NOTES ON LIVING AND WRITING IN AMERIKA PT. III



Etel Adnan, "Blessed Day" (1990)


And so I did not reject these poems, I did not despise them saying, "How is this possible? Sixteen different manuscripts of poetry written in 1985 and not one of them uses the terms of my own Black life! Not one of them writes about the police murder of Eleanor Bumpurs or the Bernard Goetz shooting of four Black boys or apartheid in South Africa, or unemployment, or famine in Ethiopia, or rape, or fire escapes, or cruise missiles in the New York harbor, or medicare, or alleyways, or napalm, or $4.00 an hour, and no time off for lunch.  

I did not and I would not presume to impose my urgencies upon white poets writing in America. But the miracle of Black poetry in America, the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America, is that we have been rejected and we are frequently dismissed as “political” or “topical” or “sloganeering” and “crude” and ‘insignificant” because, like Phillis Wheatley, we have persisted for freedom. We will write against South Africa and we will seldom pen a poem about wild geese flying over Prague, or grizzlies at the rain barrel under the dwarf willow trees. We will write, published or not, however we may, like Phillis Wheatley, of the terror and the hungering and the quandaries of our African lives on this North American soil. And as long as we study white literature, as long as we assimilate the English language and its implicit English values, as long as we allude and defer to gods we “neither sought nor knew,” as long as we, Black poets in America, remain the children of slavery, as long as we do not come of age and attempt, then to speak the truth of our difficult maturity in an alien place, then we will be beloved, and sheltered, and published.  

But not otherwise. And yet we persist. 

— June Jordan, “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley” (February, 1985)    

I am composing on the typewriter late at night, thinking of today. How well we all spoke. A language is a map of our failures. Frederick Douglass wrote an English purer than Milton's. People suffer highly in poverty. There are methods but we do not use them. Joan, who could not read, spoke some peasant form of French. Some of the suffering are: it is hard to tell the truth; this is America; I cannot touch you now. In America we have only the present tense. I am in danger. You are in danger. The burning of a book arouses no sensation in me. I know it hurts to burn. There are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor's language. 

— Adrienne Rich, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” (1986)  

I am not a metaphor. My place of origin is not a metaphor. I inhabit my language, my imagination, more and more completely. It becomes me. I do not exist as a text. I am spoken into being—as Léopold Sédar Senghor said of the world. I speak myself into being and with that speech my place of origin. I use this speech to craft fiction, which is not a record of myself, which is self-consciously—self-confidently—political. I do believe in the word, that a new world may be spoken into being.  

— Michelle Cliff, “Sites of Memory” (2008)

OF PALESTINIANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS — MU'IN BSEISO


The Gaza-born writer and activist Mu’in Bseiso (1926-1984) is best known for his many volumes of poetry. In a 1969 review of Bseiso’s poetry, the Egyptian critic and novelist Radwa Ashour argued that Bseiso’s poetry is first and foremost concerned with politics and society. Bseiso, Ashour wrote, “is not interested in metaphysical questions in the least.” His lesser known but also voluminous memoirs, plays, and essays share this political bent along with a propensity for allegory and a biting wit.  The curious piece below—which summons, through a white man's novel, the foil of Native Americans to condemn the inaction of Arabs—comes from a 1972 collection of his literary essays. Throughout, Bseiso uses the Arabic term "al-Hindi al-Ahmar" or "the Red Indian." Despite the problems with this term, I have elected to stay true to Bseiso's Arabic, although today even in Arabic "al-Amerikan al-Asliyeen" or "the Original Americans" is sometimes used.

°°°°

Left: Heard Museum, Phoenix. Right: Dar al-Nimr, Beirut


The Bottle of Milk and the Newspaper


The most honest literary account of the extermination of an entire race is a novel written by the American Howard Fast about the physical liquidation of the Red Indians, The Last Frontier [1941]. In it, the shadow of bullets chases the Red Indians who fall from their naked horses with their feathered warbonnets. No one escapes the massacre except for one Red Indian who reaches the frontier injured, spiritless, with hardly a breath left. But this story does not end with the final Red Indian reaching the frontier, it extends deeply into into last third of the twentieth century, when we now only see Red Indians in America’s museums, their garb exhibited.


In the end of Fast's novel, that wounded, last surviving Red Indian was given to the United States of America. Perhaps the best doctor treated his injuries. Perhaps they offered him a home for himself. Perhaps, one way or another, they found for him the last Indian woman too, and they married. Thus they preserved that species from extinction. Then of course they introduced laws banning the hunting of Red Indians—fearing the extinction of the species—in the same way they’ve introduced laws banning the hunting of endangered animals… fear of extinction?!!


Howard Fast, if he lived today [Fast was alive... he died in 2003] and made some edits to the margins of his old novel, and released it in a new edition, he wouldn’t be wrong to title it: The Last Frontier for the Last Palestinian instead of The Last Frontier. If he changed the Indians' names and wrote in their place Palestinian names, and changed the names of cities, the Palestinian novel would not be so different from the old American novel about the Indians. The pursuit is the same pursuit, and the determination to exterminate is the same determination to exterminate, and the silence heavy artillery makes would be the same. But, will the last Palestinian reach the last frontier? Will he have the same opportunity as the last Indian? Will the Arabs—with the same shrewdness and cleverness of the Americans who treated their final Indian, and surrounded him with all their care—keep the species from extermination? It is wrong in this century, to keep our Arab museums empty of the Palestinian species in the same way as the Americans, but rather we should draw on their example and bring Palestinians into every field of our production. Use Palestinians in our artistic and literary lives etc. Represent Palestinians in the cinema and television and short stories and novels and plays and painting. It’s best to just consume the greatest tragedy of this era from the comfort of our homes where at our doors every morning a bottle of milk and the newspaper sit, and we have the capacity after all this to look at ourselves in the mirror without shame!
Translated into English by Esmat Elhalaby from the original Arabic in: Mu’in Bseiso, Adab al-Qafz bi-al-Mizallat (Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1972)

TRAVELING REVOLUTION — RASHID HUSSEIN






In his introduction to the volume where this poem is published, the Palestinian poet and critic Izzedine al-Manasrah writes that Rashid Hussein’s “angry poetry condemns the period of bourgeois Arab domination of the Palestine problem.” Below, a poem emblematic of Hussein’s condemnation, “Thawra ‘ala Safar.”


°°°° 
What is left of the revolutions?
What is left of my sweetest dreams ?

Besides ruins and banquets
and stars on the shoulders
of those who explain away our defeats!?


****


What’s left but an army of articles filling
the coffers of journalists?
And explanations justifying the crime?
What’s left but a singer weeping over Haifa and Jaffa?
And banks sweating dinars looted from Jerusalem?!
What’s left but starting the revolution anew?
What’s left but to kill the crime?

****

The revolution is born in two eyes without a nation
The revolution is born a peasant without land.
Now only the police have land
and on it they imprison us all.
The revolution is born when the illiterate
and the writer
and the blind know the truth.
After the revolution writing will be free
and truth will be free.  

****

So my friends
I’m tired of being drugged by the speeches of Arab Kings.
I’m tired of a god who lives in the Seven Heavens.
A god who only cares about
prohibiting pork and permitting gold.

****


I’m tired of this god
who sells heavens and virgins.
So condemn me to hell
and you’re condemned to collect the wood
to keep it burning.

****

So you Arabs
patience has become exhausting.  
I’m angry now
I’m angry
I’m still angry.  
The revolution desires anger.

****


Then what?
In front of all the priests,
a child gave birth.
They dragged her to the market were she remains
nothing but the butt of insults.  
So when I write a poem
I’m torn apart
and blood from my mother’s womb pours from my face
and my poetry goes mad
searching for the faces of traitors.

****

So I remain a peasant
and a poet.
Wherever I walk
you will see a revolutionary.




Translated into English by Esmat Elhalaby from the Arabic original in: Rashid Hussein, Ana al-Ard la tahrimni al-Matar (Beirut: Munazzamat al-Tahrir al-Filastiniyyah, 1976). Originally published in al-Adab v. 20 n. 3 (1972).




EDWARD SAID–SADIK AL-AZM 1980




In the 1981 edition of Khamsin the Syrian philosopher Sadik Al-Azm (1934-2016) published his infamous review of Edward Said's (1935-2003) Orientalism entitled "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse." But he initially submitted the manuscript to the Arab Studies Quarterly, edited at the time by Said and Fouad Moughrabi. Below, Said and Al-Azm's correspondence following that submission. Al-Azm and Said's relationship would disintegrate following this exchange. In 1988, Al-Azm would publish an attack on Said and other Palestinian intellectuals entitled "Palestinian Zionism."  Al-Azm, whom we've just lost, continued to provoke great feeling—and now mourning—for the rest of his life among Arab intellectuals.








November 10

My dear Sadek:


Many thanks for sending us your long analysis of Orientalism: it’s very carefully worked out, I think, and—in your special terms—it makes a cogent and often impressive document. However, Foad and I think it is much too long for us to print as is. Two options present themselves therefore: one, you cut it by about 15 pages (a lot of them can be eliminated because of repetition and verbal padding); two, we cut it, or rather, the copy-editor cuts and we send it to you for approval. Let us know immediately, so we can proceed with plans to publish it. In any event, pending your reply we will suggest the cuts, so that if you opt for number 2 (above), we will have a text ready for you without delay.


As you know I’ve received many reviews, and have decided for the most part not to reply to any of them. In the case of your essay I’m going to do something I haven’t done: I shall reply to you. Let me be honest with you to as a friend, who as you know admires you and loves you. In your recent writing I’ve detected an unfortunate narrowness and dogmatism which has weakened your work: this is the case with your reading of my book. I find some of your points are very well-taken, and well-presented. The defense of Marx and the points about my “advice” to American investors I think are crude and shallow, and I will be demonstrating the emptiness of some of your rhetoric. I don’t think you’ve ever tangled with a polemicist of my sort: your attacks against the straw-men you catch with silly statements have gone unchallenged. I propose to teach you a lesson in how to argue and how to make points, not out of anything more than the desire to make didactic sense. The worst thing about your writing is how really badly you read: in the end, you see, when we read and write, we are dealing with words, and your way with words is both too literal and not literal enough, and you can’t have it both ways. When you quote, you misquote and when you construe, you mis-construe, yet both activities are done with “accuracy” and “correctness” as their pretext. As an instance, take your allegation that my notion of Orientalism is unilinear: you simply don’t read what I everywhere say, that Orientalism is a word which has many meanings, and one must be sensitive to those meanings. If there is one thing it isn’t as a concept (except, that is, to the insensitive and lazy reader) it is unilinear, but I shall also be showing you that. I think in the end the real difference between you and me, is that you are a dogmatist and a literalist who really has never gone past the Marxism of the Second International; I am a skeptic and in many ways an anarchist who doesn’t believe as you do, in laws, or systems, or any of the other claptrap that inhibits your thought and constricts your writing. For you Marx is what Khomeini is to his followers: you are in fact a Khomeini of the Left which is one thing my heroes, Gramsci and Lukacs, could never have been.


I must say, finally, that I found your insinuations about putative relations with US imperialism beneath you, and not worthy of you. I can only put them down to having lived for so long in the sewers of the Beirut press, which is where you spend too much of your time. For a scholar and thinker like yourself, to suggest such things is of course to lay yourself open to many worse imputations, for example, to being (literally) a willing, silent servant of the Syrian regime, which currently employs you and demands your silence, a prince which—as I have told you at least once you have regrettably accepted to pay. But I would never say that about you in print; that is the difference between us. I will say it to you privately as I am saying it here, and that is the end of it. I shall refer to this matter in the reply only it is part of the self-castrating syndrome I find in your work, the syndrome of someone who has a lot to say and who has many contributions to make, but who undercuts and destroys himself in his writing. This is what I think you have done; you have sacrificed your potential effect to sensation and scandal, both of which have made you in the end much less effective than you could have been. The question I shall try to answer then, is why does Sadek willingly hurt himself and his cause, why does he cripple his potency in the very same breath that he proclaims it? This is a very a useful intellectual question to ask.

I hope you take my points in the spirit in which I mean them. But it will be good for the Journal to have use debating each other politely in its pages: so think about any cuts you may wish to make. In any case I won’t have time to get to you piece and a response until after January 1. I’m buried in many duties and papers right now: nevertheless I eagerly look forward to replying to you in detail.

Mariam sends love to Fawz and to you — as do I.

Yours,
Edward


****


Damascus, Dec. 2, 1980

Dear Edward,

Thank you very much for your letter of Nov. 10, 1980. I knew that my article will upset, but I did not anticipate such a violent outburst on your part, especially the attack on my person. I really think that the vehemence of your reaction is way out of proportion to the “crimes” I seem to have committed in criticizing some aspects of your book.

As you know I have been through many bitter debates and controversies before and I have succeeded in maintaining a reasonably detached attitude all through. Therefore, I bypass your abusive accusations, and take in stride the point by point comparison you draw between the qualities and virtues of yourself and those of my humble person, all leading, predictably enough, to the inevitable conclusion of your superiority. I think such stuff should be left to others to speak about and debate (if at all), for we do not do ourselves much of a service indulging in such comparisons and self-serving evaluations. Apropos, I would like to mention that the “straw-men” I have engaged are neither irritable professors nor composed intellectuals, but persons, establishments, and governments armed to the teeth and positively dangerous. Steeped in the traditions of “Oriental Despotism”, they are known to be highly inclined to settle differences of opinion with critics and polemicists by resort to bullets, explosives, arson, repression and assassination.

I regret that you insist on misunderstanding the last few pages of part I of my article. It seems to me that there is an obvious difference between saying the X has relations (of one sort or another) with US imperialism and saying that X holds opinions and expresses views that play (or could play) into the hands of US imperialism, and that this ought to be brought to X’s attention and openly debated with him. The task becomes even more significant and urgent if X is widely known for his anti-imperialism. The pages in question point out to you that American imperialism will find pleasing: (a) your judging the Arab-Us satellite relationship as not lamentable; and (b) your insistence that American policy in the ME is the way it is because Orientalist fictions still dominate the minds of the policy-makers and of the experts who instruct policy. Prima facie, it seems to me that such positions can not be squared with a genuine anti-imperialist stance. I would like to see you argue the opposite in lieu of getting so angry with me. Similarly, if you wish to defend the Orient against Western Orientalism and imperialism then you can no constantly adhere to (a) and (b), or tell the American bosses to purge their imperialist heads of Orientalist fancies  and abstractions. For, in my view, these policymakers and their experts are hardboiled bosses who have few illusions about anything and who know precisely what they are doing and for what objectives. I may be wrong. But, then, I would like to see you argue that the opposite position is consistently tenable along with a real anti-imperialist commitment, instead of calling me names.

I take it we are the sort of people who hold strong views on life’s important matters and burning issues, we defend our persuasions forcefully and criticize others passionately, but this no pretext for anyone of us to exhibit self-righteous attitudes, assume holier-than-thou postures and issue claims to superior abilities in teaching exemplary lessons to others. Whether Marx’s views on India resulted from the usurpation of his mind by Orientalist jargon and dictionary definitions or from his overall theory of historical change; whether there is unilinear conception of Orientalism in your book or not, are all meaningful questions which can be rationally debated and clarified without either calling on the help of self-castration syndromes and theories, or resorting to other forms of character assassination.

Concerning the publication of my essay in ASA I have two points to make: (a) considering that my article deals directly with your work and considering that you reacted so vehemently to its contents (to the point of breaking your solemn vows not to reply to critics), I would have thought you would refrain completely from making any kind of editorial decisions, suggestions etc. concerning this piece. (b) I insist on the publication of my essay intact and as is, whatever its faults may be. This is final and not subject to further discussion. In case ASQ find my request unreasonable (or impossible to meet for one reason or another), I will appreciate having the ribbon copy returned to my Beirut address as quickly as possible.

We wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Sincerely yours,
Sadik

****

December 10, 1980

Dear Sadik:

Now who’s over-reacting? I said nothing in my letter about your person except your subservience to the regime, and I withdrew it immediately; my letter indicating or implying my superiority over you; what utter trash. Those are forms I don’t use, but what I did say—and there once again you misread—was that as a polemicist or answers to your attacks I am superior, in polemics at least, to your customary antagonists. You confirm that by saying opponents have generally been Oriental despots who use the sword. That was exactly my point, which of course you missed.

As for your other point, about advice or playing into the hands of imperialism. If you read the two passages in question, you’ll see, 1) that what I say about US policy being built on Orientalist fictions is a statement of fact, that implies neither that I am giving advice on what the Orient is, not that I would like them to change. Quite the contrary, I say what must be said as a description of what obtains, and—if you read on—I also say that there is, and can, be no different policy given the institutions, the system, and so forth. 2) The second passage—about the satellite relationship—I said that in itself a satellite relationship—note, excluding economic relationships (since all the theorists of imperialism you cite, Frank, Jalee, Amin, etc all deal with the economic form of the satellite or dependency)— is not per se bad. What I mean is that it is unthinkable that in a complex cultural world that all cultures would be equal, and all equally independent and original: can we say that the satellite relationship between Rome and Greece was bad, because of the fact of satellite ship, or that between Germany and Austro-Hungary, in cultural terms? No. Some relationships of this sort are because of the form of the relationship—for example, as in the one between the Arab world and the West, because the relationship goes in one direction, is essentially reproduction, is hopelessly uneven. That was my point. I should think that your argument about Marx I won’t bother to deal with here, since they involve more complicated things, and are interesting for other reasons.

Anyway, I supposed that my letter would rankle a bit, and I’m sorry about that. Thanks for calling me an irritable professor: what should I call you, a dispassionate and olympian critic of everyone else’s mistakes? Ok—you’re a dispassionate and olympian critic of everyone else’s mistakes.

You do me a real dishonor by suggesting that because I am personally involved I shouldn’t suggest changes and revisions in your piece. The fact is that I am far more scrupulous and fair than that: I wish, for once that you would see that. Before I wrote you I had checked with my co-editors, Fuad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod: in fact when Fuad got your piece he did so well before I did, he told me that it was far too long; I refused to read it until he and Ibrahim made their criticisms. Ibrahim thought your article should be cut to five, yes five, pages. So what I was saying was not a personal comment, but a collective editorial one. I thought your response was pretty dumb and high-toned, since cuts are frequent in even the best of journals, and why should you think somehow that your every word is sacred and beyond criticism? A funny position to take for someone who takes positions such as yours. However, we are having a meeting this weekend. I will take the position that your piece should be published in full, with every last word as it is. If I am overruled you will get it back. If not, not—and I’ll publish a response right alongside it. Is that to your liking?

I suppose that the rancor between us will dissipate with time. I still think that you did not do what you did in your piece with the best faith (the best intellectual faith that is) as you seem to think, or that you read as carefully and as intelligently as you might have. I regret anything I said to you that may have seemed merely reactive (as opposed to accurate, as many of the things I said were) and abusive, but I don’t regret telling you how I felt about the species of criticism which you now write, and which you now seen to direct more or less at anyone who swims up before your vision. There would seem to me to be some virtue in making distinctions, in understanding that when I write a book of the sort I did that I am writing in a particular situation and for more than one audience, and so forth, none of which you seemed to have considered enough in your essay. I am prepared to concede that Orientalism is not really a very good book, but I do insist that it contains, with few exceptions, excellent readings and interpretations. My main complaint then with you is that you don’t read well, or that you write better than you read. I hope you see what I mean. No hard feelings, although perhaps some bruised ones. In the end that may not be so bad. I shall be in Beirut the weekend of Jan 9-11 at my mother’s. Could we meet briefly then, if you have the time?

With all our regards to the four of you—
Yours—
Edward


Edward W. Said Papers; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

ARAB SAN DIEGO


June 8, 1980, The San Diego Union

Below, some traces of the history of Arab Americans in San Diego. In the 1970s and 80s, the Arab American Society of San Diego is the center of this history, though the organization appears to have be short lived. It’s president, one Fozi Khouri, founded the San Diego Branch of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). During its existence, the Society organized demonstrations, fundraisers, and gave a platform for prominent Arab speakers like Tawfiq Ziad, Fayez Sayegh, and Clovis Maksoud. It activism—and actions against it—is inextricably tied to Palestinian movement in Los Angeles and Arab American activism across the United States.     

Harry Steinmetz Papers; Box 7 Folder 2;
Special Collections and University Archive, San Diego State University Library 

She is 22 years old, a student in San Diego, Calif. She was born in Ramallah, in the West Bank, came to this country at the age of 3 and is an American citizen. On the telephone, she sounds like California. I shall call her Evelyn Bitar: not her real name.
''I was studying, alone in the school library, on the night of Jan. 28. At about 8:30 a large man, 6 feet tall, came up and shoved a paper in front of me. It said 'subpoena' and had my name on it. He flashed what looked like a badge and said, 'Evelyn, we want you to come with us.' . . .


''When I still didn't respond, they said, 'At your rally you said ''Long live Palestine.'' We'll show you what we think of your Palestine.' They took out a small Palestinian flag, about 3 by 5 inches, and burned it. 
 
''Then they took me out, back into the car. They stopped about two miles from my house. They said, 'Listen, Babe, when you least expect us, expect us. We'll always be around.' I looked at my watch. It was 8:30 A.M.'' 
 
— Anthony Lewis, “Abroad at home; is this America?” New York Times (February 10, 1987) 

September 20, 1975, The San Diego Union


More than 500 persons were evacuated from the Royal Inn at the Wharf last night during a bomb scare that proved to be a hoax.  

Police asked delegates to the convention of the Wester Federation of Americans of Arabic Heritage and other hotel guests to assemble in the hotel parking lot while officers searched the hotel for a bomb.  

The night manager of the hotel told police he received a telephone call that appeared to be from a gravelly voiced older man.  

Phillip Smith, the night manager, quoted the called as saying: “I’m calling from the Los Angeles and I represent the Jewish movement. We have planted a bomb in the hotel that is due to go off in 22 minutes.” 

Leaders of the Arab-American organization were outraged by the hoax.  

—“500 Evacuated In Bomb Scare,” The San Diego Union (September 7, 1975)  



An orderly crowd of the curious filled Lewis Junior High School auditorium in Grantville last night to watch a showing of the controversial film, “The Palestinian,” sponsored by the Arab American Society of San Diego.  

About eight uniformed police officers and an undetermined number of officers from the Criminal Intelligence Unit also were on hand but there was no trouble.  

— “Controversial Film Showing Is Orderly,” The San Diego Union (May 5, 1978); a month later a bomb went off at a Los Angeles showing of the same film.


The San Diego Arab community, 15,000 strong, is fed up and isn’t going to take it anymore.  

“The average American thinks of an Arab as a Bedouin living in the desert, a camel driver, a filthy-rich sheik or a terrorist,” complains Fozi Khouri, a Palestinian who came here in 1967 and became a naturalized American citizen.  

“But, most Americans don’t think of us as civilized people with great culture and pride. Always we are presented here in caricature or derogatory image.”  

So, on Sunday, Khouri said, a local chapter of the fast-growing American-Arab Anti-discrimination committee will be founded here with a banquet. 

“We have met informally several times in the last two months and already have about 100 members,” said Khouri, who has been the principal organizer of the chapter.  

“Our purpose is to combat and correct the bad image that has been carrying across to the American public about Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular.  

“The institutional instruments of discrimination against people of Arab descent have ranged from the city schools system and news media to immigration authorities and the FBI.   

— “Arabs Here Plan Anti-Bias Group In Attempt to Correct Bad Image,” The San Diego Union (November 4, 1981)