An Arab Millennial Gap: Between Transnational and National Identities
Words by Nouf AlJahdami
Commissioned by Lungs Project. Published in Lungs Issue No.3, 2018
Nouf Aljahdami is a United Arab Emirates based creative. Her work reflects her experimentation with traditional art, poetry, research and literature to explore topics of identity, spirituality, culture and politics in the Middle East. She is currently a student of Security and Global Studies College and a graduate of Development Policy in African Affairs from MIT.
Attempting to describe a transnational social change in the Arabian Peninsula means presuming that the eye can grasp challenges to the promoted national identity and that these characteristics imply a specific spatial opportunity or that space is subject to scrutiny. Change involves processes of emancipation, protest and proposition, as well as a refusal of the same and a desiring imagination geared towards a different future. That is what the Arab States are pushing forward for their millennials and in return expected to converge into a future of innovation and prospering peace. It is not an emergence of transnationalist ideologies but an immersion that sees no borders and a unified front expressed in an individualistic manner. It is an invitation to adopt diverse points of view in order to understand the link between structure, Arab history, and the human intent to evolve beyond conflicts and wars.
The chasm in the Middle East youth relations has emerged amidst greater convergence in ideas and aspirations. Triggered by a large youth cohort, the Middle East is undergoing a change where it is aligning with fundamental drivers of globalisation and an energetic momentum towards a central hub for innovation and technology. The region has embraced the idea of the market economy and values education for both genders. Middle Eastern youth ascribe to the fundamental pro-growth norms of behaviour such as hard work, self-expression, and a deviation from the normative view of success. There is a strong foundation to build an upper middle class associated with governance. Combining all of these observations, it seems that the development of new ideologies of integration and national membership and the reconfiguration of rights in the context of large-scale labour and migration have undoubtedly reshaped citizenship and the interactions between ancestral immigrants and members of host societies as the Bedouins.
This clearly indicates the close relationship between transnationalism and globalisation, which also refers essentially to the rapid expansion of cross-border transactions and networks in all areas of life. At the same time, the concept suggests that boundaries between nation-states are becoming less distinct. In respect to the Arab States, the most obvious basis to build on is that historically the geography is bound by blood and familial ties. As it is the Arab millennials are rediscovering and showcasing aspects of themselves that have gone asunder under the umbrella of Arab identity that slowly diminished aspects of their cultural identity to one atypical set of characteristics that followed an atypical set of morals and values.
Through arts and culture communities from typography to music, millennials are rediscovering parts of themselves blanketed under the ideology of one Arabia. Transnational communities are becoming hubs of like-mindedness, expression, and novelty for showcase and discussion. Transnational communities are groups whose identity is not primarily based on attachment to a specific territory but holds a high emphasis on human agency and longing, nostalgia, ancestral manifestation, but most importantly humanity.
Amidst Transnational and National Identities
The events experienced since 2009 by tens of millions of people in countries like Iran, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Syria and Turkey have inspired observations and elaborate interpretations from around the world, where terms like “springs” or “revolutions” were associated with the names of iconic central arenas such as Taksim or Tahrir. Research on the region has taken a new turn, with the emergence of said countries’ critical security currents and increased attention paid to the evolution of working-class neighbourhoods in the context of the revolutions. The most attention spanning the role of millennials in revolutions and how transnationalism plays a role in that as a correlation.
The education and the lifestyle of the Arab millennials highlight a growing gap between the dominant forces of national identity in place. The study of public spaces – whether virtual or urban -, considered both as a stage and a stake for powers and counter-powers, has considerably grown such as Serkal Avenue in the UAE and Jabal Luweibdeh in Jordan. That, in turn, has seen an emergence of national urban spaces spreading across the Arabian Peninsula such as the Arab Youth Centre. The transnationalist millennials have been considered as deviants of change towards another possible reality of Arabism, in countries where censorship and conservatism go hand in hand with neoliberalism in its now-classic forms (privatisation, real estate speculation, privileges and gated communities), but also with tourism and consumerism, which have drastically transformed landscapes, urban practices, and expression of identity among the youth.
The national identity which has been regularly promoted since early 2014 has often (but not always) emanated from similar thought currents and ideologies of conservative forms of Islamism and colonial creme de la creme. In the Arab world, the idea of identity has a pattern of characteristics in particular that is autonomously known and regarded highly at two levels: that of the nation-state, and that of the Arab region. In that, we find that the fact that being soft-spoken, formal in attitude, bourgeoisie, and culturally conservative is what makes its way into the governance appearances. In the past, Pan-Arabism has favoured the emergence of social diversity in expression as a lot of Arabs have observed in the 1970’s and 1980’s youth culture around the Arabian Peninsula. Predominantly in Kuwait and Egypt clique-based social groups in the arts and cultural community have played an active part in voicing national concerns and henceforth were accepted by the ruling parties. However, this hasn’t prevented the millennials –particularly those who are indifferent to social norms– from accumulating a complete disregard for what is culturally appropriate.
In the modern Middle East, de-traditionalisation of Islam was deliberately imposed for decades in the name of Westernisation, modern secularism and for the sake of good relations with Western countries. Policies aimed at strengthening education in schools and universities went from national development to an increasing porosity to the global models of neoliberal higher education. However, nationalism – and more generally identity-based divisions – have appeared everywhere as a convenient tool for domination and for the coercion of anti-establishment movements, whether those are political, religious or cultural. It has also appeared to create a divide within the millennial groups, wherein the type of education autonomously puts you into a category that national governments can either include you or exclude you from the national dialogue.
The nation’s unity, associated with the army’s hegemonic role in political and economic life has indeed served to consolidate economic growth, national pride, and a social class that has seemingly split into an honourary position specifically after the spring revolutions – and sometimes development policies. However, it has durably locked all attempts at a pluralist political dialogue and thus affected the sustainability of the regimes in place. As for the groups supporting states whose existence is being denied, they necessarily feed into transnational spaces – whether those are social, trans-border or diasporic. Such is the case first and foremost for Palestinian, Syrian, Iranian, Kurdish spaces as well as those who have been moulded into the Pan-Arabic identity for which the idea of a nation-state remains a strong aspiration to be identified solely as Arab. Skip three generations, and there you have millennials who are longing to identify with their roots and shaping an Arab culture that embodies various characteristics across borders not necessarily of modern Arab national reasoning. At the very least, it appears that citizenship can no longer be seen as some end-point of an assimilation process—if, indeed, it ever could. Leaving aside normative judgments as to whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it is evident that some decades ago immigration was a symbol and a move to proclaim a pact of devotion to the Sheikhdom under the political banner of Pan-Arabism.
From this, millennials have reformulated identity and citizenship in ways that do not force an all-or-nothing identification with the nation-state. However, it is not entirely clear whether citizenship as a political identity or as a framework for societal membership is rooted in the nation-state; and while it is diminishing, we are observing two very distinct associations in relation to identity in the Arab world. At least some forms of transnational and minority activism appeal to notions of citizenship, integration, and national membership in pressing their claims in host societies through organised community events, art collectives, and social association.
The Study Population:Arab Millennials in the United States Conducted by the Arab American Institute
The focus of this pilot study is the Arab-origin millennial community in the United States. Since the 1960s the Arab-American population has grown rapidly as a result of both changing immigration policies in the US (namely, the lifting of national origins quotas in 1965) and political-economic crises in Arab states that have precipitated large flows of refugees and labour migrants specifically from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. Based on country-of-birth statistics and responses to the open-ended ancestry questions on recent consensus, it is estimated that 3 million people in the United States trace their origins to the Arabic-speaking world as per the 2011 US consensus.
It is believed that the majority of millennial Arab immigrants are Muslim, though the Arab-origin population overall is thought to be two-thirds Christian due to early waves of Lebanese immigrants. Major concentrations of Arab immigrants are found in Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Arab-origin millennial population is highly-educated and financially well-off relative to the population at large, and generally, Arab-Americans claim the highest per capita ownership of businesses of any ethnic group in America since 2001, as reported by the Arab American Institute.
There are, however, disadvantaged segments (particularly among refugees from Iraq and Lebanon and among Yemenis), and overall, almost 11 per cent of Arab-American millennials live under the poverty line. Three reasons as to why focus on Arab Americans as a subject for transnationalism; first, Arab immigrants are archetypal transnational subjects. Secondly, Arab-American communities embody a tension between formal citizenship and social membership. Lastly, on a social level, there is a form of ideological stigmatisation prevalent towards those not necessarily raised in an American environment.
The construction of the West/Middle-Eastern dualism has its critics, and while rooted in the age of colonialism, remains remarkably consistent in the contemporary rhetoric about Arabs and the Arab world. Stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists, murky oil sheikhs, flag-burning fanatics, and submissive veiled women are rampant not only in Hollywood but also in everyday public discourse and most certainly in the media coverage of political events. More so now, it is harder to push for a more liberal view of the Middle East without a backlash and discourse on religion and representation. The position of Arabness in American society has become all the more problematic in the rising wave of the terrorist attacks, but it is even more prevalent within Middle Eastern societies. Because of the dominant promotion of national identities within the media, Western ideology from an Arab is explicitly put under the microscope and subject to constant speculation.
Thus, while Arab immigrants have been incorporated into the American labour market in a relatively advantageous position, their position in the systems of social identities that operate in American society—identities relating to nationhood, ‘race’, and social membership—have been far more tenuous. ‘In’ America but not necessarily ‘of America’—at least according to some commentators —Arab American millennials present a rich case with which to explore the interactions between identities, political activities, and citizenship.
In the most prevalent case, we see a rise of Arab designers such as Khalid Al Qasimi and Sultan Al Darmaki both of who embody a Western vision for their design and acclaim it as high in luxury for a market that is Western yet still retaining a name that is very well Middle Eastern by association. You do also have artists like Helen Zughaib who bring in elements of their roots into addressing national conflicts in a contemporary manner for the Western audience. The dynamic in both parts envisions a just duality in the transnational representation of identity in millennials where it is an individual choice of whom they want to be and in which form they are influenced and recreate that into their work. The current global atmosphere within the Middle East and its influence on the millennials has provoked a survival strategy for national governments in looking for ways to preserve and promote the Arabic language and the identity. However, this strategy creates a social conflict in millennials where each feels an innate requirement to be themselves and make do with who they are without the grand national interference.
90’s Arab Youth Culture
The existence of tension between millennial youth culture and local traditions is beyond dispute. However, Arabs experience this clash the hardest particularly for one reason which is the generational gap between contemporary Arab youth and their parents. According to the United Nations Population Fund, around 34 per cent of the population in the Arab countries are under the age of 15, and the median age in the Arab region is 22.
While intergenerational differences are a universal phenomenon, in the Arab world these differences were prime correlations to the changes that have occurred over the last 12 years in the political, economic, cultural and educational structures of most Arab countries. These include the global influences from the 1960’s of higher education to most Arabs, specifically the growing fascination with contemporary Arab art and theatrical expression, the transition from traditional desert culture to hyper-modern, oil-fuelled, media-saturated economies in the Gulf countries, the monetisation of the desert culture, the rise of political Islamism and its safeguard, and major political and military upheavals experienced by Arabs in the last few decades.
It is especially important to note that the differences within the generational gap through the 90’s in shaping social and political developments in the Arab world are what Eickelman (1998) in his research called the combination of ‘mass education and mass communication’. A 40-year old Arab grew up in a world where there was only one state television channel which did not air advertisements, was the first in his family to obtain a university degree and has had a decently paid job within the government. His 10-year-old son, however, was born amidst the Arab information revolution, can choose between over 200 satellite television channels including MTV and Spacetoon saturated with commercial messages, surf the dial-up speed internet and use his telephone to vote for his favourite reality television contestant or to request his favourite music on the radio.
Experiences of this generational gap are different from one Arab country to another, and although the description is pretty vague it is still relatable in context. The emerging youth culture, much of it revolving around the virtual space, creates a sense of shared community among those who partake in it. The intergenerational gap is widened not only by newly available technologies but by the behaviours and vocabularies that each generation’s youth culture develops affected by the consumption of communication and technology which back then tended to be exclusive to adults. The global youth culture, to which the young Arabs gravitate towards with various degrees of belonging, enabled by language, accessibility, socio-economic class and geographical location, navigates contemporary space through rituals of creation and consumption, like identifying a culture of material consumption in brands, music, an attachment to a particular food and entertainment culture.
In the context of media, the national identity is locally appropriated creating a different hybrid where local themes are engraved into global forms. An early example of this is Sami Yusuf, a British-born Muslim with Azeri origins, who has emerged as a creator of ‘Islamic music videos’. In the past, the notion of Islamic programming in Arab state televisions was limited to short segments that reminded Muslims of prayer times. An exception to this trend was the state television in Gulf countries, which routinely featured live broadcasts of sermons, religious talk shows and scripture readings, most noticeably on Fridays as it the holiest day in Islam. The advent of satellite television paved the way for fully dedicated religious channels, mostly based in Saudi Arabia with studios in Egypt and Dubai. For example, in 1998 the Saudi-owned Arab Radio and Television (ART) established ‘Iqraa’ (meaning “read”) as an Islamic channel appealing to women and the youth worldwide. The trend set forth by Iqraa was soon followed by Al Majd (the Glory) and Al Risala (the Message). Their programming was built as a strategy national governments utilised to protect Islamic values and sentiment from the growing youth, relating to topics that were of global social concern rather than regional influences on Muslim communities worldwide.
Where to For Our Arab Youth?
Transnationalism is not a process that leads to cultural homogenisation. It mostly results in various forms of cultural hybridity which indicates that global youth culture is a mixing pot of international cultural influences, hence millennials choose to take from it what they want but with their own individual framework of what identity means to them. In the Arab world, this hybridity is an intergenerational conflict affected by a sudden global exposure many believe they were not ready for because it hinders value transmission according to the hierarchical and national model promoted by Arab nations.
I don’t think we, as the Arab youth, have changed any part of the political narrative in our region in a manner considered outwardly negative, but have indeed engendered a sentiment of unity, acceptance, and tolerance within many conventions that exist in our society today whether post WW2 or older. So much of this struggle happens to be in a generation that feels its transition was so sudden it could not cope and the following generation needed to justify their worldly stance. This was largely due to the post-colonialist ideology still in existence which shows a lack of openness and understanding towards things that are not within the framework of a specific Arab cultural identity.
Moreover, this stems from the remainder of tribalism and fundamentalist perspectives encircled around Arab youth today. Arab states, in particular, impose a narrative that suggests a fundamentalist culture which does not change or evolve but instead requires preservation. The way we occupy the space of preservation looks as if we really are struggling to survive as we legally enforce the preservation of the Arabic language and aspects of Arab cultural artisanship and practices. Promoting hard-power in preservation never showed many promises, while soft-power cultivated actual promotion of cultural practices since we see this dynamic in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait.
What the Arab youth create from themselves through various virtual and physical spaces are worlds that are governed by their own imagination and understanding. A courageous space not dominated by popular politics (a term widely used to describe adult and government politics) and commercialism. Also, in return, we see the same happening within national youth spaces becoming dominated by formal debates, mentorships, a government urging for “intellectual” youth participation but that of a nationalistic mindset.
This sharp contrast finds a middle ground in one way or another, but the worlds are still vastly separated. You would see government-sponsored artists, but they mostly come in a package of self-proclaimed nationalists who fuse their creativity and designs with national symbols. The association is solely in public spaces and events but not highlighted, and yet you do see huge differences between national and transnational youths in their thoughts, self-presentation, and public personas as if this separation is governed by two different laws. The question is, are we going to see an even wider divide between these two worlds in the future?