Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Rising Tides of 21st Century Middle Eastern and Arabic Literary Voices

The Rising Tides of 21st Century Middle Eastern and Arabic Literary Voices
By Daphne Muse
Growing up in a home where my father passionately followed the politics of the Middle East and Arab worlds, I became intrigued by the cultures and peoples whose lives pointed towards Mecca, Mount Arafat, the Mediterranean Sea, and  Gulf of Aden.  But it wasn’t until I began my studies at Fisk University in 1962, that I read any literature written by a Middle Eastern author.  At Fisk, out of my adoration and respect for a circle of intellectually dynamic poets including Barbara Mahone, Ebon Dooley and Nikki Giovanni, I was introduced to The Prophet: a book of poetic essays by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.  In the late 60s, I gifted my mother with a copy of The Prophet.  It remains a point of spiritual and emotional reference for various rites of passage in both our lives.
In 1970, my literary horizons were expanded exponentially, when in an act of solidarity Drum and Spear Press, Inc. published Enemy of the Sun:  An Anthology of Palestinian Poetry edited by Naseer Aruri and Edmund Ghareeb.  Included were the piercing, magnificent and emerging voices of twelve Palestinian poets living in the Diaspora and Israel.  Mostly written during and after the 1967 Six Day War, the poems reflect the angst and awe of Palestinian life and culture emerging at the time.  One of the poets featured in the anthology is Naomi Shihab Nye went on to become an award-winning voice resonating powerfully across the landscapes of Middle Eastern, US and global poetry.
As waves wash ashore from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean Sea, the landscape of  Middle Eastern and Arabic literature are filled with a growing number of lush, clarifying and insistent voices including Moroccan/North African novelist Mohammed Achaari; Kuwaiti short story writer Mai Al –Nakib; and Saudi Arabian novelist Abdo Khal.
While their works are not seminal treatises on Middle Eastern and Arab life and culture, they provide compelling lenses through which readers can learn how people press forward to normalize lives all too often torn asunder by the strife of repression, shifts in cultural rites of passage and the evolution of practices and behaviors around gender.  Winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic fiction, Achaari’s The Arch and The Butterfly is set just outside the magic and mysticism of the legendary and seemingly timeless Moroccan city of Marrakech.  But none of that magic or mysticism prevails in Achaari’s novel.  Instead the complexities and intersections of 21st century identity, culture, extremism and generational change turn the novel on the axis of a life shattered by abandonment, crime and the death of a secularly raised son thought to be studying architecture in Paris, but killed in Afghanistan fighting with the Islamist resistance.
Right out of today’s headlines Al-Nakib’s The Hidden Light of Objects is a collection of short stories that reflects the dissonance and wretched earth policies created by all too many contemporary politics.  A young girl named Amerika becomes a barometer of hostility towards the West; a Palestinian teenager entrapped into a botched suicide bombing by two belligerent classmates; the abiding forgiveness of a wife for her dying husband’s "dickly dalliances;" and the return of a Kuwaiti woman to her family, after being held captive in Iraq for a decade.   These stories reflect dimensions of the all too often overlooked lives about which we here in the West remain bunkered in our stereotypes, Islamaphobia and overall dire dearth of knowledge about Middle Eastern and Arabic life and culture.  I long for the voice of former Senior White House Reporter Helen Thomas to provide her astute historical and political insights on this region of the world.
In Khal’s Throwing Sparks, Tariq dreams his way out of a life of petty crime and poverty into the reality of becoming a slave to a master from whom he finds it nearly impossible to liberate himself.  In the thick of torment, palace politics and the moody, powerful and capricious men by whom he is surrounded, he finds himself in love with the master’s mistress.  Every word, especially the most brutal, ferociously embeds itself like smoldering embers in a burned out forest, on your spirit.  Kahl’s narrative harnesses the embers and casts them back out into the Universe as the energy of eternals stars. 
“Those with a particularly sensitive disposition suffer a life-time of torment because a star continues to burn brightly despite the ashes and smoke of its dying embers.  Stars are like that:  they continue to burn even after they collapse.
    Tahani would be my eternal star.
    The night I stole her virginity, the ogre stole my life.  It wrenched her life away, and mine with hers.”
          Publications like the always compelling World Literature Today ( and these offerings by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing are creating greater access to works by Middle Eastern and Arabic writers. This year marks the fifth anniversary of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.  Established in 2008 and based in Doha BQFP aims to publish books of excellence and originality in English and Arabic; promote the love and reading and writing and establish a vibrant literary culture in the Middle East; and cultivate new literary talent. 
I’m eager to read more from Achaari, Al-Nakib and Khal and the ever growing list of Middle Eastern and Arabic authors.  Upon reading each of their works, I realize I need a deeper historical grasp and much more insight into the complexities of contemporary Middle Eastern cultures and politics.  Beyond the haze of the seemingly endless embers, their works are turning me towards the Sun. 
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  Her work appears in This Week in Palestine, The Atlantic and has aired on NPR.  Go to to read her blog.

©Daphne Muse, Oakland, California 2015

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Conceived, Born, Raised and Living Black

Conceived, born, raised and living black
    By Daphne Muse
I was conceived, born, raised and now have lived as a human being cast in black for almost seventy years.    I’mo die black, too.  And in my next life, I’ll be honored to return in the black.  I refuse to be drowned in the bile of oppression and no racist savagery, pathology or steroids of genocide will stop me from living the authenticity of who I am.  Be clear that efforts to kill off an entire race of people are bound to implode, as our blood spills all over you and the spirits of our ancestors (and some of yours, too) haunt you in ways you don’t even realize.  The ongoing slaughter, murder and economic lynching of my people will not make me turn against them or stop me from seeking and working to secure the freedom that is inherent for every being.  You can kill a person, but the energy of their spirit sometimes has a way of recharging life.  Mine is constantly recharged by those whose spirits continue to rise in power including anti-lynching activist and journalist Delilah Beasley; Mississippi voting and civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer; and, Dred Scott, buried a few miles up the road from Ferguson in St. Louis.  Scott launched a legal battle to gain his freedom that went all the way up to the Supreme Court (
Despite the high toll and centuries of efforts to resurrect Apartheid and annihilate us, the ongoing slaughter in the streets is not deterring people like the residents of Ferguson, and their supporters across the country and around the world including St. Louis native and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.  He is right up in the mix protesting the killing of unarmed Michael Brown.  I refuse to allow the hatred of my people to diminish the love I have for my often brutalized and brilliant people.   Our DNA is historically, culturally, politically and economically encoded on this country.  From rural roads to outer space, our innovations and inventions also drive many aspects of everyone’s daily life. 
If we’re being punished for the election of the first known black/mixed race president and the appointment of a black attorney general, then wake up and smell the Melanin, because millions of us refuse to be pushed backwards off the cliffs into the swells of oppression and racism.  While bold face, refutable lies continue to twists your tongues into contortions of sheer absurdity, ongoing efforts to revise or erase us from history continue to implode:  Truth has both an ironic and empirical way of blooming through concrete; and destroying documents, eradicating images and attempts to vanish reality can have powerful blow back.  We’re also issuing a cease and desist for your racism to remain a revenue stream for municipalities, jails and penitentiaries; that’s off the table.
Millions of us continue working diligently to seed and harvest the awe and wonder of young people of color, for we recognize how much more vital our country would be, as a result of the benefit of the brilliance and creativity many of them bring to the table.  I will continue to working with others to educate and empower young black men and women to earn diplomas and advanced degrees, so they can become skilled workers, 21st century innovators, strong leaders and even surgeons who skillfully navigate beyond the craters of hatred embedded in the souls of racists to save their lives.  And there are those highly skilled social justice “surgeons” conducting hatred bypasses on a daily basis, an operation that could vastly improve the quality of millions in America.  Even in the dust of my ashes, like millions before me, I’ll proudly align my legacy to stand tall in the power of blackness.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and the oldest sibling to four brothers.  While navigating the mine fields of racism and oppression, they also have lived and celebrated the joy(s), power and brilliance of being black.

Copyright October 2014, Oakland, California
Daphne Muse

Sunday, January 25, 2015

My Great Grandmother's Fork

 My Great Grandmother’s Fork
By Daphne Muse
More than thirty years ago my father, Fletcher Henderson Muse, Sr., gave me my great-grandmother’s fork.   My father had a way of passing on family history and legacies, for he also gave my brother Vincent the knife with which he so deftly carved meat for the dinner parties he served in wealthy homes up and down the Eastern corridor.
Born an enslaved woman in Cuthbert, Georgia and my namesake, Daphne Allen lived to be 97-years-old.  That fork, made of tin and wood, now has a ball of cotton on the prongs which I picked on a trip to Cuthbert about twenty years ago. It sits in the lap of a beautiful doll made by my mother.  The doll sits on a rocking chair that belonged to my great-grandmother when she was a child.  I’m now amazed that she is a part of my life in this way and am reminded of her presence each time I walk past that rocking chair.
          I met her twice: once, when I was about six-years-old and again at Christmas break from college, when I went to spend a very challenging holiday in Cuthbert with my grandparents Henderson Muse and Johnny Clyde Muse.  They argued incessantly about the Bible, him touching her Bible and maddening matters not of a biblical nature.  I thought I’d been sentenced to hell for impure thoughts and transgressions made during early childhood.
While I don’t so much remember her physical presence during the 1962 visit, I have a very clear memory of meeting my great-grandmother when I was about six.  She had on a crisp white dressing gown and had just finished serving my great-grandfather breakfast.  She was a short spindly woman framed in Ebonized skin with no smile, but a solid suit of armor surrounding her spirit.  I don’t recall one word my great grandfather said, as his head remained buried deep in his plate, while he sat alone at the head of the table.  One did not sit at the table with him, while he ate.  I guess he came up out of African royalty of some sort and one needed an appointment to speak with him.

That humble fork is about to be installed in an exhibit I’m mounting and will rest on the page of Ruth Gaskins  A Good Heart and A Light Hand:  A Collection of Traditional Negro Recipes.  Instead of transporting it the three miles from my home to the site of the exhibit at Mills College’s Olin Library, I feel as though I should hire a Brinks trunk to transport that fork.  I’ve been the caretaker of this “family jewel” for more than three decades now.  My great-grandmother’s legacy is integrally intertwined in this fork and embedded with secrets both culinary and personal.  She held it in hands prickled by the thorns from picking cotton and hopefully soothed by cradling the children to whom she gave birth.  I remember being absolutely perplexed upon a visit to the Smithsonian some fifty years ago and seeing George Washington’s teeth included in an exhibition.  I could not fathom why his teeth would hold an esteemed place in a museum, especially one like the Smithsonian.  But I’ve learned from historians and scholars including John Henrik Clarke, Francille Rusan Wilson and Leon Litwack that those teeth are filled with stories about class, race, gender, power, privilege, and slavery.  Her fork tells another kind of story about the same dynamics.  My enslaved great grandmother’s fork is just as important to me and my family as Washington’s teeth, extracted from slaves, are to the history of America.  Her fork reflects the history as well as pain and pleasures of her life long-lived life; she lived to age ninety-seven despite an often bone crushing existence across two centuries in rural Georgia.
While others place rare jewels, trophies of conquest and priceless carpets from vast empires on display, my great-grandmother’s fork has now been cataloged for an exhibition.  As people cast their gaze upon three centuries of iconic books and ephemera in On These I Stand, they will stop and gaze at her fork, learn her name and a little bit more about the relationship between this simple eating implement, my family and the history of 19th and 20th century America.  At every turn, we have to find ways to honor our ancestors, their survival against all odds and learn to wear the armor that allowed them to keep their spirits marching towards freedom land.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  She proudly lives in Oakland, California and recently completed her fifth children’s book about a squirrel named Leroy.


Monday, January 12, 2015

“Selma” powerfully reflects black people boldly and defiantly speaking truth to power.  

     "Selma" powerfully reflects black people boldly and defiantly speaking truth to power.  Whatever the range of critiques regarding the film, the courage and dignity with which the people of Selma, Alabama and their allies met their mission to secure voting rights for black people, is riveting in its portrayal.   Despite being whipped with blood-letting, nail infused Billy clubs, having their jobs threatened and friends, family and allies murdered for seeking and advancing justice, they continued to persevere.  Despite my own critique in “Ten Responses to Selma,” I am grateful to DuVernay, Pitt and Winfrey and the others who made this film possible.  The film truly reflects the dignity, strategic thinking, bravery and compassion of black people.  It also reflected the vision of Dr. King and young men including SNCC activist John L. Lewis and SCLC strategist James Bevel.  From his mentor theologian Howard Thurman to activists whose names will never be known, King’s vision also was forged by other movements and voices contemporary to the times.  What was not at the table was the fierce leadership of the movement’s female “architects,” including Ella Baker, Septima Clark and Fannie Lou Hamer.  The presence of SNCC strategist Diane Nash nuanced beyond recognition.  And while the voices of everyday people did not form the primary dialogue, the fierce determination of people including Amelia Boyton, Jimmy Lee Jackson and Annie Lee Cooper was apparent. 
     How many have walked even one mile, let alone fifty-four miles, dressed in the same reflections of dignity, self-respect and perseverance? Their feet were not comforted by Nike Air Jordan shoes or Adidas. Many women were attired in church lady outfits and men suits.  Allies including Michigan housewife Viola Liuzzo and Unitarian Minister James Reeb came in a heartbeat and were murdered at the hands of white supremacist.
     Despite King’s decision to turn back on the first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and march to Montgomery, the insistence and agency of local people and other activists from around the country, resulted in accomplishing the fifty-four mile march from Selma to Montgomery.  That stride toward freedom resulted in twenty-five thousand people assembling on the steps of the capital at Montgomery and in the same year, the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson.  The inherent pride and belief by black people in black people (supported by diverse groups of celebrities, religious leaders, union members and educators) went the distance in that pen being put to paper to make the Voting Rights Act a reality.  In the aftermath of Ferguson and the daily killings of black people across the country, this generation of activists is making Black Lives Matter.  They have the legacies of Selma, and the wells of so many other battles and victories claimed for social justice, from which to draw. 
     The experience of Selma and this film translate differently across the generations.  But, I feel a sense of reassurance now that my forty-one- year-old daughter, sixteen- year- old grandson and thousands of young people have seen the movie.  My grandson loved the film and the closing song “Glory” by Common and John Legend.  Interestingly enough, he was most taken by the FBI tracking notes that came on the screen during the film.  He curiously noted “No one could say this wasn’t real.”  I plan to sit with him this week, using my own FBI file, to discuss how millions of citizens have been tracked across administrations and decades because of their determination to secure what is so inherently ours:  Equality and Freedom.
I highly recommend the reading list noted in this link:

Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet.  Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Black Scholar and aired on NPR.