The Familiar Stranger: Thoughts on Philosophy and History

Sometimes in class, I feel like I am a stranger. You know, like a friend asked me to meet them at a party, but didn’t show up. So I’m stranger at a party that I was not invited to. And everyone is trying to be friendly but wondering how I fit into the equation. What can I do? I try to find commonality and be gracious as possible. But class is not a party. Sometimes a class is not a class, but a performance and a game. My classmates drop names, referring to texts and contexts that I’m only vaguely familiar with. Not only do I feel confused, but I feel like I’m losing every round. How does one become engaged intellectually when it becomes more about performance and winning points?

Despite the downfalls of class performance, I am sometimes inspired in my intellectual pursuits. Recently, I have been inspired by my friend’s epic journey into mysticism, postmodernism, and existential phenomenology. We do very different things, but we are both studying something that moves us. I am interested in what moves people and moving people. Specifically, people who migrate and become strangers in foreign lands for religious purposes.

I had big ambitions this evening. I began doing a little research on theoretical and analytical tools that might help shape my research and writing. My three goals this next year are to develop my languages, to sharpen my intellect, and broaden my base of knowledge. I have lots of questions and some fuzzy ideas about things I would like clarified. Then big idea came to me: look for critical summaries of the books I would like to read before I leave for Egypt. If I familiarize myself with the concepts, I might be more comfortable approaching these Great Books, the canon of western thought. I want something to work with as I write another seminar paper.

Almost every serious study on Africa and the Middle East indicates the importance of knowing about European thinkers, philosophers, and theorists. Even if you can’t apply the theoretical or analytical tools of Marx, Foucault, Gramsci, Weber, Wallerstein, etc. to Africa, you still have to contend their analysis. While it is important to recognize how they can be useful, you have to be familiar with them to know their shortcomings.

From my conversations with my friend, I began to think about how existential phenomonology may be useful in critiquing materialist analysis of religious movements, such as rational choice theory and poltical economy theory. I remember asking one of my professors, a Marxist historian, “why should we assume that human beings are rational actors?” My big question: How do we take into account non-material motivations? What about people who sacrifice themselves for religion or ethnics? Specifically, can you make a rational choice equation figuring in a religious person’s desire for union with God? What about the insane and irrational? How do we factor in culture and faith? Often the conventional histories and euro-centric approaches disregard the experiences of vast majority of people. I have often found books written by Western scholars troubling because they seem to belittle people’s lived experiences and the ways they understand the world.

I began looking into ways existential thought could be a tool to think about my work. Since I am interested in religiously motivated mobility, I didn’t want to focus on a material analysis of migration. As I was researching various writers and creating a little database to save my notes. I came several people who interested me. But one stuck out because I remember being really upset about reading his work–Albert Camus.

I first read Camus in a Maghribi social history class three years ago. We read an English translation of his novel, L’Étranger, The Stranger(1942).It is set in Algeria and the main character, Meursault, is a French settler colonist kills an Arab. Here is a bit about what Robert Royal wrote about Albert Camus:

Robert Royal writes that Albert Camus “was both shadowed and inspired by the voiceless mass of people, who, like the Algerians of his youth, go through their lives leaving barely a trace of their existence” (Royal, 1995: 54).

Royal tells us that Camus devised a three stage writing plan. In this first phase, Royal tells us, Camus wrestled with the nihilistic movement. This context offers an important lens by which to view the novel. Camus tries to come to terms with the absurd. Royal writes that Camus believed this was an important step towards a “fuller vision of human meaning and value” (Royal, 1995: 56).

Here are some of my thoughts on the story:

Clearly from The Stranger Camus told the story of an Algeria from the pied noir, perspective of a settler colonist, perspective. The books serves a dual purpose, giving voice to an overlooked community and reflecting an international intellectual movement–existentialist movement. At the same time, it is an artistic creation that offers a view of how a pied noir viewed his world. In order to understand Meursault’s view of Algerians, and Camus rendered them invisible and voiceless, it is important to consider the reasoning and workings of settler colonialism.

Camus does something important, he shows how settler colonialism builds within itself a number of contradictions. It dehumanizes both the colonized and the colonizer. Activists have demonized the colons, and Camus shows how one man could take the life of a dehumanized “other.” Camus, however, refrains from a didactic tale because the contradictions reflect absurdity of existence.

Writers like Memmi and Fanon have explored the psychological effects of colonialism on the colonized. But few writers have elaborated on the psychological effects of being the colonizer. Camus offers a glimpse of the colon’s anxiety. Camus novel starkly reminds us that Europeans and indigenous North Africans lived in a parallel world. How were the distinctions drawn when their lives intersected? The colons were privileged and rendered Algerians voiceless. In the novel, they were like cardboard characters, drawn out to fill space. Through the novel we are given the names of Europeans but those who were seen as Arabs were without names and without history….

A classmate called the main character, Meursault, an existential hero. That to me was the most absurd thing about the novel. I was deeply troubled when I read the bok. I remember in class spinning off into some tangent about how white colonizers render the colonized subjects invisible. People thought my my tangent was actually funny because I went off about Tolkien–who likely saw people of color in South Africa–and his ultra white Lord of the Rings. People are really dismissive about the racist assumptions that were commonly held during that time. But I have found some articles that point out that a few scholars have pointed out Tolkiens racial symbolism. In a similar way, I found Camus’s novel to be racist. I really doubt that he was a racist, but the novel promoted the image that Algerian Arabs were objects. They were mistreated, abused, ignored, and murdered in the novel. They also did not have a voice. Nor were they valorized as existential heroes. That day, more than any other day, I felt like a familiar stranger. I related to those voiceless Arabs in Camus’s novel. I felt like those great European writers, like Tolkien wished me away as they created a perfect white world. Sometimes it is difficult to read and absorb the works of Great thinkers, become so intimately familiar with their ideas, while at the same time always being that “other.” The ones who say that I don’t have a history. The ones who overlook my experiences because it is not meaningful to them. The ones who have disregarded the lives of countless people who exist in the Global South.
In order to engage in broader debates I have to be that familiar stranger. But this raises the question, can those who do not see us tell us a great deal about our lives and experiences? I am not sure.But in order to engage in a discussion with those who view the world through a western lens, I have to understand how they order their world. So, in the end I think that understanding their philosophies may be useful. Perhaps something can be legible…


6 thoughts on “The Familiar Stranger: Thoughts on Philosophy and History

  1. I’m a great fan of Tolkien, but I understand what you’re getting at in his world. The most glaring thing to me is the way a lot of the tribes of men who side with Sauron have languages that are reminiscent of Arabic. Since Tolkien was a linguist, you can’t exactly brush that aside. But the thing is, I think it just goes back to Said’s ideas about Orientalism, that when “westerners” think about the evil other, they look east pretty much reflexively. It’s not just Tolkien: I was a big Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan as a kid and the number of fantasy authors that have the good guys in the upper left (NW) corner of the map and the bad guys down in the lower right (SE) are countless. Raymond E Feist is a glaring example. I leave you academics to determine if this is malicious racism or just lack of self-awareness on their part.

    WRT: “Specifically, people who migrate and become strangers in foreign lands for religious purposes”, I hope you’ll share the paper with us strangers when you’re done.


  2. It is surprising to see the idea that an insider is somehow biased, entrenched in academia. It implies an assumption that those who are on the inside are mentally immature and unable to differentiate between their biases and fair objective thought, as well as implying that the “outsiders” do not have some unfair bias on their part and there rationality is tempered by their perspective. By the way, I have read through all your entries – this is a great resource. Keep it up!



  3. Aziza,
    Have you experienced tokenization in academia, either as a black woman, a Muslim, or both? I often feel that Islam is tolerated as a “culture” but is either ignored or reviled as a belief system. What constraints do you feel in this regard?

    Do you find that the general theoretical and methodological climate of history, as an academic field, enables your free expression as a Muslim? Can you immerse yourself in any collection of academic literature and feel completely at home, or at least as completely at home as your colleagues? My answer on this tends to be “no,” and I think it really hurt me when I got the independent research phase, and not just the reading and critiquing phase, of grad school.


  4. Salaam alaikum Musa,
    History is a rather conservative field, despite the many innovations and interdisciplinary approaches that have been adopted by many new historians. The ways that they explain religious movements based upon materialist motivations is problematic. This is why I’m reaching for new ways to take into account the way faith and belief shape history and to take into account what is meaningful to people who lived in other times. I also find that the debates about conversion do not reflect my experiences as a Muslim, nor many people who converted. I guess the problem is evidence, what can we learn from documents? Doing 20th century history has some promise, because I may be able to gather accounts from people who lived that history. But over all, there are times when I have to separate my faith from my work, at the same time my faith gives me strength to do this work.

    As a Black woman in academia, I have had a range of experiences. Graduate school creates so many messed up power assymetries. Sometimes I am the token. But most of the time my department tries to pretend I’m not. Because it would like to think that it is color and class blind. And that causes problems to because it ignores the range of experiences and different types of training we bring to our program.. Sometimes my insights as a Black Muslim woman, are appreciated. Other times, they are dismissed as being idealistic, historicizing, or biased.

    Where are we truly at home to develop our ideas? In academia? In the Muslim commnity? I’d answer no to both. This is why I truly believe that it is integral for us Muslim academics to create forums to develop our works and ideas. That way we can move forward with some cutting edge, amazing scholarship that truly speaks to us.


  5. Very interesting! I wish Memmi had taken his prologue to “Portait of the Colonizer”, where he describes the “left-wing colonizer” and turned it into a separate book.

    I didn’t really see in your essay above that you were approaching Camus with enough sense of his distinctive position – he was not just a colonist. He’s a left-wing colonist, what Memmi sometimes referred to as “self-rejecting colonist.”

    Now this is a special kind of animal, and if you want to see it at work, you can simply look to Israel. These are the people who constantly brag about their lefty morals, and have dinner parties with their other lefty friends, and drink Arabic food and play Arabic music. They collectively scratch their heads about how to end the occupation. They went to a Meretz rally a few years ago and still talk about it.

    In my experience, these people are the absolute core, the iron wall of zionism – its true guardians. Warschawski describes their condition as a kind of schizophrenia or amnesia, one which requires a constant denial of reality. You can see this clearly playing out in the dramatic mood shifts in Israel. Look, for example, at the beginning of the latest Israeli mass murder marathon in Lebanon. These left-wing racists, in order to continue to believe that they are decent, moral people, have to continually, constantly work to NOT SEE what is going on all around them. All it takes is the slightest disruption of their fantasy world and PRESTO CHANGO! Suddenly they are right there, all of them, alongside the ultra-right, foaming at their bits to destroy Lebanon.

    The left-wing colonist is very delicate. They’re always at work NOT SEEING, hard at work looking away, erasing things, dismissing things. Usually the things that get dismissed are little things like history. They like to talk about nonsensical things like “post-zionism” and say things like “Stop playing the blame game!”, which in their racist minds is really code for “We forgive you Arabs for all those terrible things you’ve done to us,” and then they proceed to pat themselves on the back for how generous they are, and how much better they are than those Arabs. It’s very exhausting. But ultimately they think this is very lofty work, very noble. In fact they think this is the ONLY way to resolve the conflict, and they will viciously reject anyone who disagrees. Of course the entire charade is ridiculous. When it inevitably comes tumbling down – when the colonized refuse to accept their colonization – these delicate lofty souls who have given so much, been so very generous, welll… look out. Hell hath no fury like a left-wing colonizer scorned.

    Inevitably, over and over, these supposed leftists in Israel leap en masse to the right to endorse the most horrific acts of violence and oppression.

    It’s ok though, because afterwards, they will once again demonstrate their moral superiority by forgiving their victims. It’s actually kind of funny, as long as you don’t look at the millions of Arabs throughout the region who’ve died, and who will continue to die, because of the volatile racism of the left zionist.


  6. I am very happy I found your blog on orkut. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me and my brother were just preparing to do some research about this. I am glad to see such reliable info being shared freely out there.
    Best Regards,
    Bryn from Sterling Heights city


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