English, 2013 curriculum - Free topic 4: Arab is the new black?: Arab American Literature and Racial Ambivalence

Course content

After 9/11 the presence of Arabs in America, a hitherto relatively ‘invisible’ ethnic community, came under heavy public scrutiny. Arab Americans are a highly diverse community, ethnically and religiously, and yet the widespread (and fearful) association of Arabness with Islam resulted in heightened levels of discrimination and even physical attacks against anyone perceived to be Arab. Many activists and critics thus began to wonder if ‘Arab’ had become the new black. Our course will take up this view as a point of departure, but question easy assumptions of monolithic ‘blackness,’ ‘Arabness’ and various forms of literary expression associated with them. Neither the presence of Arab Americans nor discrimination against them is a ‘new’ phenomenon. On the contrary, ranging from 19th century African Arab slave narratives to post 9/11 Arab American feminist novels, literature has been a primary vehicle for Arab American self-expression in the face of discrimination, which in turn is deeply rooted in an orientalist perception of Arab Otherness that permeates US (popular) culture. And yet, Arab Americans have also enjoyed the racial privilege of being legally white, albeit ‘culturally’ not quite white, in the US American black/white color scheme. Rather then approaching discrimination as a zero sum game, pitching Blackness against Arabness, the course will explore the lesser known beginnings of Arab American literatures and their relations to US racialization.

The class thus invites comparative perspectives with African American literature if you choose both modules of the course, but it can also be taken as a standalone module. Themes will include:

  • How have race and racial ambivalence defined the Arab American experience? Can the racialization of Arabs be compared to African American experiences?
  • How can ‘Arab’ American literature be defined in the face of Arab ethnic diversity? How does Arab American literature relate to orientalist popular culture?  And how does it negotiate the tension between racial privilege and orientalist racializing?
  • What role does gender play in Arab American literature, past and present? How do stereotypes about oppressed ‘muslimwomen’ limit/challenge/impact Arab American women writers?
  • How does Arab American literature relate to the US multi-ethnic literary landscape and to women of color feminisms?

Classes, with particular emphasis on reading primary and secondary texts, oral discussion and developing proficiency in English.

Reading list:

In addition to essential theoretical readings like Edward Said’s Orientalism we will depart from two recent key works in Arab American Studies: Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects, edited by Amaney A. Jamal, Nadine Christine Naber, and Therí Pickens’ New Body Politics: Narrating Arab and Black Identity in the Contemporary United States.

Primary sources may include:

  • the African Arab slave narrative The Life of Omar Ibn Said (1831)
  • the first prominent literary production of the Syrian American Mahjar generation, Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911)
  • Rosemary Hakim’s Arabian Antipodes (1956) and William Blatty’s Which Way to Mecca, Jack? (1957), narratives that emerged during the phases of supposed Arab American invisibility in the 1950s
  • Diana Abu-Jaber’s seminal novel Arabian Jazz (1993)
  • Mohja Kahf’s Arab American feminist novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006)
  • Rabih Alameddine’s postmodern take on the Arabian Nights in his novel The Hakawati (2008)
  • Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account (2014).

Arab is the new black?: Arab American Literature and Racial Ambivalence will be taught in weeks 37-44.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Criteria for exam assessment


  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Preparation
  • 176,75
  • English
  • 204,75