Traveling tiles, traveling empires

I recently traveled to Ecuador and Peru, two countries I found extremely beautiful and inspirational in lots of different ways. While I was in Lima, I visited an old Franciscan monastery, and come across these tiles throughout:

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Our tour guide briefly mentioned that these tiles were brought by the Spanish from Andalucía when they conquered Peru in 1532. He also noted the many Arab influences throughout the monastery, explaining them again with reference to Andalucía.

Thinking of these tiles as traveling tiles, it struck me how often histories of empire are separated from one another rather than connected, especially in disciplines outside of history. The Spanish arrived in the Americas in 1492; in Peru in 1532; and began expelling the Muslims and the Jews from Andalucía in 1609. All of these events, coming under the rubric of the Spanish Empire, tell us a lot about the beginnings of European empire and the start of a global and universalist racial project.

Something as seemingly innocent as a tile from Sevilla appearing in Lima represents more than just artistic influence traveling from one part of the empire to another. It represents an Andalucía in which Arab influence was widespread across cities, towns, and lives. This history is often erased in modern-day Spain, where even tours of the Alhambra can forget to mention who built it and what that says about Spanish history.

Similarly, I was struck by placards in various Peruvian museums that represent the Spanish conquest almost neutrally and objectively, as though it was something that was inevitable. In this particular monastery where the traveling tiles can be found, we were told that indigenous people “loved” and “cherished” the Spanish. This is a very different story from the ones indigenous Peruvians tell about the history of the conquest, and about how the Spanish set out to destroy everything and everyone. In this history, a place like the ruins next to the Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) can only be understood in relation to the excruciating amounts of violence the Spanish subjected indigenous peoples to, leading one million people to flee to this mountain-top and cover the trail behind them.

We heard stories about the Quechua people that did not fit neatly into Europeanised binaries. They did not have “religions” or “genders” in the way we understand these categories today. They understood nature in ways we can never hope to achieve, and don’t even want to achieve – as can be seen from our climate crisis. Their use of gold, silver and other metals had nothing to do with material gain or calculation and everything to do with what these metals represented in terms of belief. It’s during moments like these that we begin to glimpse what has been lost, how entire life-worlds and ways of being were almost entirely eliminated.

Just seventy years later, a decree was passed expelling Muslims and Jews from Spain itself. The ways in which the Spanish Empire understood value, race, civilization and progress played out in these different contexts, in parallel time, with radically different outcomes. As someone who studies postcolonial theory, I have begun to wonder why the Spanish Empire is so often left out; why we begin with the Dutch or British empires. As decolonial and indigenous scholars have long pointed out, 1492 was the start of it all.

Traveling then, even when all that has traveled are some colourful tiles, is never ahistorical, and never innocent in the context of an expanding empire. It has a lot to tell us about erasure, extermination, race, greed, and power. We could tell a nice story about these tiles that would us feel good about how art travels and spreads and crosses boundaries; or, we could ask how art comes to be made, by whom, what happened to those artists, and what happened to those who the art was brought to.

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Favourite books of 2018

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As usual, I’m in denial that another year is coming to an end. I always look forward to writing this particular post though, because I get to go to my Goodreads account and pick out my favourite books of the year. This year was also the year in which I started an instragram account dedicated to reading (radical_reading). I’ve had such a nice time getting to know other book lovers, and curating all of my favourite books in one space. Generally, I’ve had an extremely busy and exhausting year on multiple levels, and am ready to spend the next few weeks doing nothing but reading novels. Given my general feeling of tiredness, I assumed I hadn’t had an exciting reading year. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to remember some of the amazing, life-changing books I spent time with this year. Below, I’ve put them in the order in which I read them.

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill –  Gabriela Soto Laveaga

 Unthinking Mastery – Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements – Julietta Singh

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Trumpet – Jackie Kay

The Intimacies of Four Continents – Lisa Lowe

Policing Transnational Protest: Liberal Imperialism and the Surveillance of Anticolonialists in Europe, 1905-1945 – Daniel Brückenhaus

For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India – Anjali Arondekar

A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut  – Toufoul Abou-Hodeib

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

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Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women – Brittney C. Cooper

The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-Movement Generation in Egypt – Arwa Salih

Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam  – Stefania Pandolfo

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The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Shahota

Crossing the Bay of Bengal – Sunil Amrith

Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality – Sadiyya Shaikh

Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership  – Brenna Bhandar

Salt Houses – Hala Alyan

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The Diaries of Waguih Ghali – Volumes 1 & 2

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy – Irvin Yalom

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

The Water Cure – Sophie Mackintosh

Algiers, Third World Capital – Elaine Mokhtefi

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The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing – Merve Emre

Refuge – Dina Nayeri

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype – Clarissa Pinkola Estés

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby – Cherise Wolas

The Burning Chambers – Kate Mosse

The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make – J Lorand Matory

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Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race – Neda Maghbouleh

Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism – Iyko Day

Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran – Orkideh Behrouzan

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I’m so glad to have ended the year with Prozac Diaries; I couldn’t have asked for a better book to leave 2018 with. Please do leave your favourite books/any book recs in the comments – excited to see what 2019 brings! Happy New Year everyone!

Slowing down

I wrote this post in June, and just found it in my drafts. Thought it would be nice to share these feelings!

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I finished my PhD at the end of 2016, and started a research and teaching fellowship right away, one that is now coming to an end. I’m starting a new lectureship, which has meant moving to a new city and getting to know a new institution. The past six years, then, have been a whirlwind of reading, researching, writing, presenting, teaching, supervising, mentoring, discussing and defending. This whirlwind steadily intensified, and it’s not an exaggeration that the past year in particular has been the most intense out of the six. The pressures of publishing, teaching, understanding how higher education in a new country works, and applying to jobs has meant that the past 12 months have gone by just like that. At times it felt like all I did was work – and not always the nice type of work. Marking, going to conferences, filling out job applications and dealing with bureaucracy have dominated much of my life recently.

Emotionally, anxiety, worry, stress, and exhaustion have seemed to increasingly be where my head and heart space are. This particular month, with conference after conference, has brought up all sorts of insecurities around my research and where it is going – and no surprise there; presenting your research more than five times in one month – laying everything bare that often – is nerve-wrecking! On top of that, things in my personal life have been affected too; because of the stress of this past year, I ended up making decisions that had horrible effects on my life more generally.

What has made me reflect on all of this is a book I just finished – Knot of the Soul, by Stefania Pandolfo. The book looks at psychoanalysis, Islamic healing, colonialism and postcolonialism, and how people and societies deal with political violence. What struck me about this book is how much time it took her to research and write it, and how much care and thought she puts into what she writes. The project spans over twenty years, and is largely based on ethnographic work she did in Morocco. This ethnographic work, however, takes place over very long periods, and is done consistently over the twenty year period. Ethnography, in many ways, is such an important research methodology because of how well it captures complex dynamics and changes (when it’s done carefully and critically of course – too many examples of it being done wrong).

But more than the ethnography, there is a thoughtfulness in this book that touched me. You can sense that she took a lot of time and care in writing every single sentence, and that what you have in your hands is a piece of work that was lovingly crafted. All of these reasons make this book such a brilliant and important intervention. Indeed I found it one of the most challenging books I have ever read, and felt that reading it was an intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience.

All of this made me reflect on my own research experience, and the way I write. I often feel that the tempo of modern-day academia makes it very difficult to get settled into long, thoughtful projects. This is especially the case if you have just finished your PhD (which is the closest you get to a long project) and are on fixed-term contracts. I have felt that the pressure to publish, to present, and to engage in ‘impact’ means that I am always writing and publishing pieces that I feel aren’t where they need to be. This goes beyond just individual pieces; it is also about the broader questions I am interested in. I feel that what I want to do is stop researching and writing and presenting, and just take a year or two to think and read. To figure out what I want to say, and how, and why. To let things sink in, and to just sit with what I’ve done so far.

I find myself telling friends that maybe now I’ll have the space to do just that, since I’m not longer on a fixed term contract. More often than not, I’m met with: “No, it never really ends.” The pressures continue, even if they are different. So I guess that leaves it up to us to navigate these pressures and somehow produce thoughtful work that contributes to knowledge and that doesn’t leave us burned out, while at the same time playing the academic game. Easier said than done, of course, and I am very aware of certain privileges I have that make this easier for me than many others. Academia by design is easier for those privileged in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability. But still, I wrote this post in an attempt to remind myself ow good it felt reading Knot of the Soul, and how much I would love to one day write a book like that.

Favourite books of 2017

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This year has been the year of fiction. Mostly because it was an especially intense year in terms of work, and when I find myself overwhelmed with academic reading, writing, and teaching, I find fiction a much-needed way of relaxing. There are two fiction books I am currently making my way through which I hope to finish before the end of the year, but I haven’t added them to the list; one is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and the other is 4321 by Paul Aster (1200 pages!) Pachinko in particular is just stunning, and it’ll be a painful one to say good

I had big dreams to buy the Neapolitan novels in paperback (only have them on Kindle at the moment) and read them over the summer, but I couldn’t find the time. I did manage to re-read Ahdaf Souief’s In the Eye of the Sun at the start of the year, for the fifth or sixth time. I’m so in love with this book; I could read and re-read it endlessly.

Anyhow, here are my favourite books of 2017!

  • Cruel Optimism – Lauren Berlant
  • Monstrous Intimacies – Christina Sharpe
  • Industrial Sexuality – Hanan Hammad
  • In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Third World Protest: Between Home and the World – Rahul Rao
  • Femonationalism: In the Name of Women’s Rights – Sara Farris
  • The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Arabic Freud – Omnia el Shakry
  • The Language of the Night – Ursula Le Guin
  • A Prehistory of the Cloud – Tung-Hui Hu

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  • Familiar Stranger – Stuart Hall
  • Human Acts – Han Kang
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
  • The Idea of the Muslim World – Cemil Aydin
  • Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism – Elizabeth Povinelli
  • Names of the Lion – Ibn Khalawayh, David Larsen
  • Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee: Leisure and Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century – Dana Sajdi
  • This Census Taker – China Mielville
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami

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  • The Return – Hisham Matar
  • Living a Feminist Life – Sara Ahmed
  • The Calcutta Chromosome – Amitav Ghosh
  • La Frantumaglia – Elena Ferrante
  • His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet
  • Swing Time – Zadie Smith
  • Hitler’s American Model – James Whitman
  • Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Last Utopia: Human Rights in History – Samuel Moyn
  • The Mushroom at the End of the World – Anna Tsing

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Me and my accent(s)

The most personal things are always the most difficult to write about. Even as I think of what I want to say, I can feel myself heating up. My fingers twitch, and what I want to do is close my laptop and go and make some tea. But, inspired by Elene Ferrante’s letters in Frantumaglia, a book I cannot put down, I felt the need to explore the subject of my accent.

A seemingly strange subject, I’m sure, but this small detail about myself reveals so many aspects of me and who I am that if I had to choose one thing to tell someone about me, it would be this. To be more accurate, I don’t have one accent, but three. I have my English accent, which sounds American now but hasn’t always. I have my Dutch accent, that doesn’t sound quite Dutch. And I have my Arabic accent, which sounds more like Arabic than my Dutch one sounds like Dutch, but still—not quite. This should come as no surprise, since I am half-Egyptian, half-Dutch, and grew up in Zambia, where English is the official language. I was educated in a British school and an American university. My family speaks English at home. And so English is the language I feel most comfortable in. It’s a language that is mine. I speak it without thinking, and I am able to stretch it and bend it and play with it.

But at the same time, English is not my language. It is not the language that I am supposed to be most comfortable in. Instead, the languages that I am supposed to be comfortable in cause me immense amounts of discomfort. It is not that I don’t know Arabic, or Dutch. There is a level of knowing that is purely rational. My brain hears them and understands. If it’s a conversation, my brain then puts together a response. But that is where things have always gotten difficult. The response has to be pushed out by me. It has to be pulled out by the other person. It has to be accompanied by panic. If I’m feeling brave, then it eventually comes out. If I’m not, then my body relaxes, I let out a deep breath, and what comes out is invariably in English.

Is it that I can’t respond in Arabic or Dutch? Is it that I need to learn them properly, to practice, to force myself to speak only in those languages? For a long time I convinced myself that it was about knowledge, or a lack thereof. My parents didn’t speak to me in Dutch or Arabic growing up, and so I just didn’t know the languages well enough. But when people have pushed me beyond this, when I’ve been prodded into giving a real response, my two-word answer has tended to me “my accent.”

What does that mean? Don’t we all have accents? But it is more than just a strange accent, or mispronouncing a few words. It means revealing something about me that I don’t want people to know, simply because I myself haven’t come to terms with it. We know, from sociology to linguistics to history, from everyday life to novels and films, that languages are essential to nationalism. They create webs of belonging and bind people together in cultures. They provide windows into understandings of how the world works, what life means, who we are, and what our past is. In other words, they matter. But an accent—an accent disrupts this. It creates a bubble around me that works as a barrier between me and that feeling of belonging. It feels as though I can’t grasp it; I am always reaching for it but I can never quite make it mine.

I have never been a fan of the discourse of “third culture kids” or “citizens of the world.” I think that being mixed and not having grown up in either country is a highly fluid positionality. In many ways, it has given me ways of seeing and understanding things I know I would not have otherwise. In other ways it has made me very self-conscious of my identity; it has made me always look for a home in people, since I do not have that feeling with a physical place (and that is not always healthy). I don’t know that my feelings about my accent are about confusion surrounding identity as much as about a search for something tangible and anchoring. My accent is a constant, daily, hourly, reminder of my lack of an anchor. I have a home in England. My parents and sister have a home in Egypt. I have had homes in other places. But none of these homes have come with what I have always assumed a home is: a city or town in which you are completely comfortable, to which you completely belong—even if you don’t always fit in—a place that you know.

I don’t have that relationship with Egypt, or Holland. My relationship with Egypt is much more complicated, because I am much more attached to it than to Holland. What does it mean to Egyptian? A loaded question, but my response is to always see it as something I lack. I feel as though I know many things about Egypt. I have many ties to it. But do I know what it feels like to be Egyptian? These questions are complex, and difficult. Most of the time, I have been lucky to have friends who understand what it is to feel these things. Who have experienced the disruption of not knowing where “home” is or will ever be. Other people have found it difficult to deal with. Some have even used it against me, saying I expected things from them I shouldn’t have because I was a foreigner and didn’t understand Egypt or Egyptians. When this was said to me, I knew it was untrue because their point did not make sense; but still—it hurt. It hurt much more than it should have because of how raw this issue is for me, and because this person knew that and used it against me. It was, and continues to be, a vulnerability. For others it is not a question of relating to it or finding it difficult; it is simply puzzling. They don’t really get it: what’s the big deal?

And increasingly, that is what I have asked myself. What is the big deal with having an accent? Yes, it is an affirmation of not belonging, of not having roots or a past in a place that I want so desperately to have those things. It reminds me that I will never have that anchor that seems to tie so many people in place, even if they move around. I know many people who say that they do not see themselves as connected to the place they are from, and yet they are, in many ways. It is not about liking or loving a city or country; it is about knowing it intimately, about understanding it and feeling it, about knowing how things work there. It’s a type of visceral knowledge that can’t be learned later in life. As I get older, I find myself losing interest in the novelty and excitement of moving to new places. There is an immense amount of privilege in that, and so many amazing experiences that come with it. But precisely because I do not have that anchor, it feels as though I am drifting. That is not me; I am someone who likes, and needs, stability and so drifting or exploring without certainty is scary.

It is difficult for me to admit that I do not have that type of a relationship with Egypt, even if I very badly want it. Hearing myself trip over Arabic words is a reminder of that. Realizing that I can never write in Arabic the way I write in English is another reminder. Feeling guilty that people I speak to talk to me in English even though they’d be more comfortable talking in Arabic—another reminder. I tell myself I just don’t know it well enough. It’s easier to speak in English. And it’s true: it is easier. But not because I don’t know Arabic well enough; I know it very well. But speaking it in an accent that reveals my unbelonging distances me from a place that I love too much to want to be separate from.

The irony in all of this is that I have been told I don’t have an accent; that my Arabic sounds fine. Maybe the accent is in my head, and is a metaphor for these deeper feelings of being unanchored and unsafe. Maybe ultimately the courage I need to just speak, accent or no accent, is equally about the courage to come to terms with my own relationship to Egypt. It has been a blessing, intellectually, to not be closely tied into a country, a religion, a nationality, because that has largely made me think about things in a more fluid way. But the downside has increasingly become clear, one that is not intellectual but emotional. There is a lot of support that comes from these identities, and with support comes comfort. Anchors can be restraining, but they can also be like a childhood bed that we come back to when we need to take a break from what is happening; like old smells and recipes that remind us of simpler times; and of friends and family who know you so well that you don’t have to think about who you are or what you say when you are with them. As much as I want that place to be Egypt, and as much as I have struggled and tried to make it Egypt, I know that it can’t be. It is not a situation that can be willed into existence; it simply isn’t. But maybe there is a way to collect all of the feelings I have for all of the different places in which I have lived and make something out of that. I am who I am because of all of these places and people; histories and cultures have mixed and blended together; and while I may not intimately know one place in the way I’d like, I do know many places in many different ways.

How not to do race & comedy – real housewives of ISIS

A new BBC2 skit called “Real Housewives of ISIS” has caused quite some controversy. While some see it as harmless fun that brings to light how ridiculous Islamophobic views are, others see it as tacky, dangerous, and as further strengthening those very stereotypes. (For a great piece by Shafik Mandhai on the diverging views, check out this link.) The topic of race and comedy is a tough one, particularly when the audience is largely British and the topic is ISIS. Setting aside the very problematic decision to use ISIS as the subject through which to employ long-lasting and much-used tropes about Muslim women, suicide bombing, and so on, there is another point to be made about humour being used without context, and how this ultimately does not do anything about the very stereotypes it aims to make fun of.

This skit reminded me of something that happened to me over 5 years ago. An Iranian friend of mine was at my house, and he found a book on my bookshelf called “Burka Babes.”

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I had found the cartoons inside hilarious, and thought he would too. After flipping through it, he put it down and told me that it was a horrible book. He sounded so serious that I felt my heart fall. I asked him why, since they were just jokes that showed how stereotypes about women in burkas are wrong. He told me that all this book did was dehumanize women who wear burkas and turn it into a subject to be laughed at by Dutch people. I started to think about how this book, written by a white Dutch man, presented nothing but a series of cartoons making fun of women who wear burkas. While some people, like myself, may have seen how they shed light on how ridiculous Dutch stereotypes about burkas are, I knew that the majority of Dutch people would see these cartoons as nothing more than a few minutes of laughter and comedy. There was nothing in it that showed the long history of Orientalism and in particular gendered Orientalism. There was nothing in it that touched on why white/liberal feminism is not the only lens through which we can understand how women relate to their bodies. And there was nothing in it about how the Netherlands has become one of the most Islamophobic and racist countries in Europe by reproducing these types of views over and over. Instead, it probably made Peter lots of money, made lots of Dutch people laugh, and is now lying forgotten on many Dutch bookshelves.

But I don’t think that means there is no place for comedy that tackles race and racism. One of my favourite shows, Black-ish, actually does it very well, and I think the reason for that is because it does an amazing job of contextualizing the many jokes about race in each episode. At the start there is usually a few minutes about real historical and contemporary American events that explain why we have particular stereotypes about Black people and why the jokes in the show are not just jokes or a few seconds of laughter; they touch on issues that are deep-rooted and serious. I wasn’t surprised to recently read a piece that said many white American viewers were “uncomfortable” when they watched Black-ish. What made people uncomfortable was the “continued discussion of race” on the show. It isn’t just a series of jokes that people can laugh at and then forget. The way the show frames these jokes is what turns it into a discussion about race, and what ultimately makes white people uncomfortable. The episode about police shootings, which was uncharacteristically serious, made a strong point with its sombre tone. And the fact that the show has covered so many controversial and contemporary issues in current debates about racism shows how and why context is key. I recently rewatched all 3 seasons with my best friend, who also kept noting how each episode touches on issues that are so serious without making them seem less serious than they really are. Sadly, Real Housewives of ISIS didn’t even come close to that.

It would be nice to think that when we produce something, we don’t have to think about the audience or about the effect it will have. But when you make a comedy about ISIS using Muslim stereotypes, it does matter that your audience will be largely British, and it does matter that nothing in your skit provides any sort of context for the jokes being made. Making people laugh at Muslim stereotypes ultimately just reproduces them without getting most people to think deeper.

My favourite books of 2016

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As cliché as it sounds, 2016 really was one of the most difficult years I’ve had. Everyone warns you about how stressful it is to finish a PhD, but you never quite expect it. More than anything, it’s the ups and downs of it – one day you love what you’re writing and the next you feel like it’s not new enough/edgy enough/critical enough or just plain doesn’t make sense. Finishing a dissertation is also by default a lonely process; you’re the only person who knows the intimate history of what you’re trying to do, as well as the politics surrounding your institution. On the other hand, it really is something you see growing and transforming into something you had no idea it could be. The feeling of finishing and finally submitting it is priceless. I will never forget the moment when I sat down to write my acknowledgments section; it was then that I realized that while a PhD may feel lonely, it really is such a collective project. The care and effort so many friends and family put into pushing me forward, encouraging me, and also giving me tough love when I needed it makes me speechless. Most people did this without once complaining or feeling like it, or I, was a burden, and for that I will always be grateful.

Other parts of this year have also been a rollercoaster of learning and unlearning. I learned that some mistakes have to be made twice for you to realize they aren’t what you are meant to be doing with your life. I learned that – finally – you can’t control everything and that sometimes you get opportunities after you’ve all but given up. I’ve learned that the most valuable thing in friends, family, and significant others is feeling safe and secure; knowing that you’re in something together and that you can make mistakes, fight, and talk things out in the end. For some reason 2016 was a year during which so many things changed in so many of my friend’s and family’s lives. It really was a rollercoaster; but, that said, rollercoasters can be rewarding because all of the lessons you learn about yourself and others (afterwards, when the panic and adrenalin dissipates, of course).

But above all I think I’ve learned that timing is everything. Things happen when they are supposed to and with the people they are supposed to happen with. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking that at age X I should have XY and Z. Some of it has happened earlier than I thought it would, some of it later, and a lot of it hasn’t yet. Sometimes people are ready for something, and sometimes they aren’t. Despite my being a die-hard control freak, 2016 was the year I accepted I can’t actually plan anything (at least I’ve hopefully accepted this!). I did a lot of things this year I’m proud of. Some of it worked out, and some of it didn’t. But without my friends and family, I wouldn’t be at the end of this year reflecting on the good things rather than fixating on the bad. And, OF COURSE, my books 🙂 So, finally, the subject of the post.

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My favourite books, in no particular order:

  1. The Country Life – Rachel Cusk
  2. Egypt’s Long Revolution – Maha Abdelrahman
  3. States of Injury – Wendy Brown
  4. The Folded Earth – Anuradha Roy
  5. Golden Gulag – Ruthie Wilson Gilmore
  6. The Door – Madga Szabo
  7. Shapeshifters – Aimee Meredith Cox
  8. From Black Power to Hip Hop – Patricia Hill Collins
  9. Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde
  10. The Vegetarian – Han Kang
  11. Woman, Native, Other – Trinh Minh-ha
  12. Human Rights and the Uses of History – Samuel Moyn
  13. White Innocence – Gloria Wekker
  14. Reversed Realities – Naila Kabeer
  15. Dark Matters – Simone Brown
  16. Ladivine – Marie Ndiaye
  17. Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters – Farha Ghannam
  18. Shadow Lines – Amitav Ghosh
  19. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
  20. The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 – Ilham Khuri-Makdisi
  21. The Wages of Whiteness – David Roediger
  22. The Biopolitics of Mixing – Jinthana Haritaworn
  23. Gramsci’s Common Sense – Kate Crehan
  24. The Glass Palace – Amitav Ghosh
  25. The Sellout – Paul Beatty
  26. A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
  27. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being – Christina Sharpe
  28. The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt – Omnia el Shakry
  29. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology – David Price
  30. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest – Anne McClinktock

 

 

Race/Class/Gender: French secularism and Whiteness

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The recent image out of France that show policemen surrounding a woman who is removing her veil have struck many people because of how overtly Islamophobic they are. France – a country that constructs itself as being open and secular – recently imposed a fine on women who wear a ‘burqini’ at the beach. This announcement was controversial, and seeing images of this fine in action is bringing even more attention to the new rule.

What struck me about this image and this story in general is the clear ways in which different structures are intersecting with one another in order to produce this one moment in time. I have seen some of the commentaries talk about how this demonstrates yet another instance of patriarchy and sexism: men telling women what they can and cannot wear. My own reaction was to affirm this – it does seem to be a common denominator when it comes to the different types of violence faced by women across the globe. Women’s bodies are put under the control of patriarchal norms through a variety of mechanisms, from laws to domestic violence to street harassment. The effect of these myriad mechanisms is that women are constantly conscious of what we look like, how we dress, how we take up space (public or private), and how we interact with men. It is a daily reality to know, on some level, that you are never really safe from some type of intrusion – whether it be sexual harassment or severe sexual violence. There are a whole range of ways in which patriarchy – exercised mainly through men but also through women – controls women’s bodies.

But this is not the whole story. This photo and this moment are also a clear instance of a very racialized interaction. We see white French policemen surrounding a woman who appears to be of Arab descent and who is veiled. In Europe today the veil and Muslim identity in general has often been made to represent a ‘cultural’ identity when in fact it is a heavily racialized one. It is not a distinction between “French” and “Muslim” culture – whatever these are – but between white French and Brown/Black not-quite-French. And so we see that alongside patriarchy there is racism as a determining structure. Indeed it is not Brown policemen who are carrying out this act – even though it could have been. This shows that it is not about the race of the actual individuals involved; it could just as easily have been a Brown policeman who fined this woman and stood by and watched her undress (just as it could easily have been a policewoman). What is behind these agents is, again, structural: it is a legal system, a collection of norms and values, an economic system, and a political system. It is these that produce agents, and it is here that we need to locate race and whiteness. This is precisely the myth of secularism: that it is value-free, neutral, that it avoids the subjectivity of religion. And yet we have seen time and time again that secularism in France is white and that it is increasingly being produced through a clear distinction between us and them – white and non-white – French and not-quite-French.

And so the intersections between race and gender are clear – not just any race in France could have produced a law or rule that would fine the wearing of the burqini. And not just any gender in France would have allowed for such a blatant instance of the policing of women’s bodies. These are both racist and sexist mechanisms of rule – and both can be exercised by any race of by any gender, even as they disproportionately impact one race and gender more than others. As I wrote elsewhere:

We see a similar battle over women and women’s bodies in today’s mainstream media in Europe, particularly in efforts to demonize Muslims and/or Arabs. Women are consistently used to show how progressive and modern Europe is, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/or as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (despite this drawing them into a capitalist structure of repression). Not only does this create a narrative of women in Europe being ‘free,’ which is far from the case; it simultaneously creates the narrative of women who do not look like European women (whatever that is) or act like European women as backwards/traditional. Once this narrative is constructed, it becomes the lens through which women in non-European cultures are understood.

Other commentaries have focused on capitalism and class as a means of explaining why these types of incidents are becoming more common. Here we see the European economic crisis and a slow down in accumulation as an explanation for why nationalism and the right-wing are gaining ground. And certainly it is important to understand the class dynamics present in this picture: the particular position of Muslims in France’s economic structure; the role France has played in exploiting colonies in Africa as an instance of primitive accumulation; and finally the particular class dynamic within government structures such as the police and the military. Indeed the class position and history of Algerians – for instance – in France is very different from that of other African or Arab migrants to other European countries or to the United States and UK. It is the particular interaction of class and race that lends much-needed context to these types of images, particularly in European countries where migrants (a term applied to most people who are not white, regardless of how many generations have lived in Europe) are often seen as “stealing welfare and not working.” Here the language of productivity has been key to demonizing non-white Europeans – they are seen as lazy and unwilling to work. The trick here is that those who do work and fulfil their duty as active (capitalist) citizen are still not really there yet – not quite white.

I have tried to think through this moment by turning back to the older triad of race/gender/class. I think each structure and the relations it produces in and of itself cannot explain this instance or the heavy baggage behind it. Taken alone they also cannot explain the current articulation(s) of French secularism. Finally, they also do not explain the silence on the part of French and European feminists to what is blatantly an instance of male control over female bodies. But together we see that they condition one another and clearly produce this moment through their intersections.

We have seen the intersection of these structures over time and through history. Indeed this image brings back other images from decades ago; images of Algerian women in Algeria being forced to unveil by the French, for instance. It is an old story. A story so old that it is deeply ingrained in the fabric of French society and culture. Secularism in France is white and founded on a binary between white and non-white (civilized and uncivilized as they used to say back in the day), and once we accept that, images such as these should no longer be that surprising.

The Rational vs. the Emotional – or feeling/knowing

Two posts ago I wrote about vulnerability. About how having certain emotions seems “wrong” because of a certain tendency to over-analyse and to be harsh with ourselves when we feel a certain way. This post is related to that, but I want to focus more on the age-old supposed dichotomy between feeling and thinking. This dichotomy has been packaged as emotion vs. rationality, and is of course a highly racialized and gendered one. Women feel, men think. Women are emotional and let their feelings make decisions, while men are rational and are able to control their feelings. Feminists have spent a long time trying to destabilize this dichotomy. This has been done not only by pointing to the fact that men are emotional and women are rational, but also by arguing that we can’t separate rationality from emotion.

I have always faithfully subscribed to this view. For as long as I can remember, I have believed that everyone is both emotional and rational and that it is very difficult to separate the ’emotional’ and the ‘rational’ in any given decision. I do think that certain personalities relate to the emotional/rational in different ways and to different degrees, but I don’t think this is related to gender. While I do think these feminist arguments are extremely important, I think that in some ways they have failed to argue against seeing emotions or being emotional as negative. In other words, in order to argue that women are not simply emotional beings and are rational too, we haven’t really argued that being emotional is not only fine, but necessary.

This continued negative aura surrounding emotionality has meant that in any situation where I may be feeling something very heavy or intense, my automatic response has always been to rationalize it; to turn to rationality; to think things through; to analyze; to understand. This is not to say that these things are simply rational and not linked to emotion. But at the same time, they often mean a turning away from feeling things. I have found myself hiding from what I am feeling precisely by trying to understand it “rationally.” It is almost as if I am hoping that by understanding why I feel this way, it will go away. Of course that never happens. Logic or making something legible is not the same as your body, mind and heart feeling something it needs to feel. One process cannot replace the other; they must both happen.

It seems to me that many women these days are told that we have to understand why we are the way we are. Therapy, self-help, tough love from friends, and all these other mechanisms are there to help us understand so we can change. I don’t see anything wrong with that, other than that it assumes that everything is understandable in a logical way. It tells us that once we understand why we do these things, we’ll stop. But understanding our feelings is not the same as feeling them; understanding pain or why we feel pain is not the same as actively feeling that pain. Just like understanding what makes us happy will never be a substitute for us actually feeling happy. In this way there seems to me a clear disjuncture between knowing and feeling. And in this way it seems clear why it is dangerous and ultimately futile to try and replace feeling with knowing.

Thinking this through reminds me a bit about religion. There is something in Islam that I have always been touched by, and that is the emphasis on the inability of humans to know. The aim is not to understand everything, and definitely not to understand God or why things happen the way they do. The emphasis instead is on a way of connecting with each other and with God, and this connection is ultimately based on accepting certain things: that we don’t need to know everything, and that we need to accept that we will never understand why some things happen. Of course in this day and age, with our ingrained ideas about modernity and humans-as-knowers, it is very difficult to accept the idea that we can’t understand something. We exist as humans in a state of demanding to know everything. Accepting that we can’t know or understand everything that happens to us doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about why it may have happened; but it does point us towards acceptance rather than resistance. If we can’t understand, we have no choice but to accept – and it is through this that we feel. Accepting something means feeling the pain and disappointment that comes with it. Continually trying to understand it means delaying the moment of pain; it means hoping that once we understand, we won’t feel the pain, or even that once we understand, we can change it.

It seems to me that the path of acceptance -> pain is what can eventually lead to understanding, because we’ll be in a better place to understand. We won’t be trying to understand to avoid something; we’ll be understanding because we have felt what we need to feel, and are ready to confront why it is we had to feel that way.

As someone who is an academic, who likes to try and understand things, and who is a control freak in general, it’s obviously been very difficult over the past few months for me to accept things and deal with the feelings that come with acceptance. Accept choices I made, accept that some years are harder than others, and accept that things will work out in the end. I constantly fought against this, by trying to rationalize what I was feeling. There is also the gendered element here: I was always afraid to let myself feel things because I was conscious of the tendency of women to “over-feel” or so we are told. So I was always conscious to not let myself feel too much, or to not let my feelings cloud my judgement. But maybe that was my mistake: I should totally have let my feelings cloud my judgement! Maybe my feelings were supposed to be telling me what to do. Sure, our feelings can often be based on insecurities and other things that we should be trying to work on and get better at; but feelings are also intimately connected to who we are. Looking back, I can see that many times my feelings were trying to tell me something that my brain just didn’t get yet, or didn’t want to get.

So this is what I would do as a feminist: of course the feeling/knowing dichotomy is not as solid as we think; and of course it isn’t related to gender or race. But at the same time, we have been brought up to value knowing and devalue feeling. But it is feeling that puts us in touch with things we have slowly lost touch with as we have grown up. It is feeling that allows us to continue growing. And it is feeling that makes us know in a more expansive way. So here’s to feeling, whether the feelings are good or bad.

On repetition and power

I just finished an article on intersectionality and its critiques by Vivian May. Among other points, she addresses the critique that intersectionality didn’t bring anything new to the table and that it is just Black feminism recycled. Aside from the point that this is arguably false, she points to the important question of why certain things have to be repeated again and again. Should we be focusing on repetition as necessarily bad, or should we be asking why certain things, in certain fields, need to be repeated over and over?

Of course the field of gender studies and feminism are the quintessential example here. Debates about universal sisterhood, about structure versus agency, about the biological versus the constructed, and so on have been happening for decades upon decades. But the point here is that certain points – which should by now have ben accepted – must be constantly made and defended. The most prominent example is the idea of multiple structural intersections that de-center gender as the most important axis of oppression or identity. In other words: race, sexuality, nation and a whole range of other social categories matter just as much as gender. Significantly, they can’t really be neatly separated from one another – I am racialized and gendered, and I can’t exactly separate my racialization from my gendering. Intersectionality is the most recent reiteration of this basic point, but it has been made before, by Black feminists, by Third World feminists, and by feminists during the era of decolonization. Hence the idea of repetition.

May quotes Audre Lorde to address the question of why certain things have to constantly be repeated:

“We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over. For instance, how many times has this all been said before?”

It’s clear that it isn’t about how many times it has been said before, but about how many times it has been ignored before. May writes:

An intersectional approach to asking, and answering, “why repetition?” requires recognizing asymmetries of power within rhetorics, social imaginaries, and cognitive authority, such that one state of obduracy necessitates that another, equally persistent worldview be continually rearticulated.

Writing this I couldn’t help but be reminded of other subjects in which repetition is necessary to survival. I began to think about the ways in which looking at what needs to be constantly repeated is an interesting way of understanding power relations within fields. Here I thought of Middle East women’s studies, and the constant need to disavow culturalist understandings of gender oppression in the Middle East. I thought of political science, where one has to navigate the simplistic understandings of political economy in the Middle East and constantly repeat that class and capitalism matter. I thought of development studies, where repeating the structural biases of international institutions like the UN and World Bank is imperative if we want to see development as an industry rather than as progressive. Working and writing within all of these fields means constantly repeating certain things, and coming up against walls when you do (thanks to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant conceptualisation of seeing opposition as a wall).

One wall is when you’re asked why you focus on X instead of Y. For example, when someone asks why you always talk about imperialism and orientalism when you talk about gender in the Middle East, and never about Islam or corrupt regimes. The ‘simple’ answer: you really can’t separate imperialism from corrupt regimes, or global power dynamics and modernity from modern Islamist movements. In other words, the ‘external’ and ‘internal’ are not neatly separable; and neither are the global and the national. Another wall is when you’re asked to ‘prove’ something, a wall I’m sure any political scientist is familiar with. Here we see that data, statistics, bar graphs and charts become the test your theory has to pass through, a test fashioned by the very system of capitalist modernity your theory is critiquing.

And then there is the wall of “this has been said before, why are you repeating it?” Or: “why are you addressing an old debate?” Well, because certain things have to be repeated or they will be left out, forgotten. We have to keep talking about intersectionality – even if it means we are critiquing it – because it does not become an old debate as long as there is still work in gender studies that ignores race, or the global division of labour. Similarly, we have to keep insisting that “class matters” in Middle East studies as long as there is work that aims to understanding politics in the Middle East without once addressing class, capitalism, or its more recent form, neoliberalism.

So it’s clear that repetition is necessary. Repetition is an act that pinpoints nodes of power. We should be asking, when we see certain topics debated over and over, why these debates keep happening. What is it about society and academia that makes repetition necessary? If, as Audre Lorde says, “this has all been said before,” then what are the stakes if we stop saying it?