Editors’ Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Arab American poetry. Read the rest here.
On October 10, 2002, I submitted the following as part of a required essay for my undergraduate journalism course in Media Ethics, following a presentation by an alumnus, Byron Pitts, who had returned to his alma mater to speak about his coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan for CBS News:
Pitts proudly announced that seventy five people worked on the production of this piece on Islam. My question is who these seventy five people are, and how many of them are Muslims?
I gave a copy of my essay to Mr. Pitts along with my résumé and got my first job at CBS News in Washington, D.C. in 2003. I quit in 2004.
It is 2018, and I find myself still asking the same question as I read headlines and take stock of the agendas journalists are setting; still clarifying that not all Arabs are Muslim and not all Muslims are Arab.
Poetry is my journalism.
• • •
PART ONE: The Translator is Not an Ally or It Goes Down in the DMs
The archive speaks for itself:
After reading an interview with a translator working from a language she cannot read, write, or speak, I ask her, via direct message, the obvious: How can you translate if you don’t speak the language? I also inquire about other factual errors cited in the interview: “Iran is not part of the Arab world, why mention the Arab Spring in this context when their revolution happened a couple of decades ago?” I add, “Also, Persian is not a language. That is like saying I speak Mexican.”
Her response is cordial. She explains that she co-translates with a native speaker. “As for the Arab Spring, I know Iran was not one of the countries but the writer refers in his poems to unrest in the region.” As to the poems being written “in Persian,” she writes that her co-translator “is Iranian and I defer to his judgment,” though she admits that she also found the terminology odd.
To review: This co-translator has no knowledge of the language or culture she is working from. The editors trust her answers and do not fact check them. The editors do not ask follow up questions that would add nuance or place the co-translator’s answers in the appropriate context. Someone chose the western co-translator alone for the interview, most likely because she is seen as more accessible. The result: Readers walk away believing they have learned something about a culture and region. They have actually read the inaccurate half-account of a non-native co-translator.
• • •
A prominent white Arabic translator jokes about how she wishes TSA would “flourish her with Arabic in [her] next encounter” with them. This comment is left on my own post about the audacity of a TSA agent wishing me safe travels in Arabic during a time when many Arab and Muslim passengers are being removed from flights for using Arabic phrases. I ask this translator via direct message if she is Arab. This person has so successfully co-opted our language and culture that most Arabs assume she is Arab or, maybe, mixed. When she confirms that she is in fact non-Arab and white, I make myself clear: “That’s fine. No problem that you aren’t Arab but it is a problem when you make as if your experiences or interactions with TSA, border guards, and customs have the same political, cultural, and racial ramifications as mine do.”
• • •
I am interested in how such conversations can be a starting point for defining the nuances and complexities of our shared (and not shared) interests as writers, editors, translators, and consumers of translated works. Where do the boundaries of cultural ownership for translators begin and end? On different occasions I have contacted emerging women poets with interest in translating their work and have been thanked for my interest and then told that *GASP* they are already being translated by a white person. Translation isn’t just about choosing the “correct” words, it is also about achieving sentiment and conveying experience. What troubles me are the systems that enable these non-native translators to be the spokespeople of our languages.
The entire Arab region has been colonized by English. Is it really possible that there isn’t a fluent Arabic-English speaker that might be our foremost translator? I want to interrogate the systems that allow for the proliferation of foreign educational institutions in our homelands but keep us from managing our own voices and experiences; that allow the non-native and usually white translator to continue a legacy of colonization. How do we unmath that lazy arithmetic that keeps us the immigrants and them the expats? An arithmetic, I will remind you, that extends into every facet of the system that consistently puts our bodies, our language, our culture, our children at risk.
In a recent Guardian interview the Libyan-British writer Hisham Matar says, “International literature remains hugely underrated and, as a side effect, English books are often overrated. About 1.5% of books published in the UK and 3% of those published in the USA are works in translation. And the sales are often dismally modest. This impoverishes culture and nourishes narcissism. Put very simply, it is boring and dangerous.” Narcissim here can also be read as imperialism.
Just as we are overtaking the canon in the colonizers’ language, we must also take control of our translations and their dissemination. This critique cannot end without a note also about the prominent Arab male translators who routinely translate works that center the patriarchy and partake in the objectification and exotification of Arab women.
Move out the way. Onwards.
• • •
PART TWO: Post-West, Post-Beauty
When I first read Fady Joudah’s essay “Say It: I Am Arab and Beautiful”—a response published on the Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books to the incredibly Orientalist Adam Valen Levinson essay “The Fine Art of Learning to Say Nothing in Arabic”—it reminded me of a vital question Camonghne Felix prompted during a conversation with Cathy Park Hong at Poets House: “How do we do the work of intersectionality without relying on the black body to do the work, the labor?” I think about this question daily.
In his response, Joudah missed an important opportunity to connect with other marginalized groups; instead he appeared to dismiss western literature’s erasure and misrepresentation of these communities. In addition to the title which read as cultural appropriation, he wrote: “I cannot imagine any class of editors at Lit Hub publishing a piece like Levinson’s about the English language …, or about Chinese or Hebrew in 2017. No editor at Lit Hub would publish such an insensitive piece of travel memoir into Blackness.” It is precisely in this conflation of experiences that Joudah’s piece panders to the white liberal gaze. It is a gaze I have no interest in engaging, unless of course it is to gouge it (right to left), or hold a mirror to its ugliness, its limitations, its superiority complex.
If I were to ever teach Joudah’s essay, it would be to challenge my students. The assignment: Rewrite this piece 1. without appropriating the language of Black liberation – that language Black people have died creating; 2. without mentioning or relying on comparisons to other marginalized groups; 3. without naming any poets who have been mistaken as Arab; 4. using only source quotes from published pieces about or by Arabs, of which there is a long history of intersectional writing that demonstrates how we share pain and learn from each other. One of my favorites to cite: Suheir Hammad’s Born Palestinian, Born Black.
This is the work. It requires nuance. And everything is only a starting point. Even this.
I am interested in showing how even an Arab can sometimes fail to see another Arab. How deeply unrepresented I felt by Joudah’s piece – and how in some way, even in writing this, I may be guilty of the same erasures or misrepresentations. Arab identities are complex, vast, multiple; as are other races and ethnicities.
The Arab body is the unlisted and unconsidered body: a choice missing from most forms, absent from the U.S. Census. The Arab body is the mistaken body: mistaken for an endless list of other bodies, always Other, even when passing or presenting as white. It is the colonized body. The fleeing body. Fleeing the aftermath of revolution, of occupation, of wars perpetrated by imperial lies. The fleeing body becomes migrating body. And as the body migrates it is subjected to constructs of the land it has migrated to.
In this country it is as if one only has a body if it exists on a form, and the Arab body seems always to be writing itself in. We are still writing ourselves in. And often when the Arab body is written in—and my years studying and practicing in the field of journalism confirm this—it is as a brief headline. Our bodies are left uncounted, unnamed. Our genocide is an accepted norm. No news cycle exists without it.
I am interested in writing truthfully in a way that helps us see each other. I am interested in burning down invented hierarchies so that we can run with easy breath toward a more just way of living together.
The trap of identity only remains a trap if the structures we work within support it.
Which brings me to the establishment: All of those ‘editors,’ most of them ill-equipped to judge our work, who readily and easily give space to poetry celebrities, often men, who have been, already, widely published. I do not mean to diminish some of the great work celebrity poets have made, but here it goes beyond tokenization—a phenomenon that has been well-documented—the unfortunately prevalent idea that there are limited ‘minority spots’ available in the industry. This is where the intersection of identity politics and capitalism hurts us all, as it commodifies our bodies, our identities, our rich and diverse histories. I have stopped reading the publications that partake in this commodification, but now I am looking at them with a shotgun pointed between their virtual eyes.
When I wrote about the non-profit organization Radius of Arab American Writers, Inc. for Poets & Writers and asked the Poetry Foundation’s blog to share it, I was ignored twice. I asked again and was met with a dismissive, “Oh, I missed this the last time, will let you know if we have space.” When I reviewed Hayan Charara’s must-read Something Sinister and again asked for space to share the review, his work, with the establishment, you guessed it: I never heard back. We all have these stories. They are part of our industry’s culture. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it. And just as I ask that we interrogate the systems that give white translators ownership over our work and, thereby, our cultures, I ask the establishment: Why do you so readily see us when we are implying our ugliness (as in Joudah’s title), but not actually celebrating our beauty, as we do in the pieces I pitched to the Poetry Foundation blog? This isn’t merely rejection or erasure. It is selective seeing: seeing us, Arabs and people of color, when it benefits the status quo. The establishment knows the celebrity poet is going to get that web traffic, those ad sales. The celebrity poet makes the publication look good to the white liberal gaze. That gaze that is still learning to see, to read.
It is just a matter of time. The days of the establishment as we know it are numbered. We keep making our own spaces, spaces that love and celebrate us for us. And because I am loved, I will lower the shotgun now. And bring my own canon everywhere I go.
Thank you to my community. Critique like this doesn’t happen without the prerequisites of trust and safety.
From Faultline, Volume 26, 2017.
 “US Census fails to add MENA category: Arabs to remain 'white' in count” Source: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-census-continue-count-arabs-white-1206288795