Arab American Poets: Samuel Hazo, Nathalie Handal, and Naomi Shihab Nye

Like the majority of post-colonial literature, Arab American literature originated from the struggle to attain credibility and acceptance within the social, psychological, and linguistic realms that are associated with constant change. The observation of such changes involves a significant effort of the authors to abandon the old and search for the new as well as to oppose the establishment and the tradition (Panavelil, 2010). They aim to create an alternative identity that is associated with a conflict between the old establishment and the new narrative. Such authors as Naomi Shihab Nye, Samuel Hazo, and Nathalie Handal have addressed the issues in a somewhat confrontational way to delineate personal concerns and issues that have affected their population (Linhard & Parsons, 2019). Found themselves between two worlds, the protagonists of their writing discuss a new social space that should exist in a balance between two cultures and languages (White & Grabowska, 2018). Therefore, cultural diversity is at the forefront of their writing as a phenomenon intended to maintain both quality and equality in countries through accepting the cultural contributions of migrants within the building of nations (Mitchell, 2018). The aim of this paper is to discuss the issues of minority discrimination and underline the importance of cultural identity and the part that poetry plays as an alternative setting in the works of Naomi Shihab Nye, Samuel Hazo, and Nathalie Handal.

The critical problem area associated with immigrant-related literature lies in the authors using their identified as a shield and rejecting the order within which they had to exist and create. In the context of post-colonial studies, this trend was referred to as ethnocentrism, which implies the provoking of the oppressed identity, causing it to become biased and extremist, as well as creating prejudice against the alleged oppressor. As mentioned by Buchnam (2010), the other side of the coin is the definition of ethnocentrism as the definition of minorities as savages and barbarians: the tendency to or practice of interpreting, evaluating, and judging ethnic groups perceived as other by the standards of one’s own ethnic group” (p. 1). Thus, the imprisonment of the cultural identity within the boundaries established by the majority traps the minorities across a multitude of narrowed cultural contexts (Rushdie, 2010). In Rushdie’s work, such a narrative is prevalent, as evidenced in The Satanic Verses, in which immigrants are shown to deal with their dualist identity when struggling with the isolation and alienation on the part of Westerners. Such a representation is crucial to note because the understanding of the diverse community, identity, and resistance, it is necessary to reflect on the fundamental problems of the dual identity crisis (Netton, 1996).

Even though the African American literature has numerous examples illustrating oppression and bias exhibited by the majority, the focus on Arab American literature is crucial because of the lack of attention to it. As mentioned by Kadi (1994), this literature was the least impactful or influential, and the latest to produce literature among them. Around the 1960s, some other minority groups within the population have been successful enough to create some pieces of literature, while Arab American literature was only introduced toward the end of the twentieth century (Ludescher, 2006). In “Two Worlds Emerging: Arab American Writing at the Crossroads,” Majaj (1996) mentioned that Arab American literature did not have an independent existence, nor was it spread around other pieces of minority writings. The two initial major works that belong to the mentioned category include Wrapping the Grape Leaves: A Sheaf of Contemporary Arab American Poetry (1982) and Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry (1988) by Majaj. Therefore, there was a significant problem for Arab American authors not only to find their identity but also to express the challenges associated with it in their literature.

The development of the cultural identity of Arab American writers should be considered as they belonged to a group of people from diverse countries and religious backgrounds, some of them are Arabic and some of them are Non-Arabic speakers (Ludescher, 2006). The three notable generations of Arab Americans have been differentiated into early immigrants, post-WWII immigrants, and post-1967 immigrants. As Metres (2012) suggested, the early immigrants had full awareness of their own cultural diversity, which subsequently resulted in discrimination and marginalisation. Although, they have been slowly incorporating new laws, social structures, and language acquisition into their life within the majority culture, thus facilitating their assimilation. According to Ludescher (2006), early Arab Americans approached assimilation into the majority culture as a practical step toward their peaceful life, although they failed to consider the national ideologies of the Arab world and Americans’ overall negative attitude toward them.

The events of September 11, 2001, have played a significant role in the shaping of American’s perceptions of immigrants from Arab countries, with Muslims being targeted and named terrorists because thousands of people were killed during the attacks (Marvasti & McKinney, 2004). As mentioned by Abdullah (2015), the results of the attacks were differentiated into two categories, such as “either a terrorist or sympathetic to terrorist, and they have been suspected and distrusted” (p. 52). Alsultany (2012) also highlighted the problems of racial oppression in the aftermath of 9/11, which was fuelled by the nationwide narrative of the political force. As a result of that, the attacks placed significant burdens on the Arabs and Muslims in America to speak both individually and collectively while also being capable of rejecting the established socio-political agenda (Metres, 2018; Moqbel, 2014).

The contributions of Naomi Shihab Nye, and Samuel Hazo, and Nathalie Handal must be considered in regard to breaking free from the limitations of cultural, social, and ethnic oppression of Arab Americans. As mentioned by Nye (2015), when you grow up in a house with someone who lives with a powerful sense of exile, when they are disconnected from the place they love most, that casts a certain light on how you see everything – your sense of gravity, history, and justice. As a Palestinian, Nye has been attracted to tell the stories about the life of her minority population, the stories that the news and other media have no time or do not want to tell. The first two chapbooks published by the author, Tattooed Feet (1977) and Eye-to-Eye (1978), are composed in free verse and structured around the topic of journey or quest. As a result of that, Nye was deemed a “wandering poet,” who heavily emphasised the importance of travel, place, and cultural exchange (O’Rourke, 2019). In the first full-length collection of poems, Different Ways to Pray (1980), the author discovers the differences between the experiences of cultures across South America, Mexico, and from California to Texas. In the poem “Grandfather’s Heaven,” a child declares, “Grandma liked me even though my daddy was a Moslem” (Nye, 1995, p. 13). As observed by critics, the acceptance of the “different ways to pray,” Nye helps contribute to the growing awareness that living in the world as an Arab American could be difficult for people of any age (“Naomi Shihab Nye,” 2020). Therefore, the writer considered it her responsibility to tell what she knows and contribute to the positive narrative of Arab American cultural liberation and celebration of diversity.

Nathalie Handal’s contribution to Arab American literature is essential to consider. Handal has had significant experience with travelling around the world. Born to a Palestinian family in Haiti, the poet lived in France, the US, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Arab World (Cainkar, 2013). Her book The Lives of Rain received the Menada Literary Award, while Love and Strange Horses won the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award (“Meeting with American Poets Alysia Harris and Nathalie Handal,” 2017). Handal’s contribution is associated with her efforts to inspire change as related to the narrative of being an Arab and having to battle for acceptance. Besides, as a Palestinian residing in London for some period of time, she mentioned enduring discrimination for no apparent reason, such as being denied entry to the Palestinian villages in the District of Jerusalem (Handal, 2015). The irony in this situation is that she was not commonly accepted and understood in the Western world while also alienated from the places where her cultural heritage lies. Besides, Handal participated in the ongoing conversation about Arab and Arab American feminist movements (Ghouaiel, 2015), including the issues of oppression and discrimination of women within their cultural and religious context as well as the settings in which they are perceived as the followers of radical religion.

Samuel John Hazo is an Arab American poet and playwright born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to a family of refugees from Lebanon and Syria. In his work, Hazo has extensively covered the topics of religion and faith, war, and family, with his poems being mainly elegiac in tone (Clark, 2018). As reflected by critics, his poetry “speaks to use personally and with absolute sincerity, like a private letter, and we nod and assent to the truth of it as we would to the mention of our very names” (“Samuel Hazo,” 2020, para. 2). In addition, the works were characterised by significant intelligence, humanity, and lyricism, which brings readers closer to the author and makes them experience what the narrator has experienced.

In conclusion, it is essential to note that such modern Arab American poets as Hazo, Handal, and Nye are highly dedicated to exploring their hybrid cultural identity, which inspires them despite the challenges caused. Within their work, the poets have intentionally crossed the limits of culture and created special areas for thought and observation. While the Arab heritage gave them strength, the influence of the Western culture gave them the freedom of expression needed to overcome the issues of ethnocentrism. The literary creations of the authors include vivid representations of exclusion, marginalisation, and racism that they have themselves experienced, offered in the aesthetic context intended to take readers to new imagination realms. Therefore, the poetry of Arab American authors is not confirmed by mere ethnicity but rather by the ability to get deep into the readers’ psyche and evoke the desired to spread peace and unity.


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