86. 💡 mena vs. swana 💡
thinking about terms and intentionality
Hello, and happy Monday.
Welp, I finally caved. After about a year and a half of playing on my partner’s switch, I finally got my own. The first game I got was Pokémon Arceus and I have to say, it’s so lovely to see something of myself on the screen:
I’ve been having a lot of trouble “switching off” lately. Whenever I try to relax at the end of the day by watching a movie or reading for fun, I’ve found that I keep thinking about work. When I’m watching a movie, my laptop inevitably opens and I’m checking email. When I’m reading for fun, my mind keeps trailing off to think about all the things I need to do.
I’ve found recently that playing on my switch is the only thing that allows me to switch off (pun intended). I’m not very good at playing video games, so all of my focus is on catching the different Pokémon and dodging their attacks.
Much like last week’s newsletter issue, this one’s going to be a little different because over the weekend I virtually attended the Arab American Studies Association Conference. The whole weekend was filled with generative talks having to do with new research in the field of Arab American Studies, but I participated in a roundtable* on the possibilities and limits of the field. Speaking as someone who works at the margins of Arab American Studies, it was such a welcoming space to be a part of.
I wanted to share with you all some of the ideas and concepts I talked about, which involves the desire to define the following terms & distinguish between them: MENA vs. SWANA.
Below, you’ll find some of my thoughts on these terms. I’d like to note that what I’m trying to do here is create an opening for more conversation, pushback, and insight. Rather than see this as a space where I am giving you an absolute answer to the questions of these terms & how they are productive to us, I see this as only a starting point—eliciting more questions than answers. Please do feel free to reply or leave a comment with your thoughts on these questions, as I’m eager to engage more people in these conversations! 💞
*A roundtable is a type of conference session that differs from a “traditional paper” format. In a paper panel, people present their research that’s a part of a book or article that they are working on, and there is a Q&A afterward. For roundtables, it has much more of a conversational tone. Panelists do have talking points in preparation for the session, but the idea is to get a larger discussion going. Or, at least, that is how I’ve interpreted it.
MENA vs. SWANA
MENA = Middle East North Africa
SWANA = Southwest Asia North Africa
My initial desire to distinguish between these two terms stems out of conversations with my students over the past 2 years and the following observations: FIRST, there is an increased use of the term SWANA online (read: social media) and in activist circles. SECOND, the institutions that I have been a part of (Brown, Northwestern, and Harvard) all have Middle East or Middle East/North African Studies programs. There is a tension between these two observations that my students made, and caused me to think more about the intentionality behind what terms we use in reasearch and in the classroom.
Here’s what I ultimately think about the use of one term versus the other: Each term is productive in certain contexts. I don’t think that one should be used over the other unilaterally. Rather, there are specific moments when each term can and should be used when describing specific concepts or ideas.
Contexts in which I use “MENA” or “Middle East”
When I think of “Middle East Studies,” I think of the rise of area studies programs in universities during the Cold War era. These programs were meant to gain knowledge on “the enemy” (i.e. the USSR & its satellites) as well as countries of the “Third World” so that communism could be contained. Given this particular history of the term’s major emergence, then, it speaks (for me, at least) to top-down, state-led ideological projects that are done about the area.
This conceptualization about the term “Middle East” is also informed by the fact that the “Middle East” is constantly changing—MEANING: given geopolitical and diplomatic fluctuations, what countries the West considers to be a part of the “Middle East” is constantly changing too. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, I recommend Zachary Lockman’s Contending Visions of the Middle East).
So I see “MENA” as appropriate wording to use in contexts in which what we are talking about is the “idea” or ideological project of the Middle East as it serves Western projects of empire and colonialism. For instance, I’ve taught a media representations course where I intentionally titled it “US Media Representations of the Middle East” rather than “US Media Representations of SWANA Communities.” This is because what we were thinking about in the course were the ways in which the United States (through Hollywood) represented the idea of the Middle East in service of larger imperial projects to maintain its status as the global hegemon.
Contexts in which I use “SWANA”
In terms of SWANA, I see it encompassing a different project entirely. Because it centers the geographic location of the region, rather than its directional orientation to the West, it signifies a decolonizing project. With the term, we are moving outside of the ideological boundaries established within Western knowledge production. I see SWANA studies as giving us a sense of the actual people and ideas inhabiting Southwest Asia and North Africa, as well as those who are a part of the region’s diasporas. Rather than signifying a knowledge production prompted by management or containment, SWANA centers lived experience and histories from the bottom-up.
🌀 Still consuming.
I think I’ll be sticking to fantasy video games for now, thank you.
“i reflect each day – what am i learning? are these practices working? am i able to be accountable to myself, my people, my time, my generation? do i need adjustments?” From adrienne maree brown’s blog.
The winner of the Ukrainian post office’s stamp design contest (above).
📖 Book club corner.
For March’s book club, we will be reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I am so excited! Feel free to purchase the book here, and the details are below!
Here’s the event info:
Date & Time: Tuesday, March 29 @ 5PM PST/8PM EST
Suggested Donation (for those able to donate): $3-10 through Paypal or Venmo (@idyalz)
🐶 A pup-date.
Was on a video call with Higgins yesterday, and if you ask him, “Who’s the baby?” this is how he responds:
As always, thanks so much for reading through, and I'll see you in the next one!