I have no Arabic friends. I hear these words in my car as I drive a trio of young Iraqi girls around Salt Lake City. Asma readjusts her hijab while looking in the vanity mirror of the sun visor, puckering her lips as she applies a new layer of glossy balm. She speaks a fragmentary English but the point is clear: Living in a new country sucks.
The girls, all between the ages of seven and fourteen, have recently immigrated to the United States from Jordan, where their family fled during the tumult of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Granted asylum in Salt Lake, their family lives under the watchful eye of the IRC, an international organization that manages the well being of the refugee population. As an IRC family mentor, I’m in charge of checking in with the family every week and planning activities for the kids.
There are a total of ten mouths to feed in the Habayesh household, with three of the family members earning a meager salary with their jobs at Deseret Industries. Asma is the eldest daughter in the family and at fourteen years old, she’s fully immersed in teen culture. With one foot rooted in American mass culture and another in Arab mass culture, it’s not unusual for her to jump from listening to Katy Perry’s magnum opus Teenage Dream to the soothing strains of Nancy Ajram’s “Ana Masri.” Both are female singers with massive followings in their respective regions and Asma cannot get enough of their music.
Asma and her family are exiles – not just geographic exiles, but also social and cultural exiles. Uprooted from their life in central Iraq, her parents spent the last ten years as refugees in Jordan before finally gaining entrance to the United States. This narrative of exile is a common one across cultures. According to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, we as human beings are “born into language,” and as we acquire language we discover loss. We rely on language to express ourselves, constantly poised between the risk of being misunderstood and the risk of being known so completely that we are left defenseless.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a cartographic mind. The thrill of categorizing, of grouping, and of mapping has always been important to me. And yet “we are all deterritorialized on some level in the process of language itself,” write Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Broadly speaking, deterritorialization is a weakening of ties between culture and place. My own process of identity formation has required some form of exile, of deterritorialization. It changes every day.
Within the Habayesh family there is also a sense of a deterritorialization of cultural identities. The parents, who are second cousins, recount stories about meeting each other when they were sixteen years old in the Takriti region of Iraq. Their daughters, on the other hand, are quick to identify themselves as Jordanian and even speak Arabic with the soft cadence of Levant women. Faced with the more bewildering and troubling aspects of American culture, the Habayesh family acts as its own tribal unit, with its own behavioral norms and expectations. There are a handful of Arab families in the neighborhood, but Asma voices the dilemma so succinctly: I have no Arabic friends.
What does it mean to belong to a tribe? The word tribe has existed for centuries and describes a group of people who are loosely connected by regional, religious, cultural, or ethnic identity. Tribal identity is arguably one of the most enduring social signifiers that exist in the Middle East today. ‘Asabiyya is a term coined by thirteen-century sociologist Ibn Khaldun to describe the social solidarity that exists within a tribal group. The Khaldunian cycle argues that tribes fit into a historical pattern in which militarily superior tribes united by ‘asabiyya will periodically conquer civilizations, but over time the city urbanizes the tribe, which loses its cohesion and decays. After several generations, a young tribal group will eventually step in and set a new cycle of conquest-decay into motion.
In the Middle East, it was the Ottomans who “turned the camel-breeding chieftains into tax-farmers—the recognized central power, and collected former tributes as tax for the state.” The advent of European colonialism after the fall of the Ottoman Empire also helped break this cyclical pattern of state-tribal interaction. The tribe, as Khaldun defined the term, disappeared from society but maintained their tribal names and identities long after.
I never asked the Habayesh parents why they left Iraq. The timing of their departure suggests that it was connected to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime but I thought asking about it would be intrusive. Current estimates suggest that the Jordanian population is composed of over 32 percent refugees, families who’ve been forced from their homes due to civil war or political turmoil.