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Volume 41, Number 4July/August 1990

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Poetry in the Blood

Written by Lynn Teo Simarski
Photographed by Chad Evans Wyatt

In 1911, the pioneering Arab literary figure in America, Amin Rihani, wrote of hearing Arabs describe America the way their ancestors had once described Andalusia: "A most beautiful country with one single vice - it makes the foreigners forget their native land." Though nearly a century has passed since Rihani heard those words, succeeding generations of Arab-American poets have not yet fulfilled the prophecy and forgotten their homelands. Even now, poets of Arab-American heritage, including many born in this country, often express a powerful longing for the land of their forebears.

Today's poets, along with the earlier generation of emigres, are gathered in Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry, a collection of works by 20 writers edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa and published in 1988 by the University of Utah Press. These poets use the literary vernacular of the West to ponder the meaning of being Arab, and a poet, in America.

Only one of the early emigres - Kahlil Gibran - is well known in America today (See Aramco World, March-April 1990). His fame, admittedly as a popular rather than a serious poet, rests almost completely on his best-selling book, The Prophet, and most Americans, notes Arabic scholar Irfan Shahid of Georgetown University, view Gibran as an isolated phenomenon, a quasi-religious figure who brought to America some vague distillation of the wisdom of the East. Few know of Gibran's guiding presence in establishing a distinct school of Romantic poetry in Arabic - one that actually brought about a fundamental transformation in the literary tastes of the Arab homeland.

In 1920,10 emigré, or mahjar, writers established the Pen League (Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiya) in New York. Geographically distant from the mainstream of Arabic literary currents and free to explore new waters, they revolted against the scholasticism in which much Arabic poetry had become mired. They experimented with new forms and pruned their poetry of extravagant verbiage. Influenced by the Romantic poets of Western literature and the American transcendentalists, they also addressed new themes: humanism, mysticism, and a yearning for freedom, both in poetry and in the world at large. They launched what Salma Khadra Jayyusi, the noted scholar of Arabic literature, calls "a movement of innovation and literary adventure, unequaled in the rest of the Arab world."

It fell to the charismatic personality of Gibran -"the greatest literary figure in Arab letters during the first three decades of this century," Jayyusi judges - to galvanize Arabic's Romantic school. Also an accomplished painter, Gibran wrote prolifically in both English and Arabic, producing novels, short stories, essays and poetry. Like many of his compatriots, he struggled with the apposition of Eastern spirituality and Western worldliness. "And you, the real poets, forgive us," he wrote. "We belong in the New World where men run after worldly goods; and poetry, too, is a commodity today, and not a breath of immortality."

Rihani was the first mahjar writer to come to America. Influenced by Walt Whitman, he was the earliest to deliberately undertake prose poetry - prose in the pattern of a poem, but freer and less bound by the constraints of meter. He also wrote the first novel in English about Syrian immigration to the United States, The Book of Khaled. That book's Whitmanesque poem, "I Dreamt I Was A Donkey Boy Again," poignantly evokes the immigrant caught between two worlds. His sentimental vision of the orange trees, anemones and cyclamens on the "sun-swept roads of Baalbek" in his beloved Lebanon meets and founders upon the equally dream-like flowers and women of New York's Central Park, to whom he is unable to speak.

Another important member of the Pen League, Mikhail Naimy, wrote mainly in classical Arabic forms. A Nobel Prize candidate, Naimy actually wrote more prose than poetry, serving as the critic and programmatist of the Pen League's tenets. His aim, he said, was "to insist above all on honesty and sincerity in all our verse and prose, before metrical resonance or brilliance of diction or succinctness of expression."

The living generation of Grape Leaves poets, however, owes little allegiance, if any, to the mahjar school. Dispersed across the United States, these poets in no sense comprise a literary movement like the Pen League; indeed, many had not known each others' work prior to coming together in the anthology. They are men and women, of Muslim, Christian and Jewish heritage, some born in the Arab world, others born American, although all write in English. Some are established poets, while others are relative newcomers to the poetry scene.

"Ultimately these are American voices, and 20th-century voices," says Robert Hedin, poet-in-residence at Wake Forest University. Their work joins similar anthologies of other American ethnic groups such as Afro-Americans and Native Americans who have taken literary stock of their communities' souls. By virtue of growing up in a particular milieu, the Arab-American poets strike some similar chords; they help to compose, in the words of one of them, Joseph Awad, "the music of the melting pot of America." Awad believes that while the poets are quintessentially American in their use of language and in their viewpoints on life, their Arab heritage helps them celebrate life, harkening back to a time where "people lived much more fully and felt much more strongly."

Many Grape Leaves selections, in the vein of other ethnic poetry, lament the passing of an old order. "For us it is a lost myth," says Lebanese-born poet Ben Bennani. "Our poetry shows a strong sense of loss, a sense of displacement, betrayal." In Hedin's view, "many are trying to write their way back to a sense of homeland, of community, of family. They offer us a vision of a world quite contrary to the one we have now." In this, he feels, the poems reach beyond ethnic or national boundaries to broader human experience.

The anthology's editors believe that the poets of both eras, although stylistically distinct, focus on some common themes. "It was fascinating," they write, "to discover elements more vital than ethnicity and U.S. citizenship that these writers share: family; internationalism; metaphysical questioning; homesickness; a marked concern for injustice, violence and international conflict; a love of gardens and the dance."

The contemporary poets, reflecting diverse lives, weave Arab themes into their work to a lesser or greater degree. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye discerns a shared "sense of image" in the poetry. Those poets born in the Arab world allude more often to the landscapes and life of their homeland - such as Etil Adnan's allusions to gazelles, Babylon and Queen Zenobia. But the American-born poets also draw metaphors from the Middle East, says Elmaz Abinadir, who is one of them. "These are images that are natural, references to places we don't necessarily belong to," she says, "as if these images are still so much a part of our lives." The poetry of American-born Orfalea, for example, speaks of fields and rivers near Damascus, pistachios, sugared almonds, and apricots: "Mishmoosh; the mother tongue knows the sound of apricots squashed in the mouth! Mishmoosh!"

Poetry in exile from a world where it was the earliest art, transported from a place where it was once so powerful that the Qur'an warned against confusing poetry with the eloquence of prophets, has necessarily become something new. The old society marked important occasions with both popular and exalted verse, and tested its verbal mettle in spontaneous poetry contests (See Aramco World , March-April 1980). "Arab culture lives on poetry," says Bennani. "You read it daily, you quote it daily, it happens daily." American culture, more often than not, educates poets to their specialized trade, and defines poetry as a domain best left to formal readings.

Orfalea believes that the Arab-American community itself could do substantially more to encourage its children to go into the arts. He discerns a "striving, Horatio-Alger, get-ahead ethic that doesn't reflect the community or its place in society. There's no doubt that the great ability of Arab-Americans just to disappear into the culture has helped them as Americans - and hindered them in terms of their own cultural and political achievements." Many of the immigrants' children failed to learn their parents' language, adds Elmusa, yet have not absorbed the literary riches of the new culture. "There's a generation that loses both ways, it seems," he says.

Today's Arab-American poets, writing in a society less sympathetic to their calling and in a different language from their ancestors', may have nonetheless retained the Arab belief about the centrality of poetry to human life. Perhaps this heritage helps to account for their poems' openness and lack of cerebrality. "All of their work is very accessible," points out Awad, "as opposed to so much contemporary poetry that's like verbal algebra. If more American poets were like that, I think poetry would be more widely enjoyed."

A poet with 14 published books of poetry to his name, Samuel Hazo founded the now-renowned International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh, which presents readings to the public. He has also published novels, criticism, translations and essays. Born in Pittsburgh of Lebanese and Assyrian immigrant parents, Hazo holds that "poetry is as indispensable to life as bread. Like bread it is daily and shareable. It roots us to the only permanence we have, which is the eternal human person we each bear within us." Hazo believes that poems should speak "to everybody at all times," transcending a given poet's particular frame of reference. "Being an American of Arab origin has nothing to do with it and shouldn't and can't have. One writes out of what one is, and that is best done without self-consciousness," he believes.

Born in Pennsylvania of Lebanese and Irish parents, JOSEPH AWAD works as a corporate public-relations professional and has spent "many a long night" writing poetry. "I must confess I find it irritating that, today, 'serious poetry' is deemed almost the exclusive preserve of academicians," he comments. His first book of poems, The Neon Distances, was published in 1980. "I feel poetry should be written as much for the ear as for the eye," he says. He enjoys working within the discipline of a set form, and his carefully crafted poems speak of America and of his family, including his 10 children, as well as of urban loneliness and his religious faith. He acknowledges that being grouped in an anthology with others of his heritage made him think, for the first time, beyond a concept of himself as Lebanese-American to that of Arab-American.

Poetry with horizons wide enough to embrace both the Middle East and the Middle West is SAM HAMOD'S realm. Born in Gary, Indiana, where his father built a mosque, Hamod writes expansive, free-wheeling verse more akin to the Beat poets of the 1950's and 1960's than to the Arab emigre poets of New York. Still, Hamod says, "There's always an old Arab in my mind" - an amalgam of his father, his grandfather and others. "I've always mixed Arabic with English in my poems," he says. "Certain things have more power in other languages." Hamod's moving poem "After the Funeral of Assam Hamady" illustrates the clash of cultures in the poet's youth. In it, an embarrassed young Hamod watches his father and grandfather pray on a Navajo blanket by a South Dakota roadside while passers-by gawk from cars:

the Hajj spreads the blanket

blessing it as a prayer rug

they discuss which direction is East

after a few minutes it's decided

it must be that way they face what must surely be South.

From "After the Funeral of Assam Hamady" By Sam Ha mod. used by permission

Whimsical images flit through Ben Bennani's poetry, curiously light for the meaning they carry. His poem "Camel's Bite" reminds us that poets in the pre-modern Arab world were thought to possess a supernatural gift, and dressed in a distinctive manner. It uses the title's metaphor to express the effects of art - occasional, lethal, and final. Many references - carnations growing in the yard, cardamom, a saffron sun - suggest his Moroccan parents and his upbringing in Lebanon. "I love English as much as I love Arabic," Bennani says. "I can do things with it that native speakers can't do." Echoing Gibran, Bennani believes that America "produces" 3 poets, whereas in the Arab world they are born. In the United States, he laughs, "only 'real poets' read poetry." Bennani is a "real" poet, with two books to his credit; he is also a founder and editor of literary journals and a translator of Arab poets.

Born in British-Mandated Palestine and raised in a refugee camp in Jericho, Sharif Elmusa writes gently humorous, imaginative poems that mature into truths rather than proclaiming them. His themes, although often taken from the Arab world, stretch across a more universal canvas. A co-editor of Grape Leaves, Elmusa was drawn to both poetry and mathematics in school, and he studied engineering and planning in the United States. More recently, when poetry "welled again," he recalls, "I felt as if a missing leg was restored." Elmusa's poetry illustrates how Arab heritage can be incorporated into the American idiom. The opening line of one poem, "A Monologue of an Arab Man in Love," alludes to a song by Egyptian singer Farid al-Atrash, says Elmusa, and another line derives from mystical poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, who wrote of his love as one "who looks out with my eyes." The poem also contains Qur'anic and Biblical references. The line, "Is this the woman I love?" comes from the archetypal Arab love legend of Qays and Layla.

The other co-editor of Grape Leaves, Gregory Orfalea was born in Los Angeles of Syrian-Lebanese immigrants. He has published a book of his own poetry and a history of Arab-Americans. When visiting his family's village near Damascus, Orfalea was struck by the ubiquity of poetry in daily life. Reading "everything Kahlil Gibran ever published" while working on Grape Leaves was another revelation for Orfalea, who emerged with far greater respect for the breadth of the pioneering poet's work. He sees his own work now "telescoping down" from political and social subjects to a concern for relationships between men and women and between parents and children. Both realms merge in his poem "The Sunken Road, Antietam, 1980," which captures the unrest between a man and a woman picnicking on a Civil War battlefield. "To me, wars are personal grievances writ large," he says. "They're disputes within a family, taken too far."

Strong, clear poetry rooted in the folk tradition of America speaks of Naomi Shihab Nye's father, mother, and uncle, and of her brothers and children. Of Palestinian and American heritage, Nye grew up in Texas, where she has worked in the state's poetry-in-the-schools program. She has published three books of poetry and is also a folk-singer. Even as a small child, Nye recalls, she embraced the richness of her two cultures. Her poem "Blood" celebrates the moment when a little girl knocked at the family's door and asked to see "the Arab" - the first time "my father told me who he was." The presentation of her work in Grape Leaves alongside Gibran's made me smile -we're both in the same century." Nye has read her poems around the world, but it was during poetry-reading trips to Arab countries in the early 1980's, she says, that "I had the eerie feeling that for the first time, people could laugh at the right places in my poems" - almost as if the humor was "in the blood." Yet, she muses, "I don't know if I could live in a culture in which I was acclaimed as a poet. I like the back-streets venue, myself."

Diaries of her Lebanese immigrant family's lives in the Amazon and America provided Elmaz Abinadir with a rich mine of experiences for a doctoral dissertation and a novel as well as for poetry. "Fighting the two cultures that were controlling my life," as she puts it, has inspired much of her work. Born in Pennsylvania, she believes she shares with a number of other Grape Leaves authors "a conflict about who we are and how we fit into this society." As an example of this, Abinadir recalls being called "Elma" during 12 years of Catholic school, "because they decided that 'Elmaz' wasn't a saint's name." On her first visit to Lebanon at age 19, she discovered a fundamental kinship with the land. "Walking through the hills, the paths felt familiar, as if I'd been on them before," she recalls. Her own family integrated poetry into daily life, with spontaneous poetry contests at the end of the day in which each person vied to create more beautiful images than the last. "I live with a kind of reverence for poetry," she says.

The new generation of Arab-American poets has begun to enrich American literature with compelling voices in a way that Amin Rihani could not have foretold, and as his pioneering generation was unable to do. But in the final analysis, as Joseph Awad judges, they "all have to stand or fall on their merits as poets - not as Arab-American poets."

Lynn Teo Symarski is a Washington-based free-lance writer specializing in the culture and politics of the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 50-54 of the July/August 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1990 images.