CHILDREN OF AL-MAHJAR: ARAB AMERICAN LITERATURE SPANS A CENTURY

By Elmaz Abinader


If a literature's life and energy are determined by the activity surrounding it, then Arab American literature is experiencing a renaissance.

In this current atmosphere in the United States of enjoying and celebrating literature of culture and immigration, many feel we have "discovered" the Arab American voice. The emergence of magazines and newspapers that highlight Arab American culture, the abundance of organizations which address issues of Arab American identity and image, the access to web sites and specialized search capabilities in the writings of Arab Americans, the anthologies and presses that collect Arab American voices, the conferences that have as central themes Arab American writers, and the convocations which emphasize the works of Arab American authors and performers all create the sense that Arab American literature is something that has just now emerged -- that it has discovered America and America has discovered Arab American writers.

This is not the case. The Arab American literary tradition goes back to the early years of the 20th century, and continues to thrive today.

Literature by Arab Americans is on the syllabi of classes on ethnic literature, literature of immigration and multicultural voices. Scholars from the United States and other countries are compiling bibliographies of Arab American literature and writing dissertations on the literary identity of Arab American writers.

Many believe that this strong presence of Arab American literature is part of or followed the upsurge of "ethnic literature" in the United States of the 1970s. Writers from Hispanic American, Native American, Asian American and African American worlds emerged, accompanied to a lesser degree by Arab American writers. What went largely unrecognized in the 1970s was that Arab Americans were among the first immigrant writers to organize and to be recognized as a literary force by the broad U.S. literary community.

One of these early contingents, created in the 1920s, was known as Al Rabital al Qalamiyah, or the New York Pen League. This organization, familiarly known as Al-Mahjar, or "immigrant poets," was comprised of writers from Lebanon and Syria who often wrote in Arabic and collaborated with translators of their works. Ameen Rihani, Gibran Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Naimy and Elia Abu Madi served as the major figures in this period, and frequently are credited with developing an interest in immigrant writing in general.

While Gibran is most familiar to U.S. readers, Ameen Rihani is considered by all the "father of Arab American literature." His contributions traveled in both directions. A devotee of the work of Walt Whitman and the free verse style, he sang of himself and his America in many of his works. Most celebrated is his novel, The Book of Khalid (1911), written in verse, which dealt directly with the immigrant experience. Besides being a writer, Rihani was also an ambassador, traveling between his Lebanese homeland and the United States, working for independence from the Ottomans while developing a literary life in the United States. In addition, he introduced free verse to the very formulaic and traditional Arab poetic canon as early as 1905, which helped maintain Rihani as an important figure in his homeland.

During Rihani's lifetime, the literary life of the Arab Americans gained in strength. The first Arabic language newspaper, Kawkab Amerika, was founded in 1892; by 1919, 70,000 immigrants supported nine Arabic-language newspapers, many of them dailies, including the popular and pivotal el-Hoda. But the most important publication of this time in terms of the literary evolution of Arab Americans was a journal, Syrian World. Here the most celebrated writers of the early 20th century published plays, poems, stories and articles. The most celebrated of all was Gibran Khalil Gibran, who eventually turned out to be one of the United States' most popular authors.

Although many scholars find Gibran's work deeply philosophical and elementary, in his day he kept company with the greats of U.S. literature -- among them poet Robinson Jeffers, playwright Eugene O'Neill and novelist Sherwood Anderson. Gibran's opus, The Prophet, has been a top seller for its publisher for more than a half-century, and in many tabulations, the second most purchased book in the United States after the Bible. Gibran and other members of the Pen League freed Arab American writers of their self consciousness, addressing topics other than the immigrant experience. As a playwright, novelist, artist and poet, he has inspired other writers, musicians, artists and even the U.S. Congress, which established creation of the Khalil Gibran Memorial Poetry Garden in Washington D.C., dedicated by President George Bush in 1990 to commemorate Gibran's influence and universal themes.

But if Gibran and Rihani were celebrated with both popularity and honors, other members of the original Al Rabital group, among them Mikhail Naimy and Elia Abu Madi, did not attain their deserved recognition in the United States, even though Naimy was once nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. A playwright, writer of fiction, journalist and poet, he was politically temperamental during his days in the Pen League, setting standards against superficiality and hypocrisy in literature. Featured often on the pages of The New York Times, his most familiar works are his biography of Gibran Khalil Gibran and The Book of Mirdad, written after he had turned to eastern philosophies for solace and guidance in 1932. While his poetry was written in the United States, it was never translated into English, except in anthologies, such as Grape Leaves, A Century of Arab American Poetry (1988), edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa.

Similarly, Elia Abu Madi was also never translated even though he was considered the most capable and sublime of the Al-Mahjar writers. His topics spanned themes from love to war. Like the other writers of his group, he was strongly philosophical and political, but Madi and the other Pen League writers didn't apologize or explain themselves as Arabs to the American audience. While many articles in Syrian World addressed issues of American-ness, most often in a positive light, the works of these writers weighed on the side of universality. Almost all the writers wrote in Arabic, although they were read beyond their own circles.

The Pen League thinned out, and by the 1940s had disappeared. Arab writers -- both immigrants and children of immigrants -- were not acknowledged as a group and did not write often of heritage or culture. An apparent exception is Syrian Yankee, a 1943 novel by Salom Rizk, a Syrian American, an immigrant story with the undertone of assimilation and acceptance.

During the years roughly from the late 1940s through the early 1980s, there was little identification by writers as to their status as Arab Americans. Nonetheless, in this transitional period, strong independent poets came to the fore. Samuel John Hazo, D.H. Melhem and Etel Adnan distinguished themselves initially as writers independent of ethnic categorization who later donned the cloak of the Arab-American identity. Hazo, founder and director of the International Poetry Forum at the University of Pittsburgh, has been active in poetry for nearly 30 years, acting as mentor for generations of promising young writers. In 1993, he was appointed the first official State Poet of Pennsylvania. His own work reflects a strong connection to place, and the importance of observation and wonder. A recent collection, The Holy Surprise of Now: Selected and New Poems (1996), illustrates the range and luminescence of his almost 20 books.

The poets of this time were not only a bridge between the two highly enculturated generations, but also direct links between Arab American writing and the American literary canon. D.H. Melhem, a winner of the American Book Award, has developed a recognition of importance of the underrepresented cultures in American literature. Her critical studies of African American writers -- in particular Gwendolyn Brooks -- have been highly praised. In addition, Melhem has helped mainstream Arab American literature by organizing the first Arab American poetry reading at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in 1984.

Etel Adnan, whose reputation is more international than American, has advanced the placement of Arab American literature by creating her own publishing company, The Post-Apollo Press. Her poetry, her fiction and her reportage (Of Cities and Women, 1993) focus on the Middle East and political and military turmoil, specifically in Beirut. In her novel, Sitt Marie-Rose (1991), she writes about cross-cultural separation against the backdrop of the social texture of the city of Beirut itself.

Adnan, Hazo and Melhem, along with the elegant, ironic verse of Joseph Awad, have paved the way for the current generation of Arab American writers, of which they are still very much a part. While identifying oneself according to cultural heritage was not common before the 1970s and 1980s, political climate and literary trends began to insist upon it. With the resurgence of the black American voice in the late 1960s, other multicultural groups began to demand a place in U.S. history and literature. Still, it would be more than a decade before Arab American writers would achieve this status.

The catalytic publication was a small volume of poetry, Grape Leaves, edited by Gregory Orfalea in 1982. Before that date, there had been no such collection of verse resonating similar themes and sensibilities. By 1988, bookshelves welcomed the expanded anthology by Orfalea and Elmusa, as well as Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists, edited by Joanna Cadi (1994), and, most recently, Jusoor's Post Gibran Anthology of New Arab American Writing, edited by Khaled Mattawa and Munir Akash (1999). These volumes, supported by newspapers such as Al Jadid and the magazine Mizna, provide a home for both Arab American writers who focus on themes of culture and identity and those who do not. These collections provide readers and scholars with a resource center for Arab American writers as well as an opportunity to evaluate the collective voices.

Three facts become apparent upon examining existing Arab American collections. First, Arab American literature now originates from writers whose backgrounds include all Arab countries, including North Africa and the Gulf, rather than only representatives of the Levant. Second, the themes of Arab American writing are not limited to issues of culture and identity, but are extensive and far-reaching. Today, Arab American writers are going beyond stories and poems that are linked to the homeland and heritage. Their expressions explore new vistas -- related to years spent living in the United States -- and domestic political and social issues that affect their everyday lives. Third, there has been a noticeable increase in women's voices in Arab American literature, ever since the 1970s and the advent of Melhem and Adnan. In the main, this has been part of the national trend in the United States, ever since the rise of the women's movement in the late 1960s. In the wake of Melhem and Adnan have come many others.

Many of the strongest poets in the United States, outside any classification, have Arab origins. Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian American, has been repeatedly recognized as an outstanding poet, writer of prose and anthologist. While she instills a sense of culture into her poems, it can often refer to a culture she owns, visits or has invented. Nye has written books for children and has gathered together poems and paintings from Arab writers and artists from around the globe in her anthology, The Space Between Our Footsteps (1998). Other outstanding books by Nye include Never in a Hurry: Essays on People and Places (1996), Benito's Dream Bottle (1995) and Habibi (1997).

Some of the understanding and presence of Arab American writing is a result of writers who have developed a scholarly domain for studying this work. Evelyn Shakir, a professor at Bentley College, has opened the corridors of this scholarship with her book, Bint Arab (1997), in which she offers portraits, through personal narratives, of Arab women striking the delicate balance between their own cultural traditions and the way of life and opportunities they find in the United States. In addition, writer and poet Lisa Suhair Majaj has developed critical studies of the development of Arab American writing. In an essay that is both historical and politically astute, Majaj suggests that "...we need not stronger and more definitive boundaries of identity, but rather an expansion and a transformation of these boundaries. In broadening and deepening our understanding of ethnicity, we are not abandoning our Arabness, but making room for the complexity of our experiences." Majaj, and other scholars such as Loretta Hall and Bridget K. Hall, creators of the exhaustive volume Arab American Biography (1999), follow the work of Orfalea and Elmusa in creating the all-important compendia that many rely on as a premier resource for Arab American writing.

Some writers of Arab American origin have found success beyond more esoteric, scholarly audiences by appealing to mainstream readers. The best example today is Syrian-American Mona Simpson, whose 1987 novel, Anywhere But Here -- the story of an irrepressible single mother and her impressionable teenaged daughter -- was adapted as a Hollywood studio film in 1999, starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. Simpson is the author of two more recent stories, The Lost Father (1991) and A Regular Guy (1996). Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz (1993), also was well-received by a wide readership. Abu-Jaber pulls no punches in her portrayals of life within the Arab community that are both self-effacing and funny, bittersweet and nostalgic. By refreshing the memory, she keeps the questions of survival alive. Alongside Arabian Jazz is Through and Through (1990), a collection of short stories by Joseph Geha that provides a brilliant, passionate glimpse into the Lebanese community in Toledo, Ohio -- matching Abu-Jaber's self-ironic coloration in a sometimes tense political atmosphere.

True to Arab tradition, contemporary poets within the Arab American community write with passion and commitment about identity, culture and life, and represent many styles and voices. Elmusa makes this point in one poem, when he implores "poets, critics/members of other tribes,/please let's not reduce the poetry/of the tribe/into a sheepskin of poems/about the tribe." His request has been heeded by many Arab American poets, who -- as with writers from varied cultural traditions outside the mainstream -- make the complexities of identity and place the focal points of their work and persona.

The new generation is responding to styles and concerns that seem distant from the roots of Gibran and Rihani. Suheir Hammad, for example, in volumes such as Drops of This Story (1996), recognizes a kinship between her background and the African American voice. In Heifers and Heroes (1999), she evokes a broad cultural awareness -- using an advertising icon, the Marlboro Man, to evoke life in the inner city streets. She and others in this new generation are closer to the universality of the Al Mahjar, too, in their experimentation with rap and spoken word, vernacular and performance art. Natalie Handal's spoken word recording, the never field, is filled with impermeable truths that arise from the work -- specific to the history, and particular to the contemporary literary world, but expansive beyond in ideas, something that was a specialty of the Al Mahjar generation. Indeed, the spoken word as art form might have been dear to Gibran, as he wrote plays and experimented with forms that had broad appeal.

Clearly the Arab American poets are not mired in a tradition of mere homage and nostalgia, or simply adhere to safe forms and styles that allow them to be easily categorized. Rather, they appear everywhere -- from open microphone readings to contemporary coffee house poetry competitions (familiarly known as "slams") to the pages of respected poetry anthologies and literary journals. In October 1999, a number traveled to Chicago for an historic event -- the first Arab American Writers Conference, organized by Palestinian American author Ray Hanania, whose website (http://www.hanania.com) is a center for up-to-date information about Arab American literature, culture and politics.

The literature of Arab American writers continues to evolve as a cultural representation and as a literary accomplishment. The new generation of writers, including spoken word performers and rap artists, attend to the matters of their time as well as to the concerns of history. They follow the great tradition of Al-Mahjar. As the children of Gibran, Naimy, Rihani, and Madi, these writers will continue to make their marks and influence American literature.

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About the author.

 

OTHER ARAB AMERICAN WRITERS

 Joseph Geha

The works of Joseph Geha, a Lebanese-born writer, are housed in a permanent collection at the Arab-American Archive of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Born in 1944, he is best known for his book Through and Through: Toledo Stories (1990), in which he explores the intriguing world of the Lebanese- and Syrian-Christian 幦igr?communities of Toledo (Ohio) from the 1920s to the present day.

Geha, a professor of English at Iowa State University (Ames), typically writes about families from the Middle East and the conflicts within an immigrant culture. His other works include Holy Toledo (1987) and a one-act play, The Pigeon (1990).

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Samuel Hazo

Samuel Hazo, a poet of Lebanese and Syrian heritage, is a legendary writer of verse, educator and advocate on behalf of poetry. He has received considerable critical acclaim for his anthologies, among them Silence Spoken Here (1992) and The Past Won't Stay Behind You (1993).

While the eloquently presented themes of his poetry -- suffering, aging and death -- have remained the same through the years, the form of his poetry has moved away from the structured, rhythmic style of his early collections. In her review of Hazo's 1996 collection of poems, The Holy Surprise of Right Now, Mary Zoghby writes, "One could hardly name another contemporary American poet of his stature who is his equal in knowledge of Arabic culture, Arabic history, and the Arabic language."

Hazo has been a professor, and is now professor emeritus, of English at Duquesne University (Pittsburgh) for decades, where he founded the International Poetry Forum in 1966. In 1993, he was named State Poet of Pennsylvania. As part of his lifelong campaign for greater awareness of the beauty of poetry, he convinced his local daily, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to publish a poem each week in its Saturday edition.

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Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber is a native of upstate New York, born in 1959, who moved with her family to Jordan when she was seven. Currently writer-in-residence at Portland State University (Oregon), she has lived, at various times in her life, in Jordan and in the United States, and has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan, the University of Oregon and the University of California at Los Angeles.

She began writing, she has said, in order to "constitute myself -- as the child of Arab immigrants -- as a `whole' person. Writing is wonderfully healing." Her first novel, Arabian Jazz (1993), focused on an 幦igr?from Jordan living with his two

grown daughters in a town with poor, mostly white inhabitants akin to the one in which Abu-Jaber spent her childhood.  Arabian Jazz won the Oregon Book Award and was a finalist for the national PEN/Hemingway Award.

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Naomi Shihab Nye

The daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother of German descent, Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1952. She moved back to Jordan as a young girl, and then returned to the United States, to San Antonio, Texas, where she has lived since the middle of high (secondary) school. Increasingly, she has been recognized for her poetry and has emerged as a leading figure in Southwestern poetry, articulating the female psyche of the region in her works.

In 1995 she was featured in the U.S. public television series "The Language of Life with Bill Moyers," and her thoughts and selections of her poetry are collected in Moyers' book of the same title. Besides her poetry, in volumes such as The Words Under the Words (1995), The Space Between Our Footsteps (1998) and What Have You Lost? (1999), Nye has written essays, children's books and music, and has recorded her verse as well.

One of her popular novels for young readers, Sitti's Secrets (1994), concerns the bond linking an Arab American child's relationship and her grandmother, still living back home in a Palestinian village. Habibi (1997) is her first young adult novel, about an Arab-American teenager.

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Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson, born in Wisconsin in 1957 of Syrian-American parentage, emerged from the new generation of American writers during the 1980s. Contemporary Authors notes that her highly acclaimed novels "explore the complex ties in families torn apart by divorce or abandonment, usually focusing on daughters, their wayward mothers, and absent fathers."

Her first novel, Anywhere but Here (1987), received broad critical acclaim. It chronicles the powerful story of an peripatetic, impulsive mother, Adele August, and the emotional pain she inflicts on her young daughter, Ann. It was adapted as a film in 1999. Her second novel, The Lost Father (1991), continues the story of Ann, now grown, as she begins a search for her absent father, an Egyptian immigrant to the United States who abandoned his family.

Her third novel, A Regular Guy (1996), returns to the theme of a daughter, her unconventional mother and her absent father. Simpson's selection in 1996 as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists secures her place in U.S. contemporary literature.

-- Suzanne Dawkins     

 


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