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Bipolar Unease: Arab Travelers Construct Uneasy identities in Europe

December 24, 2012

London, veil, gender

“Who am I, who am British in Egypt, but Egyptian in London?” one of my students once wrote in a class journal. Perhaps the answer lies in strategic nostalgia or banal nomadism, suggests Myria Georgiou. Photo by Gerardo Amechazurro. Used under Creative Commons license.

One of the themes I analyze in Connected in Cairo is that of young, well-off cosmopolitan Egyptians who have constructed their identities for years around some kind of North American or European co-identity. These identities are often shaken when the Egyptian travels abroad and discovers that despite their dual citizenships and local passports they are not taken as “French” or “German” by the French and German Europeans thy encounter.

Those interested in this theme will find useful and interesting reading in a new article by Myria Georgiou in latest issue of the International Journal of Cultural Studies. Entitled “Between strategic nostalgia and banal nomadism: Explorations of transnational subjectivity among Arab audiences,” the article describes some of the ways Arabs in global cities like London, Madrid and Nicosia try to construct identities at a time of passionate public debates in Europe about what sorts of threats “they” represent.

Georgiou describes two basic positions that Arabs take in the face of these “tense and contradictory” ideologies that seek to ascribe to them these troublesome roles:

  1. Strategic nostalgia: the strategic contextual and temporary use of indexical signs to construct an exaggerated nostalgic discourse about ones place of origin. “It emphasizes loss of a home, land or loved ones, while drawing from strong
    symbols of purity as these are captured in a morality and a value systems associated with a nostalgic (and selective reminiscence) of a distant reality. These symbols are used to define a bounded self as distinctly different from other cultural groups.”
  2. Banal nomadism: discourses that seek to position one as a liminal character, betwixt and between national identities, subject to, but not of the various state apparatuses within which one travels. Such discourses “emphasize individuals’ dissociation from any national community initially appear as expressions of an individualist elitist cosmopolitanism. The emphasis on positioning one’s self in ‘third spaces’ (Bhabha, 1994), beyond national binaries and oppositions, reflects a nomadic position as the subversion of set conventions (Braidotti, 1994)…”

As is typical with most cultural studies literature, the author is not satisfied to merely describe and categorize, she must also judge as she teases out the “implications” of the two strategies. Thus while both strategies, we are told, resist public discourses that ascribe Arabs in Europe to a category of Other, and allow them “to take some control over the fragmented and complex world they occupy,” banal nomadism is clearly superior to strategic nostalgia in that it “reflects a
possibility for new forms of citizenship” such as those being promoted in much of the cultural studies literature.

Maybe. But I’d like to see empirical evidence that these implications actually play out in social action as she thinks they could; as anyone who has read my first book, Anthropology and Mass Communication will know, I’m not much for finding affordances in discursive positions uninhabited by actual people.

Here’s the abstract:

This article discusses a bipolar and highly politicized set of positions adopted by Arab speakers in Europe, as they attempt to define the meanings and limits of their subjectivity, especially through their media consumption. The article draws from focus group research in three European capital cities: London, Madrid and Nicosia. Findings show that media consumption among Arabic-speaking audiences takes a political twist and contributes to blurring the boundaries between citizenship and identity. In trying to find a place between different cultural spaces and also between (or beyond) conflicting political spheres, participants adopt a number of strategic positions. This article focuses on two of the most often recurring ones, referred to as strategic nostalgia and banal nomadism. I argue that these positions represent discursive versions of a transnational strategy to manage presence and visibility within the tense and contradictory ideological environments they occupy.


Bhabha Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Braidotti Rosi. 1994. Nomadic Subjects. New York: Columbia University Press.

Georgiou, Myria. 2013. Between strategic nostalgia and banal nomadism: Explorations of transnational subjectivity among Arab audiences International Journal of Cultural Studies. 16(1): 23-39.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Clyde Weinraub permalink
    January 16, 2013 4:21 pm

    islam is a good religion too, my boyfriend is a muslim.,

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