Where’s the Finish Line?

Graphic by Kapp Singer

Last week, all sections of Arabic 120 were required to attend a speaker event in place of class. The speaker, an Arabic scholar and translator, had spent more than thirty years with the language, conducted research in both Morocco and Egypt, been published in a number of journals (beyond the two publications he himself had founded), and is the Middle Eastern and Arab Studies chair at his university. This individual had studied Arabic at Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the American University in Cairo. 

I’ll preface by saying I’m usually pretty gutsy when it comes to finger-pointing. A lot of my writing has unfortunately become a response to the countless “scholars” and published authors who misrepresent my identity, culture, country, and region; I shamelessly pen scathing reviews of their ideals and work. But I’ve chosen to leave this particular individual’s identity anonymous for the purpose of this article, because who they are is insignificant to this piece. Googling them or trying to figure out what they look like or if they have any lectures on YouTube quite frankly detracts from my goal here. This piece is about principle. It’s not about understanding who did it. It’s about understanding that what happened during this particular event happens far too frequently and engenders far too limited a response. And most damningly, there is virtually no infrastructure to account for the harm caused. 

Now, around this time last year, I published a lengthy article in the Yale Daily News as a direct response to a Yale University professor—Colleen Kinder—who happened to write one of the most misrepresented, factually incorrect, and downright racist pieces about Egyptian culture I’ve ever come across. (Not to mention her piece was a part of the ENGL 120 curriculum, and I was appalled that Yale would allow her obvious prejudice to permeate an otherwise fantastic class.) And even more surprisingly, the professor of my section didn’t encourage any kind of critical reading of the piece. It wasn’t until I, an Egyptian-American student, openly expressed how offensive the piece was to me that the discussion seemed to shift beyond face-value acceptance of Professor Kinder’s claims to a collective interrogation of how she “conquered” Egypt in her travel writing through an imperialist and—let’s not dress this up here—racist lens.

I, of course, was angry, and many of my classmates actually suggested I send Kinder an email and meet with her to inform her of how destructive her piece was. But as much as I wanted to rip into her, I quickly realized that she wasn’t the exception—she was the norm. Appropriating our culture, “immersing” oneself in it, and then completely tearing it down is and always has been the occupation of whiteness and of America. 

In Kinder’s piece, she mentions that she wore a niqab in Egypt and claimed men kept grabbing her ass. Which, I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s story, but I first have to ask: why were you wearing the niqab in the first place? For sport? For fun? For a trendy new article for your travel blog? In Egypt, women face no pressure to wear a veil. In fact, when Kinder was visiting Egypt, it was far more liberal than it has been of late with regard to female head coverings. And still, in my recent visit to Egypt, I felt no pressure to cover my head. Either way, don’t paint our men as predators when the US has the same issue. Nobody describes America as an oppressive, misogynist nation ridden with male ass-grabbers and rapists—even though that happens to be the case. 

But this is all beside the point. I already wrote an article in answer to Kinder. What I’m trying to get out of all of this is that Kinder is a white lady. Brooklyn born and bred. I’d bet you she couldn’t say a sentence in Arabic. Or distinguish between sects of Islam. Or describe the Coptic diaspora. Or name more than two universities in Egypt. 

Kinder is so clearly uninformed. It’s not a good excuse, but better than the ones proffered by  someone who’s immersed themselves entirely in Egyptian, Moroccan, Arab culture, only to come back with what my Arabic 120 class had to sit through last Friday. 

***        

We were eager. We were finally catching a break from our textbook in favor of listening to someone articulate their profound love for and expertise in the language we were studying. But riddled throughout this professor’s speech were incredibly racist, derogatory, and stereotypic remarks about Middle East-North African people. He attributed their initial interest in the Arabic language to the shallowest reason imaginable: “the physics major only had two girls, and that’s not where a nineteen-year-old boy wants to be.” (Don’t get me started on this either — why not comment on the university’s failure to actualize equity in STEM education instead?). And before long, the professor began shamelessly mocking his old Arabic professor’s accent. (By the way, that professor is renowned in the Arabic academic world and very recently passed away.) I thought that would be the extent of it, but he continued to mock customs, culture, and accents of the individuals living in Cairo during his year of study at the American University there. And as if things couldn’t possibly get any worse, during the Q&A, a student asked a simple question about being Persian and learning Arabic. In his reply, he utterly humiliated her, saying that all Persians find Arabs “disgusting” and Indians “goofy.” (That wasn’t the entirety of it, but I’d rather not repeat everything that was directed at that student that day). 

Oh, and I forgot to mention—he was a white guy. A white guy who apparently chose Arabic because there were no girls in physics, who spent thirty years studying the language and culture, and who came back with nothing but revolting stereotypes. 

That was when I truly realized that the racism we face as Middle Eastern North African people doesn’t just come from the ignorant—it comes from the educated, too. It comes from academics who further their studies and advance their research in our countries. It comes from professors who teach our languages and dialects. It comes from textbooks and curricula that are supposed to enlighten and inform. It comes from individuals who monetize our culture, who rewrite our history to suit their purposes, who flatten our people’s nuance, and who fail to ever give back. 

But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that we have no infrastructure to account for what we are constantly battling as MENA students and as human beings. We don’t have a cultural house. We aren’t even an identifiable demographic on campus. And because of that, most students have no idea who we are, what we have to go through, and the massive amounts of advocacy work and change that’s necessary to create a safe environment. Despite the racism we experience on a regular basis, on campus and in the world, the administration refuses to make space for Middle East-North African people. 

I remember the Arabic class the day after our speaker came. Our professor gave us a space to talk about and process what had happened. But our feelings, our beings, could not be captured by  one hour on a Friday afternoon. 

After that meeting, I broke down in tears because I had never been offered an opportunity to do that. I had never been offered a space to defend my identity as an Egyptian woman and as a MENA person. I had never been afforded the opportunity to take up space. To tell others that I am here. That I exist. 

But to be quite honest with you, this work is exhausting. And it shouldn’t be mine or ours to shoulder, but it is. We need a cultural house now—not just for representation, but to cope with trauma. To create the same space that our Arabic professor did, and to normalize that practice. The course meeting that was designated to discuss the unfortunate situation we were faced with was an unusual one. It was the exception. But it shouldn’t be. We should have that space always. We need to cope. The MENA community is bleeding, and we haven’t even been offered a Band-Aid. 

What the Yale administration and so many other institutions fail to recognize is that the fight for space is not one that is birthed merely from desire, but from necessity. The power of knowledge has become a kind of violence against our community, as imperialism and colonialism infiltrate the subject matter of our lives, our legacies, and our families. We are misrepresented. We are not being heard. We are hurt. We are exhausted. The years of fighting for mere recognition often seems so futile. Almost every week, I run through the possibilities of my outcome, of our outcome, if I quit. If I turn a blind eye and just stop fighting for what seems so unattainable. 

But while we are persecuted, we aren’t weak. As long as we’re here, it will be known. The racism we’re frequently forced to confront will not be invisible. We will not be faceless entities lost in alumni records and scattered across fields of academia. We’re fighting for more out of our education—not because it is exhilarating, but because it is what we have always deserved.

Sometimes, I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know what will happen to us or if we’ll ever get justice. Sometimes I feel like the second we get ahead, they move the finish line. But I guess that’s what this is all for. That’s why this work matters. We all have stories to tell. And right now, we’re writing ours. We’re all an integral part of an unraveling narrative. It’s the story of us that’s being left here. The story of us that’s being told right now. And Yale can’t erase that. 

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