An overview of Arab Anglophone Literature

As one of the most controversial minorities in the United States of America, Arab Americans trace their ancestral roots to several Arab Middle Eastern countries. However, Lebanon remains the homeland of a majority of Arab Americans, followed by Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. In fact, a myriad of articles and books was written to outline the history of Arabs in America.
In this respect, it is acknowledged that the history of Arabs coming and settling in the Americas is long and diverse. Although many people believe that Arabs are new to the United States, historians have made it clear that Arabs arrived to the United States hundreds of years ago. One fact about the Arab existence on the American soil is that as early as the 15th Century, Spanish explorers brought slaves from the Arab world to the Americas. In the late 18th Century, the South Carolina House of Representatives decided that Moroccan Arabs living in the state should be treated according to the laws for whites, not the laws for blacks from Africa.
Arab American history received a significant boosting during the era called the Great Migration that is the period between 1880 and 1924, when more than 20 million immigrants entered the United States. Most of the immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe, but more than 95,000 Arabs came from Greater Syria. By 1924, there were about 200,000 Arabs to live in the United States of America.
As the number of immigrants who came to the United States during the Great Migration grew, resistance to them also grew among Americans born in the United States. Groups of people working to end immigration in the United States claimed the Arab immigrants were un-American, had cultures that did not fit with American culture, were more likely to be criminal and poor, and did not understand the American political system. These movements grew in strength, and a series of laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1917, 1921, and 1924 caused immigration from the Arab world to slow down to a trickle. The historical period called the Great Migration ended with these restrictive laws and a similar period in the history of the United States would not reemerge until the mid 1960’s.
There were notable differences among the Arab immigrants that came to the U.S. during the Great Migration. Some groups started family migrations and planned to stay in the United States. Others were mostly composed of men seeking work and planned to return home after a while. Some groups clustered in certain cities, while others were equally likely to move anywhere in the country. All these groups contributed to the United States history and to the Arab American history.
The Arab American history is an on-going story from the first early settlers through the Great Migration and on to modern day. Arab Americans have made a significant contribution to the history of the United States through their achievements in the arts, science, politics, community development, entertainment, sports, civil rights and social justice. Nevertheless, the many events of violence and terror that incriminated Arabs since early 1990s did distort significantly the representation of Arabs –and Muslims –in the U.S.
In fact, the ambiguity of this ethnic group is due to the fact that the U.S. Census classifies Arab Americans with European whites; thus their exact numbers are unknown (Naber, 2000). The earliest Arab immigration stream to the United States, which began around 1880, was composed mostly of Christians (Naff, 1985) and did not become more diverse until after World War II (Suleiman, 1994). Despite recent increases in Muslim immigration, most of the Arab-American population remains native born and Christian (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990; Zogby, 2001).
In this regards, according to the 1990 census, there were 870,000 persons in the United States who identified themselves as ethnically Arab or who emigrated from one of the 21 countries that constitute the contemporary Arab world. Previous estimates by scholars and Arab American community organizations placed the number of Arab Americans at between one and three million. The discrepancy is partly due to the standardization of Arabs in the United States, leading many to conceal their ethnic affiliation. The traditional suspicion of Middle Easterners toward government authorities seeking information of a personal nature compounds this problem. These two factors, along with standard problems in collecting census data, probably explain the discrepancy between the estimates of scholars and the actual census count. Considering these factors, a revised estimate likely would place the number of Arab Americans in the range of one to two million.
The 1990 census indicates that most Arab Americans are U.S. citizens (82 percent) even though only 63 percent were born in the United States. Arab Americans are geographically concentrated in a handful of cities and states. According to an essay inAmerican Demographicsby Samia ElBadry, over two-thirds of Arab Americans live in ten states while just three metropolitan areas (Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles-Long Beach) account for over one-third of the population.
Arab immigrants represent a tiny fraction of the overall migration to the United States, constituting less than three percent of the total. In her study of the census data, El-Badry found that more than 27,000 people from Arab countries immigrated to the United States in 1992, 68 percent more than those who arrived ten years earlier, not including Palestinians from Israel or Israeli-occupied territory. Approximately 20 percent of the 78,400 Arab immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1990 and 1992 were Lebanese. The remainder were from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The figures for Sudan and Yemen, though small in comparison, indicated rapid growth from these politically unstable countries.
Arabic-speaking immigrants arrived in the United States in three major waves. The first wave between the late 1800s and World War I consisted mainly of immigrants from Greater Syria, an Arab province of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. Following the breakup of the Empire, the province was partitioned into the separate political entities of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan. The vast majority of immigrants in this wave were members of Christian minorities. Although some writers claim that these immigrants left their native countries for religious or political reasons, the evidence suggests that they were drawn to the United States and other countries by economic opportunity.
Of the approximately 60,000 Arabs who emigrated to the United States between 1899 and 1910, approximately half were illiterate, and 68 percent were single males. The early immigrants were mostly unskilled single men who had left their families behind. Like many economically motivated immigrants during this period, Arabs left with the intention of earning money and returning home to live out the remainder of their lives in relative prosperity.
The major exception to this pattern was a small group of Arab writers, poets, and artists who took up residence in major urban centers such as New York and Boston. The most famous of the group was Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), author ofThe Prophetand numerous other works. Curiously, this literary circle, which came to be known as the Pen League (al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya) had a negligible influence on the early Arab American communities in the United States. The Pen League’s greatest impact was on arts and letters in Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arab countries.
Early immigrants settled in the urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest, in states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. By 1940, a fifth of the estimated 350,000 Arabs resided in three cities—New York, Boston, and Detroit. In these urban areas, the immigrants clustered in ethnic neighborhoods. Although many found work in the industrial factories and textile mills that propelled the U.S. economy in the first half of the twentieth century, some also chose the life of itinerant salesmen, peddling dry goods and other sundry items across the American heartland. Others homesteaded on the Great Plains and in rural areas of the South.
Very few Arabic-speaking immigrants made their way across the Atlantic during the interwar period marked by the Great Depression and anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigration resumed, however, after the close of World War II, especially from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. Unlike the earlier influx, this second wave included many more Muslims. It also included refugees who had been displaced by the 1948 Palestine War that culminated in the establishment of Israel. This period also witnessed the arrival of many Arabic-speaking professionals and university students who often chose to remain in the United States after completion of their training. Immigrants of the second wave tended to settle where jobs were available. Those with few skills drifted to the established Arab communities in the industrial towns of the East coast and Midwest, while those with professional skills ventured to the new suburbs around the major industrial cities or to rural towns.
In the mid-1960s, a third wave of Arab immigration began which continues to the present. According to El-Badry, more than 75 percent of foreign-born Arab Americans identified in the 1990 census immigrated after 1964, while 44 percent immigrated between 1975 and 1980. This influx resulted in part from the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 which abolished the quota system and its bias against non-European immigration.
The third wave included many professionals, entrepreneurs, and unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. These immigrants often fled political instability and wars engulfing their home countries. They included Lebanese Shiites from southern Lebanon, Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Iraqis of all political persuasions. But many professionals from these and other countries like Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, and unskilled workers from Yemen also emigrated in search of better economic opportunities. Had conditions been more hospitable in their home countries, it is doubtful that many of these immigrants would have left their native countries.
Kahlil Gibran and Mikhail Naimy are two of the most prominent Lebanese authors history has seen. Besides their marvelous works, what most people don’t know is that they founded the first New York-based Arab-American literary society: The Pen League.
Originally organized in 1915 by Nassib Arida and Abdul Massih Haddad, two fellow Lebanese authors who later joined the reformed league, The Pen League was aimed at reviving Arabic literature, as well as to groom a group of up and coming Arab authors, who could in turn play pivotal roles in building foundations for their Arab nations.
Also known as “The Mahjar School,” Gibran led the league as President. Its purpose was best described by Naimy, the group’s secretary:
“The tendency to keep our language and literature within the narrow bounds of aping the ancients in form and substance is a most pernicious tendency; if left unopposed, it will soon lead to decay and disintegration… To imitate them is a deadly shame… We must be true to ourselves if we would be true to our ancestors” Unfortunately, Gibran’s death in 1931 and Naimy’s return to Lebanon in 1932 dissolved the league, leaving behind pavement for potentially the brightest future of Arab literature.

Likewise, it could also be assumed that the literature produced by Arab writers living in the diaspora, even if it is written in Arabic, not only is diverse but also differs from the literature of writers who write from and in the Arab world. One reason behind this distinctiveness could be the fact of being dislocated from home. Writing from a space that is away from one’s nation and home and being displaced geographically and sometimes ideologically may be two major causes of the uniqueness of Anglophone Arab literature that is produced by immigrant Arab writers or hyphenated Arab writers. This displacement is not always physical; it can also be linguistic and ideological. In fact, dislocated and/or immigrants hold a position that is specific to them: it is the margin, the border or the threshold that joins and separates the two spaces (home vs. Diaspora) at the same time.
Indeed, Anglophone Arab literature did not attain any recognition until the 9/11 events when all attention was given to ‘Arabs’ as an ethnic group under focus. In the U.S. as much as in Europe, the succession of terrorist attacks on many metropolises (NY, Washington, London and other cities) and the visibilization of Arabs as a threat resulted in a curious research for books and writings on and by the Arabs not paying attention to their religion, knowing that Arabs are Sunnites, Shiites, Christians, Druze, Alaouites and even atheists.
In the few years following the 9/11, bookstores in western cities, particularly in America, began to fill their shelves with Anglophone Arab works though the latter were placed next to Afghan, Pakistani and Iranian ones as it did not matter for Westerners to know who was who so long as the names of authors and the titles of their books fed the euphoria of luring the Western reader to discover and know better the “Other” who is perceived as a threat and a terrorist. Besides, the increasing number of Anglophone Arab books in western bookstores, there is a significant growing interest in Arab Anglophone literature in many universities worldwide by including in and adding to their curricula courses studies related to the Arab and Muslim mind and ideology.
However, English literature produced by Arab writers dates back to the turn of the last century –when the first Arabs to emigrate to the U.S has to struggle with the language and culture of the host country. Wail Hassan (2011) states that it was in America that writers like Gibran Khalil Gibran and Amine Alrihani produced the first Arab Anglophone poetry collection , the first play , and the first novel.
As for Arab British literature, it is a literature that has emerged from what Edward Said called “the Arab English encounter” (Nash 1997). In contrast to Arab American literature, it may be traced back to works by travelers rather than immigrants or descendents of immigrants in Britain. Said used the appellation of Arab English encounter in his review of Ahdaf Soueif’s novel In the Eye of the Sun, and he complained of the lack of English language novels written by Arabs, mentioning the Lebanese Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and the Egyptian Waguih Ghali as Soueif’s predecessors. Said’s designation, indeed, describes Assaad Y. Kayat’s autobiography A Voice from Lebanon written as early as 1847.
As for Jabra, he is a well-known novelist but in Arabic, a literary critic and a translator of Shakespeare’s, and he wrote only one novel in English –Hunters in a Narrow Street (1960) –about a Palestinian refugee who settles in Baghdad in the early 1950s. However, Jabra’s work did not gain enough critical or historical attention regarding its importance in the evolution of Arab British literature as a trend. The other early founding father of Arab British literature is Waguih Ghali ho wrote Beer in the Snooker Club (1964); this novel is mainly about life in Cairo’s cosmopolitan elite in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Again, Waguih remains unrecognized among other early Arab British writers.
British Arab literature refers, thus, mainly to works of immigrants or their descendents. In fact, ‘British Arab’ is an attribute that denotes an identity that is fused, hybrid, and subversively mixing together constructs that can no longer be imagined as monolithic (Wail Hassan, 2011). This implies that the experience of immigrants in Britain is one of cultural and mixture and interpenetration. It is also an experience that adds extra dimensions to the task of cultural translation that “the encounters” depicted in Said’s review of Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun.
However, prior to contemporary British Arab writers and subsequent to early Arab travelers to Britain, Edward Atiyah (1903-64) is to be considered as the first British Arab writer. Atiyah is a British-educated Lebanese who settled in England after a career in the British intelligence service in Sudan. In Atiyah, we have a writer who portrays a colonial intellectual. He published his autobiography An Arab Tells his Story as early as 1946 and he went further by writing and publishing as an Englishman in crime novels . As such, Atiyah represents the colonial period of British Arab literature while Ahdaf Soueif, Fadia Faqir and Leila Aboulela represent the postcolonial period of this literature.
According to Wail Hassan (2011), immigrants’ writings, or British Arab literature in this context, are a subset of minor literature as it has been theorized by the French scholars Deleuze and Guattari. In Kafka: towards a minor literature, the French theoreticians define minor as a literature that “[…] does not come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language” (p 16). It, the minor literature, has three characteristics:
-The deterritorialization of language
-The connection of the individual to a political immediacy
-and the collective assemblage of enunciation
First a major language in the hands of a minority writer is defamiliarized through its fusion with words, expressions, rhetorical figures, speech patterns, ideological intentions, and the worldview of the author’s minority group which differentiate the writer’s language from that of the mainstream culture, producing all kinds of estranging effects. This idea was also explored by the Indian linguist Kachru with his ‘other Englishes’ (or world Englishes) theory .
The second characteristic –that, because of the marginal status of minor literatures, “everything in them is political” means –means that there is little distance between individual concerns and the political status of the minority group as it is the case for British Arabs and Arab Americans. “The cramped space” of minor literatures “forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary indispensable, magnified, because a whole story, i.e. the story of the minority group, is vibrating within it” (p17).
The third feature of a minor literature concerns the non-possibility for an individual enunciation (to be) separated from a collective enunciation; that is what each author says individually (often) already constitutes a common action, and what she or he does is necessarily political even if others are not in agreement (p 17). Thus, the personal is always collective, and the concerns of the individual are shared by other members of the minority, again because of a same social pressure exercised by the majority.
Deleuze and Guattari’s theory is fundamental in understanding the literature of minorities in terms of their literary discourse which is essentially minor vis-à-vis the major mainstream discourse. This theory is relevant when dealing with Anglophone Arab woman writings because it explains, to a great extent, the dynamics at work in Arab Anglophone literature on both sides of the Atlantic. However, other theories also help decode the discourse of these writings, notably Anzaldúa’s theory of Borderlands and Mestizas’. In fact, minor literature theory is limited because it does not make a distinction between immigrant and non-immigrant minorities while it is quite compulsory to do so when dealing with British Arabs and Arab Americans as two different minority groups, and this restricts its usefulness to Arab and other minor groups whether they are ethnic, religious or social minorities.
Nonetheless, the main three characteristics of minor literature discussed few lines above are discernible to various degrees and in different combinations in the works under investigation. In fact, they are also quite evident, though not fully explicating, in English language works of Arab and Arab-descended writers –whether they are Arabs who migrated to Britain and keep moving between their home-countries and Britain, experiencing as such a state of geographical and cultural in-between-ness and an emotional borderland; or they are Americans who are descendants of Arabs and seek to re-locate themselves the mainstream culture on the one hand and within their homes of origins on the other hand, experiencing as such a similar but identical state of in-between-ness and emotional borderland.
Deleuze and Guattari’s theory simply traces the figure of immigrants who stand between the culture of origin and that of the adoptive country; and, equipped with first-hand knowledge of both, they assume the role of mediators, interpreters, cultural translators or a double-sight observer of the two cultural entities. This is very much true to the four selected authors –Ahdaf Soueif, Fadia Faqir and Leila Abulela as British Arabs and Naomi Shehab Nye as An Arab American, though divergences must exist.
The following tentative chart embodies the convergences and the divergences that may contrast the two Arab English minorities:

Arab American minority group Arab British minority group
. Emerged from an early succession of waves of immigrants who thereafter had settled in the US.
.First arrival to the U.S. as masses: early nineteenth century
.Lately recognized as a minority group
.It has become an important minority after the 9/11
. There is a constant search for the cultural meaning of Arabness among Arab Americans. .emerged from a post-colonial immigration
.Early arrival to Britain as travelers: beginning and mid twentieth century
. Not yet fully visible as a minor group
. It is becoming visible after the London Metro attacks and other international events.
. There is a constant urge for a trans-cultural dialogue with the mainstream community.
Table 1.1: Differences and divergences among Arab American and Arab British communities
Interpreting the above chart, we emphasize the significant differences between the conditions and history of Arab immigration in the U.S. and in Britain. In Britain, immigration is a post-colonial phenomenon and the total immigrant population is relatively small compared to indigenes. While immigrants have expanded the definition of a British identity in recent decades, they have not impacted it the way U.S immigrants have been transforming American identity since the mid-nineteenth century, and it is on this difference that we based our hyphenated vs. hybrid writings distinction. Hassan argues that immigrants in Britain are mostly from former colonies in south Asia (Pakistan and India among other south Asian countries), Africa (Nigeria and Kenya among other African countries) and the Caribbean, with Arabs forming minority within the immigrant population. (Hassan,14). Hassan assumingly differentiates between what an Arab British identity is and what an Arab American identity is by identifying the former as provisional and tentative and the latter as long-standing if we consider that the Arab American identity is in making since the first arrivals of Arab-speaking immigrants to the United States in significant numbers in the 1870s.
In this respect, Almaleh identifies three trends of Arab Anglophone literature. She states that the one century Anglophone Arab literature has passed through three phases, and thus has given birth to three types of narratives produced by different Anglophone Arabs :
-The Mahjar, i.e. early twentieth century émigrés in the U.S,
-The Europeanized aspirants of the mid-1950s, i.e. those who lived with Europeans during the period of colonization in the MENA region,
-And the more recent hybrids, hyphenated, trans-cultural, exilic or diasporic writers of the past four decades or so who have been scattered all over the world.
By distinguishing between the three phases of Arab Anglophone narratives, Al-maleh provided us with main characteristics particular to each phase and its authors. As for the early Arab immigrants, most of them came from backgrounds of poverty and even illiteracy and worked their ways up to elitist literary circles. Likewise, these immigrants were almost able to keep a balance between East and West (home and host country). Conversely, the 1950s generation of Anglophone Arab writers –the majority of them were living in Arab countries which were colonized by the British Empire –came from elite/westernized backgrounds and worked assiduously to embrace the European identity while the third group of, i.e. those who began writing after the 1970s, is the least homogenous. In this research, the focus is more on this group and particularly contemporary Arab women writers who write in English.
According to Al-maleh, in the third group of late 1970s and on writers, there were those second, third and even fourth generation of hyphenated Arabs who were born and raised on the no-longer foreign soil of their ancestors ; and there were those who were new immigrants working out of an experience of trans-culturalism . These immigrants came from diverse intellectual and social backgrounds, faiths, vocations and political inclinations and are settling in the U.S, Britain, Canada and Australia. As a matter of fact, they do not share the same representation neither of home nor of the Diaspora.
Along with Hassan and Al-maleh, we believe that the literature that is produced by writers who do share Arab roots or who are Arabs living abroad is distinctively heterogeneous as much as the Arab world is non-homogenous, and yet particular common aspects are to be highlighted when it comes to sub-categorizations as Arab British narratives, Arab American writings and Arab literature of English expression. Thus, establishing a conceptual classification under which the various works of literature which have been recently produced by Arabs who use English for their writings is needed. In fact, through our reading of previous works of Edward Said, Geoffrey Nash, Wail Hassan and Al-maleh (to name only few), we come up with a set of different technical labels to be used to refer to English works of literature produced by Arabs or Foreign citizens who have Arab roots:
-Arab English encounter (according to Said)
-Arab Anglophone literature (according to Al-maleh)
-Immigrant narratives as minor literature (according to Wail Hassan)
Two other aspects were sought to be added: hybrid and borderlands narratives. I argue that English literature produced by Arabs is hybrid and is produced in the very area of borderlands and limens by people who live a situation of in-between-ness. Although they write in the language of their host country, Arab Anglophone writers –particularly Arab Americans and Arab British –produce a literature that is by no means similar to that of the host country or that of their country of origin. As such it may rightly bear the epithet of a ‘hybrid’ literature which bears the marks of both the writers’ country of origin and their host country. It is also a space where both home and host cultures converge, intersect and even clash resulting in a third culture which situates itself in a third space which is that of the Diaspora. However, the body of criticism produced to locate this literature is still meager and needs to burgeon.
Posited within postcolonial writings, Arab British and Arab American literatures do diverge from other postcolonial literatures produced by Indians, Pakistanis and other commonwealth’s ex-colonized people. Moreover, the difference between hybrid and hyphenated, as explained few sections before, can be translated into non-native diasporic literature for hybrid Arab British narratives, and non-stream native literature for Arab American narratives. Though they share some of the postcolonial characteristics, Arab Anglophone literatures are primarily considered as minor literatures, or immigrant literatures as already mentioned in the general overview. This re-categorizing presented by Wail Hassan in his Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and cultural translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature (2008), Hassan claims that Arab Anglophone writings, as immigrant literature, fall into the category of minor literatures.
Coined by the French scholars Deleuze and Guattari in their book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, minor literatures have a set of characteristics. Because a minor literature does not come from a minor language, and it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language, English writings produced by Arab immigrants or Americans and/or British citizens of Arabic descents, share the characteristics of minority literatures. Such a literature, for Deleuze and Guattari, has three main characteristics: The deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy and the collective assemblage of enunciation.
Basing on this perspective, in our research the focus is going to be on Arab Anglophone writings, women writings in particular, as a minority literature. Despite the fact that we are introducing our readers to different Arab women writings, which are written in English often mingled with Arabic words or expressions, and whose authors belong to different communities, we believe that dealing with literary texts produced by hybrid and hyphenated Arab Anglophone women authors must submit a finite convergence that bring the difference of these works to a common commitment vis-à-vis the nation, the culture, the religion and above all the gender.
Attributing the label of minor literature to Arab Anglophone women literature, as new coming-of-age narratives is basically from a linguistic and cultural perspective. English, be it the major language, in the hands of these writers –Faqir, Soueif, Abulela, Nye and all Arab and/or Muslim Anglophone, has been deterriteriolized and metamorphosed to meet the cultural specificity of Arab women as writers who traverse worlds, cultures and languages.
The growing number of universities worldwide that began to their curricula courses which engage students in the study of Arab and/or Muslim mind is a very significant mark of an increasing interest in Arab Anglophone literature. For many western readers and academics Arab Anglophone writers represent a convenient window on Arab culture, traditions and thought; this, indeed, brought visibility to Arabs and the Arab world, yet it is unfortunately a visibility often filtered with terror.
Most critics assert that the emergence of Arab English writings go back to early Middle Eastern immigrants who sailed in big masses to the United States of America by the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Those immigrants were generally coming from anywhere in the Levant: Syria, Lebanon, Jor¬dan, or historical Palestine, and the majority of these migrants were Christians seeking refuge and temporary residence in the U.S and having the intention to come back home one day.
In fact, to discuss the literary nature of Arab English literature, we need first to argue some distinctions related to the many differences that make Arab American English literature and Arab American English dissimilar with Arab British English literature and Arab British English whence we would argue the essence of the categorization of Arab English writings into Arab British literature, Arab American literature and remarkably other Arab English literatures. For a sound argumentation, a historical sketch of Arab English writings is needed at first.

Leave a Reply