The Native Informant Speaks

nativeIn the first sentence of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak writes that her “aim…was to track the figure of the Native Informant through various practices: philosophy, literature, history, culture.” Spivak’s re-examination of the native informant involves exposing the double structure of invocation and foreclosure as the native informant is both needed to provide information for the ethnographer and unable to obtain the subject/narrator position.

Spivak calls the figure “a blank” enlisted to inscribe the native culture. So she insists on the (im)possible perspective of the native informant to preclude the usurpation of the native voice, an insistence paralleling her claim that the subaltern subject simultaneously appears and disappears in textuality.

I’m not sure what Spivak means by describing the native informant as “a name for that mark of expulsion from the name of man – a mark crossing out the impossibility of the ethical relation” because I struggle with Spivak’s assertion that “ethics is the experience of the impossible” which seems a little too cutesy paradoxical to me. I get the point about inescapable complicity, but ultimately Spivak finds herself able to reply to Parry’s critique of her by asserting she is a native too:

Benita Parry has criticized Homi Bhabha, Abdul JanmMohammed and Gayatri Spivak for being so enamored of deconstruction that they will not let the native speak. She has forgotten that we are natives too.

From which I conclude, sometimes exasperation is a good thing.

So, here are some designated-by-others Arab native informants or to use a phrase I like “well-placed marginals”:

Do Arabs Really ‘Hate’ Women? The Problem With Native Informants 

On Mona El Tahawy’s infamous article Why Do They Hate Us?:

Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy authored the article. Her central contention — that Arab Muslim culture “hates” women — resurrects a raft of powerful stereotypes regarding Islam and misogyny. It also situates Ms. Eltahawy’s work within a growing trend of “native informants” whose personal testimonies of oppression under Islam have generated significant support for military aggression against Muslim-majority countries in recent years.

Personally, I found this blog post more convincing than the article above, especially as to its last point, not very much on the quibbling over which language the article should have been written in:

Tahawy’s presumption in speaking on behalf of Arab women and then telling her audience to ignore the voices of anyone who disagrees with her is truly enraging. That being said, I have a problem with the term ‘native informant’ and any criticism implying that her stance somehow makes her less Egyptian.

The Native Informant  as Foad Ajami. There’s a lot more of this on him, the prototype or grandfather of all Arab Uncle Toms.

Ajami’s unique role in American political life has been to unpack the unfathomable mysteries of the Arab and Muslim world and to help sell America’s wars in the region. A diminutive, balding man with a dramatic beard, stylish clothes and a charming, almost flirtatious manner, he has played his part brilliantly….Unlike the other Arabs, he appears to have no ax to grind. He is one of us; he is the good Arab.

Ajami’s admirers paint him as a courageous gadfly who has risen above the tribal hatreds of the Arabs, a Middle Eastern Spinoza whose honesty has earned him the scorn of his brethren. Commentary editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz, one of his many right-wing American Jewish fans, writes that Ajami “has been virtually alone in telling the truth about the attitude toward Israel of the people from whom he stems.” The people from whom Ajami “stems” are, of course, the Arabs, and Ajami’s ethnicity is not incidental to his celebrity. It lends him an air of authority not enjoyed by non-Arab polemicists like Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes.

Sinan Antoon: ‘I don’t want to be the native informant’

“Life for a displaced Arab writer, if you want to, if you’re willing to exoticise yourself and self-orientalise, life is very good and very profitable,” he says. “I jokingly say I can be famous for nine months in America. I write a novel about being a little Christian boy growing up in Iraq.” But he isn’t about to do that.

“I don’t want to be the native informant,” he says. “There is increased interest in the Arab world. But I call it forensic interest. For the most part it’s bad, because it’s assumed that novels and poems are going to explain September 11 to you. For example, I got a phone call from someone who says, ‘I want you to speak about agriculture in Iraq’. I was like, ‘Why would I know anything about agriculture in Iraq?’ But it’s assumed that as an oriental subject I would just know everything about my culture and civilisation.”

The most interesting aspect of this for me though is coming up this collection of short stories: Ramzi Salti’s The Native Informant & Other Stories

Most of the stories in “The Native Informant” operate on a dual level by addressing not only issues related to women, homosexuals, and victims of violence in southwest Asia, but also by examining the seemingly conflicting relationship between notions of Arabness, Islam, and the West. The collection thus aims at highlighting the plight of the marginalized groups in Arab countries by broaching various issues on the social spectrum, ranging from religious intolerance, to the subjugation of women, to homophobia, to domestic violence, to Western and Eastern concepts of terrorism and neo/post coloniality, to the ethnic experience of being an Arab in the United States at a time when the media seems to be promulgating the negative stereotype of the Arab.

The review by Asad Al Ghalith is particularly scathing and familiarly berating. Makes the same point in fact as the blog post about Mona El Tahawy, why write in English? Such loops as are only possible when one is accused of being a native informant are discovered:

Ironically, Salti is guilty of the same charge he hurls at Ms. Penn in “The Native Informant,” who wishes to record “authentic aspects of Arab life while
seeming to have already decided what those aspects will be” (99).

My favorite fictional, utterly preposterous native informant? Dr Jalal in Yasmina Khadra’s The Sirens of Baghdad:

I’d heard talk of Dr. Jalal—none of it good—while I was still in high school. I’d also read two or three of his books, including a treatise on jihadist fundamentalism entitled Why Are Muslims Angry?—a work that aroused a great deal of indignation among the clergy. At the time, he was a very controversial figure in Arab intellectual circles, and many of his adversaries sought to hold him up to public contempt. His theories about the dysfunctions of contemporary Muslim thought were veritable indictments; the imams rejected his writings in toto, even going so far as to predict hellfire for anyone who dared to read them. For the ordinary devout Muslim, Dr. Jalal was nothing but a mountebank, a Western lackey in the pay of factions hostile to Islam in general and to Arabs in particular. I myself detested him; I thought his learning perverted, exhibitionistic, and conventional, and his contempt for his people seemed obvious to me. In my eyes, he offered one of the most repulsive examples of those traitors who proliferated like rats in European media and academic circles, fully prepared to exchange their souls for the privilege of seeing their photographs in a newspaper and hearing themselves talked about. I didn’t disapprove of the fatwas that condemned him to death; the imams hoped to put an end to his incendiary rants, which he published at length in the Western press and delivered with offensive zeal in television studios. I was, therefore, amazed and also, I must admit, rather relieved when I learned that he’d made an about-face.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Down and Out in the Netherlands ‹ Muslimah Media Watch

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