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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 ]

Iím Unwelcoming Spring -- end of March 2016

March 25, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Until I caught sight of those Merganser ducks darting up the river, I was trusting on a late winter. I admit: this lingering hope is less a concern over global warming that my profound affection for winter’s cold and snow.  

In a part of New York State known for its blizzards and low temperatures, year-round residents expect that even by March, some sign of the season’s snow accumulation still will be with us. Alas, there’s not a hint of it.

You don’t live in this part of the world unless you appreciate winter’s magic and learn how to cope with its hazards. I have fond and still vivid memories growing up in Canada plodding through passageways banked by heaps of clean snow. We never glimpsed the earth itself for three full months when automobiles were outfitted with tire chains for the season too. Every driver learns how to manage a car on packed snow and all children skate on nearby frozen ponds, even though each winter was marred by an accidental death of someone falling through the ice. Even we Arab immigrant kids learned to protect ourselves from frostbite and handily pull off chunks of snow stuck to our clothing and our hair.  

Winter still means a lot of preparation, even with today’s amenities. Last fall, I added a space heater for supplemental heat in my office; I had the basement ceiling newly insulated with six inches of foam; I ordered a cord of seasoned logs and arranged extra kindling; I topped up the oil tank; and I purchased new tights, socks and shirts from UNIQLO, the Japanese company that manufactures ‘heattech’, a remarkable warmth- conserving fabric.

I was ready. Confident I’d enjoy this season even more than winters past, I waited. When New York City was struck by a ‘superstorm’ --everything there has to be supersize-- I felt envious. Especially since it never arrived here. (Anyway I doubt their blizzard was as severe as they allege. You know how New Yorkers are. They claim it was a record--the third or fourth worst in their memory; but third or fourth is not a record.)

Upstate towns did have one brush with winter—on Valentine’s Day-- when the pipes froze. Yet still no snow. Once we had some ‘precipitation’ that stayed on the ground one night, enough that school was canceled and the heavy snowplow was called out. I usually curse these rattling machines roaring by at 4:30 in the morning. But this year I pitied the driver who, paid by the hour, has had skimpy winter paychecks. Only twice all winter was I awakened by the plow scraping up what flakes it could manage along its path.

There wasn’t enough snowfall to create that magical wonderland where we feel suspended in a crystal ice bubble-- total silence and stillness. Awakening in the morning after a heavy downfall you know from an eerie calm that the world is covered in a foot, perhaps (hopefully) more, of pure white snow.

I suppose that ‘snowbirds’ -- northern residents, especially grandparents, who head to Florida these months-- will be disappointed. All that dislocation and expense while the folks back home enjoyed record low fuel bills.

I’ve know a freakish snow to arrive in May; so winter might yet appear. They say snow is essential for some spring flora to blossom. And what about maple syrup? Surely maple tree sap can’t run without a healthy input of heavy snow.  END

[ Iím Unwelcoming Spring -- end of March 2016 ]

Cubaís Forbearance of President Barack Obama

March 24, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The US president began his address to the Cuban people invoking parallels between America’s and Cuba’s political histories: “We both live in a new world colonized by Europeans; and Cuba, like the US was built in part by slaves brought here from Africa; Cubans, like us, can trace our heritage to slaves and to slave owners”.

Then Barack Obama then listed cultural commonalities before turning, however gently, to differences before launching his American democracy sell. He did so without a hint of awareness of the 99/1% split here, disregarding the $1.3 trillion student debt, amnesia of sanctions by which the US terrorizes other nations, coercing others into exploitative trade deals, the record of US police brutality against our Black people, the 2.3 million imprisoned Americans, and more. Does he really think he can get away with such whitewashing as a prelude to boasting, especially to Cubans, of America’s merits, topping it off with a hard sell on behalf of Cuban Americans?

In the March21 press conference the day before with President Raul Castro, after some heartfelt remarks, Obama raised the hackneyed human-rights arguments that obsess western diplomats. Why Obama is compelled --I suppose because, after all, he IS American-- to shift from noble dialogue and grace to political posturing, I can’t understand. His condescending remarks reduce Obama from outstanding individual to humdrum spokesman. Raul Castro, prepared for the American's subtle assault, made a firm rejoinder, pointing out just how inclusive the concept and application of ‘human rights’ really is, and where the US falls short. Castro too reminded us that the US embargo is still in place, an issue we might forget, given the press’ attention on not what the US is withholding but what Cuba is offering: tourist pleasures and profits for US businesses.

By Tuesday, both of Obama’s presentations were overshadowed by news of the terror attacks in Belgium. Maybe TV networks welcomed the diversion, with a lineup of terrorism experts within easy reach. Covering bloody terror scenes is easier than showing us how gracious and resolute the Cubans are, simpler than questioning a spiteful embargo.

US press coverage of the historic visit of President Obama began with little substance. Reporters, perhaps contemplating their next book, opine how tourists won’t be able to see (quaint) old Cuba, with its 1950-model autos and deteriorating manors.

I regret not visiting Cuba during its hard years to feel that revolutionary wetness, when it established its powerful global reputation. My colleagues at WBAI Radio Rosemary Mealy and Sally O’Brien kept us informed of the stalwart Cuban spirit, their social achievements and steady diplomatic successes. They reminded us of the unjust embargo, and highlighted the succession of US vetoes against Cuba at the United Nations.

While these colleagues focused on Cuba, I was in Iraq documenting the newly imposed US-led and policed embargo there. Iraq’s isolation was more severe, abandoned by Arab neighbors and largely ignored by the world press. (Not to compare this barbarian form of collective punishment in the two nations. It was dramatically different.)

I recall how, from 1991 on, Cuba’s embargo history arose obliquely each time I arrived in Iraq. I was repeatedly confronted by: “When will the embargo end?” Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis perished in that bloodless assault; it penetrated every home; the economy collapsed; medical care was shredded, agricultural production plummeted, disease flourished. (Four million fled their homeland.) To Iraqis’ naïve question, I initially replied, “Look at Cuba”, meaning look how long the US has imposed sanctions there. What I should have suggested was that Iraqis look to Cuba for ways to survive and counter such punishment.

If only Iraqis had learned from Cuba. If only Iraq hadn’t been a leading Arab champion of Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, a position unacceptable to US-Israeli interests. If only Iraq and fellow Arab states succored one another with a healthy revolutionary spirit. If only Iraq hadn’t exhibited such prowess, and hadn’t invaded a neighbor with a military power encouraged and bolstered by the West (mainly USA) to fight its greater enemy Iran. 

Just as the two peoples and two embargoes are not comparable, neither is the outcome. Eventually, after 8 years of that tortuous blockade, in 1998 Iraq abandoned attempts to appease the US to win UN approval and instead adopted other means to reverse its course. It had begun to rebuild when Washington announced its sanctions strategy had failed and in 2003 proceeded with plans to finish Iraq off with a massive military invasion and occupation.  

Cuba was smarter, more self-sufficient; and it didn’t have oil. Havana furthered revolutionary ideals with friends while establishing good living standards for its citizens. Cuba build its outstanding medical service while a succession of Latin American neighbors proceeded with their own social and political revolutions, until finally it was the powerful USA who found itself isolated, its meanness and hubris exposed for all to see.

[ Cubaís Forbearance of President Barack Obama ]

New RadioTahrir podcasts on Syria; Mazin Qumsiyeh's Women's Day Letter from Palestine

March 08, 2016

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Friends: Marhaba-- On March 3, in an addenda to my teach-in "An Other Syria: Returning to The Nation" at SUNY Purchase, NY, I assembled interviews I conducted in Syria before 2011. To hear these podcasts, punch in 'syria' and listen. You can also access my audio archive through iTunes. Go to iTunes store; punch in "Tahrir" and scroll down to 'podcasts' where the first item is RadioTahrir. Click our logo and select from the list, then listen. It's free; and the audio quality is pretty good. Search 'Syria' for my articles on Syria.

Today, in lieu my blog, I forward this letter from Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh my colleague at Bethlehem University.

On this International Women's Day, I am in Amman attending the Lancet Palestinian Health Alliance Conference where most presentations are by brilliant women (thank you Rita Giacaman for excellent coordination/organizing). In this conference public health issues are discussed in the regional context and in the context of Israeli colonial occupation. I was inspired mostly by people here: good dedicated experts who present the data regardless of how they get attacked by the powerful elite who profit from war, conflict and inequality. We saw sobering numbers about health access inequality, lack of accessibility to medical services, political interference in health, increased cancer rates, increased congenital birth defects, communicable disease, deteriorating mental health, torture and forced feeding and much more. From my lab, we had a poster on genotoxicity. Here is a report on last year's conference held at the American University of Beirut.   I celebrate Women's Day in Amman (Jordan) and then in Palestine (I will be on my way back to the besieged homeland today). I lament how the mainstream media misses the point  intentionally. They highlight elite women (some who make the lives of women everywhere more difficult such as Hilary Clinton), and they fail to give credit to those women on the front line who change things (like colleagues and friends Rana Bishara, Rehab Nazzal, Rita Giacaman, and a million other activists). The media even fails to explain the origin of this day. Having an annual dedicated day for women (action) was proposed in 1910 by Clara Zetkin of Germany at the International Conference of Working Women. Inspired by women socialist movements for fair working conditions in the USA in 1908 and 1909, movements grew of women demanding their rights (until then they did not even have a right to vote). The first women’s day on 8 March 1911 launched demonstrations for women workers’ rights (right to vote, right to fair work condition, right to live free from oppression, right to life, against wars etc). After a long struggle and many lives lost along the way, the UN recognized 8 March as an “International” (I prefer global) women’s day in 1977, 66 years after it was launched by brave socialist women. Thus women’s day is about actions against injustice not about Hilary Clinton who stands in the way of change and pledges allegiance to Zionist lobbies! On 26 October 1929 in Jerusalem, the First Arab Women’s Congress of Palestine gathered about 200 women. The demands were rights of women and against the Balfour Declaration, against the racist idea of Zionism, for self-determination, and for full equality (gender, religion etc). They elected a 14 member Executive Committee headed by Matiel E. T. Mogannam, author of a book titled “The Arab Women and the Palestinian Problem” published 1937.  Moghannam explained the innovative strategies of Palestinian women in the 1920s: they lobbyed the colonial power, wrote in newspapers, and in 1928 held the first demonstration in history that used automobiles with 120 cars arriving in the streets of Jerusalem from across Palestine). See my book Popular Resistance in Palestine: A history of hope and empowerment The struggle of women in Palestine continues. Many people like me believe sincerely that had women been in charge here, we would have had a free Palestine today. My mother, now 84, showed us by example what giving and self-sacrifice and love of people and land means. My wife and three sisters are likewise examples of what we all should aspire to do: kind, dedicated, and hard-working human beings. Like millions before them and millions of their contemporaries, these women make life livable while many men (and a few women) engage in hurting others and pushing for conflicts and war. Words are too mediocre and inadequate to express our feelings but I simply want to say to all the women working for peace and justice: thank you and to pledge that we will work with you for more progressive change in our societies. As males, we must challenge the system we inherited of giving privilege to men (Patriarchal societies we live in). This must be in deed not in words. For the local situation of Palestinian women today, I urge you to read this remarkable new issue of the excellent magazine “This Week in Palestine” dedicated to our better half.

Keep abreast of developments sent by Qumsiyeh through

[ New RadioTahrir podcasts on Syria; Mazin Qumsiyeh's Women's Day Letter from Palestine ]
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