Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Building bridges, joining streams

Post Gibran
Post Gibran: An Anthology of New Arab-American Writing, Eds. Munir Akash, Khaled Mattawa, Syracuse: Jusoor/ Syracuse University Press, 1999. pp460

This fresh anthology of Arab-American creative and critical writing, entitled Post Gibran, is a special recent issue of Jusoor (1999), and constitutes a Jusoor (the term means "bridges") book, distributed by Syracuse University Press. It is co-edited by the Syrian Munir Akash and the Libyan Khaled Mattawa, both of whom moved to America a long time ago, but who have neither forgotten their roots nor clung to them ignoring their new setting. In this wonderful anthology we discover a variety of genres and a multiplicity of voices. The genres include poetry, drama, short fiction, excerpts from novels, diaries and journals, critical essays and memoirs. The voices are those of men and women, of different generations, of Arabs who have moved to the US to live and work as well as of Americans of Arab origin, and occasionally of Americans of non-Arab origin who have come to be strongly associated in their creative work with Arabs -- such as the American poet Daniel Moore (Abdalhayy), author of Ramadan Sonnets, and Penny Johnson, a creative writer who has been living in Palestine and contributes to Women's Studies and Human Rights issues. The notes on contributors at the end of the book inform readers about the authors, some of whom are well-known beyond the circle of Arab-Americans, such as Etel Adnan, Samuel Hazo and Naomi Shihab Nye. The artistically expressive photos of the contributors supplement the writing with a gallery of faces.

An anthology of this kind is necessarily uneven, as it is not trying only to uncover superb artistic texts, but also to present the creative discourse of Arab-Americans in its polyphonic breadth and variety. The anthology is thus relevant not only to lovers of literature and poetics, but also to those who aspire to have a feel for the concerns and anxieties, for the hopes and frustrations, of the disseminated Arab community in America. Wisely, the editors have not tried in their selections and in their critical essays and editorials to reduce the creative output to a single position or aesthetics. This is perhaps best enunciated by the Palestinian-American poet, Sharif Elmusa (who is presently in Cairo teaching at the American University) in his short and to-the-point poem, entitled "Request":

Poets, critics
members of other tribes,
please, let's not reduce the poetry of the tribe
into a sheepskin of poems
about the tribe.

What struck me positively is not only the number of women creative writers who are included in the anthology -- an index of their imposing presence in the Arab-American literary scene, but also their daring spirit in appropriating in their own terms themes that have been exclusively masculine, as for example the ghazal (amorous poetry). Whether these women pose in the pictures as veiled or not, they all articulate their desires in a direct, yet sophisticated, way. In Paula Haydar's moving poem, "Picture Us," for example, the poetic persona visualizes her beloved imaginatively as a young man in Lebanon, calling upon the imagery of the Old Testament's "Song of Songs" to overdetermine the erotic nature of her text, as this stanza demonstrates:

It is summer and you are a boy
hunting birds and turning stones,
eyes as bright as the snow as it melts
from the Cedars beneath the summer sky.
Your hair is black as kohl,
your body olive brown,
your cheeks red as the rooftops of Hasroun,
red as the pomegranates your mother
in full burning youth
plucked from the cliffs of Hasroun.

Similarly, Mohja Kahf in a poem entitled "More than One Way to Break a Fast" successfully mixes Islamic motifs and erotic longings, in a way that is very different from the mystic-erotic language of Sufis longing for unity with God. There is something unmistakably earthy about this poem, addressed not to God, but to the "servant of God":

Your lips are dark, my love,
and fleshy, like a date
And night is honeyslow
in coming, long to wait --

I have fasted, darling,
daylong all Ramadan --
but your mouth -- so sweet,
so near -- the hours long!

Grant but one taste -- one kiss!
You know what good reward
feeders of fasters gain
from our clement Lord --

See how the fruits are ripe
and ready, O servant of God --
Kiss me -- it's time, it's time!
And let us earn reward

An interesting study could be made from the way political questions have been embodied in the literary output of Arab-Americans. Penny Johnson, for example, in her powerful short story, "The Lesson of Leila," depicts the interweaving of American and Palestinian concerns during the Intifada, mixing them with women's concerns. Etel Adnan in her one-act play "Like a Christmas Tree" dramatizes imaginatively a "dialogue of the deaf" between an American journalist and a common-law Iraqi criminal (a butcher who has committed a crime de passion), both jailed in Baghdad during the Gulf War. Here, again, the political issue is intertwined with issues of gender -- best demonstrated by Adnan in her novel Sitt Marie-Rose -- where the use of patriarchal transgression often linked to notions of "honour" -- be it that of the head of a family, the head of a nation, or the head of a global system -- brings about war and devastation. The black humour of Adnan in this play contrasts with the apocalyptic strategy of those poems by Dunya Mikhail in the anthology, written under the impact of the infernal days of the Gulf War, as these were experienced by Iraqi victims. Equally illuminating would be a reading of Johnson's story next to Sharif Elmusa's poem "No Statues were Built in the Camp."

The autobiographical fiction of Halim Barakat and the autobiographical reporting of Hisham Sharabi -- two prominent Arab intellectuals who live and work in the United States -- are extremely moving and informative. Barakat's excerpt from his novel The Crane depicts the helplessness and the poverty of a Syrian family in the early forties, presented through the defamiliarizing eyes of a ten-year old child in the manner of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Portrait. Sharabi's excerpts from Embers and Ashes depict the first years of his postgraduate years at Chicago University in the late forties, but in a rather Augustinian mode, where the mature and established Sharabi is constantly commenting on, and occasionally condemning, the naiveté of his twenties. Both of them converge in highlighting the rupture between reality and conceptions of reality. Another fascinating juxtaposition is that between the journal of Elmaz Abi Nader, which she wrote in different parts of the Arab world where she travelled in the nineties, and the journal of Evelyn Accad, as she was travelling in the Arab World in roughly the same years.

Borrowing the term, "split vision," coined by the Arab-American scholar Edmund Ghareeb, but used in an innovative sense more akin to Du Bois's "double consciousness" and Homi Bhabha's "hybridity," Lisa Suhair Majaj develops an agenda for the Arab- Americans in her essay "New Directions: Arab-American Writing at the Century's End." Khaled Mattawa also elaborates on directions in his essay "Freeways and Resthouses: Towards an Arab Location on the American Cultural Map." What is refreshing and striking in these essays is their acknowledgment of the past and the present and their orientation towards the future, determined to have a place of their own in the new world. Theirs is not a sense of nostalgia for the past and for the homeland, as is often witnessed in the writing of the Mahjar poet, nor is it the total rejection of the new culture while cocooning oneself in traditional values, as Arabs with a ghetto mentality have done. In opposition these new voices call for forging a conscience of the Arab stream in American culture, not only to preserve a static identity, but also to call on one's heritage to contribute to, and upgrade, the dynamic combination of cultural strands in the adopted country.

As for the appendix, "Fragrance from the Garden," this seems to have been thrust into the anthology. This intrusion on the specific theme, though interesting in what it covers -- Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq El-Hakim, Mona Saudi, Yusuf Habashi Al-Ashqar, Taha Hussein and Lebanese zajal -- may reflect the fact that the editors could not treat this volume as a "book volume" (despite the fact that it was announced as such) and had to supplement it with articles and translations of current interest in the mainstream of Arabic Literature. However, such a supplement loses some of its significance in this special issue and reflects an implied hesitation as to the status and sufficiency of a work entirely devoted to Arab-Americans.

How, finally, should we view this anthology? As a minority literature, as an immigrant literature, as writing in exile, or as the artistic sensibility of hyphenated beings living between two worlds? Rather than trying to put labels on this lively corpus and emerging literature, let us recall instead how it was received by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who saw in this anthology a lesson to "exiles," in the broadest sense of the term, "to find creative grassroots in their country of exile."

The admirable project of Jusoor was founded by Munir Akash as an act of cultural bridging, almost a one-man effort of hoping against hope. It was based on the need and the dream that Americans should grasp the culture of the Other -- in this case the Arabs -- but also on the need and desire of Arabs in America to continue their cultural contacts with their roots. Jussor's subtitle "The Arab-American Journal of Cultural Exchange and Thought for the Future" explains it all. The journal, though mostly in English, has published occasional articles in Arabic and in French. The first volume appeared in Winter 1993 on the theme "War and Culture," the second and third (in one volume) on "Cultural and Survival," the fourth on "Palestine and the Sacred," the fifth and sixth (in one volume) on "Culture and Hegemony," the seventh and eighth (in one volume) on "Culture, Creativity and Exile," the ninth and tenth (in one volume) on "The Open Veins of Jerusalem" and finally the 11th and the 12th (in one volume), our "Anthology of New Arab-American Writing."

One cannot but wish that the good will inherent in this project will persist, despite the daily frustrations one encounters in a world that pays only lip-service to others, while crushing them to the ground. Yet one has to keep faith, since, as the African-American poet Yusef Komunyakaa has pointed out, "sometimes waters come together because a bridge is built."

Reviewed by Ferial J Ghazoul

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