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May 10, 2018
5 Min read time
Arab American poetry and the work of liberation.
On April 17th, 2018, Arab American writer Randa Jarrar responded to the lavish praise by Bill Clinton (among others) of Barbara Bush by tweeting that the former first lady was “a generous and smart and an amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal.” The subsequent tweetstorm between her and an outraged crowd of Bush defenders led to her public vilification, calls for her to lose tenured job at Fresno State University, and thousands of racist invectives and death threats. Among other messages that she shared with friends on Facebook, Jarrar—a celebrated writer whose stories meld a provocatively comic sensibility with a keenly empathic imagination—is called a “third world dune coon cunt,” a “sand nigger,” a “rag head piece of shit,” and “a hideous waste of human flesh.” One writer says that his brother stationed in Afghanistan has assured him that because of what she said, “TODAY, he will search out and KILL 3 Muslims. Shalom!”
No fewer than eight free speech organizations and the Radius of Arab American Writers came out publicly in support of Jarrar. Yet lost in the defense of Jarrar’s freedom of speech is what underlay her anger at the effusive encomia of Barbara Bush in the first place: the elite’s erasure of Bush’s callous words about black people who fled the devastation of Hurricane Katrina or about the mass death caused by the Iraq War, not to mention her part in raising the President who botched the rescue operation in New Orleans and began the war that led to the deaths of over a million in Iraq. Why is a devastating and criminal war not considered an outrage, but calling someone a racist is?
Writers of color have led the way in articulating such questions. Laila Lalami tweeted that “In calling Barbara Bush ‘a racist,’ [Jarrar] said bluntly what newspaper obituaries disguised when they wrote that Mrs. Bush was ‘never shy about expressing her views,’ or that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her ‘candor got her into trouble.’” Jericho Brown shared in twitter that “I stand by @randajarrar and I completely understand that she and others can very well and with reason feel joy when very powerful people die, especially if those are people to whom we can trace the unnecessary murder of millions.”
2018 marks the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophe of Palestinian dispossession, and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, when European re-mapping of the territories of the Ottoman Empire sowed the seeds for the conflicts in the Arab world today. And yet these cataclysms barely register on the Richter scale of American consciousness. With few exceptions, the mass media representations of the 15th anniversary of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” minimized the criminality of the war and the botched postwar plan, and focused instead on the divided public opinion about the necessity of that war. In May, we can expect some celebration for Israel and perhaps only some parenthetical mention of the plight of Palestinians. Very little will be said about the erasure of over 400 Palestinian villages and the dispossession and expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948-1949.
In other words, if you’re Arab or Arab American, you’ll be affixed inside the mute margins of empire. While the Palestinian narrative is indelibly marked by exile and loss, it is also one of persistence and insistence. Emerging from his Palestinian family’s dispossession, Edward Said’s foundational critique of Western projections upon the Middle East, Orientalism (1978), has become one of the pillars of postcolonial studies and a rallying cry for Arab American writers to reclaim their stories and voices against imperial erasure. Like other marginalized and oppressed people in the United States, Arab Americans have struggled to make their voices heard over the din of empire, to become visible as fully human in a culture eager to use them as voiceless props in its imperial drama.
Over the past year, a group of Arab American writers—Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema K. Shehabi, and I—began a group text, sharing stories about our own lives and the predicament of being Arab in America. This group text often touched on matters regarding the state of literary arts, though it was equally a space full of photos of our kids and lives. We had the sense of wanting to archive these conversations for future Arab American writers and somewhere along the line, the idea of a group essay emerged. I proposed that it would catalog the erasures we’d witnessed or experienced, but that it also would celebrate the liberatory work happening in our community, the poems and stories and art that hold us together and raise us up. In that group text we were after an asylum, a safe space, where we could explore and share inchoate thoughts, half-dreams, and the rough edges of our feelings.
These dispatches emerge from the inspiration of that space, though they lack the rough and informal improvisatory quality of a community talking with itself. Three other recent essays are also points of departure for these “Dispatches”—all of which were informed by the group text. Fady Joudah’s “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” Randa Jarrar’s “Ask Auntie Randa” pieces, and my “Same as It Ever Was: Orientalism Forty Years Later” confront the poison of white supremacy and Orientalism in American politics, literature, and culture, while offering antidotes: reclaiming beauty, liberation, and community. This dossier of essays addresses these dynamics and attempts to propel the conversation forward—beyond the bounds of Arab American experience and into the broader discussion about how to join in solidarity with other marginalized communities, embracing intersectionality, and writing our spaces against empire and all forms of domination.
– Philip Metres
Philip Metres, “Dispatch from the Land of Erasure (I)”
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, “Fragments of a Song”
George Abraham, “Cartographies of Wind”
Randa Jarrar, “Instructions for Erasure”
Farid Matuk, “A Real American”
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May 10, 2018
5 Min read time
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