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Who Are We and Where Are We Going?: A Critical Look at Arab American Studies

By Akram Khater and Rachel Norman

 

As recently as 2011, Arab American scholar Steven Salaita stated that Arab American Studies is not yet a field. Rather, Salaita suggests, Arab American Studies should be considered an “emerging subject.”[1] As we write this inaugural blog post, we can’t help but wonder if this statement is still true. In the last four years, have things changed? Or are we still just “emerging”?

The last four years saw the establishment of the Arab American Studies Association, its first national conference, the creation of a Modern Languages Forum dedicated to Global Arab and Arab American topics, as well as individual panels on Arab American subjects at a variety of conferences around the nation. There was a temporary museum exhibit dedicated to Lebanese Americans in North Carolina housed at the state’s history museum, as well as continued rich programing at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

North Carolina State University founded the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, which houses Mashriq & Mahjar: Journal of Middle East Migration Studies and offers a postdoctoral fellowship. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor program in Arab and Muslim American Studies continues to be active at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the University of Michigan at Dearborn has an Arab American Studies Program that offers an undergraduate minor. The University of Minnesota offers the Francis Maria Fellowship in Arab American Studies at the graduate level, their Immigration History Research Center houses an Arab American Collection, and San Francisco State University houses the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative.

 

Additionally, the number of scholars working on topics related to Arab American Studies within American Studies, Asian Studies and Middle Eastern Studies departments around the nation is quickly growing. For example, between 2000 and 2005 only 2 MA theses or PhD dissertations dealing with Arab Americans were indexed on ProQuest. In the following 5 year period (2006-2010) the number jumped to 433, and then doubled to 877 between 2011 and 2015. Although not all dissertations are indexed, these numbers give us a fairly good idea about the growth of the field.

But beyond just asking whether or not we’ve proven ourselves a field, though, another question that we would like to pose regards the ethos of academic allegiances. As Arab American Studies continues to grow, where does it belong? Under the larger rubric of Middle Eastern Studies, or should it be aligned with American Studies? AASA continues to hold its annual meeting as part of the Middle Eastern Studies Association’s conference, but at our first independent conference last year we heard compelling reasons for why Arab American Studies fits best with American Studies. As we continue to grow, these are questions we may have to answer, but do these labels really help us to define ourselves, or do they merely limit?

Similar questions can be asked about ethnic studies and area studies. At many universities the divide between ethnic studies and area studies can be deep, and funding programs that insist on adherence to one methodology exacerbate the issue. However, Arab American Studies seems to question the very premise of these categorizations as separate entities. To write of people like Philip Hitti and Afifa Karam or Palestinian youth in Detroit as if they are containable within the rubric of an insular America is simply impossible. In essence, the very trans-national nature of the field is what makes it critical and necessary for academe as well as public discussions about identity and location of Arab Americans within the American landscape.

While there is no doubt that there is a numerical growth and concomitant qualitative shift in the Arab American Studies field, there is still a great deal of room for development and maturity. Historical studies of Arab Americans, for example, remain quite limited in number and scope, but that promises to change as a cadre of young scholars are entering the field. While cultural studies are perhaps the most mature, they still focus in large part on literary genres with little to say about other areas of Arab American cultural productions. Sociologically we are still struggling to collect comprehensive and accurate data about the community. Finally, we need to transcend the specter of 9/11, which paradoxically energized the field even as it constrained its scope. As scholars within this burgeoning field we are uniquely poised to shape it as it continues to grow. While issues of citizenship, belonging, security, and other such subjects are important to investigate, the historical and lived realities of Arab Americans surely go far beyond these matters. So too must Arab American Studies.

[1] Salaita, Steven. Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse: New York, 2011. Pg. 1.


Akram Khater is current President of the AASA and Professor of History at North Carolina State University. He is a University Faculty Scholar, holds the Khayrallah Chair in Lebanese Diaspora Studies, and is Director of the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. He also serves as Editor for the International Journal of Middle East Studies.
Rachel Norman is a doctoral candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she specializes in multi-ethnic literature in North America, sociolinguistics, and critical race theory.  Her dissertation examines Arab American literature in Anglophone, Hispanophone and Francophone North America.

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