I sit on the chain link fence with bell hooks and watch the rising sun above the barren earth dominated by the white of the snowy winter. I am reminded of the sand dunes of the past and I, at once see the ways in which marginality can be a site of liberation, enabling identificatory practices centered around a recognition of the power of identity positions. After a while, however, the border chains begin to feel as if they are “digging into” my flesh, into my humanity. The fences that I inhabit, as a woman, a mother, as Muslim, as Palestinian or Jordanian or American, as an Arabic-speaking and English-speaking migrant, are all categories that beat of the power of political structures. They interpellate me into a hierarchical position, often privileging one aspect and denigrating another. However, they are also all tempered by a double-consciousness, by the veil of an awareness of their own constructedness and fictitiousness.
I am not more aware of this than when, in discussing womanhood with my daughter (who is at the cliff’s edge about to jump into the choppy waters of adulthood), I argue her right to claim gender as a lens to see the world. In that moment, I tell her to boldly be “woman,” but, then, and without warning, I see the times at which I was not allowed to be but a “woman,” when I was interpellated into a submissive hierarchical position, and I cringe. I look at my body and feel the constriction of biological essentialism, but when I look back into her eyes, I see what a woman could be. I see all things equitable. Suddenly, she looks at me and says, “Mama, I want to be a teacher- or was it a lawyer, or a psychologist.” “Mama,” I would exclaim, “You will be all of those things, and, when you come to realize who you are, I want you to remember that you are not those things at all.” I began to realize that identificatory practices, like my own identification with motherhood and various other positionalities, can “challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity” (hooks 28).
Indeed, I recognize that I am the she-camel of Salih, which, though falling prey to blood lust, can emerge shattered, but, in prismed fashion—multifaceted and multi-colored. As a child, I often thought about how people came to know that I was different and, then, I remembered that Sean at Westlake School in the suburb of San Francisco, knew me as a “phobogenic object” when I came to school with a “diaper” on my head (Fanon 151). My parents had warned me the day before that, if I was to wear this, my classmates would notice. “Notice what?” I had wondered as I looked up at the sky on that Sunday morning. “Don’t we all want to be noticed?” Is it not correct that resistance to constructed notions of inferiority and the resulting systematic oppression occurs through “counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives” (hooks 149)? Oftentimes, visibility is the only way through which hegemonic assimilationism can be challenged.
My father, you see, was always noticed; at times, his bristly mustache made him Mexican, but other people thought he was Italian because of the pizza shop that he opened on Lombard Street—and, of course, the way that the sun of Nablus and Amman had kissed his face. My father would often notice my confusion and tell me about the ancient history of Arabness, discussing that Abraham was musta’rib, an “Arabized” migrant, and that the ancient ancestors of Abujad had originally migrated from Greece into Egypt and the West Bank, and then Jordan. “And now California?” I would ask, but he would not answer. For years, I would become Sam and then Greek Samantha, or maybe it was Hebrew? If my peers could not pronounce Ibtisam, I could (as if inspired by Ovid or Gilgamesh, or the stick of Abraham) metamorphose into that which is more fit for human consumption. How could I not? For years, “I remain[ed] silent, I strive[d] for anonymity, for invisibility” (Fanon 116).
My cultural amnesia was not long-lived, however. I remember that, for lunch, I would always eat Zaater fatayer, pastries that Richard and Robert (but not Maryam) said were slathered in human excrement. Wasn’t Zaater a plant, and wasn’t it the same as the oregano that my father put on the pizzas Richard had eaten at my pizza party last November?
I knew that Zaater was human because my grandmother would plant it in her garden and send it to me with friends who would come to visit from Jordan. Zaater had the ability to migrate, to live in the liminal space between the knowable and unknowable, to live as Oregano at times, and, at other times, to adopt a host of other names. It thrived in its multiplicity. It is, therefore, that when I visit Jordan, I no longer detest my crosspollination and my snake-like dual tongue, for I am aware that marginality is “a site of resistance, a position of radical openness and possibility” (hooks 22). I have also realized that the double-consciousness (or the triple-consciousness that my gender affords me) is no longer a burden that I carry.
In my marginal existence, the representations of my Otherness cease to be all encompassing or monolithic. Triple-consciousness, similar to Du Bois’ “twoness,” “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” is not a psychological state which precedes processes of self-actualization (Du Bois 5). On the contrary, it accompanies a resistance of the normativity on which the construction of race and gender depend; it is insight into the way in which race is fashioned in a hegemonic manner. The awareness of one’s capacity to challenge the racial dichotomy is an inevitable consequence of economic and political disenfranchisement and lack of privilege. The consciousness of the racialized individual comes to struggle against the external and internal objectification to ultimately view, from the margins, the mythic nature of socially constructed racial categories. This second sight is the realization of the constructedness of race and its social function as justification and enforcement of ideological notions of superiority. I came to realize that race acts as a veil, masking constructed stereotypes, images, and assumptions and, simultaneously, coloring the way in which the person perceives herself and her encompassing society. Critical, self-reflexive consciousness uncovers the problematic nature of assimilation as well as essentialist isolation and, ultimately, results in “[wo]mankind set free of the trampoline that is the resistance of others, and digging into its own flesh to find a meaning” (Fanon 11).
In resolving to live in the margins, I therefore came to resist universalism, essentialism, and relativism. This provided me with the opportunity to “wage his [my] war [resistance] on both levels [social and individual]; Since historically they influence each other, any unilateral liberation is incomplete” (Fanon 13). I would be able to be a woman, mother, Muslim, Arab, American. I would come to realize how Mohammad’s Mi’raj was, in fact, Dante’s muse and how Woolf’s Waves washed onto the shore of the Hagia Sophia. To survive, I would need to access a dialogical production of self, to embody “all of these things some of the time, but none of these things all of the time” (Collins 15). I would be able to live in the tragic borderland of psalm one-hundred-and-thirty-seven and lament, like Darwish, In Jerusalem. I could, then, call back the angelic buraq to carry me to the fertile crescent of Lake Michigan, migrating past temporal borders, cultivating histories and then giving life to stories. Only then could I smile as I watch my daughter sail on life’s flowing tides to explore spaces beyond chained fences and seamed existences.
Collins, Patricia. “Looking Back, Moving Ahead: Scholarship in Service to Social Justice.” Gender and Society, vol. 26, no. 1, 2002, pp. 14-22.
Darwish, Mahmoud. “In Jerusalem.” The Butterfly’s Burden. Translated by Fady Joudah, Copper Canyon Press, 2007.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York, The Modern Library, 1996.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Mask. New York, Grove Press Incorporated, 1967.
hooks, bell. Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston, South End Press, 1990.
*Acknowledgments: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Jodi Melamed at Marquette University for her guidance. I would also like to thank Esa Grigsby for her editorial insights, and non-fiction editor at Entropy, Sylvia Chan.
Ibtisam M. Abujad is a doctoral student and instructor of Arabic Language, Literature, and Culture at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI. Her poems have been published in Blue Minaret Literary Journal and forthcoming in an issue of Cream City Review 42.2.