13 December 2011
Serene Al-Kawas

Fractured Identities and Hybridity: A Social Cycle

“Even as we must fully comprehend the pastness of the past, there is no just way in which the past can be quarantined from the present. Past and present inform each other, each implies the other and each co-exists with the other.” –Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism


It is an interesting task to try and understand the ways in which our society has been built and layered throughout time. It is impossible to look back and see the pieces as they originally came together, or to try and analyze one factor as though its existence and influence were discrete entities. The exercise, though perhaps seemingly futile, is actually one of great worth and import. In the same way that we continue to debate and research nature versus nurture in humanity, so we must also delve into these same issues as they apply to society. Socially speaking, the most pivotal pieces of our collective puzzle reside in the invisible corners of our communal structure, and these “mythic icons” as termed by Roland Barthes, have dictated the precise ways in which we have evolved as a society.

In this media-rich wiki essay, I aim to identify and analyze a few of the many roles of hybridity in the creation of our contemporary society, and the natural and logical ways in which it has contributed to the pervasive mass fusing of ideas and identities today. Although this theoretical framework is applicable to many layers of society, I am particularly interested in looking at the role of hybridity in the notion of fractured identities, as explained by Donna Haraway. In her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Haraway speaks to the obscure and hazy nature of identities, calling them “contradictory, partial, and strategic.” (155) Though her essay focuses on the issue of feminism, there is no case study better suited to this model than that of my community of Arabs in the West. In a post World War I world, the terms Arab and American mutually exclude one another, as the entire concept of East and West were defined in direct opposition. Using Haraway as a springboard, I will introduce hybridity as both the impetus for and key methodology in resolving specifically these fractured identities. In focusing my work on Westernized Arabs I hope to provide a manageable focus, however these issues are situated within a complex framework and history, of which I can only scratch the surface here.

In order to investigate these such nuanced issues, we first must first define the “we,” “us,” and “them” necessary in this multi-layered and multi-sourced version of our social constellation. Although I find it both problematic and uncomfortable, the now natural (read: post-imperialistic) delineation for “us” is the West as it was defined in the World War I era. Although the “us versus them” binaries highlighted in imperialist politics became definitive for the ways that the world would be divided and understood, the aim of this paper is to highlight hybridity as the natural aftermath to an arbitrarily divided world, and to trace the value and necessity of hybridity through identity-based artwork. Although I will mainly focus on the 19th century and after, the dialogic nature of our society certainly pre-existed the imperialistic era, and presented itself in a variety of ways, some of which are still highly relevant today.

The Dialogic Nature of Hybridity

As alluded to earlier, hybridity is the somewhat enigmatic but ultimately organic way in which we have socially evolved. It is closely linked to the terms dialogism and intertextuality, each signifying the “ongoing chain or network of statements and responses, repetitions and quotations, in which new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses.” (Irvine) These ideas were first presented by 20th century Russian structuralist writer Mikhail Bakhtin, which he further explains through the example of signs and language:

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and boundless future). Even past meanings, that is those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) - they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue's subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context). (__Speech Genres, p.170__)

Dialogism, much like hybridity, situates every text (idea, thing, word, et cetera) within a network or constellation of other texts, each modifying the other. This referential quality (often ignored though always present) properly accounts for the constant and ubiquitous negotiation of meaning or identity for every text within the scope of society. Because of this perpetual malleability, all things past, present, and future can shift or change in meaning. By this way of thinking, everything conceived of by society and its members can be considered hybrid. Therefore, hybridity is a constant variable, one that we can see in the always-already-remixed state of culture. Everything that is or was is multi-sourced, recalling and being changed by other ideas, thoughts, and words. In fact, just as hybridity grows naturally out of society, so did the concepts of originality and uniqueness. Each are social constructs, built and imbued with value by people. It is ironic that originality and uniqueness became so deeply respected, while hybridity is still quietly and mutually overlooked.

Hybridity and Imperialism: Defining “Negative Space”

Hybridity is by nature contiguous, fluid, and invisible. As explained by Professor Martin Irvine of Georgetown University, the “dialogic/remix/appropriation/hybridization principle of culture is not visible or apparent in cultural works because it is not a property of cultural works but a precondition for the possibility of new cultural works at all.” The idea of a new work pre-supposes the existence of “old” or original work to which, by comparison, it can be new. This reflexive quality is characteristic of intertexuality, and is equally universal. Although interesting on the smaller scale of popular culture products, the dangers of this kind of “self versus other” definition become imminently clear when looking to our political past.

The Western Imperialism of the late 1800s and early 1900s set the stage for an onslaught of political and border-driven issues with which we are still grappling today. As the “West” (as it defined itself) looked to expand eastward, it developed a strategic way by which to present and interpret the inhabitants of the “East.” Through photography and literature, the West began its historic practice of subjugating these vast communities, boiling down the people of “the Orient” to peasants in need of saving. The Orient itself was a Western creation, and spanned from modern day Turkey through China, generalizing and other-ing every person and place to which it was applied. This is what I refer to as a “negative space” definition, allowing one party to be the “positive space,” and the other to be defined as everything else. One of the basic problems posed by the creation of the Orient was the tendency to universalize vast amounts of people and places, to flatten Japanese culture and Turkish culture, as though they were somehow the same. In the Western view though, they were. Japan was Other, and Turkey was Other, therefore by employing the Western self versus other methodology, anything that was not the West could be lumped in one umbrella, which was termed the “Orient”.

In his book Orientalism, famed author and theorist Edward Said addresses the many issues associated with Orientalism, the historic practice of subjugating the Middle East and Asia through art, literature and politics. He emphasizes “that neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” (Orientalism, xvii) The notion of “ontological stability” that Said raises here is relevant to both this specific example of the binary of the Occident and the Orient, but also to the foundation of this paper. The relativity necessary in order for both the East and West to exist and be understood underlines the very essence of hybridity, and the inconspicuous but significant ways in which it has defined our current social moment. The West created the East in its image, and therefore the East only exists by its reference to the West.

In “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," Donna Haraway, though speaking somewhat broadly regarding feminism, points to this specific kind of referential terminology, stating, “consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute.” (155?) By using these specific words, East or Orient (meaning East) or West or Occident (meaning West), the two worlds became opposites in an oversimplified and exaggerated way. The oppositional binary of East and West left no room for overlap between the two worlds, causing a fracturing of identities that spawned the identity crises with which many Arab Americans struggle today.

Fractured Identities

On one plane of history, ideas, people, and matter, all intersect and bend one another, fusing the pieces of our past, present and future. On another plane, these intersections splinter the ideas, people, and matter, weakening each, creating holes in what was once simple and unquestioning homogeneity. Together, these two planes describe and account for the fascinating total of social history, creating a complex and amorphous concept of identity, meaning, and social history. Many things can cause the said splintering, but for the purposes of this essay we will focus on oppositional binaries, and negative space definitions. In the aftermath of Western Imperialism, we are left with the still present (though perhaps more subtle) oppositional binaries of East and West, which have manifested today in the identity issues of the Arab in the West, particularly after 9/11.

Haraway uses the word, “fractured” in describing the inherent quandaries in setting a distinct identity. This term is particularly fitting for Westernized Arabs, as their identities both embody and reject their past and present. Though Haraway is specifically looking to feminist issues, she aptly attributes the problematic nature of defining any group to the “contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism” (155). She continues on to say that “none of 'us' have any longer the symbolic or material capability of dictating the shape of reality to any of ‘them'. Or at least 'we' cannot claim innocence from practicing such dominations.” (157) In a post-imperialist (or arguably not, see Chomsky) world, we can no longer pretend we do not understand the dangers of creating solid boxes by which we categorize the world.

For groups such as Arab Americans, one subsect of the Westernized Arab demographic, hybridity is less invisible in day-to-day life. The edges of their two worlds collide frequently as Indiana Jones, “news” stories, and political positioning perpetuate the East vs. West narrative still today. But hybridity is not only an ever-present quality of their lives, it is also the method by which Arab Americans can grow to understand and create new spaces for themselves, free of the harsh boundaries of Arab and American. In order to mend the internal chasm denoted by the term Arab American itself, this group turns to the outside world to express and redefine themselves. Beyond the problems already discussed regarding the linguistically impossible “Arab American,” there is also the very basic issue of defining what an Arab is, what and American is, and what an Arab American is. Given that our contemporary world is extensively global, the exportation of America has long since reached the Middle East. Therefore even present day Arab culture, though too often defined as anti-Western, has been visibly affected by America’s extensive reach. The most intriguing examples that I have found of the intersection of the Arab and American binary is in art and cultural works.

Artwork in the Western Arab Overlap

There are several art markets throughout the world, and no two are quite alike. At very separate ends of the spectrum are Middle Eastern and Western art. In part because of the differences in political and cultural openness, and in part because of the disproportionate access to newer technologies, art in these two parts of the world have developed in entirely different ways. Much like the binaries of East and West, these two art worlds have a wide-open space between them. Luckily, there are artists, writers, and thinkers ready to create a new third space, filled new hybrid methods of assimilating the two realms, and contributing fresh ideas to a new conversation.

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Lalla Essaydi, The Grand Odalisque

Contemporary artist Lalla Essaydi addresses the aftermath of 19th century Orientalist paintings in her work, creating a forum for discussion of Islamic female identities in the 21st century. Moroccan born and raised, Essaydi uses her lens as an Arab woman living in the Western world to examine these issues in a modern way. Her photographs combine handwritten Islamic scripture written with women posed as the harem women featured in scores of Orientalist paintings. Essaydi’s method is fairly aggressive, especially by Eastern standards; her subjects often utilize a confrontational gaze, challenging the viewer, while also recalling and refuting the exoticism and fantasy ascribed to Arab women. Essaydi also speaks to the issue of representation of Arab women as oversexualized by mimicking stereotypical poses historically employed by Dutch and other Western artists. The combination of these poses with the confrontational gaze creates a distinct challenge for the viewer, who must battle his/her expectations and conceptions of the women of the Orient.

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Images from: http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/gallery/lalla_essaydi.php

The most striking component of Essaydi’s work is the layering of Arabic and Islamic text on the various planes within her photographs. Essaydi coats every surface of her set, subject, backdrop, clothing, with line upon line of scripture. In Western society, the Arabic language has begun to function more like an image than a language, immediately signifying terror and oppression rather than the words it spells out. The overwhelming abundance of the text in Essaydi’s work forces the viewer to confront his or her conception of Arabic’s significance, as well as acknowledge its beauty. The text itself is Islamic scripture, beautifully symbolizing the heaviness and weight of the words on the women in these societies. The use of henna as her medium also points to her heritage– at every juncture Essaydi works to reassure her viewer that the work is by a Middle Eastern woman, yet her indictment of cultural and gender biases is one that we would consider to be inherently Western. Not only is her work a hybrid of perspectives, Essaydi herself is a hybrid, both Moroccan and American, working to challenge her past and present worlds equally. Her work speaks clearly to the identity of the Other, yet we cannot be sure if she considers East or West to be the “self.”

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(Images from www.aliamalek.com)

The tradition of “other”-ing that continues to surface here has existed for centuries, and was certainly exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Today more than ever there are Arab Americans ready to publicly address this issue. Though Edward Said was a pioneer for the Palestinian movement, as well as an activist for all Arabs, it is this new generation of Arabs who have grown up in the American system who now feel comfortable bringing these issues to light. This could be because of our innate “American-ness”, our nurture-derived belief that we have a right to be heard. It could also be because we can now walk the proverbial American walk. Whereas our parents’ generation of Arab/Americans is mostly made up of immigrants, my generation of American born Arabs can communicate in a familiar, rather than foreign, way. Regardless of reason, there are many people now concurrently addressing these same issues via different media.
Alia Malek, a Syrian/American lawyer who once worked for the Department of Justice recently published a book entitled A Country Called Amreeka. The book journeys through America’s history from 1963 to the war in Afghanistan, stopping at specific moments in time. Each chapter is about an important event in American history told through the viewpoint of different Arab/American characters. These characters are each based on true stories gathered from public archives and families. One such story is that of Mohammed, a Palestinian immigrant who in 1978 moved from a refugee camp to downtown Chicago. Although he suffered the predictable pains of being not only foreign but Arab, and not only Arab but Palestinian, Mohammed’s most difficult time is that of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979. Though Mohammed has no ties to Iran, he is judged by the American public just the same, that familiar generalized stereotype taking reign. He is called a “foreigner, camel jockey, sand nigger, fucking Persian… he learned the ways revulsion could be communicated: in a glare, a tone of voice, a shudder, a menacing invasion of his space” (Malek 95). While hiding from the anger that led to the beatings of several of his friends (none of whom were Iranian), Mohammed contemplates the people who surround him, summarizing a similar experience to that of many Arab/Americans today.

America’s knowledge was so technologically and scientifically vast–Americans were exploring the moon–yet they knew so little about the people with whom they shared this planet. He found it so frustrating that this one-of-a-kind country that he so admired was basically illiterate about anyone else’s history and current reality. Even while Mohammed and his friends wanted to be in America and be part of the country, they recognized that outside its borders, and especially in the Middle East, the American government played by a different set of rules. But they still wanted America knowing this. Some of them hoped one day it would live up to its ideals. What dumbfounded Mohammed was how on the part of many Americans there was zero acknowledgement of this reality and how many were willfully unaware of all the places this country’s policies directly impacted and how.

There are many layers of hybridity in this story; Alia Malek, a Syrian born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland wrote about the experience of a Palestinian moving to and being rejected by American culture. This story exemplifies the ways in which hybridity of voices and identities is being used to bridge the glaring chasm in the social makeup of an Arab American. Alia Malek, as an Arab American, can now give voice to the story of an Arab coming to America, fearing for his life, awaiting the warmth of the American ideals, only to find the harsh cold of its reality. In this cyclical way, hybridity allows for this community to rediscover itself, and to address the issues that have been enduring and building for so long.

Images from www.youssefnabil.com

One final example of an Arab working within a Western frame is Youssef Nabil, an artist and photographer from Cairo, Egypt, now living in New York City. Nabil’s subject matter and methodology combine East and West, and his beautiful hand-painted photographs are seemingly timeless. Cairo is considered the Hollywood of the Middle East, and it is where almost all of themovies are made. This influenced Nabil greatly, and his work (site) is often self-portraits that mimic movie stills. In doing this, Nabil “has created an imaginary reality that reflects both the paradoxes of the Middle East in our times.” SITE Nabil uses black and white film for his photographs, prints them in a wet darkroom, and then hand-paints the prints with both watercolor and acrylic paint. This tradition of hand-painting surfaced in the West but has had a much longer tradition in the Middle East, and gives his work a special soft quality. In his piece “Self Portrait with Botticelli- Florence, 2009” Nabil imposes himself, an Arab, on a work by the Western and revered Botticelli. Draped in what appears to be a sheet or rag, Nabil excludes himself from the frame, from a Western history in which he cannot participate. He is both metaphorically and physically the “Other”, positioned beneath the painting, his back to us. Though at first this image might seem simple, it is layered with ideas and commentary about East-West relations, and the exclusionary tactics that still live on today.

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Fractured identities abound in contemporary society. In part, we are more aware of our unique pasts, and our technological boom empowers us with multiple methods (Facebook, twitter, YouTube) of expressing ourselves, and being heard. Just as there was no one impetus for the fracturing of identities, there is no one solution. For the specific case of Arabs in the West, we can look to Western Imperialism as a catalyst of the historic canonization of East and West as opposites. By creating the notion of the Orient, the Occident began a practice of subjugation that survives today, and with which many great artists, literaries, and thinkers are wrestling. Hybridity and intertextuality play an interesting and important role in this history of our social present, one that cannot be pinned down as its changes and evolves true these terms. The aim of this essay was to begin an exploration of hybridity and fractured identities in the case of Arabs in the West, and to look through the lens of theory and contemporary art. Although these issues live on today, hybridity and intertextuality will ensure that whatever fracturing of identities occurs today, it will take on and bring new meaning to all the other fractured identities and precede and succeed it.

Works Cited

1. Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto" (excerpt from Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181:__Web version__

2. Irvine, Martin. “Introductory Lecture Notes.” Accessed November 10, 2011.____<http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/CCTP725/hybridity-intro.html>____

3. Irvine, Martin. “Mikhail Baktin: Main Theories.” Accessed Devember 7, 2011. __http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Bakhtin-MainTheory.html__

4. Malek, Alia. A Country Called Amreeka. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.

5. Said, Edward. __Culture and Imperialism__. New York: Knopf 1993.

6. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. (Quote from page 4).

7 .“Lalla Essaydi: Les Femmes du Maroc.” deCordova Sculpture Park and Musuem. 27 April 2010. http://www.decordova.org/art/exhibitions/current/les_femmes_du_maroc.html.

8. Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto" (excerpt from Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181:__Web version__

9. "Alia Malek." Accessed December 7, 2011. <http://aliamalek.com/>

10. "Youssef Nabil." Accessed December 7, 2011. <http://www.youssefnabil.com/>

Works Consulted

1. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility And Other Writings on Media. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.

2. Chandler, Daniel. "__Intertextuality__." Accessed December 7, 2011. <http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem09.html>

3. Chomsky, Noam. “It’s Imperialism Stupid.” Accessed December 7, 2011. <__http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20050704.htm__> (Originally printed in the Khaleej Times, July 4, 2005)

4. Kristeva, excerpt from "__Word, Dialogue, and Novel__." From Toril Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986]).