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


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