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Jorge Jreissati

Journalist, Brazil



26/02/2009 | Voices

Out of place, and In

As a Brazilian, the son of a Lebanese, and as someone who lived for some years in Lebanon and Britain, which ultimately led me to learn new languages and to interact with different cultures, I have a paradoxical sense of simultaneously belonging to several places and to none of them in particular. Consequently, I see the notion of so-called “traditional values” through blurred lenses: a large part of my values are eminently Western, but I have assimilated in equal measure Levantine values. And these values are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I identify myself with one set of values or the other according to the circumstances, and I can perfectly combine them or reject them in the same measure. This represents a kind of cultural schizophrenia.

My behavior and my vision of the world result in a continuous process of negotiation, both internally and externally, involving the values I have received. I believe that this is a phenomenon common to all immigrants, but particularly to the descendants of immigrants.

For having spent most of my life in Brazil, and given that Portuguese is my primary language, I identify mainly with aspects of Brazilian tradition and values, though I am also subjected significantly to the influence of Lebanese culture, among others. I carry this “hybridism” even in my name which – like that of many Lebanese and Lebanese descendants of Christian origins – combines a Western first name with a Levantine surname (something the late Edward Said referred to in his superb “Out of Place”, a memoir published only months before his death). And the feeling I experience as a result of this cultural hybridism is even more complex, because my cosmopolitan vision of the world does not provide me with the “certainties” and the comfort that identification with homogeneous values and traditions might generally bring. Furthermore, this vision does not make me specifically more or less accepted by the Other.

The world consists of differences. It is important to see how these differences are viewed and dealt with. My self-perceived “cosmopolitanism” makes me, at the same time, neither fully integrated nor completely out of place in the relationships or social environments in which I live. I feel that I am in constant transformation, whether culturally or politically, for the better, but sometimes also for the worse.

Situations like mine – of a growing number of people who experience the effects of multiple identities – reflect what the theorist Stuart Hall classifies as a framework radically shifted and more complex of both culture and community than those enrolled in conventional anthropological or sociological literature. These situations are dealt with on Cultural Studies, a discipline headed by Stuart Hall, Mike Featherstone, Arjun Appadurai, Homi Bhabha, Frederic Jameson and Edward Said, among others. Accordingly, the cultural hybridism marks the place of this incommensurability, in which people tend to adopt positions of identification which could be somehow displaced, but certainly hyphenated or multiple. This is because these particular positions of identification are quite different from the mainstream tendencies: culturally hybrid people incorporate aspects of the local culture and traditions in combination with the culture and traditions they inherited from their immigrants parents and/or they assimilated in other places.

This hybridism is more evident in the processes of globalization. We, Lebanese and those of Lebanese origin, were at the forefront of that process since time immemorial, through commerce and immigration, even if a majority of us in Lebanon still live in small communitarian bubbles, almost completely unconnected to one another.

Beginning in the 20th century, specially its last quarter, the enormous advances in communications and transport – which accelerated further the time-space compression – made possible the intensification of transnational flows of goods and services, technology and people, albeit in uneven and unstable ways. And within those processes, contradictions were accentuated between centrifugal and centripetal forces, and between homogenization and heterogenization, especially in the fields of politics, economy and culture, which, ultimately, contribute to shape identities. In this context, hybridism fills in and operates in the “aporias” (or rational difficulties) that represent potential sites of resistance, intervention and translation. In other words, by being culturally hybrid, one can resist homogenization (both locally and globally), influence the dominant culture and act as a facilitator between cultures and civilizations.

In this sense, with such a cultural hybridism, I feel myself as part of a growing contingent that breaks with rigidity and the logic of “majority”. It is as if I were in a middle of a stream that flows into an already post-national form of viewing the world and thinking of it – even though this form is not fully shaped yet. The only thing already clear is that this is certainly multicultural, inclusive, plural and democratic – not attached to binary schemes. But while people like me prefer to be considered as cosmopolitans, the world, actually, still imposes on all of us its borders and its walls, both real and imaginary. This is, ultimately, what centripetal and centrifugal dynamics are about, and they result in shock, assimilation, integration, hybridism, syncretism, and other cultural phenomena, all of them complex and multifaceted. And I like the way this process is slowly but consistently unfolding.
Very much so.