Foreword by Barbara Nimri Aziz to Susan Muaddi Darraj Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab American Women Writing, 2004
Inevitably, a time arrives in a people’s history when a shared awakening occurs. In varying degrees of awareness, driven by the feeling that “It is up to me to tell my people’s story,” we begin. Or, we are compelled simply to tell my own story.
James Baldwin, when he emerged as a political voice, concluded, that he could not accept what he once believed –that he was an interloper, that he could have “no other heritage (than the white heritage) which I could possibly hope to use”, and he would simply have to accept his special attitude, his special place in the world scheme. At one time, he had believed that otherwise, “I would have no place in any scheme”. (Autobiographical Notes, p. 7, Notes of A Native Son, 1955.)
Ultimately Baldwin rejected that fate and he went on to write some of the finest prose in American literature. Today, just fifty years later he has earned a place as one of America’s foremost writers.
There are many similarities between Arab and Black experience in the United States, and Arabs in general would gain much in our struggle for empowerment and recognition by studying our positions vis-à-vis the mainstream White society more closely. This applies to artists as well as community leaders.
Drawing from his analysis of his heritage and how he might negotiate the world of the Black American and the dominant White culture he found so oppressive, Baldwin said: “One writes out of one thing only– one’s own experience.” It is not easy when one finds oneself embedded in a hostile environment that is also one’s beloved home. “Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” (Autobiographical Notes, p. 7, Notes of A Native Son).
Facing the sweet and bitter, tussling with disorder, hate, fear, is asserting our responsibility, a responsibility we once had left to others.
“Write or be written” is one of the three guiding principles set out in the mission statement of the Italian American Writers Association a decade ago. “Write or be written.” It’s that simple. Black Americans learned this. Italian Americans as well. Now, as demonstrated in the surge of new books by our emerging writers, our Arab community has reached this conclusion.
“Write or be written.” Because the histories we learn in school, the tales we hear in the street, the claims made on our behalf, all somehow miss the point. Or simply get it wrong. We are really not how others write us. At best we are invisible. What we witnessed and were taught was not and is not our heritage.
We may wait a generation to discover what we decide is an unbiased historian, or at least a talented sympathizer Robert Fisk, Michael Moore, June Jordan, Noam Chomsky any of the numerous informed and courageous experts who try to set the record straight. Our story will finally find its way into the public arena, we believe. So we champion these men and women, and circulate their stories.
Ultimately however, we find that those accounts, when they appear, are never really satisfactory. They may inform, but only in a qualified way. Something is missing. Even if we do not say so, we feel it. What’s missing is ‘me’. Because those friendly appeals can never embody the intimacies—bitter and sweet–of what only we know is our life and that of our ancestors. They are never quite convincing, not to us anyway. Ultimately, perhaps, as mere second hand attempts to reveal a people’s soul, other well-meaning attempts serve little purpose towards the goal to giving voice to the voiceless.
Writing one’s own story is not easy, as we are learning. When we take on the responsibility of recording our story, we have first to master the language. Yet, craft is not the foremost issue. Honesty and intimacy, often accompanied by some pain, face us when we really examine our truths. Often writers speak about this. The best overcome it.
Then there is the wall to pull down. Given the heap of misrepresentations and the patronizing tales of Arabs by generations of Orientalists, politicians and reporters, we face a barrier of half-truths that we ourselves have imbibed and perhaps believed. So we have a great deal of sorting out to do. We must decide what is really true and what is false, then negotiate those and add to this our own hidden experience.
Arab descendants in America are, to a degree, colonized. Encouraged to forget our beautiful difference, we imbibe so many of the biases and distortions around us. We become ambiguous about our heritage. And a person who is equivocal or confused can never become an artist. As Baldwin points, out the process of making order from chaos is art.
When one rejects the falsehoods, a void often opens before us. If I am not that alien, if not that exotic, if not that mean and incompetent, that nostalgic or warring woman others write me, what am I? Who was my sitti, my grandmother? What about her made her larger and more real than an American granny. I need to find out and then imprint her arabness on everyone.
At one point in poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s award winning story, Sitti’s Secret, the little girl is combing her grandmother’s freshly washed hair, an uneventful gesture in a series of exchanges between the child and old woman. It was not so for me. I recognized my Arab grandmother there. Only an Arab child could know this. How? Because my grandmother too invited me to comb her hair after she had washed it. That created a deeply intimate bond between my sitti and me. I never heard of anyone else doing this. So when I read that passage in Nye’s story I was deeply moved, in part because I felt my heritage was retrieved. Nye’s account gave me pride; it did not take anything from my own grandmother and our secret. Rather, it offered a means for me to share that special moment with all little girls in the world. Perhaps other children comb their grandmothers’ hair. Because an Arab woman, Naomi Shihab Nye was the first to articulate it for me, it has greater poignancy. Art and not nostalgia made the leap.
Today’s Arab writers have the job and the will to seek out these overlooked minor details of our heritage and with them help us rebuild a fragmented, uncertain, identity.
Toni Morrison writes about her research for her stories thus: “I always think I am at some archeological site and I find a shard, a little piece of pottery and then I have to invent the rest. But first I have to go to the place, move the dirt and find out why I am there.”
All writers are such miners, sifting through the fragments, the little things overlooked or abandoned or discolored by others. This is where Arab American writers are today, first going to the place, and moving the dirt.
“They stole the little things from us,” said the composer and singer Marcel Khalife about the losses in his native Lebanon after Israel’s invasion. Historians, human rights experts and politicians may quantify the gross violations of a ravaged people–millions and millions driven from their homelands, denied succor, leaving loved ones in terrifying circumstances. What makes one story, although no less tragic, more poignant than another, lies perhaps in the ‘little things’ we are able to identify and recover. What we build from them may not overturn centuries of injustice, and it will not propel us into a position of dominance. But we can at least write our own story. As for addressing what others write, perhaps as Baldwin concluded, “truce… is the best we can hope for.”
Many committed Arab American personalities and experts have dedicated themselves to challenging erroneous and dangerous stereotypes of Arabs. These arguments may be useful in a court of law. They do not, however, make novels. Writers cannot dispute. But we can locate ourselves at that archeological site, and build new stories from the little things we reclaim.
This is an exhilarating, backbreaking, long process that distinguishes a writer from others. In the new generation, it produced the memoir “Children of Roomje” by Elmaz Abinader, Diana Abujaber’s first novel “Arabian Jazz”, and the collection “Food For Our Grandmothers” edited by Joanna Kadi. These ventures, all three from women in our Arab American community, were early individual rivulets for what would become a virtual deluge of new poetry, plays, novels and memoirs, all appearing in the past decade.
Why Arab women seem to be in the forefront of this rush of writing ourselves, I am uncertain. Possibly, we feel driven by the same spirit that led so many Black women and Asian women and Italian women to search their lives, to dig through the hoary gravesites, to imbue little things with real importance.
Among Black Americans, while the work of James Baldwin and Richard Wright are now classics of American literature, today four African American women, Toni Morrison, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker are writers of tremendous talent and accomplishment. Through her writing, each one has expanded the boundaries of human experience. Doubtless, each in turn, urges other women to search, confront, and then to write. From our Asian writers– Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, Jampa Lahiri and Bharati Mukerjee have likewise made a whole people visible and passionate.
Every generation of writers who make a social and literary impact do so by leaping barriers. Perhaps in the case of African Americans of the mid 20th Century, it was the confrontation on race that propelled the debate into literature. While race is still a major theme in so much contemporary writing by Black writers, Morrison’s work reaches into spheres of human exchange that take the Black American experience and every reader to new heights, accompanied by a completely distinctive music in her language.
Can the writing of Arabs in America do this? And will we build on foundations laid in English by Khalil Gibran, Sam Hazo, or Gregory Orfalea, or in Arabic by Adonis, Nizar Qabbani and Mahmoud Darwish?
Or will we construct our truths on the wings of Americans like June Jordan, and Sonia Sanchez.
In her poem, “first writing since” the incomparably forthright poet, Suheir Hammad, records her news about the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001 with the words “please god, let it be a mistake… please don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brother….” There is surely not a single Arab or Muslim man or woman anywhere who, sharing that awesome news, did not utter the same thought. Yet, we needed this especially honest women, this young writer, Suheir Hammad, to articulate that simple fear. Her words reach all men and women, universally, who at one moment in time or another, have cried “Please god, not my brother.”
Hammad’s work represents an important step away from nostalgia and towards a face-to-face maturity of what it is to be Arab and American. The protest novels of Black writers was critical to the emergence of the Black literary voice of the 20th century. The anger of feminists linking the personal with the universal– was also a stage in their emerging voice. And Asian American writers like Jampa Lahiri articulate the delicate, tragic edge of their people’s existence in American society.
Thus far, for the most part, Arab American writers, although we feel tormented and confused, whether by our ancestry or our tenuous place in American society or the injustices in Palestine expose little of the real conflicts we face. Our writers seem to be struggling to tolerate, to cleanse our image, to move on. I doubt if we can really advance without openly confronting the ills that afflict us, the barriers that confront us, internal and external. We are the opposite of the angry young artist at this point in our journey.
Yet, we are on course. More young Arabs are studying literature seriously with the view to mastering the skills of writing. This together with a greater readiness to examine ourselves and enter the heap of history that lies all around us and to move the dirt and paw through fragments, reclaim the little things, and invent the rest.
Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab American Women Writing, edited by Susan Muaddi Darraj. 2004, Praeger, Westport, CT.