Dr. Waleed Mahdi Discusses Identity and Arabism
“Arab America Empowerment Summit is unprecedented in its inclusion of Arab Americans from different backgrounds, most notably Yemeni Americans.”
Waleed F. Mahdi is assistant professor of US-Arab cultural politics at the University of Oklahoma. He conducts research at the intersection of area studies and ethnic studies as he explores issues of cultural representation and identity politics in American, Arab and Arab American contexts. Waleed is a recipient of several national and international awards, and his peer-reviewed work appears in various venues including American Quarterly, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, International Journal of Cultural Studies, and Mashriq and Mahjar.
Why is a Arab America Empowerment Summit important for Arab identity?
“This Networking Summit comes at a time when Arab America celebrates success in garnering declarations of support from city councils and state governments across the United States in acknowledging April as Arab American heritage month. The Summit celebrates the achievements of Arab America’s awardees of 20 Under 20, 30 Under 30, and 40 Under 40 for 2020 and 2021. The Summit is unprecedented in its inclusion of Arab Americans from different backgrounds, most notably Yemeni Americans. The Summit provides a positive vibe for honoring Arab cultures and create a necessary space for Arab American professionals and community members to congregate along with high profile visitors. Overall, the Summit is poised to take Arab America to the next level as the foundation continues to exert its much-needed influence in unifying Arab Americans along the lines of culture and identity at a time when divisions along sectarian, political, and generational lines are more critical than ever!”
How can Arab Americans provide a counter narrative from mainstream media?
“Arab Americans provide counter-narratives from mainstream media in multiple ways. First, Arab American lives defy mainstream media’s stereotypes that dismiss the complexity of what it means to be an Arab American. Factors such as religion, national background, and class complicate any homogenous definition of Arab Americans. Second, Arab Americans have provided counter-narratives by creating their own media outlets and producing their own stories and sharing their own perspectives. The growing appeal of Arab America news organization is an important example to note. Third, Arab Americans counter mainstream media by leading lives that are varied and marked with hard work, upward mobility, and dedication to one’s family, community, and profession. I say this to acknowledge the importance of recognizing the Arab American resilience, which is often sidelined by mainstream media’s fixation on accounts of trauma and violence in the Middle East and national security paranoia in the United States that associate Arabness with foreignness and terror.”
Waleed’s current book project analyzes Yemeni and Yemeni American creative expressions of agency in the twenty-first century. He is co-authoring a book with Nate Greenberg that examines US-Arab “war on terror” alignment in Arabic-speaking media and entertainment. He is also guest-editing the special issue “MENA Migrants and Diasporas in Twenty-First-Century Media” for Mashriq and Mahjar.
What are the main issues of cultural representation and identity politics in the Arab American context?
“This is a broad question since issues of cultural representation and identity politics in the Arab American context are contingent on every individual Arab American’s multiple identities that may relate to their gender, religion, national heritage, sexuality, and ability, to name a few, and the urgency that surround them. However, there is a theme that binds many Arab Americans with respect to cultural representation and identity politics: self-representation. Arab Americans aspire for the recognition of their voices and experiences wherever they are: in education, politics, entertainment, and other realms of society. Self-representation is deeply rooted in the Arab Americans’ story of immigration to the United States and their experiences of activism and resistance against a post-1967 hostile environment marred by racism, surveillance, and marginalization. My book, Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation tells the story of Arab Americans’ search for self-representation in a Hollywood film industry that has presented Arab Americans in overwhelmingly negative ways, except for the few positive images that are tied to certain characters’ patriotic roles in US law enforcement. The recent Arab American wins in the mayoral elections of Hamtramck, Dearborn, and Dearborn Heights in Michigan presents another example of this investment in self-representation. The very story of Arab America Foundation and its rise to prominence is premised on the need for Arab Americans to celebrate their own modes of life. The examples are many and the common thread is often defined by an ever-burning desire, shared by many Arab Americans, to project their agency and produce conditions of change in their lives.”
Waleed’s recent book Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation (Syracuse University Press, 2020) examines how Arab American belonging is constructed, defined, and redefined across Hollywood, Egyptian and Arab American cinemas. He also completed a multi-institutional research collaboration with Columbia University, the University of Jordan and the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies about the 2011 Arab revolutionary public spheres.
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