This Hyphen Called My Spinal Cord
Arab-American Literature at the Beginning of the 21st Century
Beyond the Text and the Usual Suspects
Although the people in Arab-American literature may be settled, and even well rooted, in the United States, they constantly make reference to personal, cultural, historical, and political realities in their families’ countries of origin. Contrary to many conventional expectations, the authors present neither a simpleminded nostalgia for the Old Ways nor an unambiguous relief at having escaped to the Enlightened West. Instead, they offer a complex, sometimes excruciating, expression of how the “old” and “new” worlds are related.
This has important results. First, “the West” is no longer assumed to be the center and the former colonies and protectorates the periphery. Second—and just as important—authors are often compelled to show, in intimate terms, the human cost of policies that otherwise might only be understood in abstract terms or through the clichéd images of approved news footage. Ultimately, the “de-centered” worldview presents a new center: the value of human life that authors affirm through their compassionate attention to particular people and events, presented with the understanding that what happens “there” is inextricably tied to what happens “here.” This value (which is certainly not unique to Arab-American writers) stands in opposition to those whose actions express a contempt for life equal to their capacity to destroy it.
Extraliterary contexts too complex to explore here must at least be noted: even as violent forces define themselves by a “clash of civilizations,” grassroots movements for human rights and self-determination are crossing borders in unprecedented ways, expressing common aspirations that cannot be attributed exclusively to the “West” or “East,” “North” or “South.” To recognize such commonalities is not to gloss over differences in cultures, beliefs, or ideologies. In fact, grassroots movements often ground their efforts in traditions of community that grow out of their particular place on earth and assert themselves in the face of a globalized market that frequently erodes local cultures even as it exacerbates economic disparities. The insights literature offers into these unprecedented times can be easily overlooked by those who read and write in the old “us/them” terms.
Beyond What the Market and Aesthetics Will Bear
The pervasive misrepresentation of the Arab world in Western popular culture has been well documented. What can literary fiction offer instead? Does the aesthetic currently dominant in U.S. publishing serve or impede what we need to be reading and writing these days? For the sake of contrast, I would first like to discuss three novels that were not written by Arab-Americans: The Cyclist, The Secret History, and The Last Night of a Damned Soul.
Viken Berberian’s The Cyclist (2002) was respectfully reviewed. In his jacket blurb, Eric Bogosian writes, “Seductive, insidious, upsetting and ultimately satisfying. Berberian captures the Middle East with his descriptions of indigenous delicacies, humanizing and revealing the type of person I need to know more about right now. He shows us how youth mixed with power is an intoxicating cocktail.” But what, in fact, does The Cyclist reveal?
The novel depicts members of a terrorist group planning a hotel bombing. This “type of person” seems to be, in many ways, remarkably like “us,” as evidenced by detailed information about cuisine and bicycle racing, two topics of interest to the demographic that buys “serious fiction.” Digressions on hip, esoteric subjects have become de rigueur in fiction, which may say more about publishers than writers. The couple at the heart of the story enjoy a vigorous sex life. The woman’s ever-ready enthusiasm might be more convincing in a harem fantasy, but maybe her desire is supposed to transgress other stereotypes.
What we don’t learn, however, are the would-be terrorists’ thoughts about the murderous action they are preparing; there is no representation of moral, ethical, or political conflicts or rationalizations. (The ad for Bonnie and Clyde comes to mind: “They’re young. They’re in love. They kill people.”) Berberian skillfully generates dread; the reader anxiously hopes that eros and agape will overcome thanatos. But the obvious question remains: What the hell is wrong with these people?
The author tells us that the unnamed main character is a well-educated secularist with Druze roots, and that he and his lover grew up in a religiously and ethnically diverse village in the Galilee, where they were traumatized by a market bombing, the work of a group led by the otherwise unidentified Fareed. We learn nothing of this group or its motives, nor those of the rival group, the Academy, into which the main character and his lover are recruited. Similarly, we are given no context or motive for the bombing the characters prepare. We do know it will take place in Lebanon, as if that made further explanation superfluous. (As some buff American killing machine says in the film Navy SEALs: “Beirut, baby—that’s all you need to know.”)
Well, what—beyond this text—do we know? And what do we want to learn? We know that in our time, the most common victims of political violence are noncombatants. Most victims do not respond with violence. Why is that? A few do. Why is that? To get to the heart of such questions, we may need to go beyond the precise language of the social sciences to the implications of literature. But Berberian’s elegant aesthetic seems to exclude most such considerations. Instead, we get esoterica about the chemistry of cooking, which perhaps is meant to stand as a correlative for personal and political relationships, and sadistic fantasies that use food preparation as a metaphor for the devastation of a terrorist attack.
Since Berberian is obviously knowledgeable and thoughtful, he appears compelled by his aesthetic to exclude depth in both exterior (social) and interior (psychological) space in favor of a compulsive first-person monologue intent on filtering out any input that would deter the would-be terrorist from his aims. (In this sense, “there is nothing but the text”—though interior and exterior realities keep trying to break through.) Berberian’s approach is artistically effective. It could be argued that too much social or psychological material would have bogged down the story or limited it by tying it to a particular time.
Nevertheless, novelists from Dostoevsky to Toni Morrison have artfully included essential moral, psychological, political, and cultural contexts while exploring intimate confrontations with nihilism and violence. Is nihilism now such a pervasive undercurrent in our consumer culture that it goes without saying? Is this situation reflected by an aesthetic that excludes the discussion of the ideas and emotions by which many of us live and die, as an earlier aesthetic excluded the exploration of sexuality? An approach that, in Berberian’s case, may have been strategic (i.e., specific to the purposes of The Cyclist) has become widespread, even customary—and therefore accepted without examination. If the fashion is to dismiss the possibility of transcendence and, as is the case of much contemporary poetry, to dislocate language from quotidian experience, a writer’s motto becomes: “Neither out far nor in deep.”
Examples abound and are not limited to works on the Middle East. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), for one, the publication of which was packaged as a Major Literary Event, tells the story of a group of white American college students who commit two murders, one in a frenzy, the other in cold blood. Its 500-plus pages include innumerable descriptions of people lighting cigarettes and pouring scotch, and then smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch, and supplies the required esoterica (in this case, about Dionysian rituals), but ethical considerations begin and end with loyalty and self-preservation. And maybe that’s the point. Toward the end, the narrator looks back on the whole thing and tosses off a line about evil. What the hell is the matter with these people?
The situation calls for more than a good scolding by a man in a white hat (or white suit). And literary art needs to do more than simply incorporate the practices and lexicons of other fields. Technical vocabulary aspires to mean only one thing, as precisely as possible. Therapeutic language tends to lose significance outside its context. Demagoguery intends to discredit or erase anything that might contradict it. Most reporting has no room for the visionary. All four kinds of language, in and of themselves, are insufficient for a literature intent on getting at some truth by exploring ambiguities, paradoxes, overtones, undercurrents, and hidden relationships, regardless of any program, including the author’s. And, in fact, many authors do find artful ways to incorporate both the insights and lexicons of other fields, all the while remaining open to the discovery of what their efforts reveal.
The point is not that literature should be read as raw material for the social sciences but that an artist can suggest what a social scientist cannot. By the same token, artists get at their truths differently than journalists, and it’s dangerous to blur the line between them. Demagoguery’s dead weight wounds any art it penetrates. This much is well understood. But we need to go further. If an aesthetic excludes any aspect of human experience, the least we can do is ask why. If need be, we can then go beyond aesthetic restrictions to artfully achieve a more inclusive representation of experience. Given the context, such expansion feels urgent.
If The Cyclist elides social and spiritual contexts, Slimane Benaïssa’s novel The Last Night of a Damned Soul (2004) dives right into them. Benaïssa, who has worked extensively as an actor and playwright, was born in Algeria but moved to France in 1993 in the wake of terrorist threats. His first novel, written in French, follows Raouf, a successful young Arab-American engineer living in California who, suffering a crisis of meaning after his father’s death, is drawn away from secular life by the reassurances of Islamist fundamentalism and then recruited for a terrorist mission. Through this process, he gradually severs all intimate ties as he is “purified” and indoctrinated.
The novel comes out of modern Arabic and French literary aesthetics that value the exploration of emotional and philosophical dilemmas in a style uncommon in fiction on this side of the Atlantic. Abstractions are understood as matters of life and death. As a Muslim deeply concerned with the ways in which fundamentalism has warped Islam, Benaïssa presents, with an insider’s understanding and detail, an imam’s justifications for violent jihad. To borrow the language of Bogosian’s blurb for The Cyclist, it tells us about the type of person we need to understand right now. But judging by the reviews, an American audience, reading with different aesthetic expectations, will find the imam’s sermons a long, hard slog. So much for the drama of ideas and the battle for souls in a multicultural context. (Anyone who got through the retreat in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man should give Benaïssa a chance.)
The novel’s real weakness, however, is its failure to convincingly render the story’s American milieu. There is not much sense of place in a novel where conflicts between Raouf’s inner life and outer world are key. As we shall see, Arab-American writers with roots in both Arab and American “worlds” can succeed in rendering the actual, interconnected world in which we all live. But first, a few words about identity and spiritual life.
Beyond Sheep and Goats
Today’s diverse and divisive fundamentalisms share common characteristics. For one thing, while appealing to tradition, they are contemporary reactions to modernity. For another, they are preoccupied with purity and danger, boundaries and infection. The saved, the chosen, the faithful will know no peace until the evil ones are cast out or (better yet) eradicated once and for all. This “us/them” script runs contrary to the visions, common in many traditions, that transcend all socially constructed boundaries. Historically, such visions have also found a secular form in acts of human solidarity.
Whether secular or religious, such visions, if acted upon, speak truth to power in dangerous ways and must therefore be contained by interpretations that support the status quo. In any case, a transcendent understanding of the beloved community (to borrow a Christian term) does not erase identity but instead transforms it into a sense of affinity with the rest of creation that makes old divisions irrelevant. While such realizations can be ecstatic, they often require a radical rebirth. Nevertheless, their expression recurs throughout history in writers as diverse as Kabir and Whitman.
While those who speak truth to power offer an enduring legacy and challenge, there is plenty of evidence that, throughout history, religion has more often served as an apparatus of social control than as an inspiration for social transformation. For many, the very language that links religion and identity is inherently suspect. We cannot, however, simply dismiss the issue as a delusion of the benighted and go on our way. For better and for worse, in global terms, we are all tangled up with one another.
In his book-length essay In the Name of Identity (2001), novelist Amin Maalouf (an Arab Christian living in France—that is, a minority within a minority) writes: “We cannot be satisfied with forcing billions of bewildered human beings to choose between excessive assertion of their identity and the loss of their identity altogether, between fundamentalism and disintegration.” He goes on to speak of the need to accept “multiple affiliations and allegiances.”
Clearly, the West is not exempt from his challenge. More recently, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has written:
The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single, allegedly preeminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world.
Sen then proceeds to take apart Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, declaring that it contains a “remarkable use of imagined singularity.”
Moving from “imagined singularity” to beloved community requires the hard work of knowing self and other. Assuming the privilege to pretend that we are not all connected inevitably breeds more violence. Ultimately, as a matter of mutual survival, we need to confront our projections and fantasies, break down controlling images, and prepare a meeting ground. Arab-American writers, among many others, can certainly contribute to that work. Unfortunately, in this country, those who identify with the dominant culture, whether they denigrate “identity politics” or even at times privilege certain representations in a postcolonial context, too often assume they are exempt from such effort. (It’s their world—the rest of us just live in it.)
A mild yet telling example: a recent review of Lawrence Joseph’s work remarked that one could expect it to include a certain number of “who-am-I” poems. The comment was tossed off in passing, as if its assumptions required no examination. Not surprisingly, the reviewer, so sure of what he expected to see, overlooked much of Joseph’s literary accomplishment as well as the moral challenge it embodies. Obviously, writers classified as ethnic deal with more than identity. And writers who are not classified as ethnic produce their share of “who-am-I” poems. However, as members of the dominant culture, they have the option either to avoid the issue or to address it in exclusively personal terms.
What the best “ethnic” writers do transcends ethnicity in ways that, paradoxically, “mainstream” writers often don’t. Joseph, for example, in addressing identity, recognizes himself in relationship to multiple cultural, social, economic, historical, political, communal and familial forces and responds as a moral individual. He moves through the particulars of ethnicity to arrive at an understanding of shared humanity beyond “us” and “them.” Paradoxically, he achieves this by examining what divides us, using a severe process that, especially in his earlier poems, calls to mind the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation.
He accomplishes this even while addressing dehumanizing violence, not as a know-it-all above-it-all but as a writer compelled by conscience. His relatives lived through the war in Lebanon, and growing up, he witnessed deadly racial conflicts in working-class Detroit. He also relates what he saw as a young lawyer in the criminal-justice system. And while grounding his work in a conversational tone, he increasingly traces global webs of corrosive power. In his most recent book, Into It, he speaks as a longtime resident of lower Manhattan who lives within walking distance of Ground Zero. All this he does without self-pity or self-dramatization, and his rhetorical powers make his poetry impossible to dismiss on purely aesthetic grounds.
Joseph’s vision—penetrating, unsentimental, and uncompromising—passes through caustic indignation to a sorrowful compassion, a sense of relatedness rather than fragmentation. In fact, that relatedness—which includes a stubborn faith in the possibility of coherence and integrity—can sometimes lead (especially in his third book, Before Our Eyes) to an almost paralyzing sense of entanglement. Nevertheless, it stands in fierce contrast to much poetry by his contemporaries, which, while dealing with far more circumscribed matters, has been routinely praised for being “pitiless” (when did that become a virtue?). It also stands in contrast to a popular and political culture enthralled by fantasies of vengeance.
While deeply influenced by what might be called the American tradition of the radical religious left (including Martin Luther King Jr., the Berrigan brothers, and the Catholic Worker Movement) as well as by his Lebanese and Syrian heritage, Joseph rarely speaks in conventionally spiritual terms. Rather, one senses his faith as a force that both compels him to confront injustice and gives him the strength to do so without turning away. Joseph’s work can be harsh, but it is never exploitative or sadistic. Its spiritual dimension is most evident in its underlying belief that the truth will make us free.
I emphasize this point for two reasons. One, it is likely to be overlooked in a conventional reading of “ethnic work”; and two, it shows his values are rooted on “both sides of the hyphen,” in both the Levant and the United States (though, in both cases, in minority traditions). Considering the circumstances, not to mention precedents in the canon, “mainstream” writers are by no means excluded from spiritual and artistic struggle with identity. In fact, until more people engage in it, obsolete “us” and “them” categories will persist, with all their dangers. As Cornel West has written, “Unless we find a new language of compassion, the fire this time will consume us all.”
Beyond “I Was a Teenage Ethnic” and Other-of-the-Month
While many true citizens of the dominant culture take historical dislocation and postmodern fragmentation in stride (or deny them with various fundamentalisms), some ethnics can’t help wondering how everything connects, or used to, or could some day. The forms such explorations take are hardly predictable, as illustrated by three very different novels about young Arab-American women “coming of age”: The Bullet Collection, by Patricia Sarrafian Ward; West of Jordan, by Laila Halaby; and Towelhead, by Alicia Erian.
Arab-American writers constitute a diverse group and engage a wide range of themes; rather than use these three novels as the basis for generalization, we should consider how each escapes mainstream expectations (though Erian’s book requires qualification on this point). In the first place, they do not focus on violent, fanatical men served by silent, submissive women (hijab or harem costume optional). All three novels concentrate on women and girls with minds of their own, and Halaby and Sarrafian Ward present individuals who see beyond a simpleminded clash between the Modern World and the Old Ways as they struggle to make lives for themselves. Finally, while representing young people wrestling with questions of identity, they escape the preoccupations of adolescent narcissism to explore much wider connections.
With this qualification. Despite its title and cover art, Towelhead (2005) actually has very little to say about ethnicity generally or Arab-Americans specifically. In this novel, “the Arab thing” is mostly a hook. Towelhead’s main character, thirteen-year-old Jasira, is caught between divorced parents—a permissive, distracted American mother and a repressive, distracted Arab father. A Houston engineer, he is portrayed as a generic patriarchal tyrant. Of course, such men exist, but Erian never lets us see into him. And since he’s an Arab, caricature passes for characterization, and the novel gains a faux relevance.
Jasira has no real interest in or knowledge of her Arab background (understandably, given her relationship with her father); her “roots” only deepen her miserable isolation by making her the target of her classmates’ epithets on the eve of the Gulf War. But this example of bigotry is mentioned so briefly that it could almost be cut without disrupting the story. In the same way, the father doesn’t have to be Arab—any variety of patriarchal tyrant would do (and there are so many to choose from). Perhaps Jasira’s strongest link to the Arab world is the genetic material that triggers her early physical maturity and therefore makes her the target of sexual predators. The middle-aged neighbor who first (sort of) befriends her and then rapes her is a gung-ho reservist who talks tough about killing Arabs, though he is never called up. If this is meant as political satire, it’s pretty sketchy.
Towelhead’s real subject is Jasira’s desolate vulnerability. Erian knows how to make this story poignant and disturbing. She flips the script on every dirty joke in the canon about the sweet young thing who doesn’t quite understand what men want to do to her. The book’s impact comes from the way Erian lets us in on Jasira’s lonely efforts to make sense of her life while the adults who should be helping her are otherwise engaged. But the way she tells the story has little to do with ethnicity—a point made especially clear when we read Towelhead beside West of Jordan and The Bullet Collection. While Erian is free to choose her subjects, her failure to get past ethnic stereotypes results in Jasira being the only fully drawn character in her novel.
Halaby also deals with abusive relationships, intergenerational conflicts, patriarchal tyrants, and sexual transgression (among other things), but by doing so within detailed cultural contexts, she challenges assumptions rather than confirming them. She doesn’t treat Arab culture as exotic; she just tells the story, giving enough background to orient an uninitiated audience. Mainstream American readers love cultural material as long as they can treat it as arcane, which is to say exotic. Without such distancing, they might wonder if understanding the characters could result in a change of heart that somehow implicates them. (Perhaps it’s not surprising that Erian’s novel is the only one of these three published by a big New York house. Most Arab-American writers, like most of their ethnic colleagues, only see the light of print through small independent and university presses.) In any case, while most Americans don’t know much about Arabs, they think they do, thanks to centuries of stereotypes, with the result that teachable moments often begin and end with, “Why do they hate us?”
Laila Halaby’s West of the Jordan (2003) interweaves the stories of four cousins trying to define themselves in relationship to Palestinian and American realities. Mawal chooses to live a relatively conservative life on the West Bank, despite the occupation. The other three—Hala, Khadija, and Soraya—live in the United States, at various removes from their homeland, trying with mixed results to negotiate jarring immigrant experiences and conflicted individual identities. None of this is schematic, predictable, didactic, or otherwise simple, and Halaby’s austere, understated presentation avoids the easy reassurances of conventional storytelling.
If Halaby’s style is austere, Patricia Sarrafian Ward’s is torrential. The Bullet Collection (2003) is a first-person account of the war in Lebanon, narrated by Marianna, the daughter of an American professor and his Lebanese wife. The war begins when Marianna is seven; her family finally resettles in the United States ten years later. Her sister Alaine, two years older, succumbs early on to the war’s constant psychic strain, punctuating her depressive withdrawal by cutting herself, attempting suicide, and escaping her family’s vigilance to recklessly wander the streets at night. Marianna does her best never to let her out of her sight.
All the typical experiences of growing up—rivalries, alliances, daydreams, nightmares, doubts, personal rebellions—are distorted under the constant pressure of war. Throughout the ten years, what Mariana notices and how she makes sense of it fit her particular age. When she understands one day that her fantasies of rescuing neighbors and ending the conflict can never be realized, she starts insisting she doesn’t care about anything. But her vivid, heartfelt observations of those around her prove otherwise. Though this is an introverted, first-person story, it feels multivocal, thanks to Ward’s engaged awareness, her gift for characterization and telling detail. She captures the daily absurdity, generosity, grief, desolation, and courage of ordinary people in an interminable war.
Lebanon is the only home Marianna has ever known. But as a teenager approaching a militia checkpoint one day, she decides that since her father is American and her mother’s parents were ethnic Armenian and Egyptian respectively, she can’t call herself Lebanese. However, when the family resettles in the United States, Mariana can’t let go of Lebanon. The sisters in effect switch roles—Alaine focusing on the present, spackling and painting the walls of their rundown house and digging a garden in the backyard, while Marianna falls into depression and attempts suicide.
Marianna endures these psychic dangers because she resists the willed forgetting so typical of fresh starts in America. Her healing begins when she realizes she can write about what happened. Though finding the words can seem almost as impossible as finding a reader who understands what they signify, writing means she doesn’t have to cut herself to let the pain out. Her identity goes beyond questions of ethnicity or nationality to encompass multiple affinities; her part is to remember and relate the fragments, to be one of those who tell coherent stories.
A work of art cannot be reduced to a sociological function, nor should its wider implications be limited. While focusing on a neighborhood of mostly middle-class Beirutis at a specific time, The Bullet Collection takes its place in that literature which affirms our humanity in dehumanizing circumstances. It also gives the lie to political and ideological rhetoric that would dismiss the suffering of civilians as “regrettable but inevitable” or, worse, a cause for celebration, in an age when noncombatants are, by far, war’s most common victims.
The Bullet Collection also defies an aesthetic of surfaces—”neither out far nor in deep.” Marianna and Alaine literally cut themselves to get beyond the surface of their own skin in their attempts to relieve the pressure of psychic wounds. Eventually, each finds her own way to healing. But having read their story, we are less likely to overlook the long-term traumas of young people who have grown up in war zones. And if these two sisters turn the violence inward, is it so hard to imagine why someone else, in slightly different circumstances, might strike out at others instead?
In Lieu of a Conclusion
“Ethnic” writers are sometimes encouraged to play to a mainstream audience. We may want to represent our people and culture, win acceptance, or prove we’re as human as anyone else. But audience interest and expectations may divert us from the work we are really called to do, however each of us defines it. While many of us write (and live) with a sense of the gap between who we are and how we are perceived—and take pains to communicate across it—our vocation is to be artists, not “native informants.”
Not only must we find meaning and make sense, as all writers do, but we must present that meaning in a context in which it may very well be distorted or ignored. And so, at the same time each of us is struggling, like any serious writer, to speak, we are also using the minority’s dual awareness to be understood. We don’t want to produce “words that can be used against us” (to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich).
Arab-American writers are becoming visible today as never before. Since many of us have worked in isolation for so long, it’s inspiring to read one another’s work. And we can feel liberated knowing that we don’t have to start from scratch and explain everything, which is impossible anyway. Instead, we can imagine ourselves writing a particular story among many stories that, accumulating over time, will present a more inclusive vision.
Arab-American literature has always been more complex than any narrow definition of ethnic literature could anticipate. Our experiences as Arab-Americans—some of which we have in common—influence who we are and how we see things, but they certainly don’t limit what we write about and how we approach it. To some extent, what we write is part of a conversation with the past. But the conversation is new. Being aware of a body of work, in both the individual and collective sense, helps us move on to new themes and new approaches. Sometimes the frustrations of Middle Eastern politics suggest we could go on writing the same poem over and over, and it would stay relevant. In fact, the current situation—political and otherwise—is unprecedented in many ways, and we need imagination and creativity to deal with it—through writing and other means.
People see what they are prepared to see, and too often people read “ethnic” literature with very limited ideas about what they will find there. What does not confirm their prejudices, support their theories, or serve as background material for an issue that interests them may be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant. In order to have an influence on the American literary scene—or the American scene more generally—Arab-American literature needs to be read as literature.
If readers can get past their presumptions, they might discover the complex ways that Mohja Kahf, for instance, deals with gender issues as a Muslim feminist. They might give up other stereotypes by considering the nurturing, loving, patient, nonviolent Arab men in the fiction of Diana Abu-Jaber or Joseph Geha. The next step might be to read a few more Arab-American men rather than focus on the work of women in ways that can be suspiciously self-congratulatory.
It is also important to recognize, especially when much ethnic work is dismissed as part of a “culture of complaint,” that acknowledging one’s heritage doesn’t have to spiral down into a “victim identity.” In fact, in many cases, it allows writers to spiral outward into a greater sense of solidarity with others. Lawrence Joseph has written about the African-Americans he grew up with, Naomi Shihab Nye about her Latino neighbors. The work of ethnobotanist, essayist, and poet Gary Paul Nabhan has always depended on his being able to develop relationships of trust with Native Americans.
Inevitably, we will be read primarily for insights into the Arab world. Some of us, like Khaled Mattawa, can draw creatively on the traditions of both English and Arabic, not only in translations but in original work. These terrible times may also be the threshold of a great cross-fertilization.
David Williams, who teaches writing at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, is the author of two poetry collections, Traveling Mercies and Far Sides of the Only World. His poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in dozens of magazines—most recently in Orion, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner—and eight anthologies, including Post-Gibran: New Arab-American Writing, A Different Path, and Dinarzad’s Children: Contemporary Arab-American Fiction. His writing is discussed at length in Memory and Cultural Politics: New Ethnic American Literatures.
“From the January-February 2007 issue of World Literature Today (81:1), pages 55-63. Copyright 2007 World Literature Today.”