Writing about decolonisation


What does it mean to write about a historical moment, a historical event, that was as complex and emotional as decolonisation? This was a moment that changed the world and created contemporary politics as we know it. But just as importantly, it was a moment very much created through the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of people across the world – people who, for the longest time, had been struggling with the weight of European empire. The other side of hope is, of course, defeat, and disappointment, failure and defeat are equally part of the story of decolonisation. Given the complexities of the moment, and the emotional investments of so many people, what does it mean to write about and produce knowledge about it?

This question has preoccupied me since I began writing a book on decolonisation and anticolonialism in Egypt. Finishing it and sending off the manuscript left me feeling uneasy, and I began to explore that feeling and why it had suddenly become so overwhelming. In trying to stay away from two extreme positions – romanticising Nasserism and broader anticolonial projects on the one hand, or announcing them as failures that had never aimed to do anything but amass power into a few hands on the other – I found myself charting an uneasy path away from these two positions. To me, anticolonial state-led projects were both liberation movements and anti-democratic. This contradiction does not need to be, and ultimately cannot be, resolved by us now by reflecting back on that moment. Instead, I am more interested in sitting with this contradiction, unpacking it, thinking with it, and ultimately, letting it be.

D8dhR8wW4AEr3xg-1The moment was a complex one. It is difficult to overstate the pressures facing new nations such as Egypt. The response from the UK, France and Israel to the nationalization of the Suez Canal is just one example of how intent colonial powers were on maintaining an empire by other means. And so I have always been uncomfortable with narratives about Nasserism that write of the entire project as disingenuous, mistaken, and the worst thing to ever happen to Egypt. Nasserism as a project, after all, very much built on and then co-opted broader anticolonial energies in Egypt, from students and workers to feminists and communists. The anticolonial moment, then, was never just about Nasser as a figure, although he certainly became intensely symbolic. And while there is little doubt that Nasser’s project was an anti-democratic one, to write it off also means dismissing important changes that took place in the 50s and 60s, not least nationalisations, material and ideological solidarity with Africa and the rest of the postcolonial world, a shift away from European capital and influence, and the opening up of social services to millions of Egyptians.

To me, a more important critique of Nasserism – one that could be made of many anticolonial state-led projects – is instead centered on capitalism on the one hand, and what Julietta Singh calls “mastery” on the other. Although a discourse of Arab socialism was central to Nasserism, the continuation of state-led capitalist development at a moment during which there was such a large global outpouring of hope for a different economic way of being was a clear betrayal of the anticolonial spirit. Alongside this, the move by many postcolonial nations to govern through “mastery” – over nature, over population, over the self, and so on – represents a clear continuity with colonial modes of governing, rather than an embrace of an anticolonial politics. To me, these are the damaging and violent legacies of the anticolonial moment – or what I call the anticolonial afterlives – that we have to live with today.

All of the above points to why I believed it was important to write about Egypt’s anticolonial project through its contradictions, and to situate it within global politics at a time when there seemed to be some kind of opening, the possibility, at last, that things could change.

But once I began to dig deeper, it seemed to me there was something else that was part of the unease, something to do with language, representation, and academic writing. It felt as though there was always some form of injustice being done in trying to represent such a complex and highly emotional moment. I wonder, still, if academic writing is the best way of capturing politics that are so tightly interwoven with hope, despair, disappointment, and fear? I found myself cringing at parts of the text where I said things like “this shows that…” or “they failed to…”

8577334On the one hand, I think it matters that we make claims to knowledge based on anticolonial and decolonial perspectives, given how marginal these are, especially in Area Studies. And so I don’t think that the answer is to remove such claims. But I do also see how they work to concretize something that was not concrete; to solidify and fix into place things that were fluid and expansive. This hit me when I re-read Arwa Salih’s memoir recently, where she so evocatively paints a picture of the Left under Nasser and then Sadat. A memoir perhaps opens up more space to delve into what it means to live with the afterlives of such momentous political times. The book is a reckoning, a call to think about the political projects we support without thinking through what that may mean for the future. Here I remember again Singh’s reminder that projects built around mastering something – anything – are projects that have not extracted all colonial residue from within themselves.

There are also so many things I simply don’t know about anticolonialism in Egypt, so many questions I still have. It haunts me in the way it haunts Egypt – it is a moment we know matters very deeply, but we can’t always express how, or why. How do we speak to the ghosts, and what might they want?

I have already noted a shift in how I write. I say ‘explore’ or ‘think through’ instead of ‘argue’ or ‘demonstrate.’ Instead of ‘using’ scholars or theories I think alongside them. And instead of trying to tone down the centrality of emotions to politics, I centre them. 2011 was another reminder that it is not just that the way we feel is political, but that feelings create politics. The two are always intertwined. I am also less interested in making things legible to audience X, whether that is sociologists, American sociology, policy-makers, a wider British audience, etc (all things I’ve been asked to do recently). Making things legible is an injustice because that mode of translation is never politically innocent. Anticolonial work already has an audience, and to me, that is the only audience that really matters.

These disparate reflections are the product of an on-going attempt by me to sift through feelings I’ve been feeling for a few years now. I have had so many conversations with friends about my anxieties about mis-representing this period of Egyptian history, or being read in certain ways. Ultimately, though, it helps me to think about this work as a process of reflection and thinking-through rather than resolving old questions or representing a particular moment. Anticolonialism as a moment in Egypt can never really be represented, and certainly not in an academic book written in English. It affected so many people, and had so many contradictory effects, that it would be too much to cover in any piece – or even body – of work. Instead, it seems to me that what could be important is to draw connections, between then (1952) and now (2011), between theorists who aren’t always read together (in this case, Fanon and Gramsci), and between hopes, dreams, and disappointments that colour different moments in ways that sometimes collapse the time between them.


Avery Gordon writes, “To be haunted is to be tied to historical and social effects.” To write stories of exclusions and invisibilities is to write ghost stories. Ghosts represent loss, paths not taken, alternative roads never traveled down. In a sense, this means that they can also—at the same time—represent hope, and future possibilities. As Samah Selim writes:

Legacies are ambivalent things. The hundreds of thousands of young men and women who took the streets in 2011 were also haunted by the ghosts of the past; their language, their songs and symbols, their remembering of bygone battles all drew on a history rich with the struggle for freedom.

Nasserism haunts us precisely because we are tied to its historical and social effects – both the productive and destructive ones. Ghosts are there because they represent unresolved tensions. They point to holes in the social fabric, suggest moments in our neat nationalist histories that are not as pristine as we like to think. 2011 may have been an attempt to confront the ghosts of past revolutions, but it, in turn, has created its own ghosts. Revisiting decolonisation, then, is less about resolving debates or old questions, and more about meeting these ghosts, and thinking about what they could represent.


Traveling tiles, traveling empires

I recently traveled to Ecuador and Peru, two countries I found extremely beautiful and inspirational in lots of different ways. While I was in Lima, I visited an old Franciscan monastery, and come across these tiles throughout:


Our tour guide briefly mentioned that these tiles were brought by the Spanish from Andalucía when they conquered Peru in 1532. He also noted the many Arab influences throughout the monastery, explaining them again with reference to Andalucía.

Thinking of these tiles as traveling tiles, it struck me how often histories of empire are separated from one another rather than connected, especially in disciplines outside of history. The Spanish arrived in the Americas in 1492; in Peru in 1532; and began expelling the Muslims and the Jews from Andalucía in 1609. All of these events, coming under the rubric of the Spanish Empire, tell us a lot about the beginnings of European empire and the start of a global and universalist racial project.

Something as seemingly innocent as a tile from Sevilla appearing in Lima represents more than just artistic influence traveling from one part of the empire to another. It represents an Andalucía in which Arab influence was widespread across cities, towns, and lives. This history is often erased in modern-day Spain, where even tours of the Alhambra can forget to mention who built it and what that says about Spanish history.

Similarly, I was struck by placards in various Peruvian museums that represent the Spanish conquest almost neutrally and objectively, as though it was something that was inevitable. In this particular monastery where the traveling tiles can be found, we were told that indigenous people “loved” and “cherished” the Spanish. This is a very different story from the ones indigenous Peruvians tell about the history of the conquest, and about how the Spanish set out to destroy everything and everyone. In this history, a place like the ruins next to the Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) can only be understood in relation to the excruciating amounts of violence the Spanish subjected indigenous peoples to, leading one million people to flee to this mountain-top and cover the trail behind them.

We heard stories about the Quechua people that did not fit neatly into Europeanised binaries. They did not have “religions” or “genders” in the way we understand these categories today. They understood nature in ways we can never hope to achieve, and don’t even want to achieve – as can be seen from our climate crisis. Their use of gold, silver and other metals had nothing to do with material gain or calculation and everything to do with what these metals represented in terms of belief. It’s during moments like these that we begin to glimpse what has been lost, how entire life-worlds and ways of being were almost entirely eliminated.

Just seventy years later, a decree was passed expelling Muslims and Jews from Spain itself. The ways in which the Spanish Empire understood value, race, civilization and progress played out in these different contexts, in parallel time, with radically different outcomes. As someone who studies postcolonial theory, I have begun to wonder why the Spanish Empire is so often left out; why we begin with the Dutch or British empires. As decolonial and indigenous scholars have long pointed out, 1492 was the start of it all.

Traveling then, even when all that has traveled are some colourful tiles, is never ahistorical, and never innocent in the context of an expanding empire. It has a lot to tell us about erasure, extermination, race, greed, and power. We could tell a nice story about these tiles that would us feel good about how art travels and spreads and crosses boundaries; or, we could ask how art comes to be made, by whom, what happened to those artists, and what happened to those who the art was brought to.

Favourite books of 2018

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As usual, I’m in denial that another year is coming to an end. I always look forward to writing this particular post though, because I get to go to my Goodreads account and pick out my favourite books of the year. This year was also the year in which I started an instragram account dedicated to reading (radical_reading). I’ve had such a nice time getting to know other book lovers, and curating all of my favourite books in one space. Generally, I’ve had an extremely busy and exhausting year on multiple levels, and am ready to spend the next few weeks doing nothing but reading novels. Given my general feeling of tiredness, I assumed I hadn’t had an exciting reading year. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to remember some of the amazing, life-changing books I spent time with this year. Below, I’ve put them in the order in which I read them.

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill –  Gabriela Soto Laveaga

 Unthinking Mastery – Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements – Julietta Singh


Trumpet – Jackie Kay

The Intimacies of Four Continents – Lisa Lowe

Policing Transnational Protest: Liberal Imperialism and the Surveillance of Anticolonialists in Europe, 1905-1945 – Daniel Brückenhaus

For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India – Anjali Arondekar

A Taste for Home: The Modern Middle Class in Ottoman Beirut  – Toufoul Abou-Hodeib

Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng


Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women – Brittney C. Cooper

The Stillborn: Notebooks of a Woman from the Student-Movement Generation in Egypt – Arwa Salih

Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam  – Stefania Pandolfo


The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Shahota

Crossing the Bay of Bengal – Sunil Amrith

Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender, and Sexuality – Sadiyya Shaikh

Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership  – Brenna Bhandar

Salt Houses – Hala Alyan


The Diaries of Waguih Ghali – Volumes 1 & 2

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy – Irvin Yalom

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

The Water Cure – Sophie Mackintosh

Algiers, Third World Capital – Elaine Mokhtefi


The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing – Merve Emre

Refuge – Dina Nayeri

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype – Clarissa Pinkola Estés

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby – Cherise Wolas

The Burning Chambers – Kate Mosse

The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make – J Lorand Matory


Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race – Neda Maghbouleh

Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism – Iyko Day

Prozak Diaries: Psychiatry and Generational Memory in Iran – Orkideh Behrouzan


I’m so glad to have ended the year with Prozac Diaries; I couldn’t have asked for a better book to leave 2018 with. Please do leave your favourite books/any book recs in the comments – excited to see what 2019 brings! Happy New Year everyone!

Slowing down

I wrote this post in June, and just found it in my drafts. Thought it would be nice to share these feelings!


I finished my PhD at the end of 2016, and started a research and teaching fellowship right away, one that is now coming to an end. I’m starting a new lectureship, which has meant moving to a new city and getting to know a new institution. The past six years, then, have been a whirlwind of reading, researching, writing, presenting, teaching, supervising, mentoring, discussing and defending. This whirlwind steadily intensified, and it’s not an exaggeration that the past year in particular has been the most intense out of the six. The pressures of publishing, teaching, understanding how higher education in a new country works, and applying to jobs has meant that the past 12 months have gone by just like that. At times it felt like all I did was work – and not always the nice type of work. Marking, going to conferences, filling out job applications and dealing with bureaucracy have dominated much of my life recently.

Emotionally, anxiety, worry, stress, and exhaustion have seemed to increasingly be where my head and heart space are. This particular month, with conference after conference, has brought up all sorts of insecurities around my research and where it is going – and no surprise there; presenting your research more than five times in one month – laying everything bare that often – is nerve-wrecking! On top of that, things in my personal life have been affected too; because of the stress of this past year, I ended up making decisions that had horrible effects on my life more generally.

What has made me reflect on all of this is a book I just finished – Knot of the Soul, by Stefania Pandolfo. The book looks at psychoanalysis, Islamic healing, colonialism and postcolonialism, and how people and societies deal with political violence. What struck me about this book is how much time it took her to research and write it, and how much care and thought she puts into what she writes. The project spans over twenty years, and is largely based on ethnographic work she did in Morocco. This ethnographic work, however, takes place over very long periods, and is done consistently over the twenty year period. Ethnography, in many ways, is such an important research methodology because of how well it captures complex dynamics and changes (when it’s done carefully and critically of course – too many examples of it being done wrong).

But more than the ethnography, there is a thoughtfulness in this book that touched me. You can sense that she took a lot of time and care in writing every single sentence, and that what you have in your hands is a piece of work that was lovingly crafted. All of these reasons make this book such a brilliant and important intervention. Indeed I found it one of the most challenging books I have ever read, and felt that reading it was an intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience.

All of this made me reflect on my own research experience, and the way I write. I often feel that the tempo of modern-day academia makes it very difficult to get settled into long, thoughtful projects. This is especially the case if you have just finished your PhD (which is the closest you get to a long project) and are on fixed-term contracts. I have felt that the pressure to publish, to present, and to engage in ‘impact’ means that I am always writing and publishing pieces that I feel aren’t where they need to be. This goes beyond just individual pieces; it is also about the broader questions I am interested in. I feel that what I want to do is stop researching and writing and presenting, and just take a year or two to think and read. To figure out what I want to say, and how, and why. To let things sink in, and to just sit with what I’ve done so far.

I find myself telling friends that maybe now I’ll have the space to do just that, since I’m not longer on a fixed term contract. More often than not, I’m met with: “No, it never really ends.” The pressures continue, even if they are different. So I guess that leaves it up to us to navigate these pressures and somehow produce thoughtful work that contributes to knowledge and that doesn’t leave us burned out, while at the same time playing the academic game. Easier said than done, of course, and I am very aware of certain privileges I have that make this easier for me than many others. Academia by design is easier for those privileged in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, and ability. But still, I wrote this post in an attempt to remind myself ow good it felt reading Knot of the Soul, and how much I would love to one day write a book like that.

Favourite books of 2017

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This year has been the year of fiction. Mostly because it was an especially intense year in terms of work, and when I find myself overwhelmed with academic reading, writing, and teaching, I find fiction a much-needed way of relaxing. There are two fiction books I am currently making my way through which I hope to finish before the end of the year, but I haven’t added them to the list; one is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and the other is 4321 by Paul Aster (1200 pages!) Pachinko in particular is just stunning, and it’ll be a painful one to say good

I had big dreams to buy the Neapolitan novels in paperback (only have them on Kindle at the moment) and read them over the summer, but I couldn’t find the time. I did manage to re-read Ahdaf Souief’s In the Eye of the Sun at the start of the year, for the fifth or sixth time. I’m so in love with this book; I could read and re-read it endlessly.

Anyhow, here are my favourite books of 2017!

  • Cruel Optimism – Lauren Berlant
  • Monstrous Intimacies – Christina Sharpe
  • Industrial Sexuality – Hanan Hammad
  • In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Third World Protest: Between Home and the World – Rahul Rao
  • Femonationalism: In the Name of Women’s Rights – Sara Farris
  • The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Arabic Freud – Omnia el Shakry
  • The Language of the Night – Ursula Le Guin
  • A Prehistory of the Cloud – Tung-Hui Hu


  • Familiar Stranger – Stuart Hall
  • Human Acts – Han Kang
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
  • The Idea of the Muslim World – Cemil Aydin
  • Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism – Elizabeth Povinelli
  • Names of the Lion – Ibn Khalawayh, David Larsen
  • Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Ottoman Tulips, Ottoman Coffee: Leisure and Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century – Dana Sajdi
  • This Census Taker – China Mielville
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo – Hiromi Kawakami


  • The Return – Hisham Matar
  • Living a Feminist Life – Sara Ahmed
  • The Calcutta Chromosome – Amitav Ghosh
  • La Frantumaglia – Elena Ferrante
  • His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet
  • Swing Time – Zadie Smith
  • Hitler’s American Model – James Whitman
  • Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Last Utopia: Human Rights in History – Samuel Moyn
  • The Mushroom at the End of the World – Anna Tsing


The Bandung Moment


Scholars working on decolonisation have all in one way or another touched on the Bandung Conference. Bandung was a pivotal moment in the 20th century that signalled a new way of doing things; a new postcolonial world in which nations of the Global South were staking their claim in the international sphere. Bandung has been widely criticised—and sometimes rightly so—for a variety of reasons, ranging from its lack of concrete goals to some of the uncritical rhetoric that was used around modernisation and development. Like so many other aspects of decolonisation, Bandung seems to have been held up to exceptionally high standards. In many ways, Bandung became symbolic of the process of decolonisation as a whole. Bandung was more than just a conference; it was the ultimate symbol of anti-imperial resistance and its success in dismantling the various European empires. For this reason, Bandung should always be placed within that particular moment. The hopes and dreams of billions of people that things were changing; that they were now able to participate in the global, in politics, in economics. This was an attempt not to fit into politics as it was—politics that was thoroughly colonial—but rather to change politics; to create a new international form of politics.


Underneath all of this was the hope that this was a new world; a postcolonial international. Bandung and decolonisation were about more than simple self-determination. Sovereignty was at stake, yes, but a new type of sovereignty. Sovereignty did not mean indirect rule; it did not mean controlling resources and people on terms set by the West; and it certainly did not mean being sovereign in an emerging neoliberal world order. The question of a postcolonial international hints at a different understanding of nationhood and sovereignty; one whose ultimate aim was to transform the international; to create a new form of world politics; to create an economic system in which sovereignty meant economic sovereignty above all.

We can see beginnings of this project in different parts of the world. The drive towards industrialisation as a way of delinking from a dependency on Western capital and expertise; the move to create social welfare policies; the massive investment in indigenous culture, arts and education. Focusing specifically on Africa, these trends were clear across the continent. Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kenneth Kaunda, and others were not simply mimicking a Western project of modernisation and development. Nor were they simply power-hungry dictators who wanted to enrich themselves. To simplify the politics of these nations to this extent is to reproduce racist assumptions about the capabilities of Africans to partake in politics and to—ultimately—govern themselves.

That said, we also know how the moment of decolonisation ended. The projects that were started were let incomplete; and many nations ended up worse off decades later. The authoritarianism of many of these leaders has also been highlighted—excessively, I believe—and it is often they who have been blamed for the way things turned out. And yet this is to turn a blind eye to two things: the massive hopes that were placed on this historical moment; and the structural limitations these nations faced by the very international sphere they were trying to change. Because of the symbolic importance of decolonisation and all it stood for; because of the incomprehensibility of events like Bandung just twenty years earlier; and because of the continued attempts at neo-imperialism by European, American and Soviet states; because of all of this, this was a historical moment that was heavy with expectations.


I think many post-independence leaders were aware of the heavy weight of these expectations, and that they did try to fulfil them; I also think this was—from the start—a doomed project. Because while this was a moment of hope and freedom for many, it was also the beginning of a shift in imperial exploitation. Empires as they had existed for centuries were no longer tenable; instead we see a move towards free market capitalism as a means of imperial domination from afar. This was only to get worse with the start of the neoliberal revolution in the 1970s. Aside from this shift in imperial strategy, there was also the ropes that still bound these nations to older forms of imperialism. Take a country like Egypt, whose economy had—for over 100 years—been structured to serve the needs of Britain; where cotton was the main export to the benefit of few Egyptians; where there was a chronic over-reliance on foreign capital in Egyptian business ventures; where the majority of the population were in debt, servitude, or generally repressed. Given these conditions, and given new forms of imperial domination, what were the odds Nasser was up against? What happens when we contextualise his years in power through this lens? What happens when we take into account the formation of the state of Israel, the continued British, French and US imperial attacks, the refusal to allow Egypt to industrialise on its own terms? How have these become footnotes in the story of Nasser, of Nkrumah, of Lumumba?


Frantz Fanon once asked: don’t African leaders have the right to govern themselves badly? It is this question that was at the heart of Bandung. It was a space in which postcolonial nations were—for the first time—talking about what they wanted the world to look like. It was a space where imperial powers were unwelcome (much to their anger!) and where racism and imperialism were openly condemned. After centuries of European colonialism, this must have been a truly momentous event. I can’t think of any event like that since then. There have been many conferences; many events. We have the BRICS. We have the East Asia Tigers. We have the UN and their many annual conferences. But these are all clouded by the neoliberal moment we are in. indeed it is these conferences that very much reproduce the rhetoric of modernisation and development. Given what existed before and what came after it, Bandung seems like a breath of fresh air.


This post was inspired by two books on Bandung that recently came out:

Dutch elections and colonial continuity: The history of race and racism in Dutch nation-building


Today is the Dutch general election to determine which parties will control Dutch parliament. It is essentially a race between Geert Wilders and the PVV and Mark Rutte and the VVD – one a far-right party and the other a center-right one. This election, and the campaigning around it, should by now prove two things: the first that the political spectrum in the Netherlands has moved to the right to such an extent that the term leftist politics is all but meaningless; and the second is that the emergence of Islam and race as central topics of debate is not something “new” and is not even an emergence in any technical sense; if anything it represents a continuity with older colonial modes of self-identification.

In an Al Jazeera piece on the elections, this quote caught my eye:

“We will get the verdict this evening after an election campaign that has been very divisive and has seen expressions from different party leaders concerning Islam, immigration and the economy” (Dominic Kane).

Those three core issues that have defined the election are in no way separate from one another. Islam, immigration, the economy. These three issues – framed as “problems” each political party wants to “solve” – have a much longer historical presence than is admitted in much of the analysis on the so-called “emergence of Islamophobia” in the Netherlands. What happens when we label something an emergence? What happens when Holland is categorized as having “departed” from its liberal, tolerant, reasonable past? What happens when Holland is commonly understood as “decent” and that this decency is now lost after a shift to the right?

I want to posit instead that this election has not marked the emergence of Islamophobia as a form of racialized politics; this election has merely made transparent the fact that for the past few centuries the Netherlands has operated within this framework of racialized politics. Citizenship rules and regulations, categories of belonging, media, educational and everyday semantics – all of these structures that organize daily life are thoroughly racialized. The famous categories of allochtoon and autochtoon (indigenous and non-indigenous) rely on colonial understandings of who was part of the Dutch empire and who was not. Debates about who has integrated well (Indonesian colonial subjects) and who has failed to integrate (Surinamese, Antilleans, Moroccans) are also based on clear colonial legacies, where the violence Indonesians faced when they came to the Netherlands is erased, and the racism and lack of support Surinamese, Antilleans and Moroccans were met with when they arrived is pushed to the side.

When we begin tracing these historical legacies, it becomes clear that modern nation and state building in the Netherlands was a racial project from the very beginning. When migrants began to arrive from North Africa and Southern Europe, much of the discourse surrounding the white working class was extended to these new migrant groups, specifically the notion that they needed to be civilized into Dutch culture. Another example is the way in which Surinamese men were discursively portrayed as violent and aggressive in the 1980s. Yet in the 1990s this portrayal extended to and became focused on Moroccan men. One should note, however, that such shifts are never complete. In the Netherlands today it is clear that negative assumptions about the white working class prevail, and that Surinamese men are still often portrayed as violent and aggressive. This highlights the enduring nature of these discursive formations. They are resilient precisely because they are linked to class formation and nation building through bourgeois notions of “civilized”. In other words, the identity of the rational, white bourgeois Dutchman is constituted in a dialectical relationship with numerous “Others”—thus making the discursive formation necessary to Dutch identity. This draws our attention to the continuing need in Dutch society to create “Others” in order to both construct the identity of the civilized Dutchman, but also, by extension, legitimize certain social political and economic policies. These policies range from increasingly tough stances on immigration to the increased policing of post-migrant populations and populations of color.

It is crucial to note that the underlying argument in the cases of both internal and external “Others” was a racial one. The white working class was often portrayed as being genetically different from the rest of society. While it is true that in the Netherlands there was a strong discourse that blamed class differences on context rather than genetics, it remains the case that the working class was often seen as inherently inferior. The same logic was used when it came to the external Othered, who were seen as genetically inferior because of both racial and cultural attributes. When Southern European and North African immigrants arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, their constructed racial Otherness was understood through cultural differences. Culture became the vessel through which racial difference was understood and class the vessel for understanding the racial difference of the Dutch working classes leading up to the 1960s. In both instances, racial constructions were hidden under the label of either class or cultural difference.

And yet, despite this, there is a tendency in the Netherlands to locate racism in individuals, as isolated incidents. As Melissa Weiner points out: “Ask a White Dutch person about racism in their society and most will quickly respond that, except for maybe a few right-wing politicians and individual racist incidents each year, racism does not exist. Indeed, it cannot. Because, according to many, ‘race’ does not exist in The Netherlands.” At the center of this process of othering is the construction of the Dutch self-image as tolerant and thus of Dutch society as excluding racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on. Dutch society is constructed as tolerant and open, and indeed this has become a universal image of the Netherlands. Attempts to argue that this election shows how the Netherlands has “changed” and lost its tolerance/liberalism/decency are problematic and plainly incorrect precisely because building the nation was a racialized project from the very start. Islamophobia is only the most recent expression of this project, but it is not new, nor a departure.

Here the emergence of the welfare state is key, and its specific ties to colonial and working class history. In an excellent post, Egbert Alejandro Martina shows how the emergence of the Dutch welfare state represented an attempt to make the white working class “fit for (bourgeois) society” which was seen as preferable to improving conditions of the working class by raising the standard of living. This shift occurred through imagining the welfare state as a disciplinary force that would deflect attention away from structural inequalities (in this case economic inequality between classes) and instead shift the focus onto disciplining the working class and making it socially acceptable. Thus the welfare state acted as a disciplinary force that, through biopolitical means, absorbed and neutralized any “threat” coming from the white working class. This later transformed as a means of disciplining bodies seen as racially and/or culturally different. Attention was deflected from structural inequalities, this time regarding institutionalized racism, and instead focused on framing such bodies as in need of socialization through intervention.

What I want to argue is new is the broader material context in which all of this is taking place, namely the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of the welfare state. It is not a failure of integration that forces politicians to discuss Muslims; rather it has been an extremely successful tactic that has deflected attention away from the state’s role in dismantling the social services Dutch citizens have had since the 1950s. By privileging capital over labour, the state and various political parties have sold out the social democratic pact and this is having massive ramifications on the choices, opportunities and daily lives of Dutch people. However it is not as simple as immigrants or non-whites being scapegoated either. It is not that “during economic crisis people naturally become more racist” or want to blame anyone who is different. It is not a natural human response or justifiable. It is a concrete result of the particular ways in which the Dutch elite have constructed Dutch nationalism and the Dutch state. It did not have to be this way and it is not a natural human response. It is a result of historical processes of class and race intersecting to produce the political effects we see today.

The tendency to ignore the Dutch colonial past – social forgetting as Weiner calls it – is important here in understanding why there is so little resistance to the extreme racism rampant in the Netherlands today. This Dutch colonial history is not something to be navigated or worked through, and indeed can be presented positively or, at least, as a relic of a time that was not necessarily “wrong.” The denial surrounding both its status as a colonial empire (as well as the fact that the Netherlands controlled territories until 2010) and its neutral moral position on colonialism allows the Netherlands to construct a national imaginary based on tolerance. Similarly, Gloria Wekker’s excellent book White Innocence, focuses on:

…a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Accessing a cultural archive built over 400 years of Dutch colonial rule, Wekker fundamentally challenges Dutch racial exceptionalism by undermining the dominant narrative of the Netherlands as a “gentle” and “ethical” nation. Wekker analyzes the Dutch media’s portrayal of black women and men, the failure to grasp race in the Dutch academy, contemporary conservative politics (including gay politicians espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric), and the controversy surrounding the folkloric character Black Pete, showing how the denial of racism and the expression of innocence safeguards white privilege. Wekker uncovers the postcolonial legacy of race and its role in shaping the white Dutch self, presenting the contested, persistent legacy of racism in the country.

It is this archive that is important to remember. White innocence, along with social forgetting, have functioned to hide the central role of race in Dutch nation building. The Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself. This is why I believe the newly established political party “Artikel 1” is an important intervention in contemporary Dutch politics. Because it is based on anti-racism and not just class politics, it breaks the silence surrounding this topic – a wilful silence I would add, not an innocent one – and provides what the Dutch left has long failed to provide: a politics that is about race and class and gender and sexuality – not just about class in a reductionist sense. There is still a long way to go, but speaking about race and racism is a necessary step.


Parts of this post are from an article I co-wrote with Vanessa Eileen-Thomas: Old Racisms, New Masks: On the Continuing Discontinuities of Racism and the Erasure of Race in European Contexts.

On friendship

I wrote this post a year ago and just remembered it after seeing this quote from Toni Morrison:


There is something very beautiful about female friendships. They have always been central to women’s lives, and yet we spend much more time analysing relationships with men than we do with each other, except when we talk about how destructive women can be towards one another. That is true; many women are socialised to see other women as competition – that continues to be one of the central pillars of patriarchy. We all do it – we say “women are like this” or “women do this and that.” We talk about how much easier it is to hang out or work with men. We worry a lot about where we are in terms of looks, intelligence, etc compared to other women – all the while measuring ourselves according to what we think men like or want. All of this is true and a lot has been said about this in feminism.

But there is also a beautiful and somewhat intimate side of platonic relationships among women. 2016 was a tumultuous year for me during which a lot of good but also a lot of bad things happened. It was unpredictable and often a rollercoaster of emotions. It was also a year during which a lot of things shifted in my life, at the end of which I find myself ready to start an entirely new chapter. It is not an overstatement to say that without the friendship of my close friends I would not be who I am today, and I would not have learned from my experiences the way I have. I am grateful to my male friends too, of course. But I’ve chosen to focus on my female ones because a big part of growing was the practice of sharing experiences with other women, and realising how alike or different they are. Most of the time we found that they were alike. These are women from all over the world, all different ages and at different stages of life, all in different fields of work. Some are mothers and some are not. Some are in relationships and some are not. Some I met a  year ago, and some I’ve known for over a decade. And yet we share experiences that connect us in ways that are tremendous.

Many of these experiences have been shaped by patriarchy, a system that is universal. Experiences with how we feel about our bodies. Experiences with how we’re perceived as women in academia or the work force in general. And of course, experiences with men – the classic shared pot of memories, lessons and emotions women share across time and space. [On a side note, it’s quite something to me how women will always tell you the same thing when it comes to relationship advice. I’ve always wondered what that says about men: are they all that similar, even though I wouldn’t want to homogenise? Or does patriarchy continue to socialise men so strongly that it creates such as a uniform universal set of behaviours? Food for thought!]

The conversations and non-conversations [those moments of shared comfortable silence] that I’ve shared with my close women friends over the past few years have given me so much strength and courage that I couldn’t even image where I would be without it. I’ve started to wonder why this is – why are these moments so powerful? I think a lot of it has to do with validation. When you are constantly being told by society – explicitly and implicitly – that you are wrong, or that you’re emotional, or that you’re dramatic, you live with a sense of doubt that can be debilitating in certain situations. You become susceptible to the idea that the way you see a situation is not really how it is. You question yourself. You lose touch with your voice and your instincts, which are always trying to tell you what’s going on. I’ve found that one way of dealing with the self-doubt is by sharing it with friends. That process, more often than not, results in your friend telling you of a time when she was in a similar situation. You begin to see patterns and repetitions. You see that what’s happening to you has happened to so many women you know. You see that they too doubted their interpretation, and that by sharing it, they too are getting some form of validation. This moment of connection is not just intellectual or mental; it’s also a moment when that person just “feels you” and feels what you’re experiencing. And that comes from experience, from their having experienced something similar.

The reality is that racism, sexism, and so on function in such implicit ways that it’s easy to convince yourself that what you felt wasn’t actually racist or sexist; that you imagined it. That the person didn’t mean to do it. Or that maybe you did something to provoke them. This gets amplified when it’s someone we are close to; we always want to find excuses for them – this is something I’ve seen women do so often. It’s something I’ve done quite a bit too – it took a very recent incident to finally break out of this, simply because the things this person said were so shocking that I couldn’t make any excuses for it. And at the end of this experience, my friends – who had of course known all along, and seen all the signs – were there. It made me think that it is these spaces of friendship within which we are held accountable – we are confronted for the excuses we make, and told that we need to stop making excuses. It is also a space in which your contradictions come out and are embraced. I have often felt that they just get it. No more and no less – it’s that simple. This is something I’ve experienced in relationships too – that the person gets you and all of your complexities (even if they ultimately may not be accepting of these complexities) – but I do feel there is a gendered dimension that makes it slightly different when it comes to your female friends.

And finally, this extends to reading the work of feminists and women who have opened up about how their lives have been lived. I will never forget reading Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, and other amazing women writers precisely because I could relate to so much of what they said. Their skilled interrogation of how feminism is personal and political, about their families, friends, and relationships, and about their work, all made them come to life in ways that also created that space within which you can connect. It’s like they were saying: “This is what we’ve been through, this is what many women have been through.”

I find that as I’ve grown older, friendship continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. I have moved around a lot throughout my life, and while that has meant meeting so many amazing people and experiencing different places, it has also meant that I’m not always around long enough to connect with people in the way I would want to. Despite this, I still find myself so humbled and happy by new people and new friendships – meeting people and feeling like you’ve always known them, or enjoying the process of getting to know them. Recently I went through lots of exciting ups and downs at work, and coming out at the end of it, it’s been, again, the way in which people were there that really strikes me. People who I’ve only recently met, but who I feel like I’ve known for years. Men as well as women; but women especially. In a way it’s emotional labour – work that is not recognised as work, but also work that is nice, soft, easy to do. Being present and supportive, being there or letting people know you’re there, checking in and giving space. It is this emotional labour that makes the world go round; ironically it’s unpaid and doesn’t get counted as real work. But how many of us would be where we are today without it? Looking back at relationships, when this emotional labour was missing, things always went south. And it’s terrible to be in a relationship where that is not something someone is willing to give. But that is why acknowledging that there are always people in our lives who not only give it but are happy to do so is so important. In a world increasingly drowning in individualism and competition, where we should always think of what we want first, it is an act of resistance in and of itself to pause, to share, to give, to hold, and to think collectively.

Me and my accent(s)

The most personal things are always the most difficult to write about. Even as I think of what I want to say, I can feel myself heating up. My fingers twitch, and what I want to do is close my laptop and go and make some tea. But, inspired by Elene Ferrante’s letters in Frantumaglia, a book I cannot put down, I felt the need to explore the subject of my accent.

A seemingly strange subject, I’m sure, but this small detail about myself reveals so many aspects of me and who I am that if I had to choose one thing to tell someone about me, it would be this. To be more accurate, I don’t have one accent, but three. I have my English accent, which sounds American now but hasn’t always. I have my Dutch accent, that doesn’t sound quite Dutch. And I have my Arabic accent, which sounds more like Arabic than my Dutch one sounds like Dutch, but still—not quite. This should come as no surprise, since I am half-Egyptian, half-Dutch, and grew up in Zambia, where English is the official language. I was educated in a British school and an American university. My family speaks English at home. And so English is the language I feel most comfortable in. It’s a language that is mine. I speak it without thinking, and I am able to stretch it and bend it and play with it.

But at the same time, English is not my language. It is not the language that I am supposed to be most comfortable in. Instead, the languages that I am supposed to be comfortable in cause me immense amounts of discomfort. It is not that I don’t know Arabic, or Dutch. There is a level of knowing that is purely rational. My brain hears them and understands. If it’s a conversation, my brain then puts together a response. But that is where things have always gotten difficult. The response has to be pushed out by me. It has to be pulled out by the other person. It has to be accompanied by panic. If I’m feeling brave, then it eventually comes out. If I’m not, then my body relaxes, I let out a deep breath, and what comes out is invariably in English.

Is it that I can’t respond in Arabic or Dutch? Is it that I need to learn them properly, to practice, to force myself to speak only in those languages? For a long time I convinced myself that it was about knowledge, or a lack thereof. My parents didn’t speak to me in Dutch or Arabic growing up, and so I just didn’t know the languages well enough. But when people have pushed me beyond this, when I’ve been prodded into giving a real response, my two-word answer has tended to me “my accent.”

What does that mean? Don’t we all have accents? But it is more than just a strange accent, or mispronouncing a few words. It means revealing something about me that I don’t want people to know, simply because I myself haven’t come to terms with it. We know, from sociology to linguistics to history, from everyday life to novels and films, that languages are essential to nationalism. They create webs of belonging and bind people together in cultures. They provide windows into understandings of how the world works, what life means, who we are, and what our past is. In other words, they matter. But an accent—an accent disrupts this. It creates a bubble around me that works as a barrier between me and that feeling of belonging. It feels as though I can’t grasp it; I am always reaching for it but I can never quite make it mine.

I have never been a fan of the discourse of “third culture kids” or “citizens of the world.” I think that being mixed and not having grown up in either country is a highly fluid positionality. In many ways, it has given me ways of seeing and understanding things I know I would not have otherwise. In other ways it has made me very self-conscious of my identity; it has made me always look for a home in people, since I do not have that feeling with a physical place (and that is not always healthy). I don’t know that my feelings about my accent are about confusion surrounding identity as much as about a search for something tangible and anchoring. My accent is a constant, daily, hourly, reminder of my lack of an anchor. I have a home in England. My parents and sister have a home in Egypt. I have had homes in other places. But none of these homes have come with what I have always assumed a home is: a city or town in which you are completely comfortable, to which you completely belong—even if you don’t always fit in—a place that you know.

I don’t have that relationship with Egypt, or Holland. My relationship with Egypt is much more complicated, because I am much more attached to it than to Holland. What does it mean to Egyptian? A loaded question, but my response is to always see it as something I lack. I feel as though I know many things about Egypt. I have many ties to it. But do I know what it feels like to be Egyptian? These questions are complex, and difficult. Most of the time, I have been lucky to have friends who understand what it is to feel these things. Who have experienced the disruption of not knowing where “home” is or will ever be. Other people have found it difficult to deal with. Some have even used it against me, saying I expected things from them I shouldn’t have because I was a foreigner and didn’t understand Egypt or Egyptians. When this was said to me, I knew it was untrue because their point did not make sense; but still—it hurt. It hurt much more than it should have because of how raw this issue is for me, and because this person knew that and used it against me. It was, and continues to be, a vulnerability. For others it is not a question of relating to it or finding it difficult; it is simply puzzling. They don’t really get it: what’s the big deal?

And increasingly, that is what I have asked myself. What is the big deal with having an accent? Yes, it is an affirmation of not belonging, of not having roots or a past in a place that I want so desperately to have those things. It reminds me that I will never have that anchor that seems to tie so many people in place, even if they move around. I know many people who say that they do not see themselves as connected to the place they are from, and yet they are, in many ways. It is not about liking or loving a city or country; it is about knowing it intimately, about understanding it and feeling it, about knowing how things work there. It’s a type of visceral knowledge that can’t be learned later in life. As I get older, I find myself losing interest in the novelty and excitement of moving to new places. There is an immense amount of privilege in that, and so many amazing experiences that come with it. But precisely because I do not have that anchor, it feels as though I am drifting. That is not me; I am someone who likes, and needs, stability and so drifting or exploring without certainty is scary.

It is difficult for me to admit that I do not have that type of a relationship with Egypt, even if I very badly want it. Hearing myself trip over Arabic words is a reminder of that. Realizing that I can never write in Arabic the way I write in English is another reminder. Feeling guilty that people I speak to talk to me in English even though they’d be more comfortable talking in Arabic—another reminder. I tell myself I just don’t know it well enough. It’s easier to speak in English. And it’s true: it is easier. But not because I don’t know Arabic well enough; I know it very well. But speaking it in an accent that reveals my unbelonging distances me from a place that I love too much to want to be separate from.

The irony in all of this is that I have been told I don’t have an accent; that my Arabic sounds fine. Maybe the accent is in my head, and is a metaphor for these deeper feelings of being unanchored and unsafe. Maybe ultimately the courage I need to just speak, accent or no accent, is equally about the courage to come to terms with my own relationship to Egypt. It has been a blessing, intellectually, to not be closely tied into a country, a religion, a nationality, because that has largely made me think about things in a more fluid way. But the downside has increasingly become clear, one that is not intellectual but emotional. There is a lot of support that comes from these identities, and with support comes comfort. Anchors can be restraining, but they can also be like a childhood bed that we come back to when we need to take a break from what is happening; like old smells and recipes that remind us of simpler times; and of friends and family who know you so well that you don’t have to think about who you are or what you say when you are with them. As much as I want that place to be Egypt, and as much as I have struggled and tried to make it Egypt, I know that it can’t be. It is not a situation that can be willed into existence; it simply isn’t. But maybe there is a way to collect all of the feelings I have for all of the different places in which I have lived and make something out of that. I am who I am because of all of these places and people; histories and cultures have mixed and blended together; and while I may not intimately know one place in the way I’d like, I do know many places in many different ways.

How not to do race & comedy – real housewives of ISIS

A new BBC2 skit called “Real Housewives of ISIS” has caused quite some controversy. While some see it as harmless fun that brings to light how ridiculous Islamophobic views are, others see it as tacky, dangerous, and as further strengthening those very stereotypes. (For a great piece by Shafik Mandhai on the diverging views, check out this link.) The topic of race and comedy is a tough one, particularly when the audience is largely British and the topic is ISIS. Setting aside the very problematic decision to use ISIS as the subject through which to employ long-lasting and much-used tropes about Muslim women, suicide bombing, and so on, there is another point to be made about humour being used without context, and how this ultimately does not do anything about the very stereotypes it aims to make fun of.

This skit reminded me of something that happened to me over 5 years ago. An Iranian friend of mine was at my house, and he found a book on my bookshelf called “Burka Babes.”


I had found the cartoons inside hilarious, and thought he would too. After flipping through it, he put it down and told me that it was a horrible book. He sounded so serious that I felt my heart fall. I asked him why, since they were just jokes that showed how stereotypes about women in burkas are wrong. He told me that all this book did was dehumanize women who wear burkas and turn it into a subject to be laughed at by Dutch people. I started to think about how this book, written by a white Dutch man, presented nothing but a series of cartoons making fun of women who wear burkas. While some people, like myself, may have seen how they shed light on how ridiculous Dutch stereotypes about burkas are, I knew that the majority of Dutch people would see these cartoons as nothing more than a few minutes of laughter and comedy. There was nothing in it that showed the long history of Orientalism and in particular gendered Orientalism. There was nothing in it that touched on why white/liberal feminism is not the only lens through which we can understand how women relate to their bodies. And there was nothing in it about how the Netherlands has become one of the most Islamophobic and racist countries in Europe by reproducing these types of views over and over. Instead, it probably made Peter lots of money, made lots of Dutch people laugh, and is now lying forgotten on many Dutch bookshelves.

But I don’t think that means there is no place for comedy that tackles race and racism. One of my favourite shows, Black-ish, actually does it very well, and I think the reason for that is because it does an amazing job of contextualizing the many jokes about race in each episode. At the start there is usually a few minutes about real historical and contemporary American events that explain why we have particular stereotypes about Black people and why the jokes in the show are not just jokes or a few seconds of laughter; they touch on issues that are deep-rooted and serious. I wasn’t surprised to recently read a piece that said many white American viewers were “uncomfortable” when they watched Black-ish. What made people uncomfortable was the “continued discussion of race” on the show. It isn’t just a series of jokes that people can laugh at and then forget. The way the show frames these jokes is what turns it into a discussion about race, and what ultimately makes white people uncomfortable. The episode about police shootings, which was uncharacteristically serious, made a strong point with its sombre tone. And the fact that the show has covered so many controversial and contemporary issues in current debates about racism shows how and why context is key. I recently rewatched all 3 seasons with my best friend, who also kept noting how each episode touches on issues that are so serious without making them seem less serious than they really are. Sadly, Real Housewives of ISIS didn’t even come close to that.

It would be nice to think that when we produce something, we don’t have to think about the audience or about the effect it will have. But when you make a comedy about ISIS using Muslim stereotypes, it does matter that your audience will be largely British, and it does matter that nothing in your skit provides any sort of context for the jokes being made. Making people laugh at Muslim stereotypes ultimately just reproduces them without getting most people to think deeper.