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Created: February 19, 2003
Latest Update: February 19, 2003
February 19, 2003
Arab-American Writers, Uneasy in Two Worlds
By DINITIA SMITH
Suheir Hammad, Arab American poet on Broadway.
NY Times photo by Sara Krulwich.
One of the hottest young hip-hop poets these days is Suheir Hammad, 29, who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, and reared in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Six days a week Ms. Hammad stands onstage at the Longacre Theater in "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," chanting her heart out:"Don't seduce yourself with my
otherness my hair wasn't put
on top of my head to entice you
into some mysterious black voodoo
the beat of my lashes
against each other ain't some
dark desert beat it's just
"Get over it," Ms. Hammad cries onstage, tossing her dark, curly hair. Her skin is olive, and despite the hip-hop setting, she is modestly dressed in a long-sleeved blouse and a long skirt, showing respect for her Muslim background. Ms. Hammad is one of the most visible of an increasingly visible group of Arab-American writers who have emerged as a result of the ethnic identity movements of the past few decades. They feel a special urgency now in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the continuing conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, the possibility of war with Iraq and what they see as the widespread labeling of Arab-Americans as terrorists.
Like all immigrant groups, Arab-Americans have a sense of doubleness, feeling torn between their parents' traditions and their new culture. In the black-white division of American racial politics, their added burden historically has been the perception of them as black or, at the very least, as occupying an indeterminate place in the country's racial mix.
"There is a real sense among Arab-American writers of a need for balance, with 9/11 and the demonization of people in that part of the world," said one of the best-known, the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who, like Ms. Hammad, is Palestinian-American. "All the bad headlines are just very sad fragments of the true story. We feel a larger need than we did 20 years ago to create positive cultural stories, forces and linkages."
Ms. Hammad came to the attention of Russell Simmons and Stan Lathan, the creators of "Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," through a poem she circulated after the Sept. 11 attacks. A cry of anguish, it includes these lines: "Please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now./please god, after the second plane, please, don't let it be/anyone/who looks like my brothers."
Arab-Americans are a relatively small minority in the United States — 1.2 million according to the last census — though some believe the number is closer to 2 million, since many second- and third-generation Arab-Americans do not necessarily identify themselves as such.
The first wave of immigrants arrived at the turn of the 20th century. Most were Lebanese who came partly in search of arable land and work, partly to escape sectarian turmoil. Later immigrants were driven out of their homelands by famine and the destruction of World War I.
Many settled in Boston and on Washington Street in Lower Manhattan. Others migrated to the area around Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Later they fanned out across the country, and today there are communities in Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The Arab-American literary tradition dates to the turn of the last century, to the mahjar poets who came from what was then known as greater Syria, which included Lebanon. Poetry is the fundamental Arab literary form, dating back to the quasida, or ode, the pre-Islamic oral poetry of monorhymes, each line ending in the same sound.
The poems were committed to memory and recited by nomadic tribes. A major theme was the lament for the desert encampment that had been abandoned or left behind, a recurring theme even today, as these writers long for a homeland they may have been forced to leave.
Among Arabs, "poetry is a force of inspiration and celebration, not something that is hidden away in the academic world," said Gregory Orfalea, a Syrian-Lebanese poet and critic who edited "Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry" (Interlink, 2000) with the Palestinian-American poet Sharif Elmusa. "It is a sign of some achievement to have a poet in the family."
One of the first works about the Arab-American immigrant experience was a 1911 novel, "The Book of Khalid," by Ameen Rihani. The best known of the mahjars was the poet Kahlil Gibran, who was born in 1883 in Bsharri, in the Lebanese mountains, and settled in Boston. His mystical poem "The Prophet" remains one of the best selling books of all time for its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.
In 1920 Gibran founded the Pen League with the other mahjars to revitalize Arab poetry, helping to transform it from its rigid monorhymes and to include free verse and prose poetry. Today Arab-American writers are as varied as Arab-Americans themselves. The organization RAWI, the Radius of Arab-American Writers, has 150 members from about 22 nations. Historically, Arab-American writers have been mostly Christian, but Muslims are increasingly making their voices heard.
Like writers from other immigrant groups — Asians, Hispanics and before them, Jews and Italians — the Arab-American writer's themes are cultural conflict and, especially, family.
"It probably goes back to the days they were living in a tent in the desert," Mr. Orfalea said. "Their families were all they had to hold onto; there wasn't a tree to hold onto. But here they come to America, the family is shaken."
Coursing through the poetry is a fundamental loneliness. In the Lebanese-American Joseph Awad's poem "For Jude's Lebanon" the narrator cries, "Beirut, once beautiful Beirut,/Bloodied by Christian, Jew and Druze/Weeps like a wound just under the world's heart."
In "Fawzi in Jerusalem" the Assyrian-Lebanese novelist and poet Sam Hazo describes the immigrant's journey: "Leaving a world too old to name/and too undying to forsake,/I flew the cold, expensive sea/toward Columbus' mistake/where life could never be the same."
Food is often the key to memory and awareness. In "Rest in Love" D. H. Melhem, who is Syrian, Lebanese and Greek, writes: "Not one word/of Arabic. Only my spoon/tapping my plate./And the hot food poured into me/a bonfire of recollections."
In his shocking poem "Sand Nigger," Lawrence Joseph, a law professor who grew up in a family of Lebanese grocers in Detroit, addresses color. The title is an epithet sometimes directed at them. " `Sand nigger,' I'm called," Mr. Joseph writes, "and the name fits: I am/the light-skinned nigger/with black eyes and the look/difficult to figure."
Mr. Orfalea points out that there are also Arab-American authors who rarely touch on Arab subjects. He calls them "shadow writers."
The novelist Vance Bourjaily, who is half Lebanese and the former head of the Iowa Writers Workshop, has seldom written on Arab themes, though in "Confessions of a Spent Youth," his autobiographical novel, Mr. Bourjaily "speaks as well as anyone to the doubleness that all immigrants feel," Mr. Orfalea said.
The novelist Mona Simpson is half Syrian, half American, but writes about Arabness only indirectly. In her novels "Anywhere but Here" and "The Lost Father" the heroine's Egyptian father is largely in the background.
Among the newer writers, women predominate. It is no accident, said Elie Chalala, the editor of Al-Jadid, a magazine of Arab culture based in Los Angeles. "They were more daring and more open in challenging the status quo because of their second-class status," he said. "Most of the male writers, such as Edward Said, deal with politics. The males stayed away from literature."
"It had to with the dominant discourse of the 60's and 70's, which said that literature and art are distractions," Mr. Chalala continued.
The women's writing is increasingly daring. Mohja Kahf, a Syrian-American, considers herself an Islamic feminist. She is photographed wearing a traditional head scarf, but her work is explicitly erotic, courageous for a Muslim woman and virtually unthinkable in the previous generation.
Still, her sexually charged poem "More Than One Way to Break a Fast," about breaking the fast at Ramadan, has all the rhythms and imagery of ancient Arabic verse: "I have fasted, darling,/daylong all Ramadan —/but your mouth — so sweet,/so near — the hours long!/Grant but one taste — one kiss!"
In April W. W. Norton will publish "Crescent," a novel by the Jordanian-American writer Diana Abu-Jaber. She tells the story of Sirine, an Iraqi-American chef in a Los Angeles restaurant where the Arab customers watch television: the Kuwaiti shopping channel, Bedouin soap operas in Arabic and American soap operas with Arabic subtitles. Sirine falls in love with a professor at a nearby university who had campaigned against Saddam Hussein in his native Iraq and whose sister was murdered by Mr. Hussein's henchmen.
Coming in May from Beacon Press is "West of the Jordan," a novel by Laila Halaby, a Jordanian-American. In it a group of Palestinian cousins shuttle between Nawara, their village, and the United States.
"Half of the village lives here in Glendale or Hollywood or Anaheim," says Soraya, one of the cousins. The relatives are variously intoxicated by American culture and its sexual freedoms and frightened by them.
Ms. Hammad, the Palestinian-American poet, remembers coming of age in her primarily Hispanic neighborhood during the rise of hip-hop.
"I grew up around rhymes and break dance," she said. Her parents are devout Muslims. One brother is a Navy sergeant, another a college student.
"Those of us who weren't Puerto Rican created our own minority group," she said. "Asians, blacks, Caribbeans, we were all the minority."
Ms. Hammad identified strongly with the African-Americans. Her first two books, "Born Palestinian, Born Black" and "Drops of This Story," were both published in 1996 by Harlem River Press, a primarily African-American publishing house. "I had all these languages available to me," she said. "I had my parents' Arabic, black English, Spanish. I felt all this could inform my poetry."
Above all, Ms. Hammad credits her parents' teaching of the Koran as the inspiration for her work. She became a poet, she said, because of "having parents saying the way to live is through the music of this language." Writing poetry, she added, "is my expressing myself as closely as possible to the original creation. For me creativity is a reflection of a higher power."