Arab-American Writers Identify with Communities of Color

This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 9, Nos. 42/43 (Winter/Spring 2003)
Copyright 2003 by Al Jadid. Permission to reproduce kindly given by Al-Jadid.

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

In recent years, we have seen the rise of a rich body of immigrant literatures, including many powerful works by Arab-American women who have set out to interrogate their own, often fragmented, identities. Unlike earlier generations of Arab-American writers, these women are consciously building bridges to other communities of color. Deriving strength from feminists, black theorists, and postcolonial thinkers, they are wielding their pens to chronicle decades of racism, oppression, and marginalization in the United States, and to begin uncovering the particularities of their own ethnic histories.

This article will focus on the works of three writers with a Palestinian heritage: Diana Abu-Jaber, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Suheir Hammad.

Collectively, Arab Americans have been subject to decades of racism, discrimination, negative stereotyping, and hostility in the United States. Arab-American women, in particular, face additional pressures due to the gendered nature of Arab-American society and the role they are often thrust into of maintaining an Arab identity for their families and communities. Their ability to communicate freely about the challenges they face as Arab women is often compromised by concerns about deepening already debilitating stereotypes about Arabs in America. For many years, the real or perceived need for unity among a beleaguered minority has hampered an honest discourse by Arab-American women about topics as controversial as honor killings, arranged marriage, and patriarchal structures.

These circumstances have had profound implications for the works Arab-American women writers have been able to publish - or not - and the way they are eventually packaged and marketed.

At the same time, the reaction from within the Arab-American community can be fierce if it perceives any kind of attack or challenge to its prevailing social and familial structures, especially from one of its "own." This breeds an insidious form of self-censorship that has, until recently, kept Arab-American literature from engaging in unabashed discussions of sexuality, incest, or even mental health issues. By contrast, women writers in the Arab world have long explored lesbian relationships, incest, and other subjects that remain largely taboo in the Arab-American world.

The writers discussed here are forging a new discourse, although their approaches and choice of media differ widely. Diana Abu-Jaber is a novelist who teaches creative writing at Portland State University. Her award-winning 1993 novel, "Arabian Jazz," brought the story of an Arab immigrant and his two daughters to a mainstream U.S. audience, and W.W. Norton published her new novel, "Crescent," in April 2003. Naomi Shihab Nye is an accomplished poet, essayist, and anthologist who has also published several children's books and a novel in recent years. Although her Arab heritage is an important factor in her work, Nye's writing draws on and reflects a wide variety of cultural contexts and sources, including the Southwest where she lives and the many places she has traveled. Slam poet Suheir Hammad draws inspiration from her poor, working-class childhood in Brooklyn, where she grew up mostly among Puerto Rican children, went to terrible public schools, and experienced firsthand what it means to be poor and colored in America.

In her first novel, "Arabian Jazz," Abu-Jaber navigates a terrain fraught with overlapping cultural mores and tackles subjects that have long been taboo in both American and Arab society. She confronts us with racism, abject poverty, female infanticide, and incest, all set against the backdrop of one immigrant family's struggle to carve out an identity in upstate New York. Using multiple narrators and continually blurring the lines between past and present, the book provides a potent materialist critique of America, while casting an equally skeptical eye on the patriarchal vestiges of the Arab world. One of the main characters, Jemorah, begins to develop a clear view of the racism that surrounds her. After a devastating encounter with her loathsome boss Portia Porschman, who concludes that Arabs "aren't any better than Negroes," Jemorah sees her familiar world through altered eyes, reflecting her growing realization of the marginal position she occupies in U.S. society.

Abu-Jaber inherited her Irish-American mother's coloring, which she describes as "an acceptable Anglo-pale," but she is all too well aware of this country's "real issue" with color and the mixed messages that children of color receive. Growing up, she and her two sisters were encouraged, even forced, to identify with their Arab heritage, but their relatives were also constantly exhorting them to stay out of the sun to protect their milky white complexions so they could pass as white Americans. Yet Abu-Jaber firmly identifies herself as a woman of color, even choosing to keep the Arabic family name that caused her so much grief and misery as a child, and still requires tedious explanations, especially since the post-September 11 backlash. Worst of all, she says, is that sinking feeling when acquaintances express surprise that she identifies as an Arab at all, since she is so light-skinned.

Poetry has been a particularly important form of expression for Palestinian Americans and Naomi Shihab Nye is the best-known Palestinian-American poet by far. Widely anthologized, honored with many awards, and featured in Bill Moyers' public television series, "The Language of Life," Nye has taught poetry in schools for over two decades, traversing the country and the globe. Born to a Palestinian Muslim father and a German-American mother, Nye has also written several children's books, as well as a coming-of-age novel marketed to teens and young adults. Like other second-generation poets, Nye has a keen and global sense of injustice. For instance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clearly an important theme for Nye, but she has also produced an illuminating cycle of poems on Latin America.

In a similar vein, Suheir Hammad, who has been active in the struggle to free U.S. political prisoners, insists she cannot close her eyes to other situations of oppression or injustice and remain human. If exiled Palestinian poets have seen their mission as riveting the spotlight to the tragedy of Palestinian existence, then their daughters and sons are busy building bridges, connecting their experience to that of mainstream America - and importantly, to other marginalized communities.

Nye, whose poetry touches on many themes, including questions of identity, motherhood, friendships, and death, has an unusually positive interpretation of her bicultural heritage and says she felt lucky to benefit from the dual perspective inherent in her parentage. Being bicultural, she writes, allowed her to maintain some sense of "otherness" or detachment. Throughout her work, Nye challenges rigid boundaries of identification, calling attention instead to the multiple and often overlapping categories that constitute identity, including gender, ethnic origin, religion, and geography.

While Abu-Jaber employs humor and parody to get her point across, and Nye illuminates the connections among things and people by focusing on the minute details of daily life, Suheir Hammad adopts a much more direct and combative style in her poetry, which is written to be performed orally. Born in a refugee camp in Jordan in October 1973, Hammad came to the United States when she was just five, after a brief sojourn with her father and then-pregnant mother in Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war. She grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, hanging out with Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Haitian, and African-American kids, listening to hip hop and speaking Black English, all the while negotiating the boundaries of her life as a Muslim girl in the fast and dangerous world of America. Her poetry throbs with the rhythm of urban life, a hip-hop beat pulsating to the words as they damn oppression, racism, fascism, and violence in any form - in the war zones of our families, streets, and nations.

A regular on the New York hip-hop scene whose work has been broadcast on the BBC World Service and Pacifica Radio, Hammad is fervently and unabashedly political, voicing her support for causes ranging from the campaign to free death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. She has raised funds to aid Afghan children and provide health care to Palestinians injured in the new Intifada (or uprising) which began in September 2000, and regularly volunteers in juvenile detention centers and prisons.

Hammad locates herself proudly as a woman of color, as evidenced by the title and content of her first book of poetry, "born Palestinian, born Black." The title is taken from "Moving Towards Home," a poem African-American poet June Jordan wrote in response to the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps after Israel's 1982 invasion, in which Jordan proclaims: "I was born a Black woman/ and now/ I am become a Palestinian."

Like Nye and Abu-Jaber, Hammad is conscious of the connections among people from different backgrounds and ethnic groups. Uncovering racism and sexism in her essays and poetry, Hammad urges women of color to accept themselves as they are. Risking the wrath of the conservative Arab community, Hammad also begins to expose sexual abuse and harassment of women-within her family, the Arab community, and the larger world, cognizant that this is not a problem confined to her culture: "This story I've heard whispered in all languages, all accents." Hammad faces sharp criticism from the Arab community itself for daring to tell such stories. As in Diana Abu-Jaber's case, many would rather silence Hammad's voice than grapple with such difficult subjects as sexual abuse or incest.

As evidenced by these three writers, Arab Americans are increasingly identifying as, and with, communities of color, but their status as "minorities" remains ambiguous within the racialized discourses of ethnic studies, legal rights, and feminist scholarship.

Much has changed in the past five years - and one can fairly speak of a burgeoning field of Arab-American artistic endeavor. Efforts to analyze Arab-American women's lives and their expanding cultural production are still in their infancy, but even a short excursion into this arena underscores the richness of the material being produced by writers like Abu-Jaber, Nye, and Hammad - and the depth of their insights.