Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth after 9/11

Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth after 9/11

by Thea Renda Abu El-Haj

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Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth after 9/11 by Thea Renda Abu El-Haj

Unsettled Belonging tells the stories of young Palestinian Americans as they navigate and construct lives as American citizens. Following these youth throughout their school days, Thea Abu El-Haj examines citizenship as lived experience, dependent on various social, cultural, and political memberships. For them, she shows, life is characterized by a fundamental schism between their sense of transnational belonging and the exclusionary politics of routine American nationalism that ultimately cast them as impossible subjects.
Abu El-Haj explores the school as the primary site where young people from immigrant communities encounter the central discourses about what it means to be American. She illustrates the complex ways social identities are bound up with questions of belonging and citizenship, and she details the processes through which immigrant youth are racialized via everyday nationalistic practices. Finally, she raises a series of crucial questions about how we educate for active citizenship in contemporary times, when more and more people’s lives are shaped within transnational contexts. A compelling account of post-9/11 immigrant life, Unsettled Belonging is a steadfast look at the disjunctures of modern citizenship. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226289465
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/27/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Thea Abu El-Haj is associate professor of education and an educational anthropologist at Rutgers University. She is the author of Elusive Justice: Wrestling with Difference and Educational Equity in Everyday Practice

Read an Excerpt

Unsettled Belonging

Educating Palestinian American Youth after 9/11

By Thea Renda Abu El-Haj

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-28963-2


"Trying to Have an Identity without a Place in the World"

To me to be a Palestinian, or, or just, not, not to be a Palestinian, but the idea of me being a Palestinian means that in some way or other I have to fight for the freedom of Palestine and the freedom of Palestinians. So, and oftentimes I have, I have socialist leanings. And so oftentimes these two things come into conflict with being an American. So when, when these two are in conflict I am a Palestinian, not an American. But at other times when you ask me about Barack Obama, when you ask me about, about [city] public schools, when you ask me about these, these types of things I am wholly an American. So it's, I'm, I'm, my identity's sort of flipping between these two constantly. — KAMAL SHA'BAN

Kamal was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at a state university when I first interviewed him. Inspired by the early life of Che Guevara, Kamal aspired to become a physician and to dedicate his life to delivering medicine to Palestinians living in refugee camps. As the child of refugee-status Palestinian parents, Kamal had been fundamentally influenced by his parents' struggle to gain citizenship, and he well understood the power that legal US citizenship affords to those who have it. His father grew up as a refugee-status Palestinian in Syria. His mother, Amira, held Jordanian citizenship, but as a woman, she was unable to pass it on to her children. In her early twenties, Amira was fortunate to gain a US green card through her sister, who had managed to immigrate to the United States. In order to guarantee that her children would also have legal citizenship, Amira made sure that Kamal and his older sister, Zayna, were both born in the United States. Soon after each delivery, Amira had to return to Iraq to reunite with her husband, who, as a Palestinian with no state's citizenship, was unable to travel. As a result of their family's move to Iraq, in their early years Kamal and Zayna directly experienced the effects of violent conflict. When the war landed in their backyard in the form of an American bomb, Amira and her children returned to the United States, living for many years without their father, until finally their attempts to secure him a green card succeeded.

Kamal's life was intimately bound up with the unresolved historic and political conflicts that shaped his life and the lives of other Palestinian American families residing in the United States. These conflicts influenced the trajectory of Kamal's growing identification with the struggle for Palestinian national self-determination. When he first returned to the United States as a young child, Kamal recalled crying constantly at school because he could not speak English. The teachers often tried to help him by bringing in his older cousin to spend time with him. Once he gained English fluency, however, Kamal threw himself into being "just another American kid." This changed in middle school because of September 11, 2001. Initially, Kamal decided to hide behind the fiction that "I was American. I was Spanish, whatever." He told me, "I completely understood how alienated I might be, right, if I told people I was Arab." Kamal had been scared by experiences with people in his neighborhood who harassed his family because his mother's hijab made it evident that they were Muslims. However, slowly, as he moved through his later years in middle school and on to high school, Kamal began to embrace his Palestinian identity and speak out politically about Palestine. He described the change, saying, "I held up a [Palestinian] flag." Kamal began actively teaching himself about Palestine, not only through reading and alternative media, but by asking his parents and family members to tell him their stories. Through these stories, Kamal learned about his family's life in Palestine, their expulsion from their village in 1948, and his parents' history as activists working on behalf of Palestinian refugees in Syria. The more Kamal learned, the more he began to educate others about Palestine, and to plan a future dedicated to service on behalf of the Palestinians.

As Kamal described, this commitment to the Palestinian cause occasioned some conflict with his sense of himself as an American. For Kamal and the other youth in this study, the United States' close alliance with Israel and its foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia created tensions about what it meant to be "American." At times, Kamal saw himself as "wholly American," particularly in relation to the promises of US democratic equality, such as the election of an African American president and the educational opportunities afforded by public schools and universities. Kamal identified with the equal rights that US democracy aspires to confer on its citizens. However, he also understood, not only intellectually but intimately, the powerful role that the United States played in the Middle East — one that supported the Israeli occupation of Palestine, had bombed his family's backyard in Iraq, and had launched the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. As Kamal's life story unfolded across several countries, and in relation to two national imaginaries, he developed a multifaceted, sometimes conflicted, sense of who he was and where he belonged. This complex, fluid, "flipping" sense of belonging led Kamal to develop social, cultural, and political commitments and to enact active citizenship practices in relation to both the United States and Palestine.

This chapter and the following one take up the question of how Palestinian American youth carve out a sense of belonging and citizenship within and across the imagined and actual landscapes of Palestine and the United States. Similar to youth from many im/migrant communities in the United States (Gibson 1988; Lee 2005; Maira 2002; Olsen 1997; Sarroub 2005), these young people often spoke of struggling to figure out where they belonged in relation to the differences they perceived between American and Palestinian cultural practices. However, for this community, these questions about cultural belonging were far overshadowed by — and, in fact, inextricably interwoven with — the politics of belonging raised by the Palestinian nationalist movement, the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, the quest for the rights of citizenship, and the political context of the US "war on terror" (which I take up in part 2 of this book).

In this chapter and the next, I explore these questions of the politics of belonging. As I argued in the introduction, I aim to complicate the existing literature that addresses the social incorporation of youth from im/migrant communities living in the United States, exploring what we can learn by focusing on the experiences of youth growing up in transnational fields (Abu El-Haj 2007; DeJaeghere and McCleary 2010; Dyrness 2012; Ewing and Hoyler 2008; Maira 2009; Sánchez 2007; Knight 2011; Louie 2002; Wolf 2002). The stories of Kamal and the other Palestinian American youth challenge us to reconsider what can appear, at first glance, to represent conflicts between "home" and "host" cultures, or between family and school values and expectations. Instead, these stories suggest a need to analyze culture as the terrain upon which larger political conflicts about belonging and citizenship are played out (Abu El-Haj 2007; Abu El-Haj and Bonet 2011; Hall 2002; Lukose 2009). These young people's sense of belonging to a Palestinian national community calls into question the normative assumption that one-way social incorporation into the United States (or other receiving nations) is, or should be, the goal for youth from transnational communities (see also Abu El-Haj 2007, 2009a, 2010; Fouron and Glick-Schiller 2002; Lukose 2007; Maira 2009; Sánchez and Kasun 2012) — an assumption that invisibly structures not only research but also educational policies and practices. The disjunctive political experiences that these Palestinian American youth and their families had in relation to various nation-states shaped a different sense of belonging and citizenship for this community.

In addition, recent research with Muslim youth from im/migrant communities living in the United States and other Western democracies has sought to understand how these young people negotiate their religious and/or ethnic identities in relation to their mainstream identities given the post-9/11 political context (Ewing and Hoyler 2008; Ghaffar-Kucher 2009; Mir 2014; Mondal 2008; Sirin and Fine 2008; Zine 2001, 2006). Sirin and Fine, for example, have documented multiple pathways of identity formation (hyphenated, parallel, or conflicted) these youth take. Ewing and Hoyler noted that even as the middle-class South Asian Muslim youth in their study described feeling American by citizenship and culture, they were increasingly aware of and connected to their religious identifications, and this tied them to a worldwide community of Muslims. Mir explores the multidimensional identities that young Muslim women forge as they "become themselves" in relation to their Muslim communities and the mainstream community (2014, 4). On the whole, this research has shown that the majority of Muslim youth are not alienated from the societies in which they reside, despite often feeling religious or cultural disconnections from the dominant society and experiencing prejudice and discrimination from the mainstream (see, for exceptions, Ghaffar-Kucher 2009; Grewal 2014; Kibria 2007). This research has been valuable in providing data that contradict the popular belief that Muslim youth, and their communities, are generally hostile to the countries in which they live, and thus potentially suspect. However, to some extent, much of this recent focus on Muslim youth has been premised on a model of immigrant acculturation that presumes the receiving nation is, and should be, the primary locus of social and political engagement. The two chapters in part 1 interrogate this model of citizenship and belonging, examining how their experiences growing up in transnational fields educate young Palestinian Americans into other forms of citizenship and belonging.

Migration has not been a one-way ticket for many in this Palestinian community. For a majority of the youth, experiences living in the United States and in the Middle East fundamentally shaped the meaning and affective dimensions of belonging. Moreover, these young people are members of a community that has worked for over a century to build and sustain national consciousness in the face of ongoing political struggle for a state (Hammer 2005; R. Khalidi 1997; Said 1979). To do so, Palestinians living across the world develop strategies through which they can continue to maintain a connection to Palestine, even as they integrate into the countries in which they live (Abu El-Haj 2007; Hammer 2005; Schulz 2003). This situation is not unique to Palestinians. I argue that the assumption that integration should be the goal for im/migrant communities fails to describe the meaning and parameters of citizenship in modern times. The case of Palestinian Americans, then, illustrates why debates over citizenship — on the ground, and in the academic literature — cannot be limited to questions about the extent to which modern democratic states can accommodate a multitude of linguistic, cultural, and religious affiliations. Citizenship and belonging for these young people involves civic and political practices shaped in transnational fields that are not, and cannot be, restricted to the borders of any one nation.

The Palestinian case represents a particular diasporic configuration because of Palestinians' unrealized nationalist aspirations and the role that the United States has consistently played in thwarting these aspirations (R. Khalidi 2013). However, the issues raised in this chapter and the next are relevant to youth from many communities that have migrated to the United States and other Western states due to ongoing and historic political conflicts, as well as the economic disjunctures wrought by those conflicts. Moreover, even in the absence of political conflict, more and more young people's lives are shaped in the crucible of modern globalization, with its attendant mass migration, dislocation of culture, and technological advances that allow people to remain connected to multiple places (Appadurai 1996; Basch, Glick Schiller and Szanton Blanc 1994; Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004; Ong 1999). Given this context, it is critical to understand how youth construct and negotiate belonging and citizenship through everyday practices in their homes, schools, and communities to reflect their ongoing (cultural, economic, social, and political) engagement with more than one nation-state — engagement that may or may not entail actual physical movement across borders (Abu ElHaj 2007; DeJaeghere and McCleary 2010; Dyrness 2012; Ewing and Hoyler 2008; Maira 2009; Sánchez 2007; Knight 2011). These everyday practices constitute an implicit citizenship education — one that was at odds with the models of citizenship they would encounter in their schools. By listening carefully to the way that young Palestinian Americans imagine belonging and citizenship, I explore how youth from this and other transnational communities are reshaping the meanings and practices of citizenship and belonging in this era of globalization and mass migration (see Abu El-Haj 2007; Dyrness 2012; Fouron and Glick-Schiller 2002; Maira 2009; Sánchez 2007; Sánchez and Kasun 2012; Seif 2011). Understanding the complexity of belonging and citizenship for young people who grow up in transnational fields holds implications for education in modern multicultural democracies, a subject to which I return in the conclusion of this book.

In this chapter and the next, respectively, I take up two related questions raised by Kamal and his family's story, and echoed throughout the lives of the young people with whom I worked: that of belonging and that of citizenship. Palestinian American youth forged a strong sense of belonging in relation to the ongoing nationalist struggle for an independent Palestinian state. In this context, the affective sense of being Palestinian trumped other affiliations and often left them feeling tentative about their connections to their "American" identities. However, despite this hesitancy about claiming fully an American national identity, these young people identified strongly as US citizens. The encounters that they and their families had with the state of Israel and its military occupation, or with exile and statelessness, left them with an appreciation for, and commitment to, their status as US citizens and the rights it entails. Thus, for these young people, national identification and citizenship were not necessarily tightly interwoven categories. The lived experiences of these Palestinian American youth offer a window through which to reconsider basic assumptions of what it means to feel and enact "citizenship."

In the rest of this chapter, I examine how the sense of being Palestinian and belonging to a national community was continually produced through everyday practices that unfolded across transnational social fields. That is, these young people's sense of being Palestinian cannot be understood as an essential condition — a cultural residue — of the Palestinian diaspora. It reflects ongoing, everyday work that produces the nation and individuals' connections to this national imaginary. Thus, everyday practices in families and communities constitute an informal citizenship education through which their sense of national belonging was continually constructed. The Palestinian youth and their parents in this study engaged in everyday practices, and long-term migration strategies, that reflected the broader movement to maintain national consciousness in the face of ongoing statelessness. Many im/migrant families seek ways to maintain their children's linguistic and cultural connections to their "homeland" (see, for example, Gibson 1988; Hall 2002; Kibria 2002; Louie 2002; Sánchez 2007; Sarroub 2005). In recent times, these practices have been aided by modern technologies that facilitate the construction of transnational identifications, creating more opportunities for imaginative and actual experiences with the places from which family members have migrated. For Palestinians, these identifications are bound up with an independence movement, simultaneously constructing a sense of self, and a notion of "a people," and in doing so, constituting a relationship with an imagined national community.


Excerpted from Unsettled Belonging by Thea Renda Abu El-Haj. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


Part 1 Belonging and Citizenship

Chapter 1 “Trying to Have an Identity without a Place in the World”
Chapter 2 “We Are Stateless, but We Still Have Rights”

Part 2 “I Know How the Men in Your Country Treat You”: Everyday Nationalism and the Politics of Exclusion

Chapter 3 “The Best Country in the World”: Imagining America in an Age of Empire
Chapter 4 “The Beauty of America Is It’s a Salad Bowl”: Everyday Nationalism at Regional High
Chapter 5 “Are You or Are You Not an American?”: The Politics of Belonging in Everyday Life


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