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An Interdisciplinary Glance at Discourse: Heimat and “Eat Beef / the West Wasn't Won on Salad”

By Salam Al Sayed

Stuebenplatz 2017 photo credit Julie Chamberlain[Photo of Stuebenplatz 2017, Photo credit: Julie Chamberlain]

  [Recording by Salam Al Sayed]

CRiCS’ first Research Talk for the year 2021-2022 coincided with my first time attending an event as a Research Assistant. I thought to myself, there is no handbook on how to transition into the world of academia from the vastly different sector of social programming, where I have the majority of my professional experience. Although there are some intersections between the project of Cultural Studies and Social Work practice, there are differences in the nature of the work that is involved, the questions that the two fields are interested in investigating, and the relationships that are built along the way. So, it was only natural to ask myself, what are you doing here exactly? It turns out, I was here to explore the interdisciplinary arena of Cultural Studies scholarship! The two presentations by Drs. Chamberlain (Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies) and Hannan (Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications) came together as they centered on questions of language and the construction of discourse in culture. 

While Dr. Chamberlain shed light on an urban planning project in the historically devalued German neighborhood of Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg—a space where longtime residents have gradually been excluded from the place they have called home for generations—Dr. Hannan focused his critique on meat consumption discourse employed in the animal farming industry and mainstream culture.

Dr. Chamberlain’s interest in the Hamburg neighborhood was sparked by a statement made by the lead planner of the project: “In order to solve the problem, the population needs to be transformed.” Immediately, Dr. Chamberlain wanted to know “who the residents were and why they needed to be transformed.” This set off her critical examination of the language used to describe the neighborhood residents.

The residents, many of whom are racialized, were being framed as a “problem” that needed to be fixed because they were perceived as “traditional” and unable to assimilate into mainstream culture. However, their lived experiences did not match this narrative. Dr. Chamberlain was curious about this dissonance, and I got curious about the constructed binary of tradition versus progress, which informed perceptions of these residents. 

Dr. Chamberlain was also intrigued by the residents’ repurposing of the concept of Heimat, “a spatial concept of belonging and identity,” that has otherwise been used in the German context to reinforce a white nationalist agenda. These residents use Heimat to reclaim their neighborhood as a space of belonging, safety, and comfort for themselves in response to the urban development project. 

I spontaneously connected Heimat to an Arabic word that I was familiar with: Khaimah خيمة. Although Khaimah literally means “camping tent,” the sound of the word Heimat made me think of the possibilities of linguistic fusion with Arabic. Having grown up in an apartment on the 9th floor in a building in the bustling city of Damascus, when I think of Home, a picture of a tent is not exactly what comes to mind. I asked myself, is it so strange to think of Khaimah as a metaphor for shelter, intimacy, and belonging? I also wondered, is it possible that the German word Heimat has some ancient roots in Arabic? And, did any of the residents speak Arabic or make these similar connections? 

As I thought about the different contexts in which Khaimah is used, the connections between Heimat and Khaimah increased, in particular their shared potential to carry conflicting meanings. For instance, Khaimah begins to signify displacement rather than belonging in the context of the refugee crisis and refugees’ experiences of instability, trauma, and fear. In a refugee camp, Khaimah means shelter because it offers protection from the outside world, but it also means exposure and vulnerability because the protection it offers is fragile and impermanent.  

In a shift from Dr. Chamberlain’s examination of environmental racism in Germany, Dr. Hannan argued for animal liberation through a critique of what he called “The Colonial Mythology of Meat,” a narrative of local grass-fed meat as more delicious, healthier, and better for the planet. His analysis reminded me of how some social media food content creators reinforce this narrative on their platforms by promoting local butchers. 

During his presentation, Dr. Hannan demonstrated that the meat industry and colonialism are inseparable from each other, through an unpacking of the history of ranching and a critique of popular authors and corporate PR statements in the field of animal agriculture. I was struck by an “Eat Beef / the West Wasn't Won on Salad” bumper sticker in his presentation. It was a powerful example of the interconnectedness of colonialism and the meat industry and how deeply steeped it is in mainstream culture. 

Reflecting on Dr. Chamberlain’s critical study of the concept of Heimat and Dr. Hannan’s critique of cultural discourse on meat consumption, I started seeing the parallels between the two talks. Walking away from the event, I concluded that questions of language and discourse are central to Cultural Studies regardless of lens or approach. Research talks like these provide a dynamic platform for a rich exchange that enables students to make connections.