Arabic Glitch
Technoculture, Data Bodies, and Archives
Laila Shereen Sakr



The post–September 11 moment in Arab American history witnessed an acceleration of backlash, profiling, and surveillance amid the emergence of a global War on Terror. As Nadine Naber argues, these narratives have been made to justify U.S. imperialist ambitions through military intervention in the region and domestic surveillance and targeting persons perceived to be Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim, reinforced by the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security.1 It was in this milieu that a nascent journal out of Minneapolis, Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America, published “On Becoming Arab” in a special edition in memory of Edward Said alongside Mohja Kahf, Iron Sheik, and Nathalie Handal. I had learned about the journal when I met its cofounder, playwright Kathy Haddad, at the Radius of Arab American Writers’ first conference in New York City in 2004.

“On Becoming Arab”






framework for your


i am an arab,

alienated from american,

sitting on the other side of that hyphen,

alienated from language,

my love sits in hand gestures

and mama’s kitchen.

i am american

alienated from your conversations

inundated and un-understood

by him or her,

as the hyphen stretches,

so does she, around the globe and back.

communication slips away

into oceans vast and

she arrests it,

between parentheses


Exhaling it away,

into water, into metal

into water.

i am arab-american

passing way too well,

de-comprehension slips into

the threads of your veil, while

alienation ages again.

She arrests it.

between commas,

this time,

Inhaling all the

water, all the rock

all the water.

i am arab

and we are all palestinian






we are all arab


Moving across the internet,

Shifting between languages

in tangier, in new york,

in amman, in dc

displaced in diaspora



present day

baghdad was bombed.

i am american

fractured and young

but not


it’s 2003 and I am 31.

where are you from?

my mama’s kitchen

my papi’s garden,

i am trans-national

i am trans-global

une citoyenne du monde,

i am arab,

in 1425 hijra.

Transcend the binary

Trans-cend the binary

in the, form of love

In the, form of love.

Co-mmand your language!

Command your language.

that’s creation

that is


I wrote this poem just after 9/11. The poem responds to the United States’ devastating war against Iraq, initiated under false premises, including that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction. I also wrote it in memory of world-renowned public intellectual Edward W. Said, who passed away in 2003 after a long battle with leukemia. Though we all knew what his illness would eventually mean, his loss was nonetheless a shock for communities of organizers and thinkers who, like Said, were committed to dismantling the legacy of colonialism theoretically, artistically, and through public engagement.

Like many Arab Americans, I had found refuge in Said’s biographical publications. He went to the same secondary school in Alexandria, Egypt, that my uncle Aziz Wahby had attended. My mother, Faiza, went to its sister girls’ school across the street over a decade later. In his Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Said describes stories I have heard before about his (post) colonial experience as a student at Victoria College. He wrote, “the school’s first rule, emblazoned on the opening page of the handbook, read: ‘English is the language of the school; students caught speaking any other language will be punished.’ Yet, there were no native speakers of English among the students. Whereas the masters were all British, we were a motley crew of Arabs of various kinds, Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Jews, and Turks, each of whom had a native language that the school had explicitly outlawed. Yet all, or nearly all, of us spoke Arabic—many spoke Arabic and French—and so we were able to take refuge in a common language, in defiance of what we perceived as an unjust colonial structure.”3 Though Said described a moment in history when British colonial power was nearing its end after the Second World War, his generation had yet to fully articulate the undergirding power dynamics of their lived experience.

I was born into this world where colonial English held power. My parents and I immigrated to the United States when I was a young child. Though this is the history that partly shaped my relationship to language, it was Said’s memoir, Out of Place,4 that impacted me the most. In his reflection on the Arab American experience, Said was able to circumvent the Orientalist filter that perceived different cultural objects as exotic and other. Situating Said within an Arab American social movement that coalesced in the late 1960s under the leadership of the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG), Sarah Gualtieri demonstrates a transnational Arab American studies framework for understanding how Said’s Orientalism can be applied beyond city centers.5 In her research on the AAUG archive, she discovered a sustained flow of information and people across the Americas and the Middle East “from the records of delegations to Palestine and the correspondence in English and Arabic around the annual AAUG conventions, to the outreach to Black American organization.”6 In taking Said’s theories on a trip to the archives in the U.S. Midwest, Gualtieri illustrated the transgressive potential of Arab American archival methods.

I was on the tenth floor of an office building three blocks from the White House at the corner of Fourteenth and I Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C., on that historic September morning in 2001. “I hope those responsible for this are not Arab,” one of us messaged the other on MSN. It was a Tuesday morning after my coffee-making ritual when I sat down at my Bill Gates Microsoft computer and an MSN message popped up from one of my closest friends in Beirut, Lebanon. She wrote something about a “WTC falling down.”

“What is the WTC?” I replied. It was a quick exchange. Soon the building supervisor called everyone into an emergency meeting room where she explained that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center in New York, and a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon nearby. I do not remember what she said about the fourth plane, which was heading to Washington. We had to evacuate immediately, and seconds later I was rushing down those ten flights with hundreds of others. The details of that day remain incoherent. As if stuck on a loop, all I remember is walking down those ten flights of stairs wondering if I turned off the coffee machine. Seemingly mundane memories remain a glitch, a glitch of memories that continue to haunt, shape, inspire, and propel us.


1. Nadine Naber, “‘Look, Mohammed the Terrorist Is Coming!’ Cultural Racism, Nation-Based Racism, and Intersectionality of Oppressions after 9/11,” in Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11: From Visible Citizens to Visible Subjects, ed. Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 276–304.

2. Laila Shereen, “On Becoming Arab,” Mizna: Prose, Poetry, and Art Exploring Arab America 6, no. 1 (Summer 2004): 60–62.

3. Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 512.

4. Edward W. Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (London: Knopf, 1999).

5. Sarah Gualtieri, “Edward Said, the AAUG, and Arab American Archival Methods,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 38, no. 1 (2018): 21–29.

6. Gualtieri. “Edward Said,” 22.