The Womanhood Issue

‘My Arabness is not governed by the determinants of others’?

By Layla AlAmmar

This isn’t the article I initially wrote. When I was asked to contribute a piece about my experiences as an Arab woman writer, my first thoughts were of defiant assertion. I drafted an article invoking Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED talk, ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ and what I see as the concomitant risks of the counter-single story. I delineated the various Orientalist frameworks that Arab women writers constantly wrestle with, all the boxes they love to put us in and the paradigms they use to define us. I wrote about deficient education systems that don’t even attempt to instil in us a love of our own literary heritage, and so we turn to others’ canons in search of something to relate to, seeking narratives we might see ourselves in. I drafted an article that affirmed our rights to represent our realities, to speak our truths – no matter whom they made uncomfortable.

But that’s not the piece you’re reading.

To be frank, these conversations bore me. At times, it feels as though all we do is shout about the fact of our existence – that we’re here, we have voices, we have a presence no one can deny. We spend a lot of time outlining the shapes of our identities – hybrid, immigrant, local – that is, when we’re not engaged in transnational arguments about what it ‘really’ means to be Arab. It seems to me that we spend far too much time concerned with rules others have set for a game we didn’t invent. We expend so much energy touting our right to speak that we hardly ever get around to actually saying anything. In an essay titled ‘The Politics of Knowledge,’ Edward Said writes, ‘If you are weak, your affirmation of identity for its own sake amounts to little more than saying that you want the kind of attention easily and superficially granted, like the attention given an individual in a crowded room at roll call.’

What do these assertions accomplish? What power dynamics do they unwittingly concede? What point does an assertion serve if that’s where we stop, caught in what Said calls ‘an ultimately uninteresting alternation of presence and absence’?

Image courtesy of Layla Al Ammar.

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