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New Texts Out Now: Alex Lubin and Marwan M. Kraidy, eds., American Studies Encounters the Middle East

Alex Lubin and Marwan M. Kraidy, eds. American Studies Encounters the Middle East. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Alex Lubin and Marwan Kraidy (AL and MK): In 2011, just as the so-called “Arab Spring” was underway, the Center for American Studies and Research at the American University of Beirut hosted an international conference to explore historical and contemporary connections between the United States and the Middle East. The conversations at the conference ranged from historical analyses of the role of Muslim immigrants in the United States to the contemporary United States geopolitical relationship to the Arab world in general. Scholars came from over twenty countries, and from fields like political science, history, communications and media studies, literature, Middle East Studies, and American Studies. It occurred to us (Alex was directing the center and Marwan was the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at AUB the year that the conference took place at a pivotal moment in U.S. relationships with the Middle East. Amidst a moment of decline in American prestige across the region, coupled with seemingly ubiquitous American cultural products, the Arab world was making new demands for autonomy from the super powers, as well as local demands for new forms of citizenship. How could we explain the seeming dominance of American culture across the Middle East alongside the obvious decline in the United States’ ability to dictate political change in the region? The book emerged, then, as an attempt to understand not only what American Studies looks like in the Middle East, but also how the Middle East makes sense of America during a particular historical conjuncture characterized by the end of the Cold War and the American Century, and the rise of new calls for Arab sovereignty and citizenship.

The project also emerged from a recognition that American Studies in the Middle East was different than American Studies in the U.S. To take one examples, where the question of Palestine in the U.S. discourse was largely ignored–except by a notable group of Arab American intellectuals and their allies–in Lebanon and across the Middle East, one couldn’t attempt to understand the U.S./Middle East relationship without studying the U.S./Israel “special relationship”. The Palestine question, and U.S. geopolitics across the Arab world, are central to American Studies in the Middle East and therefore, the field had to engage with the geopolitical realities of U.S. empire in ways that the discipline in the U.S. did not.

American Studies Encounters the Middle East attempted to shift the vantage point from which we normally study America, by considering how America looks in and from the Arab world and beyond, as well as how it looks in the movement from one place to another. 

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AL and MK: The book explores transnational encounters by considering early American literary representations of Islam, nineteenth century Muslim encounters in the United States, contemporary cultural exchanges in hip hop music, as well as geopolitical relationships and histories between the two regions. The collection strikes a balance between U.S. visions of America in the World, and Arab reception of, and projections about, American culture. It combines the work of American studies scholars, cultural studies scholars, media scholars, and political and literary historians, and Middle East Studies scholars.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AL and MK: The book connects to both authors’ recent publications.  Alex’s Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro Arab Political Imaginary (UNC Press) and Marwan’s recent, The Naked Blogger of Cairo: Creative Insurgency in the Arab World (Harvard UP) each engage the sort of transnational scholarship evoked in American Studies Encounters the Middle East, and by this we mean relationships of circulation and exchange between Arab countries, and between these countries on the one hand, individually and as a group, and Africa and/or America on the other hand. Both of us worked on our single-authored monographs while developing our co-edited project; so, in many ways, our recent monographs are reflections of, as well as contributors to, this co-edited volume.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AL and MK: We think that the book will be useful not only to scholars in American and Middle East Studies who think about the meaning of transnational scholarship, but also to less specialized audience interested in various topics covered in the book, such as the historical encounters of Muslim migrants with the U.S., or contemporary audiences of Arab hip-hop, or readers interested in the U.S. political relationship to Gulf monarchies.  The book may also be useful to anyone interested in a snap-shot of scholarship taking place at a particularly optimistic moment of the Arab uprisings.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AL and MK: Alex is writing a history of the cultural politics of what he calls the Afro-Asian decade in Cairo, Egypt during the 1960s.  At a moment when several Third World conference took place in Cairo, there was a vibrant cultural encounter between African American poets, novelists, and musicians with Egyptian counterparts.  In the dissonant politics and cultural encounters that characterized the third world movement in Cairo, new cultural forms developed, including a “free jazz” that would inspire artists ranging from Sun Ra to Randy Weston. 

Marwan is working on a critical-theoretical excavation of the war machine as a historical figure, tracing an arc that goes back to the historiography of Ibn Khaldûn to the postcolonial thought of Achille Mbembe, by way of the new materialism of Deleuze and Guattari. It uses the rise of the organization that calls itself “Islamic State”—or, as many Arabs call it, Daesh—to revisit our comprehension of the connections between speed, spectacle and securitization, and seeks to elaborate an understanding of globalization through the prism of temporality.

Excerpt from Introduction:

In the hills above the Casino du Liban, in the predominantly Maronite Catholic Keserwan district of Lebanon, sits El Rancho, a Texas-style dude ranch that hosts the Cedar Stampede Rodeo, a Sunday Texas barbeque, evening campfires, and deluxe lodging in “genuine” Sioux Indian tepees. El Rancho is a tourist destination in which visitors, some of whom may be both Lebanese and American, recreate a mythic U.S. frontier, a landscape populated by images of cowboys and American Indians made popular in globalized U.S. culture. El Rancho promises visitors “an authentic Tex-Mex experience,” where they can “set off on a dude ranch escape.” For Lebanese and regional visitors who may not know the meaning of the term “dude ranch,” the El Rancho website provides ample definition and examples. According to its advertising, “El Rancho Lebanon is modeled on the history of ranching in the United States, a history that can be accessed through the iconography of the ‘wild west’ made popular in the Hollywood Western.” Visitors can go to El Rancho to indulge in Angus beef hamburgers imported from the United States in a restaurant that recreates a western saloon, with John Wayne paraphernalia. Moreover, visitors can walk through a recreated western town filled with wooden statues of cowboys and forlorn images of defeated, but noble, Indians.[1]

El Rancho is a private venture owned by a Lebanese businessperson, but the U.S. consulate and several U.S.-based corporations such as Baskin-Robbins and Krispy Kreme sponsor some of its activities, including the annual Cedar Stampede Rodeo. In this sense, although El Rancho is a private Lebanese venture, it is connected to the United States not only because it features a version of U.S.—Tex-Mex—culture but also because it receives authenticity through occasional sponsorship of the U.S. consulate.

Although El Rancho promises an authentic Tex-Mex experience, its symbols and icons have been reorganized and shuffled so that various particularities of western U.S. expansion are confused. The advertised “Sioux Indian Teepees,” for example, might be found in the Northern Plains of the United States, but not in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. Moreover, the activities available at El Rancho are not exclusively related to the mythical U.S. west. Among the activities advertised on the El Rancho website are “Espionage Wars” or “Roman Games.” This mish-mash of seemingly random cultural activities presents a mediated vision of American culture, inaccurate in its history and geography but compelling in its iconography, disassociated from its original referent.

What makes El Rancho so fascinating is not only how U.S. culture travels internationally and is received in non-U.S. destinations but also how American culture circulates between and within complex geopolitical realities. The United States relationship with Lebanon is currently tense, as Hezbollah—a political party the United States regards as a terrorist organization—controls many areas of the Lebanese government. Moreover, Lebanon’s capitol, Beirut, was the scene of a major U.S. military defeat, as U.S. forces intending to intervene in Lebanon’s bloody civil war came under attack in 1983. Following the bombing of the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, in which 299 American and French soldiers died, President Ronald Reagan prevented all direct, nonstop flights from Lebanon to the United States, a ban that continues to this day. Moreover, U.S. support for successive Israeli military occupations and attacks in Lebanon has only escalated Lebanese criticism of U.S. foreign policy. During last two decades of the twentieth century Lebanon had been the scene of covert U.S. military intervention as well as kidnappings and assassinations of U.S. diplomats and American citizens. Given the thorny realities of U.S.–Lebanese geopolitics, it is even more curious why American culture circulates so prominently in Lebanon at places like El Rancho. Why would the American frontier play such a prominent role in a Lebanese tourist venue at a time when U.S. foreign policy is under intense Lebanese scrutiny?

Within the United States, the western frontier mythology thrives as well. It sutures together stories of cowboys and Indians in sparsely populated western landscapes with an imagined past—one that is used to explain who Americans are (or are not) as “a people” and often to hide the way this past is tied to a legacy of settler violence that underwrites much of the United States’ national development. But what might these things mean in Lebanon? Perhaps the U.S. west represents something altogether different. It might signify how icons of American culture circulate in the Arab world, but it might also mean something about the borders and frontiers of Lebanon or about the location of colonized “reservations”—Palestinian refugee camps—within Lebanon’s borders. 

Perhaps El Rancho is rooted to a genealogy of American exceptionalism intended to elide the legacy of conquest in the making of American culture and to a Lebanese desire for a (translated) version of American frontiers. Beyond the influence of the United States, El Rancho assumes many meanings as American culture gets reconstituted in ways that make tenuous its cultural and material referents. Hence, there is both something especially American and something foreign to America that El Rancho Lebanon is attempting to market and that the U.S. embassy is occasionally willing to sponsor. The seeming chaotic pastiche of El Rancho Lebanon might expose the contradictions inherent to both states and in this way becomes something that resides beyond any one nation. In its travels, American culture gets translated in ways that reveal the political unconscious of both its location of origin and its arrival destination.

American Studies Encounters the Middle East attempts to understand the dense and overlapping global cultural processes that make El Rancho intelligible as well as the complex narratives El Rancho tells about the United States and about globalized American culture. We are interested in how U.S. culture travels and the curious ways that notions of “America” transform in the process of international and global circulation. Moreover, in this collection, we are interested in how American culture circulates in the Middle East and North Africa within changing geopolitical contexts. We therefore focus our analysis on the historical encounters, especially of the Middle East in America in the making of early American culture as well as the contemporary encounter as it is shaped in the context of changing U.S. global prestige and political realities across the Arab world. These are topics that have renewed currency in the present moment given the changing geopolitical relationship of United States to the Middle East in particular.

El Rancho is but one example of the ways that cultural meanings are produced through movement, travel, and media—the Hollywood western being a relevant and familiar example in this case—as the idea of America is translated by and for Lebanese audiences. Yet, like all travel, cultural flows move within particular and shifting geopolitical topographies. It was the great contribution of Birmingham cultural studies scholars to illustrate how culture and material conditions are dialectically related in ways that suggest culture as a site of negotiation of material politics and not merely a reflection of representation. And yet, despite the important influence of Birmingham cultural studies over the discipline of American cultural studies, and despite the internationalist bent and transnational approach of leading figures like Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, questions of international geopolitics and U.S. foreign relations—in the Middle East, especially—have been largely overlooked by the discipline (and were sometimes relegated to postcolonial theory, a formation that U.S. cultural studies has tended to keep at an arm’s length). As a result, and despite the avowedly anti-exceptionalist bent of American studies since at least the 1970s, the field remains largely rooted to an exceptionalist framework in which knowledge about the United States produced within the United States remains a privileged vantage point.[2]

Our goal with this collection is not merely to continue the ongoing process of internationalizing American studies approaches by including non-U.S. scholars and viewpoints but rather, by featuring multidisciplinary perspectives on the Arab–U.S. relation from scholars based in both the Middle East and the United States, we aim to place the discipline in transit in order to explore how cultural forms circulate transnationally and are shaped by and contribute to international geopolitical contexts. In particular, we seek to understand the possibilities of American studies during a moment of profound geopolitical transformation and during a historical conjuncture we identify by the end of the “American Century” and the ongoing social upheaval of the so-called Arab Spring. This is a conjuncture dominated by global economic and political crises that have momentous implications for the Middle East and pose unique challenges to scholars attempting to understand the meaning of U.S. economic, military, and cultural power.

The internationalization of the discipline of American studies is not new, having its roots in the earliest years of the institutionalization of the field. Throughout the 1950s as American studies programs were forming across the American academy, similar programs were formed in allied European countries. American studies institutes at Salzburg and Bologna led to the formation of a European American studies center in the mid-1950s. By 1964 the Fulbright-Hayes Act instituted an American studies international exchange program that helped foster university exchanges and American studies lecturers abroad, especially in allied Western European countries. Alongside the Fulbright program, the United States Information Agency (USIA) spread American history and culture as cultural diplomacy, and in this way the spread of the discipline of American studies would be carefully managed alongside efforts to spread an image of American power. American studies programs emerged in allied countries as a means to consolidate U.S. power over “the West,” even as scholars within international American studies centers brought their own interests and agendas to the project.[3]

1 (accessed January 21, 2013).

2 Amy Kaplan made the observation in her introduction to her 1994 coedited volume with Donald Pease that the study of culture often lacks an analysis and accounting of imperialism. While much has changed in fields of cultural studies since the publication of Cultures of United State Imperialism, it remains the case that the Middle East is something of an absence in studies of U.S. imperialism. Moreover, Donald Pease has argued that as American studies has criticized American exceptionalism, it has regularly reinscribed another sort of exceptionalism whereby the America becomes the world, or American always signifies the U.S. State. See, for examples, Amy Kaplan, “‘Left Alone with America’: The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993); and Donald Pease, “Re-thinking ‘American Studies’ after U.S. Exceptionalism,” American Literary History, September 29, 2008, 19–27.

3 For an analysis of the history of American studies in the Middle East, see Alex Lubin, “American Studies, the Middle East, and the Question of Palestine,” American Quarterly 68, no. 1 (March 2016).

[Excerpted from American Studies Encounters the Middle East by Alex Lubin and Marwan M. Kraidy. Copyright © 2016 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.] 

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