Get access

Narrating the Self among Arab Americans: A Bridging Discourse between Arab Tradition and American Culture



This article expounds the nature of Arab American identity through an exploration of discourses and practices related to traveling and movement at global and local levels, with a particular emphasis on personal narratives of both men and women of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Travel is dealt with here in its broad meaning and connotes migratory travel, and immigration. It also indicates traveling back and forth between the homeland and new land. Despite the fact that cross-cultural studies of travel are scant, population movements and transnational migration are currently the focus of broad academic debates and surround such issues as transnational cultural relations, the renovation of migrants' social cosmologies,1 and the dynamics of identity reconstruction (Axel, 2004; Clifford, 1988; Cohn, 1987; Coutin, 2003; el-Aswad, 2004, 2006a; Euben, 2006; Hall, 1990, 1992; Julian, 2004; Kaplan, 1996; Kennedy & Danks, 2001; Mintz, 1998; Tsing, 2000).

This inquiry is contingent on ethnographic material gathered from 20 case studies addressing various experiences of Arab Americans living in the community of Dearborn, in the metropolitan Detroit area of Michigan.2 These case studies reveal some important and comparative theoretical insights that help us understand core features of the unity as well as the multiplicity, diversity, and plasticity of Arab American identity.

The study concentrates on narratives of personal experience, defined as verbalized, visualized, and/or embodied framings of a sequence of actual or possible life events, through stories, narrations, diaries, memoirs, and letters (Herman & Vervaeck, 2009; Ochs & Capps, 1996). Although personal narratives encompass a wide range of daily experiences, they are prototypes that express people's views of other cultures generated by travel or direct contact. Travel is used here to mean a range of material and spatial practices that generate knowledge, stories, traditions, books, and other cultural expressions (Clifford, 1997; Euben, 2006). Cultures are understood by studying sites of dwelling, the local ground of collective life, and the effects of travel (Clifford, 1997). Travel and migration or Diaspora3 are prototypical rites of passage involving transition in space, territory, and group membership. They transform people's sense of themselves and others. For instance, migrants experience profound changes in their outlook and orientation as they move from the state of belonging to the homeland to that of belonging to the new land, generating a unique sense of multiple identities.

The article aims to answer these questions: To what extent have travel and migration of the Arabs transformed their worldviews, including images of themselves, of others, and of new and old homelands? To what extent have these experiences of movement been incorporated into Arab American identities and articulated in their narratives as well? Do they view themselves as having one unified transnational identity, as being “Arab American,” or multiple identities? Is there a conflict of having multiple identities and maintaining one encompassing identity? And to what extent can Arab Americans be viewed as cultural mediators or agents bridging the West and the East (the Middle East) as well as the north and the south? These questions are examined within the perspectives and views of both Arab American writers and ordinary Arab immigrants of the Detroit metropolitan area.4