The term “Ajam” is an originally Arabic word that has historically signified otherness. Originally the term meant “mute” — referring to those who were unable to speak Arabic properly — and over time the meaning shifted to refer to anything “foreign” or “strange” (i.e. non-Arabs). The term traveled into nearby languages and also acquired the specific connotation of “Persian” over time.
While many people see the term as a pejorative for Persians, the word has been utilized in many different contexts — from Yemen to Sub-Saharan Africa to Andalusia — to refer to the spaces of the Arab world’s “others.” These spaces, however, have historically been sites of tremendous cultural output and critical rethinking. It is only by thinking from the margins that we can truly begin to understand and contextualize the center. The debates that took place in the lands of Ajam — all those worlds that developed at the edges of monolithic definitions of cultures, people, and civilizations — help us rethink and reimagine worlds where fluidity, fusion, cosmopolitanism are the norm, not the exception.
Using the term Ajam was a way to reclaim a word often thought of as pejorative, while also drawing attention to how the state of Ajami “otherness” helps us imagine alternative worlds. By using Ajam, we’ve employed a tacit pun, forcing our audience to reckon with the previously silenced realities of the margins.