New book co-edited by a VCU professor offers a more inclusive understanding of the Arab diaspora
“Arab Worlds Beyond the Middle East and North Africa,” a new book co-edited by a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, celebrates the achievements and acknowledges the challenges of new communities built by the Arab diaspora around the world.
Edited by Mariam Alkazemi, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public relations in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Claudia E. Youakim, deputy director of knowledge management and research at the Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership for Women at the American University of Beirut, the book features contributions by authors from a wide variety of disciplines, including Michael A. Paarlberg, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at VCU.
Alkazemi recently spoke with VCU News about the book, which she says is meant to expand on the understanding of Arab communities to inform and inspire a more nuanced, inclusive approach to the study of the Arab diaspora.
What do you consider to be the overarching message of this book?
The overarching message is that there are many Arab communities — even in places that may not appear to be very Middle Eastern. This book provides an interdisciplinary perspective of the Arab diaspora, including pieces by historians, political scientists and ethnic relations and communication scholars.
What inspired you and your co-editor to undertake this project?
The initial idea for this book started while we were graduate students at the University of Florida. Over frozen yogurt, the two of us were complaining about how nothing that we read reflected the stories we experienced firsthand through family, community, travel and research.
As we learned about one another’s work and personal backgrounds, it became apparent that we had both heard of Arab communities across Latin America. We both experienced Arabs in the Middle East and in the United States. We knew there were differences, and we knew that these differences were hard to navigate from an individual perspective. We talked about putting together a book on this topic, but then we parted ways. We did keep in touch, and when I got an email where folks were asking for information about Arab diasporic communities, I called Claudia to say that I think the time has come for this book to become a reality.
What do you hope “Arab Worlds Beyond the Middle East and North Africa” adds to the understanding of the Arab diaspora?
Our edited volume takes a very wide approach and not only because it looks at Syrians, Hadhramis and Palestinians, and not just because it examines Chile, Brazil, Singapore and Germany. Our edited volume also includes two chapters where the authors are career diplomats. Our book cover includes art by the Palestinian American artist whose work was featured at the United Nations.
By including many different disciplines, perspectives and contributions, we have tied together very diverse narratives about what it means to be Arab outside the Middle East and North Africa. While some chapters deal with changing gender roles, others look at the role of media in the cultural adaptation process. Some of the stories show the challenges individuals face while other chapters celebrate the accomplishments of Arabs.
What’s the biggest misconception about the Arab diaspora?
I think some of the misconceptions about Arab diaspora is that they are relatively new. One of the chapters of our book deals with the contributions of Arabs to music in New York City prior to the Great Depression. We found that migration from the Middle East also took place in the 19th century during the colonial era. Also, Arabs do not only migrate to Western, democratic contexts. In our introduction, we wrote about how we were unable to do justice to the Arab communities in Africa.
Among the book’s contributors is VCU political science professor Michael Paarlberg. What does his chapter explore?
Dr. Paarlberg wrote a chapter called, “Turcos and Chilestinos: Latin American Palestinian Diaspora Nationalism in a Comparative Context.” It’s a very cool chapter about the Arab communities in Chile, El Salvador and Honduras. The two of us had a cup of coffee together after our orientation and it became clear that he was interested in both world regions, but that he was more focused on Latin America. So when Claudia and I agreed to write the book, I called him to see if he might be interested in contributing a chapter. We are both happy he wrote it! For Claudia, it is very personal because her family roots can be traced to Chile.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
As someone who has been part of university communities around the world for over 15 years, I have never had trouble finding Arab students and faculty with whom I could talk about cultural issues. I have found that many students have a hunger to learn, to make sense of their backgrounds, to help bridge differences. Yet, there is also a scarcity of literature that may reflect their own personal experiences. This book is academic, but it is also written for those young students with a hunger to connect with others and community.
This book is for any person who has ever struggled to feel like they belong somewhere. Anyone who is interested in culture or likes to travel would enjoy it too. We utilized a wide range of disciplines and our chapters discuss communities in several continents, and we hope that an equally wide range of readers will find it interesting.