Blog Archive

Blog Archive – April, 2016

Life Without A Recipe--from the Arab American Pen

April 15, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

If an Arab writer comes to mind it’s likely Nawal El-Saadawi, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani, or Kahlil Gibran --all non-Americans. But it’s the 21st century and new names claim attention and respect: e.g. Diana Abu-Jaber, an American writer who for 20 years has woven Arab themes into her stories of life in the USA. This skilled writer and storyteller consistently offers us something others cannot:--subtle and intimate portrayals of Arab culture and people. Her new book--her sixth-- “Life without A Recipe”, adds to her repertoire of American life with an Arab ‘flavor’ (her last two books-- “Origin”, a crime story, and “Birds of Paradise” about a runaway daughter—are exceptions).

One of the first Arab American novelists to gain wide recognition, Abu-Jaber now represents an established community of women writers in the USA who contribute to feminist thought and to what’s known as ‘ethnic narratives’. This is a literary community where women far outnumber men writers, a fact that begs explanation and comparison. (Does one find parallels among American East Asian, South Asian and Latino writers?)

During the initial phase in the history of Arab American literature, i.e. writing by Americans of Arab heritage, fiction did not figure in our artistic expression. What literary image we claimed was though poetry, established mainly by Gibran, Samuel Hazo and Etel Adnan. Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, (he’s now 88 and still writing) is barely recognized as Arab; the same is true for Jane Brox whose essays offer scant reference to her Arab roots. Apart from them, our most accomplished writers are poets; with Hazo stand Sam Hamod, Naomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Lawrence Joseph, DH Melhem, Mohja Kahf, and Suheir Hammad-- a few names from scores of established contemporary Arab American writers.  

As literary output by Arab Americans grows, poetry remains dominant, and our men are more prolific in this genre.

Just as novels and memoirs arrived late in Arabic literature, they have been slow to take hold in Arab American and Diaspora Arab literary expression. Hanan Al-Shaykh, Nawal El-Saadawi, Fadia Faqir and Adhaf Soueif—all women, although not American -- are well established fiction authors writing in English.

Diana Abu-Jaber is one of the first American writers from our community to establish a reputation as a novelist. She joins Rabih Alameddine whose rich, prize-winning style propelled him into mainstream, with Laila Lalami, a brilliant storyteller moving into the top ranks of this country’s writers with her latest book “The Moor’s Account”. Compared to them, and to Rawi Hage, Patricia Sarrafian Ward and Kathryn Abdul Baki whose tales are set in the Arab homelands, Abu-Jaber’s narratives are (contemporary) America- centered. Today Jaber represents an emerging voice of mainly women authors, e.g. Laila Halaby, Randa Jarrar, Frances Khirallah Noble, Evelyn Shakir, and Susan Muaddi Darraj.

“Life without A Recipe” is a woman’s exploration of a career as a writer told through the influences of her Arab father, her maternal German grandmother, and her decision (with her husband) to adopt a baby. Hers is not a typical woman’s story –two short-lived marriages, a childhood filled with tension between father and grandmother, the decision to adopt, and then raising her child while resuming her career. Yet it is one which many writers and many more women will enjoy and imbibe as they reflect on their own (American) lives. Abu-Jaber shows us that life need not—cannot-- follow a prescription. Added joy awaits us in Abu-Jaber’s masterful imagery and in her delicious way with words.

[ Life Without A Recipe--from the Arab American Pen ]

An Impossible Syrian Victory

April 06, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

“…before it fell back into government hands last weekend”, notes a National Public Radio reporter Monday morning. He’s clearly disappointed, unable to utter even a suggestion that that event marks a military success against ISIS (IS, ISIL, Daesh). What’s this about? Well, it’s the Syrian army, working with Russian air power, retaking Palmyra, a major city in central Syria which in May 2015 was ransacked and occupied by ISIS.

As far as I’m aware ISIS is still the number one enemy of civilized society, the acronym that sends shudders across the globe, the most reviled evil entity in modern times, defined days before that episode by US secretary of state Kerry  as a “genocidal’ agency, also a force which during its three years of existence has eluded the strategic thinking of western governments, their military experts and their rebel allies within Syria. Yet, here was a notable (and unexpected) turn of events: an ISIS defeat! Oughtn’t we to celebrate? At least, if we’re unable to bring ourselves to acknowledge the merits of Syria’s government forces, some credit is due its Russian partner and ally.

At their most generous, US commentators describe the success of Syrian and Russian efforts against ISIS as “a mystery”. Just today US secretary of defense Ashton Carter, asked about US strategies to combat ISIS, utters not a word about the retaking of Palmyra and instead mutters some vacuous remarks about how ISIS’s defeat remains a target of US policy in the region.

Western media responses to Washington’s embarrassment of the Russian/Syrian success takes two forms, both manifestly biased. BBC, NPR radio, TV networks and print media chose to highlight Palmyra’s ancient Roman ruins over examining what that military success really meant. Our defenders of western civilization seem in need of assurance from archeologists about the fate of the Temple of Bel and the “arch of triumph”. They agonize over what relics had or hadn’t been destroyed by ISIS? (How many of these concerned people dared to visit Syria before 2011 to witness the country’s many achievements, enjoy its theater, contemporary arts and ancient wonders?)

In recent news reports, one finds no reference to the (liberated) people of Palmyra city—you know, that “horrific humanitarian situation”. Have any residents of the region survived? What about Syrian soldiers captured in the initial ISIS occupation of Palmyra? What about the notorious Palmyra prison where many Syrians languished? Had they been unchained only to be recruited by ISIS in 2015 to vent their fury against their own land (like Saddam Hussein’s prisoners in 2003 and inmates of Kuwait’s prisons in 1991 who, it is rumored, were let loose to savage and pillage the libraries and museums of Iraq)?

The New York Times predictably cast the recent Syrian military achievement in a negative light, charging that it bolsters Bashar Al-Assad’s confidence and ambitions, referring to Al-Assad as ‘stubbornly confident’, ‘a survivor adept at juggling allies’, yet further evidence that he is a ‘master of survival’.

If the victorious forces over ISIS had been headed by any US ally, however extremist or brutal its reputation, we’d see Americans cheering in the streets like they did after their murder of Bin Laden, with book contracts readied for personal testimonies of our heroic American forces, pages of profiles of rebel allies and speculation of who among them might be Syria’s ‘first democratically elected president’.

Scanning the media, one has to credit Russian sources with providing a reasonable assessment of military operations in and around Palmyra. One is hard pressed to find mention of ‘victory’ in other press accounts, although an Indian magazine with a more balanced take cites how many Syrian fathers, sons and brothers were martyred in this action. (It is rumored that during this conflict, close to 100,000 Syrian soldiers have been killed.) What about a thought for these young, anonymous conscripts?

[ An Impossible Syrian Victory ]


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Cassandra Wilson, vocalist; April 7, 2015 Harlem's Cotton Club, NYC

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poem Qur'an Surat Al-Qadr, 'Night of Destiny'
Quranic recitation by women is as much a gift to the divine

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Yousry Nasrallah, Director, Egypt's
Scheherazade: Tell Me A Story
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