Editors’ Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Arab American poetry. Read the rest here.
At a progressive prep school in Greater Cleveland, my daughter Adele recently told a classmate that she is Arab American. He responded, “You know that song, ‘Killing an Arab?’” “Really?” she said, “that’s the first thing that comes to your mind?” When a friend leapt to her defense, she laughed it off as one kid’s stupidity. Still, it’s astonishing that the first thing that came to this kid’s mind was an obscure Cure song from 1980. About killing an Arab.
It reminded me that a couple of months back, I got a text from Fady Joudah: a screenshot of a tweet in which a prominent American poet wrote that the Iraq War “was terrible, but Bush was pretty good on ceremonial, symbolic inclusiveness.” The current president, she asserted, is not. In her justifiable anger at our current president and predicament, she had forgotten.
Though she later erased the tweet, it still burns in my mind. Not only what she said, but the fact that she had minimized how George Bush and company pushed our country into the Iraq War as a result of false claims, conducted the occupation in a haphazard fashion, and bungled its nation building so badly that the country has never recovered. So badly that the very idea of Iraq as a viable modern state is in doubt. That between 250,000-500,000 Iraqis have died. These numbers are mind-numbingly large; one wants to say they are “staggering,” but we don’t stagger when we hear them. After all, the deaths are happening so far away and our own suffering is a tinnitus that drowns out farther sounds. Perhaps, scrolling through our phones, our hearts quail at the sight of a dead child on the seashore, unable to flee the war. But usually, we just lower the gates of our hearts. It’s just easier that way. Meanwhile, more Iraq War veterans have died by suicide than in battle. The war, whether we like it or not, slips between the bars and into our keep.
“Ceremonial, symbolic inclusiveness.” Why this book of forgetting? Who is included in the ceremony of innocence? Who is being drowned?
Perhaps, in the mathematics of our age, our privilege plus empire equals imperial dementia. We have forgotten too much. Of course, it’s not just one prominent American poet. I, too, happily forget the mess that my country has left in Iraq. I think often of Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War,” which ends: “in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,/ our great country of money, we (forgive us)/ lived happily during the war.” It is partly a defense mechanism, to forget, to bracket out not simply what we cannot see, but what we cannot control. It is a way to survive.
Yet, every time I face a new audience, having been asked to read poems from Sand Opera or talk about my work, I’m reminded I can’t just let the work speak for itself. We “awaken in the wake of a sentence half-written,/ the missing past tense/ cordoned by comma.” As Arab American writers, we have to rehearse the history that brought us here, the history that we carry in our spines and lines. As if we had to start by unwriting the history that had written us there. In order to appear.
Whose child washes ashore, played by the waves? Not playing in the waves.
The Mapquest of empire: what is the distance between Operation Enduring Freedom and the 2017 truck terrorist in Manhattan? Our leaders believed we knew what was best for the Iraqi people though their decisions would kill hundreds of thousands and cause a power vacuum from which the Islamic State would arise.
Erasure. From the Latin, “erase” is related to “rasen”: scratch, scrape, slash, and raze.
What is the distance between the language at home and razed homes beyond borders, the cries outside our hearing?
I haven’t even mentioned Syria, the land my grandfather called his country of origin when he crossed the Laredo border into the U.S. a century ago. What to say about a country that for seven years has been turned inside out? A country in which the vultures of empire pick over the carcass of a once-proud people? It rends the heart and paralyzes the mind.
And yet, amid the cruelty and ruins, something stirs. In a 2015 photograph, Palestinian father Salem Saoody leans over a tub, gathering water into his palms as his child and niece frolic, their faces delighting and gleaming in the brisk water—the sense of being clean, of your whole self rinsed. Around the tub, the walls are open to the outside, just a couple of stone columns hold the roof up. Beyond this scene of domestic bliss, the buildings in Gaza have been reduced to concrete skeletons, as if the whole landscape has been turned into rubble. The tub was the only thing to have outlasted the bombing from Operation Protective Edge. And yet, at the center of the photograph: laughter and water and a father’s smile.
At a 2008 town hall meeting with then-Presidential candidate John McCain, a woman said, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh — he’s an Arab. He’s not —.” McCain interjected, shaking his head: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with. He’s not [an Arab?].”
When news broke that McCain was suffering from brain cancer, someone tweeted the video exchange of McCain talking to a voter who wondered if Obama was “an Arab.” McCain shakes his head and says, “no he’s not, he’s a decent family man.” The video was shared presumably as a way to illustrate his nobility, his goodness. I replied that though McCain ran a mostly honorable campaign, “this Arab thinks he failed.” Another tweeter explained (whitesplained) to me that “He was dispelling the myth that O was not American.” But Arabs can be American, I wrote back. “I don’t disagree that what McCain was doing, but can people just stop erasing us?!”
“Racen”: to “pull or knock down.”
This Orientalism (the globalization of the racism at home) is deeply embedded in American culture. It takes vigilance to recognize it and courage to dismantle it. My interlocutor replied to my tweet about erasure with something that touched me deeply: “I’m sorry for the prejudice. It’s borne of fear, like that old white lady. I work with talented folks of all color and am better for it.”
I think of Hayan Charara’s poem “The Problem With Me (Beginning with Abu Ghraib) is the Problem with You (Ending Where the Earth’s Surface Appears to Meet the Sky)”:
what makes me frightening—terror in her heart, her mind—
is invisible, capable of being identified or anticipated
only by those in the know. She has big brown eyes and I believe
I reduce myself to clichés: talk about the weather.
myself included—an expert of sorts:
And the wise are interpreters for those who cannot read the signs:
But I think, as well, of these lines by Deema K. Shehabi, from “Ghazal 1,” that celebrate the opening that can happen in us when we don’t have to expend our energies fending off attacks or attending only to our wounds:
Pain dominates, says your father, but your smile bargains with that devil,and lightens loads for dreams when the balcony opens.
My sister ruffles the sky, cries the boy in the jeep, and my brother lies motionless
My humanity does not depend on the recognition of strangers. But it thrives when it is recognized. Once, I talked about poems to students of color at University of Chicago College Prep—a high school with almost no white students. They were a sea of nods, of recognizing brown eyes. They knew in their bones what I was talking about, even more than I knew, and when they lined up to thank me and shake my hand afterward, I wanted to thank them. There is no other way to put this: it is a fucking relief to be heard, to be seen.
Meanwhile, in another state of the Land of Erasure, the comment stream of my essay “Same as it ever was: Orientalism Forty Years Later,” is composed equally of honey and bile. For every troll proclaiming the essay is “yet another self-pitying whine about Islamophobia,” there is someone who writes, “as a white American woman, I am particularly struck by your challenge: ‘I actually want to encourage more American writers and citizens to do this work,’ i.e., to ask the questions ‘what are we like?’ I think most of us in white America are quite blind to ‘us.’ I appreciate how you carefully and respectfully draw this out in your essay.”
This isn’t easy work—to explore our own contradictions and blind spots, privilege and wounds—for any of us, myself included. Because white supremacy is so stitched into American thinking and being, the unstitching can be quite painful. So many white people are riven by capitalism, alienation, oppression, violence, and other real suffering—why would they give up the one thing that makes them feel special?
Still, I’ve learned more in group texts from Marwa and Randa and Hayan and Farid and Deema and Fady than I ever learned in school. We see each other, reverse erasure, and hold each other up—whatever our background—not only when we challenge each other and speak out for each other, but also when we own our vulnerability, our complicity, our limits. To ask ourselves: who’s not here? Whose voice am I not hearing right now?
Our silence has been the soundtrack to disappearances—not only our own.
For a recent poetry project, I began reading and redacting Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (1869), a travelogue that features his noxious impressions of the Middle East. Needless to say, the book has not aged well. “Why should anyone care about this,” a fellow poet asked me, “given that the book is nearly 150 years old?” Why pillory Twain?
The reason is simple: I learned about this text while researching right-wing Zionist narratives online. Over and over, the same quotations from Twain’s text were recycled as evidence that the so-called Holy Land was a desolate backwater, full of waste lands and diseased humans. “A land without a people,” Israel Zangwill’s Zionist slogan once proclaimed, “for a people without a land.”
These quotes were taken from Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine (1984), a text Norman Finkelstein publicly lambasted for being riddled with errors, but which nonetheless remains a bulwark against criticisms of Israel. The same quotes were again summoned—with the same ellipses that sometimes elide numerous pages—by yet another book, A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations (2000), by Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel. In those ellipses, in the land of erasure, Palestinians have disappeared. To read this text is to make visible the settler colonial roots of our own white supremacy, to suture the distance between Deir Yassin and Wounded Knee, between Palestine and Ferguson.
Yet, as I cross out the lines of Twain’s text, something else begins to appear:
I can see easily
unlearn a great many things
concerning Palestine. I must begin a system
In an interview, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan calls people to a deeper sense of belonging, one that requires us to “accept that we are the conclusion of all of these histories” of this ancient land, with its many names and stories.The problem is that:
Some start history with the Battle of Ajnadayn, when the Muslims invaded Palestine 1,300 years ago, as if there is no history before that. This ignores 10,000 years. The Israelis start with the Hebrews’ journey to Palestine…. This narrow perspective results in settlements and what we have now, because they have to ignore the land and its past, they have to ignore the villages that were here. They just see the last 70 years and they see God’s promise. Okay, we have another promise from the same God….If you want to belong to this place, you have to belong to all of its history and respect 10,000 years of several civilizations.
Zaqtan invokes a wider memory way of belonging, one in which no one is erased by another’s dream of a place.
“Let’s put our heads together,” Michael Stipe of REM sings in “Cuyahoga,” “and start a new country up. / Our father’s father’s father’s tribe / erased the parts he didn’t like./ Let’s try to fill it in.”
Now living in Cuyahoga County, home of the crooked river that once burned and burned from chemical sewage and capitalism’s disregard, I walk to work every day, looking at the land around me. I wonder what has been erased, both far away, where my ancestors lived in the “Middle East,” and close by, in this Indian-erased Midwest, and even closer, in my own heart and home.
What countries could we see, and what countries could we make, if we erased the erasures?