Part I: Silence-from-the-self and silence-imposed-by-others: On Being a Privileged Arab, On Being an Ex-Muslim Woman
By Hiba Krisht
“In America, I fit, but I do not belong. In Lebanon, I belong, but I do not fit.”
— Rabih Alameddine
Ihave a short story out in The Kenyon Review, and the decision to publish it still gives me fear and trembling of an almost Kierkegaardian sort. I wrestle an internal rending between that duty to expression which drives and compels me most and a fear of surrendering ethical judgment within that expression. “The Witnessing” takes place in my hometown, Beirut. It features a Filipina domestic worker as an integral character, and I fear that I have mistakenly committed a horrible wrongdoing in writing her.
She is ethical, sympathetic, complex, and agential. At least, I think she is. I’m unsure because I am not a Filipina living under indentured servitude in Lebanon. I am unsure because I cannot ever, even via firsthand accounts and extensive research, fully appreciate the depth of that experience. I am unsure because of my Arab privilege within the Middle East, making it a questionable circumstance that I should breathe life into a Southeast Asian character under the yoke of the pseudo-slavery system wielded by my people.
I struggle with this even when this depiction is an honest attempt to humanize that character, uncover her agency, and critique the oppressive system that disadvantages her.
But I am compelled to write for reasons that run deeper than a complicity in the truths of a thousand and one women oppressed by my people. I write the stories of my people, too, and their struggle and oppression. “The Witnessing” belongs to a novel-in-stories about Beirut, a city almost solely characterized as war-torn in the West, if at all. I write to humanize my city full of life, vibrancy, struggle. It is brilliant, ugly, poor, and full of art. It is rich, war-staggered, patriarchal, corrupt, gleaming. It is all the pain and love I hold in my heart. Its name is tattooed into my skin. Long has Beirut driven my tongue and pen.
Long, too, has the domestic worker class of Beirut driven me, because it is a strong, stable fabric in the mesh of my city, with their dire, tragic, enraging, beautiful, and largely overlooked stories. I have long been compelled to write about these women, with responsibility that stems from knowing what it is like, as a woman of color, to be represented as a prop, tool, and object if at all. I write to make them major characters instead of supporting ones—highlighting their agency, writing them with empathy, having them move and make in my stories as they move and make in my city.
As an Arab woman belonging to the privileged ethnic class in Beirut, I feel an ardent and great need for these stories to be written. As an Arab woman, I feel disgusted by how little I know in my very attempts to face my privilege. I am ashamed by how most of my knowledge falls into the very stereotypes I seek to break, how much I have to learn in order to do a project of this sort any kind of justice.
This moral bind is one that feminists, especially feminists of color, are familiar with. I feel hauntingly compelled tell a thousand and one stories of a thousand and one women, yes. But this comes with the grave responsibility of representation, the danger of falling into the easy trap of speaking monolithically about a group of people that are impossibly individuated. How can one not be at a loss about uncovering the humanity of the domestic worker class in Lebanon? In telling their stories there is not only a duty to honor the fifty thousand stripes of personal identity and being that color any minority class. It is even more complex an issue: the domestic worker class in Lebanon and in the larger Middle East hails from a mind-boggling variety of global regions—South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, therewith a plethora of ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and cultures. To represent some of them is to run the risk of being mistaken for representing all of them, even when it is done in service of critiquing the sources of their disadvantage, the oppressive system of imported laborforce in the Middle East.
As a woman from a theocratic, patriarchal background, however, I feel a difference that is another facet of understanding. I feel different, too, as an Arab-American, a member of a minority in my country of birth. Here in the US I am ever cognizant of the white, male, and heteronormative privilege surrounding me, and the conscious struggle of allies to grapple with this privilege. I feel different because I see those struggles from the other side, I see their dangers and places of failing, and I’m not sure I can do much better in grappling with my own Arab privilege.
I feel different because I know what it is to be silenced as a woman of color. I cannot contain my hurt, bafflement, and rage when some white feminists deny the oppression of women under Islam in lieu of an honest examination of the influences and structuring elements of that oppression. I feel helpless because their denial enables the silencing of my voice as one of those women who suffered under Islam.
I feel different because so many of those white feminists mean well—maybe mean as well as I do—but are simply unequipped to enter a discourse they understand so little of. I cannot know for sure that I am not doing a similar thing in writing about foreign domestic workers in the Arab world. I know that those white feminists from the West grapple with a serious Western colonialist and appropriative narrative, and they are trying to resist an imperialist account of the poor, helpless oppression of brown women that enables racism against brown people in general, a narrative that I agree is incredibly important to fight. But perhaps in much the same way I am trying to critique an oppressive system of imported labor because it is incredibly important to do so, but instead I might be nullifying the agency of the women who actively choose to participate in that system for their own important, compelling reasons, who are more than just sad, conflicted, oppressed victims of it, but strong, positive, resilient people doing what they do out of understanding and conviction of their own personal and family needs.
And this is why I know that I would not want white feminists in the West to talk of the oppression of Muslim women in many contexts, because they are simply not equipped to. I feel like even I am barely able to engage in the very difficult critique of theocratic patriarchy in the Middle East. I, the ex-Muslim woman of color raised there, a victim of abuse and control from Muslims and abduction at the hands of Hezbollah, a militant Islamist organization. Even I, the 26-year-old woman who wore hijab from the ages of 8 to 23, who grappled with the coercion and choice of it for a decade and a half, who lived through the bombing of fighter jets and civil strife and random car bombs in the Middle East, hid her bisexuality amid a sea of homophobic sentiment, who speaks Arabic and is deeply acquainted with Islamic scripture. Even I, who battled, resisted, and found an avenue of escape from that system rather than being the passive oppressed person I am painted to be—even I am sometimes at a loss when I try to discuss all of this with nuance.
It is a struggle to stress the grave dangers of imperialist Western narrative of poor, oppressed brown women and condemn anti-Muslim bigotry without denying the realities of tangible religious oppression of women in the Middle East. And when I do, it barely registers. Because even the most well-meaning of feminists, who truly have the defense of Arab and Muslim women at heart, silence me. Their own discourse on an issue they do not understand is promoted and spread by mainstream, popular platforms, enabling the silence of mine.
Because I know what it is like to be silenced, as a woman of color, I struggle with writing characters whose struggles I’ve only witnessed, and not experienced.
But I have in fact erred on the side of writing these characters, and here is why:
I write these characters because my silencing comes not only from the West, but from the same system of Arab theocratic patriarchy that oppresses my characters. I largely write about the Middle East under a pseudonym because of the dangers of that system, the damning brand of apostasy, the violence and suppression driving me to exile. I write because I hate being masked, because I am a dual national yet half-an-outsider in whichever country I go, a Third Culture Kid expatriated from my country of birth until I turned 23, and from my motherland until I turned 13. In neither place am I not silenced in some way. The critiques I give, born from my liberal international education in Saudi Arabia, place me in contempt in Lebanon by my origin culture and people. I cannot go back to Beirut without great danger befalling me. So here I am in the US, and my socialization and actualization far from the shores of North America leave me mismatched in almost everyplace I walk today.
I write these characters because of the struggles we share. I too am a victim of the same oligarchical, patriarchal, dehumanizing, misogynistic system. While radically divergent in a plethora of ways, our experiences converge in haunting, heartrending ways. The employers that rob, imprison, rape, beat, overwork, and mistreat domestic workers are often our fathers. They are often our brothers, our husbands, men that do many of the same things to their Arab daughters and sisters. Migrant domestic workers have their passports unlawfully stripped upon arrival in the Beirut airport. Lebanese women are withheld at the same airport terminals as they try to leave the country without their fathers or their husbands’ permission. We are both trapped, unable to escape, our freedom subject to the whims and kindness of our families, our employers. Our treatment, we separate groups of women, stems directly from a patriarchy that expects compliance, silence, obedience, and invisibility from women. That is a system I can speak to with honesty, experience, and understanding.
I write these characters because their plight is a matter of social justice that directly pertains to one of my homes and my people, and it is one that I have been witness to, that I largely understand in terms of many of its political and social dynamics. It is not a matter of speaking of people half a world away, with discourse obscured by the distance and politics of an antithetical worldview.
I write because condemning the perpetrators of the system is not enough without also promoting the humanity and well-being of its victims.
I write these characters too because of my conversations with foreign domestic workers in Arabia. Their faces, their own expressions of pain, resistance, strength, love, despair, resilience—they are forged into my skull and I am driven to give ink to those voices that were. I write until things change enough so that they are no longer robbed of being able to speak for themselves, and that is when I will stop writing their characters, and instead joyfully read their work. Because it is not like it is in the in the West, where there are many women of color, Muslim women, and Arab women willing and able to speak to their experiences, if only they would be heard, where silencing is a matter of uncovering voices already alive rather than giving air to voices so suppressed they are utterly incapable of forming words to begin with. I write because I have often been in need of any sort of help, have from a literal dark cell wished profusely for a messenger to carry my plight to the world as second best to carrying it myself.
I write them too, in this form of character, because story is a powerful, humanizing, gentle form of discourse that deals not in absolutes. It is pliable, presenting characters who move, speak, interact, and act as representative of potential truths of living and being, truth-as-experience, shorn of explicit commentary that unilaterally endorses or condemns those experiences. In story, critique can be enmeshed in subtleties, interwoven within the complex interplay of the five levels of consciousness: author, narrator, point-of-view character, audience, and reader. Stories are gentler, more patient, potentially kinder forms of social commentary. There is room for growth within them.
But of course, presenting even a character from a disadvantaged minority comes with a responsibility that is not reducible to an abstract cognizance of privilege and power dynamics. Even if well-meaning, there is plenty of potential for minority character depictions to be unintentionally insensitive, extremely paternalistic, and appropriative of the struggles of those represented due to attempts at hashing them in terms the author understands through their own worldview. There is a danger of these representations being used as a tool to alleviate Arab guilt, or white guilt, what have you (Avatar, anyone?).
With these pitfalls in mind, I’d like to present a series of considerations I’ve grappled with in writing my Filipina domestic worker in “The Witnessing” beyond standard story parameters of plausibility, complexity, and quality writing. I can’t pretend they are more than choices that are merely better than potentially worse ones, and they clearly contain their own problems, even if they are measured attempts at promoting that social truth that compels me.
For instance: in this story, the character faces an ethical dilemma regarding another character in the story, an Arab. This was a decision worth weighting, because on one hand, it presents a critique of a system which unfairly forces foreign domestic workers to evaluate and consider the problems of others—those belonging to the class that oppresses them, no less—above their own. On the other hand, the agency, ethics, and complexity of this character are hashed in terms of problems thrust upon them by an oppressive system. While reactive agency is powerful, I felt it unjust to reduce my character to reactivity to outside forces playing upon her, and tried too to root her personhood in the active, in loves, hopes, thoughts, transcending the oppressive system.
Another significant consideration comes in creating the character. Because such a significant variance in nationalities, cultures, and religions among foreign domestic workers, it could be all too easy for an author to just pick one randomly for a character based on the reasoning that they are all disadvantaged, and it is their disadvantage that is the crux of the story. Or—and this is arguably worse—based on the hierarchy of disadvantage (e.g., in Lebanon Filipinas used for nanny and tutoring work vs. South Asians used for drudge work). This is clearly problematic because it is a slap in the face of a plethora, an incredible variation of personhood, lumping it together in a monolithic way. It also reduces, from the very beginning, the potential character to how they are viewed/treated by privileged classes rather than creating the character as an individual with their own life, goals, personality, customs, family, loves, drives. But even—I found myself struggling—even conversely, in choosing a character based on a rounded conception of personhood… it is all too easy to create those character traits based on how well they fit in response to the oppressive system—even in critique of that system— and is thus also problematic. Less problematic, maybe, but it still privileges elements of their personhood only insofar as they are in service of commenting on that oppressive system.
And at this point I think to myself: be wary of your care turning to silence.
Because isn’t that what I do even for myself, in referencing my personhood, my experiences, and those of my friends and families? Do I not reference them in my critique of Arab women’s issues in the Middle East and under Islam? Is it use, exploitation, to bring intense, unyielding, honest focus on individual people and their plights within a sweeping, inescapably powerful system? Would I object to the reference of my life story, my hopes, dreams, loves, aspirations in service of breaking the structures that quelled all of those things?
I would not. Because in referencing them I do not use them, but champion them, and I must take care of the distinction.
So yes, as difficult and delicate as it may be, and as many times as I make mistakes and will have to go back and correct them—I will keep writing stories with these women, Filipina, Bengalese, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sri Lankan, and more, ongoing, to champion the voices of my sisters in arms under the yoke of patriarchial misogyny in the Middle East.
It is better than silence.
 They are not the only ones. I also write stories that represent Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are stripped of human rights and treated as second-class citizens. I don’t discuss this in this piece for three reasons. One, the Palestinian narrative is one very integral to my personhood and family experience, so it is not a representation of a minority that I have no claim to. Two, because I believe the refugee issue to be one of intra-Arab classism rather than external tension between different ethnic groups, and the subtleties of its ethics are thus different than the ones I discuss here, and deserving of their own piece. Three, there is a plethora of discourse and literature on the refugee crisis, and while it deserves much representation, I find this to be currently more pressing to write about because there is a much greater dearth of representation of foreign domestic worker issues.
Part II: On Being Filipina and Americana and a Dalaga: That Which is In-Between
By Melissa Sipin
“My story responds not out of representation, but out of the evolution of myself.” — Elmaz Abinader
“You just have to write the truth. Whatever your truth is. The point of literature is not to make little camps of ethnic identity. The point of literature is for someone to pick up your book and get the same feeling that they get when they pick up Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Kawabata—in the sense that they are being moved. We live in them [identity politics] because we are alive now, in this moment, but in 100 years no one will understand what we’re talking about. The art has to transcend all of that. You have to get up and above everything that has bruised you and write from a place that is human.” — Laleh Khadivi
Ever since I read Laleh Khadivi’s The Walking, I began to write in “we.” The conundrum of “we.” It has been a sort of writing exercise, a strengthening of my muscles, a conflation and understanding of the complications of using “we,” of testing the waters of that monolithic and dangerous burden of representation.
Before I read Khadivi, forced her to have drinks with me after class, and asked her questions that haunted me—like the following: how do we sift, as writers who are marginalized, through the pressures we receive from both sides?—I had no idea how to dismantle these burdens I wanted to disown and yet needed to interrogate and explore. I never thought I could write in “we.” There was too much danger at play here, too much assumptions that could bleed and distort a community that is already oppressed, marginalized, and on this constant search of its own post-colonial identity.
When I first began to write, I thought I had to carry the burden of voice for those who have been silenced for years within my community, whose brown arms and black hair resembled mine. I thought I had to carry the weight of my lola’s (grandmother) unspoken kidnapping and possible torture by Japanese soldiers in World War II; I thought I needed to voice the pain she could never mention in her 92 years of life. It was a story I had finally learned from her sisters when she lay before me at her funeral, cold and already gone.
But this burden was contentious, and really, a lie. My one voice cannot carry the multitude of voices for millions, and when we bring in the difficulty of the Filipino diaspora into play, this burden is anything but didactic. Fictitious. And yet, there are pressures on both sides to continue the burden: the majority wants me to explain my experience as if its hue can paint a grand collective of the Filipino American experience, and my community will either own or disown my stories, will be angry if I paint a hue that is contentious, if, for example, I reveal my lolo’s (grandfather), a WWII hero, dirty little secret: his three wives, his queridas on the side, and how he fathered not just one or two, but three families.
When my short story, “Walang Hiya, Brother,” won the 2013 Glimmer Train Fiction Open, a strange conversation happened online: an older pinay who I didn’t know accosted me for the use of “walang hiya.” She messaged me a few days after I announced I had won. It’s a nuance you might only understand if you are Filipino or Filipino American (which is not one and the same—a constant thing I must remind my non-Filipino friends). She was angry I used the term, according to her, “incorrectly.” Walang hiya meant one thing: “To be shameless. […] It doesn’t mean to be without shame.” Its etymology, however, means literally: without (walang) and shame (hiya). At the end of my story, the narrator, whose half-brother is getting married for money to an older pinay (who wants a green card, a common immigrant ‘agreement’ that happens in the community), the narrator flips the phrase she has been deemed all her life, and finally blesses her brother’s desperate marriage:
“I tell him I understand. And for the first time in my life, I say: You’re family. But walang hiya, brother. Walang hiya. Leave us, if you have to. Escape. But do it without shame.”
This made the older pinay who accosted me angry. She said: “Why, at the end, does the narrator insult her brother? I understand as an artist you want to create an image without being literal. I suppose it’s hard to get past context since I speak the language.” This nuance I spoke of, it was said in omission, a charge against me for writing this story: You do not speak our language. You are American. You lost our language, and have no right to flip its meaning. This lay to claim, of ownership of “language,” to that burden of representing the Filipino community in my story, is what made her boil. It’s something I had to learn as an emerging writer, as a Filipino American who doesn’t “speak the language.” My mentor, Barbara Jane Reyes, advised me after this conversation that the community will either try to claim or disclaim the writer on authenticity, but only after they have become more visible. This conflation, at times, is a contentious stance for an artist, as he or she writes to explore fictional and emotional truth, and the debate of authenticity is but a subtle debate on whether the community can claim or shame you. There is something at stake here when one, who comes from a community so historically marginalized, chooses to become a writer and writes what haunts her. Reyes says it more elaborately:
“Sometimes I think I must be invisible—I have lost count of how many times strangers in public spaces walk into me as if I am not there, as if I do not require space, as if the assumption is that I am the one who will always have to give way. […] Which brings me to this question: How does a prospective author prepare herself for authorhood or authordom? And here, I do not mean the manuscript work of editing and revision, nor the submissions hustle. How does a prospective author emotionally prepare herself for the unmitigated meanness and hostility that people unleash upon those in public space, especially when a prospective author’s writing can be so personal and confessional, especially when she’s drawn from her own intimacies?”
So, what is at stake for me as a writer of color? As a writer who doesn’t speak her ‘native’ tongue, who lost that language the moment she was born within the diaspora? Who is someone packed with privileges and contradictions: I am Filipino yet also American; I am a Navy spouse and yet my ‘homeland’ was colonized by the U.S. for 48 years, and is still neo-politically colonized via its economic dependence on America and its neo-feudalism and neo-capitalism practices.
When I visited my deployed husband in Bahrain, a faraway country oppressed by its king, a tiny desert island who hosts the U.S.’s Fifth Fleet, I physically felt the embodiment of my privileges: the expat Filipino community filled the megamalls and hotels as their servitude staff, calling me “madame” because of my class, and I saw, with my own eyes, the clubs and hotel bars brimming and overfilling with Filipina and Thai prostitutes. I felt that mixture of shame, guilt, and the perplexity of the Arab gaze, men and covered women who looked at me confused, who didn’t know where to place my own Filipina and Americana body. Once, a man in the hotel elevator eyed and questioned me in Arabic, and when I responded in my American English, he said: “Oh, you don’t speak Arabic? I knew you weren’t like those other Filipinos here.”
Though my own existence is contentious and filled with First World privileges, I am a writer who tries to usurp them, even if this existence perpetuates the contradictions. It is my hope that my stories, like the one at Glimmer Train, paint that difficult in-betweenness, of not knowing who one is and where one comes from but collapses that hiya anyways, turning that shame of loss in identity and self into something beyond it.
For me, that is my truth: I am a writer in constant grapple with who I am.
And it is why, as an artist who cannot wholly disown these burdens of representation (from either side), I persistently ask myself: Why do I write? Do I write to be seen? Have I always written to be seen? If I write to be seen, what is at stake when I write? When I become more visible? If my writing is an extension of this constantly changing “I,” who is affected by that “I?” Me? My family? Our history? Our secrets? What happens when they are exhumed; what happens when I exhume them? What have I already put at stake for the sake of writing?
Micheline Marcom once told me, “When a writer is born in the family, the family dies.” Maybe this is too heavy a circumstance, but I took it wholeheartedly. My family never speaks about my writing. They do not share the joy of my successes or the shame of my rejections; they love me for who I am to them—their daughter, their sister, their cousin—and separate my identity as a writer from my status as a dalaga: a girl floating in-between the state of becoming a woman. To write, to exhume, is a threat to them. It is why I tread heavily as I write. Why I know there is so much at stake for me to write, why the visibility of the autobiographical “I” is so disconcerting. It is why I must also ask myself: the characters that bleed on my pages—how are they being exploited by me? How am I exploiting them? If the father figure resembles any nuances that are like my own father, with all his complications and secrets and demons, how have I ‘used’ him?
I don’t have any set answers. I do know I must write whatever character I create with the urgency, care, and humanization I would write for myself, that even the prostitute aunt that is based on my own aunt, who brought us all to America by marrying my white U.S. Navy uncle, must be written with honesty and love. I must deal with every character with care, even the mother character in my stories. When I write her, I am pained enough that I have to, sometimes (with intention), avoid her. She is based on my own mother, who left when I was two years old, birthed five children without raising one of them, and found her fourth husband via a Craigslist ad, in which she posed nude and exploited her own body for the desperation to be seen, to be taken care of. As I continue my stories, associatively based on the people I have loved and known, I must write with that eye toward the human heart, write with an intention to the “What If” scenario, write with the awareness that every person, every character, every racist and religious zealot and U.S. sailor and hooker and green-card marriage seeker I write of is, firstly, human. They deserve, demand, the meticulous care and attention I give to them. I must know these characters, intimately and fully, and to know them, I must write out of the experiences of my own oppression, first as a woman, second as a person of color. I must deal with their conflictions and contradictions as I deal with my own torrential storms inside.
This is why I started writing in the contentious “we.” As a writer who is so close to her fictional stories that my thesis director claimed, “You know you’re writing memoir, right?” I needed a playful way to gain distance, emotive distance, from my writing. This is how I began the “we”: I wrote in a voice that is complicated by the resilience of the Filipino body that I not only know and experience, I live it. Every single day, every time I look at my simple, white gold wedding ring, I am reminded of my desperate and happy elopement at 22: a deserted courthouse in the suffocating heat of Las Vegas and the boy-becoming-a-man (also a child of the Filipino diaspora) who stood beside me.
Ever since Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan devastated the shores of Tacloban, I have been experimenting (for my in-progress novel, Enough to Fill the Sea) with the idea of shifting between “we” and a personal, subjective narrative of a California girl born without her native tongue, thrust into the caprices of history. She marries a U.S sailor, just like her lola did, to escape the poverty and hunger of their homeland. The complications of political history, intergenerational trauma, and the collective and haunted Filipino psyche, obsessed with the broken islands and their swaying banyans, the ghostly image of Imelda, her mania of beauty and status, of leaving the province and becoming ‘something’ at the cost of millions, that image of her thousands of shoes and empty brown hands without pan de sal, without bread, is captivated by the voice of the dead, the “we” I am playing with. I seek to make the “we” human, one body, just like any other of my characters. They are a torrential storm, just as the one inside my own body.
But to write this “we” will take time, years, and I must be aware of the many complications: I am but one voice. I cannot be the voice for many. I am still a voice that holds the colonized tongue, a voice that is married to the militarism that suffocates my two countries. My husband enlisted because he was desperate, poor. We married because we were desperate, poor, looking for a way out. It is this awareness, this desperation, this relentlessness and resilience to survive that speaks to our attachment to the diaspora, our anima of the Filipino spirit.
Maybe, with my one voice, I can give an answer to the contentions that conflate my existence, even if it is an answer only to myself. It is why I write. Why I honor the characters and stories I weave by writing truth, even if that truth is emotive or fictitious or created within the void of my imaginations. Even if these answers will change, this is why I write, even at the chance of exploitation of myself or my characters: I write to stand ground. I write to fight against forgetting. I write to tell stories that haunt me, whether it’s the autobiographical “I” fictionalized, the old pinay at the commissary, or the U.S. Filipino sailor searching for a hooker on the streets of Bahrain, someone to fill the void that inside him.
I write knowing whenever I do stand up and say, “These stories, they belong here, too,” I am dismantling something beyond me. As James Baldwin said:
“When you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, without knowing this, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.”
I write not just to be seen: but to be heard. I write to communicate, to say I have a place in this world, too. I write because I am not an island. And because of this, I must check my own privileges: I am packed with many. The voice I speak from is one that is Americana, Filipina, and a dalaga: one that is in constant change, one on the brink of an awakening. I am only 26 years old; my writing will only grow as much as I will. But I will continue writing, because the silences in my community are real. We carry them until death. And I will always write against that torrent, against the silence, because in my own way I write, I create, to be strong.