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SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated 8 February 1996

book review

the middle east in north america

questions of identity in
food for our grandmothers

Joanna Kadi, ed., ,Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists (Boston: South End Press, 1994).

Christina Civantos

Food for Our Grandmothers is an anthology of fifty contributions in genres as diverse as poetry, autobiographical essays, and scholarly essays on Orientalism. The authors are primarily North American women of Arab descent (although one Iranian-American and two Armenian-American women are included) from varied cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The works in Food for Our Grandmothers arise out of, and respond to, the complex histories of Middle Eastern immigrants in North America over the past one hundred years. A brief history of these experiences, drawn from an earlier collection of historical studies on Arab-Americans, helps illuminate some of the central questions raised by Food for Our Grandmothers.

Immigrants from the Ottoman Empire began to arrive in the Americas in the second half of the nineteenth century, and some of the issues surrounding them crystallized around court cases, segregation, and community activism in America by the First World War. In February 1914, for example, a South Carolina District court denied United States citizenship to one immigrant, George Dow, on the grounds that, as a "Syrian of Asiatic birth," he was not a free white person according to the terms of the naturalization statute approved in 1790.[1] This case provoked many from the Arabic-speaking immigrant community to search for their collective identity, since their "identity" prior to leaving the Middle East had been primarily based on religious categories, in accordance with Ottoman practice. Researching their places of origin, several immigrants found that they were "Syrians," and thus "Arabs." They argued that as a result, they were "free whites," although they did not succeed in changing their legal status as citizens until the second appeal of the Dow case. About the same time, many Lebanese immigrants in Birmingham, Alabama, had established themselves as a community of successful merchants. Nevertheless, Birmingham's segregated hierarchy and the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity created considerable opposition to their entry into "white-only" restaurants or public restrooms. Discrimination against darker-complexioned Arabs was especially fierce.[2]

Arab women in North America have a long history of organizing on behalf of their communities in America and the Middle East, a fact perhaps surprising given stereotypes of the Arab woman as passive and sequestered. For example, Arab women from Saint George's Orthodox Church in Boston organized the Society for the Relief of Syria and Lebanon in response to reports of the extreme hardships being experienced in the Middle East in the wake of World War I. After successfully raising funds for those abroad, the society began to focus on aid for Arabs in the greater Boston area and changed their organization's name to the Syrian Ladies' Aid Society of Boston. The group continues today to provide monetary and material support in the Syrian-Lebanese communities of Massachusetts.[3]

It is from these histories that Food for Our Grandmothers grows. The collection is organized into six parts, each prefaced with a recipe that includes, according to editor Joanna Kadi, an ingredient with symbolic value. Sections include, for example, "Olives, Our Roots Go Deep: Where We Came From"; "Thyme, Growing Against the Odds: Surviving the Gulf War"; and "Laban, Silent Victims and Belly-Dancers: (Mis)Representations of Arab Women." A final section lists a number of Arab resources and organizations in North America. The contributors include women from different national, religious, and ethnic groups, and they range from third-generation Americans to first-generation immigrants.

Within this variety, the themes of racial identification and of experiences of racism levelled at the authors (both by some within Arab-North American communities and by outsiders) recur frequently throughout the anthology's pieces. In the autobiographical essay, "In Search of Home," Carol Haddad grapples with her racial position in the face of the maintenance of strict racial categories in the United States. While at times her family enjoyed the privileges of whiteness, at other times they were discriminated against for "being too brown," or they were simply hard to place and thus under suspicion. Growing up, Haddad was called a "nigger" by a neighborhood boy and a "hairy ape" by schoolmates. Yet, as an adult, she did not feel that she had "a legitimate claim" to the identity of "woman of color" because in the communities in which she had lived "races were primarily black or white." Haddad began to identify as a woman of color after meeting for the first time some Arab-American feminists at a National Women's Studies Association conference, a meeting which led her to take "several important steps toward finding home." She finally found this home in the Feminist Arab-American Network, an organization which she helped establish in 1983 (218-223).

Another contributor, Anne J. M. Mamary, in her piece entitled "Mint, Tomatoes, and the Grapevine," describes witnessing discrimination against her Arab-American father. Like some of the other contributors who document their experiences with racism in America, she refers to the racism within her family as well:

In the face of this anti-Arab sentiment, my family made a home in this country. This home was built with many things, including internalized hatred of Arab peoples along with the racist "relief" that we are not, in my grandfather's words, "as dark as black people." That is, his/our definition often came by denying and running from variously deep shades of olive skin and at the same time clinging to the power in the United States which comes from having a sense of self delineated as being "not someone else" -- here not someone darker.

Mamary's position is further complicated by the fact that she looks more like her Pennsylvania-Dutch mother than her Arab-American father. As a result, her identification as an Arab-American and a person-of-color have often met with challenges. Mamary responds:

I resent being seen as a "collector of oppressions" when I talk about my family -- my family -- as close to me as my father and a Sittu [grandmother] who considers me as real as her grandchildren who are "100 percent". . . .I have certainly benefited from white skin privilege in this country but that is exactly why I talk about how my family made a place for itself in this country with a complex and deep racism and its fiercely anti-Arab beliefs (250-7).

Haddad's, Mamary's, and other contributors' accounts begin to dismantle notions about clear-cut racial categories and expose the ways in which the construction of racial boundaries reproduce social hierarchies. They write about both the losses inherent in "passing" and the perils of light-skinned/"passable" women claiming the identity of women of color -- especially given the charged debates around "identity politics." Pieces such as Mamary's further complicate the term "people of color" by pointing to the internal racism of their own communities, linking it to the history of colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa. Identifying as a person of color can be, therefore, a way of resisting the hegemony of whiteness as a space of privilege.

Many of the pieces in Food for Our Grandmothers echo the use of the term "people of color" in an earlier, ground-breaking anthology of writings by women of color: This Bridge Called My Back.[4] This anthology, which Kadi refers to in her introduction as an inspirational model, put the term "woman of color" into wider circulation among mainstream feminists. Food for Our Grandmothers presents the perspectives of Middle Eastern and Arab-American women, who were left out of this anthology.

Throughout Food for Our Grandmothers, the implications of naming oneself a "woman of color" -- or naming oneself at all -- are questions linked with the act of naming one's ethnic or national identity. Naming oneself according to national and/or ethnic affiliations is presented by many of the contributors as either an impossibility or an empowering necessity -- or sometimes as both. The difficulties begin with the multiplicity within the term "Arab." Given the different ethnic and religious groups and colonial histories within the nineteen countries of the Arab world, the question arises, what constitutes an Arab-American or Arab-Canadian identity? What links exist between Arabs and other ethnic and national groups in the region designated the Middle or Near East and North Africa? (Kadi considers substituting for these Euro-centric denominations the terms West Asian and North African.)

The writings in this volume explore both the specificities of individual identities and the possibility and usefulness of broader coalitions in a place where the mainstream culture is full of racial divisions and Orientalist stereotyping. In addition, they point to the constructed nature of nationality as a cultural marker. The grandparents and great-grandparents of many of these writers could only claim a national heritage after the fact of statehood. Often it was not until years or decades after they had emigrated from their homelands (then provinces of the Ottoman Empire) that various nation-states were established. Only then could these immigrants, or their children, determine where these newly drawn borders placed their villages and thus begin to think of themselves as Syrian or Lebanese, for example.

In the anthology, questions of identity formation intersect with the issue of identifying specifically as a feminist, especially given the problematic treatment of Middle Eastern/North African women as the "victims par excellence" of patriarchy by Euro-American feminists. The writers in Food for Our Grandmothers look back at the homes they come from while looking forward to forming new "homes" in communities of feminists and women of color. In looking back, they appreciate the nourishment they received from their grandmothers, and, as stated in the title of the collection, they look forward to the types of gifts they can give them in return.

The title of the anthology and various pieces within it, however, position the grandmother, figuratively and literally, as the bearer of culture in ways that are problematic because they uphold women's designation as the static carriers of "tradition." In her essay in the anthology, Kadi does somewhat rework this relationship between women and culture by re-evaluating her grandmother's domestic work as cultural work. She then links her own work to her grandmother's by seeing herself as a cultural worker as well -- one who works with words rather than food. Thus, despite a partial reinforcement of women as symbolic bearers of culture, the contributors succeed in creating the first anthology of writings by Arab-North American women and raising many issues of national, racial, and feminist identity important to the Arab diaspora.

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1. Quoted in Michael W. Suleiman, "Early Arab-Americans: The Search for Identity," Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States Before 1940, ed. Eric J. Hooglund (Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution, 1987) 44.

2. Nancy Faires Conklin and Nancy Faires, "'Colored' and Catholic: The Lebanese in Birmingham, Alabama," Hooglund.

3. Evelyn Shakir, "Good Work, Good Times: The Syrian Ladies' Aid Society of Boston, 1917-1932," Hooglund.

4. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Gloria Anzaldśa and Cherr’e Moraga (1981; New York: Kitchen Table, 1983).