This article explores activist Aliya Hassen’s life to identify local, regional, national, and international networks cultivated by MENA Muslims in the United States. The United States was a hub of mid-twentieth-century transnational Arab and Muslim organizing, where many activists promoted an ecumenical understanding of Islam that tackled pressing American concerns like feminism, anti-imperialism, as well as social and racial justice. Because this organizing engaged both Arab and non-Arab American groups, including the Federation of Islamic Associations, Islamic Center of DC, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, the Nation of Islam, Muslim Mosque, Inc., Ahmadiyya missionaries, and the Muslim World League, it challenges the salience of American racial formations and national frames as meaningful analytical categories. Spanning the historic marginalization of MENA peoples and post-World War II consolidation of Islamophobia in the United States, Hassen's biography demonstrates the ways historical forces surface different ways of "reading" and understanding her life.
Unusual Figures: Race, Empire and Unseeing the Global Middle East
My dissertation and first book project tracks the lives of several figures whose experiences shed light on the complex ways Middle Eastern identities have been lived, imagined, and negotiated across the long twentieth century. At first glance, the “unusual figures” I analyze come from very different backgrounds: Calouste Gulbenkian was an Ottoman Armenian oil financier who lived most of his life in Europe; Aliya Hassen was a mid-century Muslim American activist from the Midwest; Palestinian American Edward Said was one of the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century; and Lebanese Colombian Shakira Mebarak is a global pop music phenomenon. However, drawing on personal papers, multinational corporate archives, popular culture and government documents, I show how these four lives, both singly and together, outline the global racial projects that construct “the Middle East” and its peoples in complex and often deeply problematic ways. Particularly attuned to the tension between how these figures are seen relative to how they see themselves, I show how MENA networks and identities have endured across the twentieth century, even when they have frequently been erased, marginalized and attacked.
Work in Progress
Jubal’s Lyre: A History of the Global Middle East in Sight and Sound
A second book project builds on my performance background to track a sonic history of MENA migration to the Americas, and the layered and conflicting ways this music has been disseminated, silenced, amplified, and/or appropriated. Beginning with the multi-ethnic music of the late Ottoman Empire and its re-creation by Greek, Sephardic, Mizrahi, Armenian, Arab, Turkish and Kurdish musicians in places like New York’s Little Syria and 8th Avenue club scene, as well as immigrant communities in Detroit and Fresno, this project uplifts a shared sonic vocabulary, tracing forgotten continuities through “foreign,” “ethnic” and “world” musics on mainstream record labels; the enduring popularity of belly dancing; the mid-century resurgence of rebetiko, kef, estradayin and arabesk musics; as well as orientalism embraced by non-MENA artists. Rooted in sonic ecumenism and post-Ottoman inter-communalism, this project theorizes a dialectic between institutionalized musicology and funding sources tied to nationalism and “authenticity” in relation to more pliant popular musicking. In doing so, this project breaks new ground by exploring cultural commonplaces in the context of distinct musicological traditions and the painful ruptures of the World Wars, restrictive American immigration policies, and evolving nationalisms in the MENA region.
Another project spun off from a dissertation chapter is a deeply historicized memoir of my family’s intentionally murky migrations from Diyarbakir and Aleppo to the Americas. Following my namesake Tovmas Simsarian’s escape from the Ottoman Empire through smuggling rings in Eastern Anatolia to Armenian receiving colonies in the Middle East, Jersey City, Harlem and Fresno, I use family history to explore the widespread dissemination of US racial theories beginning in the late nineteenth century, alongside equally widespread silences and misrecognitions of MENA diaspora. Flashing forward to my present as queer Floridian born in Bermuda, who saw himself in Shakira, I follow the echoes of these misreadings and erasures through entertainment and academic spaces, where my identities have been similarly uplifted and silenced in radically different ways. Linking the backdrop of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire with a present fraught terrorist watchlists, NSEERS and Muslims bans enacted after 9/11, this multinational project is as much about my coming-of-age in an era of neoliberalism as it is the salience of racialized social engineering in modern governance.
Although trained as a historian, my work deeply engages a range of fields that theorize identity and difference, including American Studies, Ethnic Studies, Queer Theory, Performance Studies, Celebrity Studies, Sociology and Middle East Studies. Emphasizing and interrogating points of contact between disciplines, I “queer” categories to destabilize assumptions about nation, state, religion, citizenship, class, color, and ideology normally forced onto Middle Eastern peoples. Most importantly, I frame MENA peoples and their diasporas within a global racial field, as well as shared processes of genocide, displacement, erasure and enfranchisement, which I dub “trans-imperial racecraft."