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A neglected gem: The Arab Australian voice

In a climate that can feed Islamophobia and misunderstanding about the Arab-Australian community, there is a growing need for authentic voices and perspectives directly from the Arab diaspora to counter these sentiments. One publication trying to fill this void is Sajjeling, an online magazine dedicated to recording Arab-Australian stories.

The term Sajjeling, is inspired by a poem by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish entitled Identity Card, written in 1964. Throughout the poem, Darwish commands that his identity – his heritage, family, common story and nation – be written down and recorded. “Record,” he repeats, “I am an Arab.”

The word record in Arabic is sajjel (سجل).

Sajjeling takes it up: “… as Arab-Australians brought up speaking both English and Arabic, we sometimes find ourselves using hybrid Arabic-English words. It is common among us to tack the English “ing” form onto the end of Arabic verbs. So, instead of writing, we say we are “iktibing”, or instead of cleaning, we say we are “kanasing”. And, in this space, we are recording. We are sajjeling.”

This is a piece written by the editors of Sajjeling, explaining why they saw a need for the publication and ways to give minorities a voice. 

"Minority groups being able to tell their own stories, from their own perspectives, for readerships with a certain level of insider knowledge is important for the preservation of identity and for ongoing discussions within a community."

– Editors of Sajjeling

In the age of online media and mass access to blog sites and columns in which anyone can express their opinion, one could be forgiven for believing that the voiceless - so long as they have an internet connection - need not remain silent on issues that pertain to them or feel ignored when they are not addressed in circumstances that are relevant to them.

Perhaps diversity in mainstream media is still not widespread to the extent that one would hope, but surely any individual with an opinion (or, indeed, several) can submit a think piece to a publication of their choice and thus be heard?

The reality, however, is that there is still a significant lack of diverse and minority voices featured in the media. The improved attempts by mainstream - and more often independent – outlets may see more doors opened for publishing the opinions of these people.

Often, commissioning editors will seek out diverse writers when there is a news item directly relating to those writers’ backgrounds and communities. Fear of Chinese investors taking over Sydney’s property market? Search for a Chinese writer. A terror attack takes place in a foreign country? Commission a Muslim writer. A Frenchman accuses Arab women of being sexually frigid? Call a North-African Muslim Arab woman for a piece on whether Islam sucks sexual appetite out of its women and spits them out to dry.

But what of the times in which those writers’ (niche) affiliations - cultural, religious, sexual, gender-based or other - are not the topic of news? What effort is placed into seeking out a Sudanese-Australian doctor on a medical issue rather than on civil wars or droughts in Africa? How often is a Gulf Arab-Australian humanitarian activist contacted to share thoughts on a human rights issue that doesn’t relate to the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia?

And, did you know that Libya has produced more than just Gaddafi - that Libyans in Australia have conducted fascinating scientific research in various fields? Or that Lebanese-Australians have interests beyond tabouli and Palestinian-Australians care about issues other than the Israeli occupation of their homeland?

The conception and subsequent birth of Sajjeling was the result of many conversations fraught with frustration. As the founders of Sajjeling, we were frustrated with the way Arab culture, the Arabic language, the Arab world and, more importantly, Arab people were repeatedly depicted in disparaging or negative terms and painted by the same brush as one homogenous group, as opposed to a group with many ethnicities, dialects, traditions and cultures.

We grew up in an era where we witnessed and were forced to bear the burden of hundreds of years of Orientalist history. Arabs in Australia have been forced to endure overt racism since the Gulf War in the early 1990s . And rarely were we given the platform to insert our own narratives without the filter of further Orientalist editing - a challenge that continues today, regardless of slight improvements in access.

Sajjeling challenges the racist assertions often present in mainstream publications concerning the Arab population and it does so by giving Arab-Australians a platform to express their own opinions about the issues that matter to them.

One recent example that highlights our core initiative is the publication of several comment pieces by Iraqi-Australians on the Chilcot Report conclusions. The publication of this piece was a direct response to the fact that we were hard pressed to find any opinion pieces written by people with Iraqi background on the issue. And yet, there were none more affected by the invasion of Iraq than our Iraqi community itself, especially considering so many of its members moved to Australia as a direct result of the war and its atrocities.

The criteria that we set for publishing in Sajjeling is simple. The author, or one of the authors, should more than one be writing, needs to identify as being “Arab”. The content is not prescribed. The writers need not be seasoned professionals. We work closely with them to assist them in shaping their articles to publishable standard, a luxury not often provided with mainstream outlets, but one even more crucial in achieving our purpose of platforming as many diverse Arab-Australian voices as possible.

Our contributors do not necessarily write on issues concerning Arab culture or relating to the Arab world. Rather, they write on issues (or non-issues) that are important to them from their perspective as Arab-Australians. This point is significant because it directly challenges the status quo.

Most media outlets publish Arab writers on issues of culture or religion, and often the pieces that are commissioned end up being a “defence”, purposely or otherwise, of Arab practices or beliefs. This angle is problematic because it always places a burden on Arab-Australians, like Australians from various other cultural backgrounds, to prove their humanity and to engage in discussions on the terms of White Australia. Sajjeling, while seeking content on current issues, allows writers to simultaneously create pieces that would otherwise not see the light of day.

For example, we have published tributes and eulogies to Jane Austen and Philip Seymour Hoffman, essays on how Edward Said’s theories of exile apply to our lives, features on the different ways in which Lebanese weddings in Australia are celebrated, odes to linguistic idiosyncrasies across the Arab cultural spectrum, and even a piece on whether historic texts demonstrate Mesopotamians to be a depressing, cynical bunch.

Minority groups being able to tell their own stories, from their own perspectives, for readerships with a certain level of insider knowledge is important for the preservation of identity and for ongoing discussions within a community.

The diversity of the Arab community is both underestimated and misunderstood. In a climate where many are unable to differentiate between “Muslims” and “Arabs”, having a place to showcase a range and diversity of opinions within the diverse, non-homogenous Arab-Australian community firstly explores how the lack of distinction affects the lives of many. 

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