Book review: Arab Americans write with wit and sorrow
Web Posted: 04/24/2008 05:55 PM CDT
Special to the Express-News
Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry
Hayan Charara, editor
University of Arkansas Press, Hardcover $59.95, Paper $24.95
Voices are inclined to speak, and these powerful poets of Arab descent speak eloquently in this major anthology just published. They do not sing as one monolithic chorus but as 39 diverse soloists, and their sophisticated texts do not merely establish the latest ethnic minority literature or the next phase of multiculturalism. Rather, these gifted poets, including San Antonio resident-poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Marian Haddad and Assef Al-Jundi, are creating some of our nation's strongest and most passionate contemporary poetry.
These Arab Americans are esteemed professors, lawyers, translators, editors; people doing business and community work; parents raising families and corresponding with relatives from their countries of origin. They are not having an identity crisis or mapping an Arab diaspora or replaying the Arabian Nights. They are thoughtful and humane, just like most of us.
Yes, there are political poems here from fresh perspectives, but none are screeds that promote propaganda. In fact, they argue against lies convincingly, often with satirical wit. Where there is anger there is also compassion; where there is social criticism, there is never didacticism. They remind us that stereotypes and prejudice, war and genocide are overcome only by bridges of dialogue and not by walls of separation. Yet like all poets, they write also of nature and love, of languages and ideas, of spirituality and attitude.
The first line of "Inclined to Speak" (in Elmaz Abinader's "Living with Opposition") brings us to the edge of openings: "Someone has told you, It's an attitude problem. /I hear this, say something like, I wonder whose." Indeed, since attitudes are first formed by culture rather than experience. This powerful poem — about her father, a gentle man who "is tired of being foreign, of trying /so hard just to breathe, to get a little light /of his own." — is one of many beautiful odes and elegies for family elders who emigrated here or remained home. What could be more American — or universal — than that?
Haddad observes her father in a hospital as "he smacks his lips, rolls /his tongue inside, Agua, /He says, though he is /not Mexican, Agua, /a language he has learned /in America, and he, Arabic. /Three languages roll deftly /on this dry tongue."
Al-Jundi mentions his father (a Syrian poet) taking him to Amman and Beirut — by taxi! — in quest of a student visa when the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was closed after the Six-Day War.
Nye writes of breaking off the hands of "mother's praying statue /when I was four — /how she tearfully repaired them, /but the hairline cracks /in the wrists /were all she said /she could see — /the unannounced blur /of something passing /out of a life."
Just as 9-11 was a defining moment for all, it was particularly painful for Arab Americans, whom many called the enemy within. As U.S.-born Saladin Ahmad writes: "In a word, brother, it is dangerous," especially after Bush's "war on terror" was concocted. Samuel Hazo writes about it directly: "Nightmares of impact crushed us. /We slept like the doomed or drowned, /then woke to oratory, vigils, /valor, journalists declaring war /and, snapping from aerials or poles, the furious clamor of flags." History reminds us that every civilization has blood on its hands and no government has been innocent of murder.
Yet the lyric impulse emerges, even in tragedy. Kazim Ali, in a musical turn, hears: "The violin's empty stomach resonates /Music is a scar unraveling itself in strings." Sinan Antoon of Baghdad says "the Tigris and Euphrates /are two strings /in death's lute /and we are songs /or fingers strumming." D.H. Melhem listens to the "Broadway Music" of a homeless trio who are not Arabs, with her fine-tuned ear of empathy.
Presented in alphabetical order with impressive work by each poet, there are 160 texts in more than 300 pages. There are powerful narratives by Sharif S. Elmusa, Hedy Habra, Sam Hamod, Lawrence Joseph, Mohja Kahf, Pauline Kaldas, Jack Marshall, Khaled Mattawa and Philip Metres and lovely lyrics from Alise Alousi, Nuar Alsadir, Lisa Suhair Majaj and Gregory Orfalea.
Hayan Charara has made shrewd editorial choices and also contributes a masterful language excursion in his long poem ("Usage"). His thoughtful introduction discusses the poetic, political and social dimensions, as well as the thematic and personal issues that Arab American poets confront in their lives and work.
The University of Arkansas Press deserves kudos for publishing this groundbreaking anthology at a time when deeper understanding of our diversity is most crucial. This marvelous gathering of sensibilities will challenge and excite open-minded readers with significant new poetry.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry Anthology
Here's a recent review of Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry, the recent anthology edited by Hayan Charara which brings together some of the elders with the up-and-comers of Arab American background. As an aperitif to grading, I'm taking little swigs of this anthology. More on this later, but in the meantime, go ahead and get yourself a little copy, eh?