Review of Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2015)

Abu El-Haj, Thea Renda. (2015). Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth After 9/11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reviewed by Choua Xiong

At the crossroads of political turmoil, statelessness, and a liberal multicultural education, Palestinian American youths negotiate their sense of a transnational belonging and citizenship as Palestinians and Americans. Abu El-Haj’s Unsettled Belonging: Educating Palestinian American Youth After 9/11 explores how Palestinian American youths’ lives are impacted by their history of fighting for a Palestinian state and the liberal multicultural education in the United States. She seeks to illuminate two aspects of Palestinian American youths’ experiences. First, she explores how Palestinian American youths and their families forge a sense of belonging to the Palestine and how they negotiate citizenship as “stateless people with rights”. Second, she explores their lives in schools, examining how the liberal multicultural education in the United States manifests at Regional High and how this impacts and shapes the experiences and lives of Palestinian American youths.

Situated in the northeastern United States, Abu El-Haj’s ethnography follows four Palestinian American youths (Khalida Saba, Samira Khateeb, Adam Mattar and Sayd Taher) to illustrate how they negotiate and understand belonging and citizenship and how they experiences a form of liberal multicultural education. She spent three years conducting participant-observation with the after-school club for Arab youth at Regional High and conducted thirteen in-depth ethnographic individual interviews. While the four students remain the focal participants, Abu El-Haj uses stories from other youths to illustrate her arguments throughout the book. This ethnography provides fruitful ways to think about and consider how education may be change to be inclusive to Palestinian American youths and other im/migrant youths in the United States.

In part one, Abu El-Haj provides vivid vignettes of how youths negotiate their belonging and citizenship. Chapter one illustrates the ways Palestinian American youths describe and understand their identities as Palestinian. Many of the youths are have transnational experiences in which they had lived in or traveled to the bilad (homeland). While the responses draws on language, religion, and culture to define a Palestine identity, Abu El-Haj highlights that the youths’ sense of being a Palestinian is rooted in the Palestinian national imaginary based on land, culture, and suffering and sacrifice.

Chapter two broadens her discussion on belonging and touches on the complexity of being Palestinian in the United States. Abu El-Haj shows that these youths see their American citizenship in a strategic manner. While their sense of belonging as Americans is turbulent, they are aware that they are part of and have the rights to participate in political and cultural spheres in the United States. Furthermore, Abu El-Haj provides multiple stories that examine how youths utilize their American citizenship outside of the United States to position themselves as insiders to the United States. As a result, she points out that youths believe in the possibilities of equality and liberty.

I appreciate her focuses on the transnational experiences of these youths to examine how globalization and mass migration plays in im/migrant students. While Abu El-Haj notes that these students have particularly unique experiences, there are ambiguities about class diversity. These students are able to travel from countries to countries and have physical relationship to the bilad. I wonder what are the economic privileges and position the families of these youths have to enable their physical traveling.

Opening the lens into educational spaces, Abu El-Haj discusses dominant practices of a liberal multicultural education in the United States, how liberal multicultural education plays out at Regional High, and what this means for Palestinian American youths in part two.

In chapter three, she lays out the theoretical discussion of what a liberal multicultural education entails, ‘freedom, democracy, multiculturalism, tolerance, and equality’. Particularly, liberal multicultural education reflects the ideas that a United States education will aid people towards individual freedom that respects and tolerate different groups of people through building a diverse appreciation of everyone. She argues that this form of a liberal multicultural education seems neutral and desirable, but it mirrors an imperial processes that creates forms of inclusions and exclusions. Taking a cultural relativist approach, liberal multicultural education silences critical curriculum development and engagement with Palestinian American youths. This chapter makes a major contribution by challenging deeply held beliefs about education in the U.S.

Providing the voices of educators and administrators, Abu El-Haj takes the readers into Regional High to examine how a liberal multicultural education plays out. Chapter four unfolds the ways educators and administrators engage with the liberal multicultural education. Abu El-Haj carefully argues that while there are exceptional teachers, Regional High is a space where problematic cultural racism are reinforced and reproduced. Specifically, she points out that practices such as the schools’ zero-tolerance policy, the idea of a American as a ‘salad bowl’, and an American education as key to liberty reiterate the prevalence of forms of exclusion and inclusion.

Her framework interrupts a cultural racism perspective that continues to paint Palestinian American youths as Other. Chapter five illustrates that Palestinian American youths at Regional High are continuously painted as the problematic Other. Cast as the terrorizing Other, the youths are continuously questioned about their political positions, such as standing for the Pledge of Allegiance (p. 188). The youth are routinely denied their rights and ability to contest.

As Abu El-Haj examine the everyday discourses that illustrates the complex international experiences of Palestinian American youths, she urges educators to consider how everyday discourses and processes plays out in educational spaces to affect the educational experiences and opportunities of her participants. Specifically, she points to how forms of inclusion and exclusion are contested in schools through everyday nationalism. Furthermore, Abu El-Haj suggests that citizenship education should reflect on how youths are using constructing transitional citizenship practices.