Author: Ramy M.K. Aly
Publisher: Pluto Press (2015)
Hardcover: 272 pages
Review by Emmanuela Eposti
“What is it that really makes summer in the city?… It is Arabs: Arabs by the thousand, walking in the park, drinking coffee in the Edgware Road, emptying the shelves of the Marble Arch Marks and Spencer…”
So ran a story in The Guardian in August 1998. Nearly 20 years later, London still retains a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the Arabs that seasonally grace its shores – at once fascinated by their fabled exoticism and repulsed by their image of greed, corruption and lasciviousness. But the picture is muddier still for the many thousands of British-born Arabs, the descendants of those who fled the countries of the Arab world to seek political and humanitarian refuge in Britain, or simply in search of a better life, and who now call its capital city home. What is the British relationship with these Arab Londoners; these homegrown exoticisms?
This is the starting point of a new academic work by Ramy M.K. Aly, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo and himself a second-generation British-born Egyptian. InBecoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity, Aly seeks to explore the ways in which the Arab-British youth of today come to negotiate and make sense of their hyphenated identity amidst the complex and often constraining politics of multiculturalism. What emerges from his analysis, based on rich ethnographic data collected during fieldwork in 2006-7, is a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the everyday lives of ordinary Arab Londoners, and the various political and social forces at play in determining what it means to be “Arab” in 21st century London.
Although there have been many previous studies of Arab communities from different parts of the Middle East living in Britain, the vast majority of such analyses tend to focus on ethnic, religious or national groupings; thus making Becoming Arab “the first detailed ethnography of the cultural practices of Arab Londoners” in and of themselves. It is a mammoth task, and one that Aly tackles through the lens of ethnographic immersion, offering the reader a snapshot of the lives of the various Arab protagonists whom Aly frequents. By exploring the various cultural practices and performances of these individuals on a daily basis, Aly is able to build up a layered picture of the different ways in which it is possible to “be Arab” in London, whether that be frequenting a shisha café, attending university Arab society parties, conforming to or challenging expected gender norms or partaking in belly dance classes.
“Arab identity is not an essence or a cause of behaviours and dispositions but an instrumental reaction to being hailed and subjected by social institutions, hegemonic gendered norms, national and international politics and media representations,” he writes.
Theoretically, Aly draws on critical scholars such as Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida to offer a reading of “Arabness” that sees it as performative, a carefully executed performance of festishised objects and material practices that is deeply implicated in the subjectifying discourses of British multiculturalism. Ultimately, to be “Arab” in London, Aly argues, is to outwardly manifest and buy into a culture of ethnic and racial distinction that has been called into being by the ethnonormative hegemony of British multiculturalism, in which “one can only be socially intelligible in Britain by being the subject of and subject to race thinking.” In other words, what it means to be “Arab” in London is more a reflection of domestic British politics and culture (and of the British Orientalist gaze on the Middle East) than about contemporary modes of belonging and consumption in the Arab world itself.
As Aly writes in the book: “Looking at what it means ‘to do’ Arabness in London provides opportunities to look at the underlying normative and psychical structures that inform the doing of ‘ethnicity’ in a particular setting.”
In this sense, Becoming Arab taps into an important aspect of what it means to be “ethnic” in Britain today; an identifying marker that even if not physically inscribed on the body in terms of skin colour and dress can nevertheless be used to single out both individuals and communities for differential (and often pejorative) treatment by the dominant white (middle class) majority. Ethnicity in multicultural Britain is about parcelling off and segregating different groups and individuals for classification and intelligibility; a system in which one can only be “British” if one is also simultanesouly either “white”, “black”, or “ethnic”.
Such essentialising and diminutive logic can be seen in David Cameron’s recent Birmingham speech, in which he singled out “Muslims” as a group who bear the responsibility for the growing “poison” of Islamist extremism in Britain. In his speech, Cameron explicitly addresses a posited “Muslim community”, claiming that to “simply deny any connection between the religion of Islam and the extremists doesn’t work.”
There are many problems with the Birmingham speech, but one of the most pertinent to the issues raised here is the way in which Cameron’s discourse of “Muslims” and “extremists” precludes any possibility for divergence and individuality – or, God forbid, disagreement – within these supposed homogeneous groups (as does his notion of “British values”). Aly, too, in Becoming Arab occasionally falls into this trap (despite his best efforts), seeming to implicitly conflate the category of “Arab” with “(Sunni) Muslim” to the extent that there is little attempt throughout the study to acknowledge the religious diversity of Arabs as a whole. Although there is a passing reference to Arab Christians in the United States, at no point does Becoming Arab engage with Arabs of Jewish, Christian, Druze, or even Shia Muslim background, simply flattening the category “Arab” to cover the handful of (Sunni) Muslim, middle class, secular Arabs with whom the author has spent the majority of his time.
Ultimately, Becoming Arab, despite its richness of ethnographic detail and insightful theoretical contributions, runs the risk of reproducing the very ethno normative multicultural discourse of which Aly is so critical in its equation of “Arab” ethnicity with “(Sunni) Muslim” religious identity. While this itself is a shame, it perhaps speaks to the pervasive forces of such racialised discourses that even an academic work aimed at undermining such reductionism is itself implicated in the dominant world view that serves to strip non-Muslim Arabs of their ethnic and racial origins and instead wage wars on religious categories alone.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.