there is a term that’s used in the discipline, “armchair sociologist.” It’s someone that sits behind a desk and studies people. You probably don’t learn as much about people if you’re an armchair sociologist versus if you travel and learn more about communities. For example, if you’re born and raised in one community and then you’re learning about someone overseas, and you’re learning about it through books, then you’re really limiting yourself about what you’re exposed to.
Steering away from that, definitely travel if they can. Then to think about participants as part and central to the research process. For example, people in PhD programs don’t really have the means to pay people for their time when they’re interviewing them. In what ways can you help leverage a community? What does the community get in return, aside from raising awareness?
For example, when I think about sociology and what we study, a lot of it is stories which is excellent and the way that it increases nuance. At the same time, we also need to increase nuance by collecting data quantitatively, and in the U.S. census to then make a mark; for persons of Arab descent to have political power.
There is a power in numbers, and right now, when it comes to numbers, Arabs as you might know are being quantified as White. It’s literally a definition in the U.S. census, something that’s been argued time and time again. The U.S. State Department has been pushed on this. The Office of Management and Budget challenges it and they refuse to put this as part of the criteria. What it means for the community is that we lose out on a lot of financial aid, for example, whether it be in a nonprofit or with students in school because we are not perceived as a minority. We’re seen as the White majority.
It’s a little bit difficult. Yes, stories are definitely important but also looking at what leverages the community at-large and things like this come straight to my head – being more of an advocate.
Dr. Alkazemi: One of the chapters referred to a case where there’s a lawsuit related to the Census Bureau.
Dr. Youakim: It’s definitely an issue, it has come up time and time again but then you look at it within the discipline, a lot of sociologists want to study the numbers and quantify the community.
It’s really hard based on what we have; the data that we have is very scarce. In addition to that, pushing and making more of an argument for it that goes beyond just doing research for research, and doing research for pushing this politically – being more of a scholar-activist versus a scholar.
In that way, I’d say sociologists need to push that boundary.
Will there be a sequel to this book?
Dr. Alkazemi: We’ve been joking about this. This is the second book that we’ve done. The first one came out in 2018; this is 2021, and every time I’m done, I say, “I’m never going to do that again,” never going to sit there and work, fixing hundreds of citations. I need a little break right now.
This year has been really crazy. Claudia was living in Beirut and there was an explosion of a port there, and then there was a global pandemic. If there is another sequel, it’ll be after a little bit of time has passed. We didn’t get a chapter on cuisine because the author pulled out. We were talking to these folks who focus on East Africa and there’s a huge Lebanese population in Ghana and Ivory Coast. It’s really interesting because it’s related to colonialism.
One of the conversations I had was with a professor who studies the Hadhrami population, a Yemeni group in Africa. He said, “Well, it’s been there for thousands of years so it’s not really a diaspora because it’s just like the way it’s always been.” We were having really interesting arguments and discussions, and it’s nice to realize there’s a lot of growth for me too. I have a lot to learn.
I don’t see anything at all in the next year or two.
Dr. Youakim: It’s something we talked about very briefly because we said, “We need to finish this project first.”
Dr. Alkazemi: We definitely want to work together again.
Dr. Youakim: We do talk about the shortcomings of the book; we’re very transparent about that. Whether it’s us or someone else writing that sequel, I think it’s a necessary contribution, and it’s something that would be valued within and outside of the academy. For the layperson, this knowledge is definitely of value. For it to be recorded also in one volume, I feel adds to the variation of the Arab MENA as not monolithic in and of itself because it then expands on just the component of migration from that region, outside of the region. That is even a special component to it.
Dr. Alkazemi: When we were first conceiving of the book, I was asking different friends. One of the professors is married to an Iranian man and she said, “I would only want to write about Arab populations in Iran.” It was interesting to learn what people were interested in. They said, “No, I’d really want to write about this.” It made me realize that someone else flipped the table on me and said, “Well, why are you writing about Arabs outside the Middle East when there are all these different Arabs from different countries in other Middle Eastern countries? You should really focus on the migration that’s within the region.” When you’re brainstorming out-loud at folks, a lot of times, people offer criticisms based their own interests. It was interesting for me because I didn’t think about that.
I was sure I didn’t want to do that; I didn’t want it to be about nationality. I wanted to be a little broader. There are some books that deal with nationality; in the Gulf, particularly, with migration there.
I liked the approach that we took, even though, like we said, there are lots of shortcomings, but it’s creative. I also feel like if anyone reads it, they’ll not only notice how passionate the different individual chapters’ authors are, Claudia and I’s passion really shows in the book.
We really crossed disciplines and tried to hear different perspectives and integrate them. We tried to make sense of them in the introduction. Is there room for improvement? Yes. Hopefully, this won’t be the end of our lives and there will be more stuff that we can do together in the future, but a particular sequel – I’m not ready to think about that.
Are there any books you’ve read that informed how you look at and think about migration?
Dr. Alkazemi: My dad is an economist and I forget the name of the book; I had it in my parent’s house. It’s all about the frustrations of people when they immigrate. He gave it to me and I remember talking about where I should work. There was this chapter about how people who leave their families for better economic and professional opportunities end up suffering in the family – that kind of aspect of life. Then people who remain with their families end up so frustrated with the ceilings placed on them in different areas, where there aren’t that many opportunities for work.
That’s a frustration, so that helped me notice how, at least as far as my life is concerned. I also try to understand other peoples’ values with this framework. It’s a trade-off. What kind of frustration are you willing to live with, and for how long?
After three years of working in the Middle East, I decided to come back. Claudia was also working in both American and Middle Eastern universities. Where is the future going to take us? I guess that means I’m really lucky that I can think about the economics of it and not have to think about life-or-death type stuff.
Through the authors’ chapters, I picked up a book, Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism by Nadine Naber; I haven’t read it yet. I have a book by a sociology professor at my university called The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race by Neda Maghbouleh; we’re considered White but we’re not treated like White. It talks about Iranian communities in America, and then this book called Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora by Sarah Gualtieri.
There’s a lot and I’ve browsed through individual sections of these books. Even if you were to really look at every single table of contents and every book on the topic (we had to do an exercise like that when we were pitching it to the publishers), we found there was nothing like what we were talking about and so immediately we knew we had a good idea.
Dr. Youakim: There are so many books that have inspired me and my work along the way, but here are a few books that have influenced my work on ethno-racial identity, national belonging, and immigration:
- Jimenez, Tomas. 2009. Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity. UC Press.
- Alba, Richard, and Victor Nee. “Remaking the American mainstream: Immigration and contemporary immigration.” (2003).
- Waters, Mary C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
And a book that I would recommend and initially resonated with helping me understand my identity as an Arab American, is Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria: and other conversations about race.” It’s an excellent read.
In terms of offering advice to Arab MENA students who moved abroad; I’m thinking about this question particularly because I work with the American University in Beirut (AUB) now, and I worked there for the past year and a half. The instability of Lebanon, especially now, is pushing people out. There’s a lot of persons who are young and very qualified and looking for jobs elsewhere, and it’s pretty heartbreaking to see it unfold. I’m thinking of them as a community.
What can they look into in this book that might be helpful or enlightening? Their immediate goal is just to obviously get a job elsewhere but while you’re navigating a new nation, I feel like new communities surface on college campuses and in workplaces all the time.
Navigating a new place takes an open mind, a willingness to listen at least to ways that other people see things. You also don’t have to waver in your position to blend in, and I think that happens a lot. When someone moves somewhere else, there’s a fear of standing out. There’s actually absolutely nothing wrong with that, to an extent, of course, depending on the context.
In the U.S., inclusion and diversity is being a bit more pushed in different institutions, academic and non-academic. I’m working on a project in the Arab MENA and we’re pushing for the inclusion of women in the formal workplace and in the formal economy, and this is in the region. Inclusivity and diversity are growing in popularity across organizations and growing in popularity definitely across the globe, since decades ago especially.
This book can shed light on the fact that living in a new place comes with its challenges, but they also show that maintaining your values and traditions and culture in the way that you see best fit are also of value. I just wanted to push for the importance of inclusion, diversity, and uniqueness too. It’s OK not to blend in, or what we refer to as “assimilate.” It’s OK to adopt part of the culture in your new society but not like or want to adopt other factors of it.
Are there other ways to better negotiate those new surroundings, environments, and culture?
Dr. Youakim: It’s really hard. I’m a first-generation college graduate and for many people in my position, they have to navigate the journey of different counselors or counting on teachers or other people for information. They might not know about resources available to them because their parents didn’t navigate the system, they’re not in-the-know.
Our comfort zone is to self-segregate to people who look like us and maybe people who have more commonality with us. I feel like in some ways, that’s not as helpful when you’re navigating a new environment. When you’re in a new environment, you want to look to other people and resources that’ll maybe give you more information, and be helpful in the familiarity of navigating something like a college campus or how to apply to scholarships. Or maybe how to get an internship, or who is looking for a researcher to work with. Maybe there’s a job opportunity.
All of these things might not happen by self-selecting into one community; having a diversity of communities and resources.
Dr. Alkazemi: Next week, we have a Mental Health Awareness Day for people from the Middle East and North Africa at VCU. Claudia and I met at some workshops, I had no idea she was Arab. It might’ve taken two years for us both to realize we’re both Arab because Claudia doesn’t sound like an Arabic name to me. I have a different story; my family lived here for a little bit of time and then they all went back home.
I decided to come back. I’m 35 and I still feel like I’m trying to navigate it. My family isn’t here. I don’t have anyone to rely on to babysit my dog when I’m going to go do something. The questions you’re talking about – it affects college students but it’s not just for college students. One of the reasons why I care so much is because I’m living it. I’m trying to figure stuff out too. I don’t want to give everything up about my identity. I don’t want to follow everything just because it’s the rule, back home or here.
I want a space to do what makes sense and be accepted for who I am, and there’s some cultural components to that. It’s really hard to figure out and it’s so interesting because I have all these students from all over the world. I had a student who came to me last year and I guess she didn’t know I was Muslim.
When she found out I was Muslim, she sat down in a chair and started talking. We sat there and five hours later, she was still talking. She just wanted to tell me all these things, and I can understand it. I can give you different examples of experiences; I’m trying to give small stories that might be able to help someone. Sometimes I feel like if I had it figured out, believe me, I think my life would look different.
It’s a struggle for all of us.
How much does learning the native language of a place help people adjust or alleviate difficulties?
Dr. Youakim: The idea is not to assimilate. Assimilate means we want you to strip who you are and adopt who we want you to be because this is how we are in this society. The idea is to acculturate. The idea is, learning a language provides you with an insider perspective and an insider positionality within a community. For example, when I was living overseas, it’s interesting because it gives you a way to communicate and connect to people that you wouldn’t communicate with or connect to otherwise.
Dr. Alkazemi: Yes, a perfect example of this is Falafel Kimchi on TikTok. He’s South Korean and he speaks Arabic, and he videotapes himself going to shawarma places and ordering in Arabic and you’ll see people’s looks on their faces – it’s so fun.
Dr. Youakim: It’s interesting too though because you think “language” and people always say that if you know a language, that’ll provide you with a step-in-the-door to know a bit more about a community, or a lot more, or to navigate a place. Even travelling, knowing Arabic. My Arabic is “Arabic-glish” – it’s a mesh of English and Arabic. I forced myself to speak it more so I can be more fluent while I was overseas.
At any rate, Palestinian Arabic, which is what I speak, is different than Lebanese Arabic. It’s different than Syrian Arabic. I had no idea; I was not ready for people to look at me like “What did she just say?” when I was speaking Arabic because we’re referring to a dish with two different words.
I didn’t know the level of dialect could be so different when two countries are literally side-by-side. It was eye-opening to me. Even when you know a language, depending on the dialect that you’re speaking (I’m Palestinian and I’m in Lebanon speaking to Lebanese persons), I don’t know what I didn’t hear because I was Palestinian. It allows you to be an insider to a community but with boundaries. It’s really interesting!