Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity

20150804_Book-Review-becoming-arab-in-londonRecently in Middle East Monitor, Emmanuela Eposti reviewed Ramy Aly’s Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity. The review has me really looking forward to reading the book, which is described as “the first detailed ethnography of the cultural practices of Arab Londoners.”

In this anthropological work Aly “seeks to explore the ways in which the Arab-British youth of today come to negotiate and make sense of their hyphenated identity amidst the complex and often constraining politics of multiculturalism.”

As the “performativity” in the subtitle suggests, Aly draws on the work of Judith Butler to emphasis the construction of Arabness, discussing the practices and the performances, the “repertoires of doing” which “make” British-Arabs. As he points out:

“Arab identity is not an essence or a cause of behaviours and dispositions but an instrumental reaction to being hailed and subjected by social institutions, hegemonic gendered norms, national and international politics and media representations.”

Aly elaborates on this “reaction” as estrangement in this discussion, where he also cites several cases mentioned in the book:

While I was researching my book… I was often struck by the way in which many young people I interviewed narrated growing up in London as a process of gradual estrangement from Englishness, a process that they felt was someone else’s doing.

I’ll be writing my own review as soon as I can get my hands on a copy of the book. In the meantime, go read Eposti’s review, and the interview with Aly. You can also download the introduction from Academia. 

If you think the name is familiar, it might also be worth mentioning that Aly appeared on Al Jazeera and took part in several discussions on various intersections of Arab identity and media and the 2011 uprisings at LSE and Sussex – although I found it difficult to listen to the exhilarated optimism of some of the speakers in the LSE panel given the current situation, there are some interesting points made. The second video, more related to the subject of the book, discusses the choices of media made by European Arabs, including based on language proficiency and citizenship discourse, and how all this relates to Arab identity.

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