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New Texts Out Now: Ramy Aly, Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity

[Cover of Ramy Aly, [Cover of Ramy Aly, "Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity"]

Ramy Aly, Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity. London, Pluto Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ramy Aly (RA): My motivations were both personal and political, but at the outset the personal was more compelling. I was born and raised in London to Egyptian immigrant parents. It is a beautifully complex city that I love, but all too often I was made to feel that being brought into this world in Hammersmith Hospital in 1977 was some kind of cosmological mistake that I should spend my life correcting. In 2003 I went to live in Dubai very briefly; it was my first attempt to “return” to an Arab world that I had never left to begin with. Nonetheless I always seemed to see it in those terms. One afternoon while at work I got a call from my parents telling me that my sister (who was twenty-four at the time) had run away from home. Her departure was deeply painful for the whole family, but in truth it had been a long time coming. Events like these are complex. Questions I had long asked myself, but avoided answering, were bought sharply into focus. Yet Heba’s leaving was secret; we weren’t allowed to talk about it with friends or relatives. It was shameful; it meant that we, as an Egyptian/Arab family fil’ghurba, had failed in a very precise way.

The challenges we faced as the children of immigrants were described to me in books and newspaper articles as “identity crisis” and “culture clash,” which, for a while, I was content with as explanations for my sister’s plight and to a large extent my own. But the more I thought about those explanations, the more I rejected them. I deeply resented the idea that it was the children of migrants who were the ones with the so-called “identity crisis”; for me, it looked more like the respective State to which I was attached, my parents, their peers, and the wider British society around me were the ones with the identity crisis.

Which brings me to the political. I wanted to look critically at the grammars of race, ethnicity, and identity politics in contemporary London, on the one hand, and at the idea of Arabness, on the other. I was astounded by how little literature there was about Arabs in London, virtually nothing, particularly in comparison to other migrant groups. So in a sense, I was driven by the desire to tell the story of Arab London (at least one version of it), to understand Arab migration to Britain—but more specifically, to look at the how young people born and raised in London do Arabness in an everyday sense. Indeed, my focus is on forms of “everyday Arabness.”

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RA: I take a position that is quite hostile to the notion of “identity,” which I believe is an extremely divisive notion. I wanted to move away from constructivist accounts of identity, which I believe have failed to provide a way out of structures like race and gender. As a concept, I would argue that identity has little or no meaning anymore. It either stands for too much or too little or is simply pluralized because we have become so accustomed to seeing ourselves and others through its terms of reference. So when I look around, I do not see identities; I see people doing things and saying things that pertain to ideas of “identity.”

The penchant for difference that we live with has institutional and cultural roots. In my work I became convinced of the arguments that suggest that our thinking in Britain remains captivate to the logic of race, a condition I describe as “ethnonormativity.” Ethnonormativity is a deeply embedded set of beliefs about essential sameness and difference that naturalize the notion of “ethnicity” and provide it with the status of a proper (ontological) object with which the expansive potential of self and human relationships are predicated. Ethnonormativity is relentlessly enduring; in its history it has manifested itself as that which is incommensurable about “race,” “ethnicity,” “religion,” “nation,” and “culture.” Today “identity” has become both a synonym and suffix of these forms of incommensurability. The idea of having or possessing an ethnicity, of being part of an ethnic group, has become so embedded in the way that we see people in Britain that we see ethnicity and ethnic groups everywhere, instead of seeing people. So I wanted to try and do the unthinkable and just do away with “identity” altogether. I do not subscribe to any a prior notion of Arab, British, or any other kind of identity, including gendered and radicalized identities. Instead, I wanted to say that middle-class Arab womanhood or manhood is never an essence but always a doing, a process in which there is an ever-present and inherent failure in its repetition and interpolation.

I took much of my inspiration from the work of Judith Butler. I know that is terribly “fashionable,” but it is just the way it happened. While I was doing my fieldwork I had no conceptual framework really. It was only as I started writing it up that the penny dropped and I realized that Butler’s performativity held so much promise in explaining my ethnographic material and my unease with constructivism and identity politics at the same time. So using Butler’s performative gender as a starting point, I try and do three things. First, I try to extend her scheme of gender performativity to “race,” but I do so through ethnography, something that as far as I am aware has/had not been done. Second, I try to provide an account that highlights the sequential and often simultaneous processes whereby one is gendered, raced, and classed in the course of being made a socially intelligible subject, in this case a British-Arab woman or man. Finally, I wanted to try to address the tensions around notions of performance on the one hand and performativity on the other. These have significant implications for the unease that many people have regarding the implications that Butler’s performative scheme has for our understanding of individuality and agency. Rather than continuing to see performance and performativity as sitting at opposite ends of a theoretical scale, I choose to explore the dynamic relationship they represent. So for me this ethnography is all about the entangled and ongoing relationship between how people do hetero, ethno, and class normativity—performance; and why they do these things in particular ways—performativity.

While this sounds somewhat pretentious or complicated, within the context of ethnography it is the everyday that really takes precedence and helps put things into context. So I ended up spending a lot of time in shisha cafés, nightclubs, and restaurants, University “Arab Society” events, and of course lots of interviewing, hanging out, and archival work. This is reflected in the book itself with chapters focusing on the history of Arab London and the emergence of “the Arabs” as terrorists and playboy princes in the British imagination. I then move on to offer narratives of growing-up in London and look at how concrete experiences like living through the 1991 Gulf war at school in London and the contentious debates around Britishness mark the processes through which young men and women learn how to be Arab in London. The rhythms and interactions at shisha cafes expose some of the rich everyday textures of ethicized and gendered subjecthood in the city. I then turn to sexual politics between university-aged young people and look at how these are best understood through the grammars of Middle Eastern dance. I also look at how young British-born and raised Arabs have reclaimed visual orientalism as a way of staking their claim to inclusion in multicultural London, a move which I see as being a choice of no choice given the cultural economy of meanings that surround Arabs in Britain.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RA: I remember one interview in particular where a young woman movingly explained to me how as a teenager she had to lie to everyone to accommodate the different demands of home, school, and peers. “I just think that our generation is so fucked up…It was so difficult growing up, we all have these psychological issues,” were her exact words. For me the most immediate audience are other Arab Londoners and diaspora Arabs more generally. I think it can be difficult growing up and dealing with injunctions to be all the things that everybody wants you to be. I think that the book has helped me to put a lot of things that happened in my life into perspective, and I hope others will take something from the book that helps them on a personal level.

On a more conceptual level I would really love for the broader British public, particularly those who are interested in the debate on the character of multicultural Britain, to read it. During my research on Arabness in London I felt that often being “Arab” was simply about not being “White,” “Black,” or “Asian.” Checkbox or corporatist multiculturalism has a performative effect and affect in the Butlerian sense.[1] It brings into being that which it names—a society perceived through the notion of essential difference that needs to be managed and tolerated. Difference and distinctiveness have become primary source of subjectivity. The set of evolving policies that began as race-relations and have come to be known as “multiculturalism” are not, as some like to think, part of a benign anti-racist project. They have bought about a divisive identity politics in the way we see each other. As Malek Alloula would have it, within this cultural condition we produce stereotypes “in the manner of great seabirds producing guano.”[2]

I fear that some will take this to be ammunition for “multiculturalism”-bashing conservatism. Far from it; multiculturalism is another byword that we have coined to stand for the way in which Britain has tried to culturally cope with difference and bury its colonial past/present. It is a begrudging set of policies that were adopted to manage the “colonial boomerang” and one that has fragmented and depoliticized Black politics and the struggle for equality, commodified the smells, sounds, colors, and fashions of its “ethnic subjects,” and created a hierarchical system of signification that skirts around the most deeply embedded and complex aspect of subaltern belonging in Britain.

I think that the book offers an alternative to the racialization of Islam that dominates the way in which groups who are in any way associated with the Muslim world are researched and written about. With the current climate of fear of Islam and Arabs as representatives of a failed region and an extreme and violent religion and culture, I hope my book will introduce a broader British readership to the everyday, the banal and the unmistakably familiar aspects of being British and Arab, rather than the sensationalized closet Jihadi caricature that is now taking hold.

J: How is this book distinct from other studies of culture and identity in the Arab diaspora?

RA: There is a well-established literature on Arabs in France, North and South America, and Australia. However, very little has been written about Arabs in Britain, and to my knowledge Becoming Arab in London is the first ethnographic account of Arab life in London and of Arab migration to Britain. It is not so much that the book is distinct from other works on the Arab diaspora; it is necessarily complementary to that literature. It addresses a gap in our understanding of a city that has been so important to the Arab world. London was often called “assimat al-Arab” and yet almost nothing has been published to substantiate that relationship. I think that conceptually the book challenges some of the more traditional approaches to diaspora and ethnic and racial studies which are reliant upon notions of “community,” “identity,” and “hybridity.” I want to give Arabness and Britishness no ontological status beyond the acts, gestures, and discourses that call them into being and force people to be subjects of them. I want to show the way that both of these are always in the process of being recited imperfectly and thus being remade. I am not concerned with showing Arabs in London to be a “successful minority” or a legitimate “ethnic group” with a project of cultural preservation or to depict them as a victimized or marginalized group.

The main question that I would ask myself now is—what now? In the latter part of my research, I realized that Arab migration to Britain was more or less numerically insignificant prior to 2003, after which unprecedented numbers of people from the Arab world, and in particular from Iraq, have settled in Britain. In terms of the scale of migration from the Arab world to Britain, the waves of migration since the British and American invasion of Iraq are historically unprecedented. So I am very conscious that I did my research on the cusp of a sea change in migration from Arab states to Britain. While I think the ethnography captures some of the processes and experiences of those who grew up in London in the 1980s and 1990s, it really does not offer the same kind of insight on more recent arrivals and more contemporaneous experiences. What this means is simply that the story of becoming Arab in London has only just started and that more research on this subject is needed.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RA: I am now living and working in Cairo, so I have had to think carefully about how my work speaks to the concerns and issues in the place that I live. While I still want to understand life in London, I cannot simply disengage intellectually from the sprawling city of Cairo that surrounds me. I feel strongly that wherever an anthropologist finds herself or himself, he or she must seek to expose structures of subordination and oppression, exclusion, and equality.

So I have had to change track a little. I have been researching and writing about youth cultures in Egypt and I have recently started researching “Rotating Savings and Credit Associations” (Gameiyat) in Egypt. The scale of economic inequality and the way in which Egyptian society has been transformed into a consumer society often does not speak to the everyday circumstances and realities of the majority of Egyptians. So I am trying to understand the way that Egyptians make ends meet, how they keep up with demands of being a consuming subject, how they use trust and social relationships to get access to capital in light of their exclusion from the formal credit structures of the banking system.

But I also want to return to London and pick up where I left off with Becoming Arab in London.


[1] Butler, J. (1994) “Against Proper Objects,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 6 Nos. 2–3, pp. 1–25.

[2] Alloula, M. (1986) The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p.4

Excerpts from Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity

From Chapter Three: Going for Shisha: Doing Ethnicity, Gender, and Class

As I enter the cafe Wa’el’s hand greets mine and pulls me into a brief embrace, he says “Marhab abu’l shabab” (Welcome lad of lads) and gives me three firm pats on the shoulder. I don’t know him that well but I see Wa’el (Abu Isa) about three times a week since I started my fieldwork. He works behind the counter at “Downtown Café” taking food and drink orders and managing the till.

I move on to greet Mohammed Ali, a short and thin Damascene whose job it is to ensure that everyone has a shisha and that it is well fired with fresh coals. Mohammed Ali’s is definitely the harder of the two jobs. Both Mohammed and Wa’el work illegally, we never discuss their papers, it would be rude to intrude uninvited on such a matter but their working conditions seem well designed to exploit the vulnerable. Wa’el has been in London for nearly three years, he is a Palestinian from the dead-end refugee camps of Lebanon where Palestinians are prevented from practicing a vast array of vocations and professions for fear that it might make their stay in Lebanon permanent. His father was killed at the age of twenty-six by Israeli soldiers during their invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He has a catalogue of stories of loss, tribulation, death and discrimination. Yet, despite the tragedy, he always has a smile on his face especially when he talks about “Lebnaan” (Lebanon) it’s joie de vivre and his plans to return there on holiday one day.

Mohammed Ali is a sadder character to describe, in his late thirties he is a more recent arrival and seems to find it hard to adapt to his new environment. He speaks no English at all and struggles to pronounce simple greetings and phrases; nonetheless he always asks “Keif biqulu bilenglezi” (“How do they say in English?”). Sometimes regular patrons type English words and phrases in phonetic Arabic on his mobile phone where he now has a limited but useful English vocabulary. Wa’el is linguistically the better equipped of the two and therefore deals with the “Ajanib” (Foreigners) drawn in by the sweet smell of the shisha smoke drifting onto the street outside or the neon sign above the food counter “STILL OPEN” late into the night.

Mohammed Ali spends most of his day preparing the tobacco that rests in clay crowns at the top of the shisha. It’s a dirty job; the tobacco is sticky and pungent, so much so that it will give you a headache if you breathe it in all day. His fingers are stained a reddish color as a result of handling the tobacco without gloves. He cleans and refills the glass water vases that form the base of the shisha as well as performing the menial tasks expected of anyone who works in a shisha café, cleaning the toilets and the rest of the café, stacking shelves and so on. His body looks like it can’t take much more, his face taut and wrinkled from the smoke, making him look much older than he is. Part of his job is to inhale intensely to fire-up the shisha before passing it onto the customer, meaning that on six nights a week he breathes in copious liters of the thick moist and aromatic smoke both passively and actively. His clothes don’t seem to change much from day-to-day, he is slightly dated wearing black denim from head-to-toe, his hair in a crew cut with a classic Ba’athi-style moustache, wide and bushy, attesting both to his masculinity and recent arrival in the UK.

Mohammed and Wa’el are part of London’s informal Arab labor economy, which restaurants and cafés exploit unabashedly. They are the first people you encounter when you enter the cafe, their only reason for working there is misfortune but they play a crucial if part in the authenticity of the place and the acting-out of social roles and rituals relatively new to London. The café stays open, and Mohammed and Wa’el awake, as long as there are customers to serve, there is no such thing as closing time.

Field note: 17 April 2006, 11:30pm

I spent a lot of time in a number of cafes across west London, which brought with it sensitivity towards and awareness of those who work long and underpaid hours for some to socialize, perform, and consume and others to profit. In the early 1990s when these cafes first started to appear in London they were not regulated beyond normal (food and beverage) licensing laws, operating below the radar of government regulation until the smoking ban in 2007. Boxes of molasses tobacco, which is smoked on the shisha, and the water pipes themselves, were regularly bought into Britain in suitcases on flights from Cairo, Beirut, and Casablanca. The growing popularity of these cafes and their corresponding viability as businesses caused an explosion in shisha cafes in London, particularly in the years preceding the announcement of the ban on smoking indoors (2007).

The ban was a blow to café owners many of whom have been forced to close down, relocate or serve shisha illicitly. Cafe owners around the country joined the “Save the Shisha Campaign,” which sought to mobilize and lobby local councils for an exemption on smoking ban the grounds that shisha is not only a business but also a cultural right. Those who have been able to take the Shisha onto the pavements outside their cafes, building awnings, installing heaters and paying increased license fees. The regulation of molasses tobacco and the imposition of import duty, VAT, and health warning labeling, has also caused the price of one kilogram of tobacco molasses to increase significantly and naturally a healthy black market in untaxed molasses tobacco has flourished. While the pockets of business and consumers have been hit and the government has acquired a new source of revenue, it is arguably people like Mohammed Ali and Wa'el Abu Issa, whose wages are little more than £30 a day, who bear the brunt. The drive to keep many Shisha cafes open means that increasingly it is the exploitation of vulnerable illegal migrants, who are here today and can be deported tomorrow, that keeps a large number of these businesses in profit.

The coffee shop that I have spent the most time in is called “Downtown Cafe,” an oddly American name for an Arabic shisha cafe in West London. Situated just off Baker Street and Marylebone High Street, the London Central Mosque in Regents Park and the residential areas around Church Street and Harrow Road with their high concentration of Arab migrants are a short walk away. Westminster University, which has a large number of British born or raised Arab students, is less than five minutes away and Edgware Road is half a mile to the West. Downtown Cafe is a middle of the range café, it is not particularly well decorated but an attempt at recreating some kind of “Oriental” or Arab aesthetic has been made. Chipboard latticework poses as Arabesque “Mashrabiyah” lining the walls alongside pictures of pre-bellum Beirut in the 1960s. Red upholstered benches line the walls all the way around the space, possibly the best use of the limited space but also reminiscent of the way that a traditional Majlis is arranged. A seating area hidden behind the counter is available and ideal for couples or mixed gender groups who want to stay out of sight of the regular patrons. These areas are common in restaurants in the Arab world and are known as “family areas.”

There is a food counter where Arabic meze are displayed and fresh juices and hot beverages are prepared. Arabic pop music (mostly chosen by the staff) plays on a cheap stereo that is perched precariously on a makeshift shelf; a flat screen TV hangs on the wall beaming in Arabic satellite channels with titillating video clips from one of the numerous versions of Arabic Music Television or football matches from the Saudi, Egyptian, or European leagues. At times of war and crisis this background ambiance is replaced by rolling news from Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya, depending on the political leanings of the owner and patrons. The café front is made almost entirely of glass so that the goings-on are visible to all passers-by and importantly so that the outside is visible to those inside. I often watched as curious passers-by peered in, hesitating or exchanging words about the curious smelling cloud of smoke hanging from the ceiling and drifting out onto the pavement. Outside the café you can see anything from a Lamborghini to a BMW, less prestigious cars are typically parked around the corner out of view. Despite the seeming affluence of many of the patrons the café itself is shabby, which is confirmed by the state of the toilets, which are tiny and unfailingly grimy. However its shabbiness is part of its “jaww” (appeal and atmosphere). It is an everyday café, low on style but affordable, comfortable, and informal enough to visit many times a week.

On an average night the (Q)ahwah is busy with the sound of card games and backgammon. Groups of men sit four or five to a table playing Tarneeb the Arabic equivalent of Bridge. The game is taken extremely seriously by those playing, the banter alternating between laughter and argument; occasionally money is discreetly at stake. Masculinity can be heard and felt in this atmosphere as playing cards are flung down on the tables and backgammon chips crackle as they strike the wooden boards signifying the metaphorical blow-by-blow spar.

Mango and guava juice sit side by side in the refrigerator with iced tea, and the standard Schweppes ensemble. Fairuz and Lazeeza, non-alcoholic malt drinks, with their beer-bottle aesthetic are also popular signs of the modern, yet religiously informed, lifestyle choice. It is rare to see someone drinking the traditional coffee from which these establishments take their name, they are more likely to be drinking tea with mint or a diet coke. Shani, an overpoweringly sweet cherry fizzy drink, evokes memories and reinforces shared tastes and experiences among some of the patrons. Its dated logo and design stand in contrast to the other canned drinks lined up neatly in the dispenser, even the ring-pull remains preserved in recycle-unfriendly form. Aziz remembers the drink from his childhood growing up in Kuwait, Basil and Ameen from their childhood holidays in Egypt and Syria respectively. The drink was consumed for nostalgia and not only a fondness for its taste, when it is plucked from the fridge, a relatively rare occurrence, it must be followed by a conversation of remembering “Shani man, old Skool.

The glass fronted dispensing refrigerator stands by the door, regulars’ serve themselves from the refrigerator, what has been consumed is calculated later. The young men that I have been socializing with were just such a group of regulars. They shared the café with more recent migrants from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. They had come together partly through meeting at school or university and partly out of chance. They had started hanging out in Downtown Café some months before, having moved their custom there with the manager who had left another café in Maida Vale about a mile to the North West after a dispute with his business partner-wife. Two of the friends lived less than a mile away while the other two lived about ten miles away. Nonetheless, the café was conveniently located just off the A40 western corridor, so that with a car, the journey home for Basil, Aziz, and I, would take about forty minutes. The group spent a lot of time at the café usually congregating between around eight pm to smoke shisha, play cards and chat. Shisha and drinks were always ordered in Arabic, but the conversation between the friends usually continued in English punctuated by Arabic banter or phrases.

[Excerpted from Ramy Aly, Becoming Arab in London: Performativity and the Undoing of Identity, by permission of the author. © 2015 Pluto Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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