When my friend and author Randa Jarrar asked me for a short story for a collection she was editing for Guernica, I wrote “Girls on Ice.” Those were the people talking in my head at the time. Some form of them is always talking in my head because they are in part who I once was and who I see so many teenagers as today. You can’t be Arab or Arab American and female and not have had severe body image anxiety shoved down your throat (as a teen in Beirut, my thoughts weren’t of the war but rather of wanting to be a respectable young woman, i.e. not fat–whereas as the friends I’d left back in Minnesota took fat as an annoyance, not a tragedy). War was just an inevitable, uncontrollable part of life, and sadly still is, but beauty can be controlled, just ask any woman in the Middle East. Perhaps we wage war on our bodies to shut out the wars we find ourselves powerless to control. But when you come to America, you have to be concerned with achieving beyond the bathroom mirror. Just ask the characters in these stories.
Because Abu Dhabi has become such a crossroads of the world since I have lived here, I find myself having a lot of “how did I get here” moments. For example in the years since 9-11, I’ve never sat around picturing where I’d be the day after Osama bin Ladin was put to rest, relatively speaking. However, had I done so, I probably wouldn’t have come up this: at the home of the the Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs of the Embassy of the United States of America in Abu Dhabi, celebrating poetry with three acclaimed poets who had just gotten out of Nepal on a rickety plane that morning and were leaving for Afghanistan the next day, having begun their journey in Iowa.
Poetry is the bread and butter of Arab art and culture, and no country has nurtured the arts in modern times more than the US, so it was one of those positive cross cultural meetings, especially given the news of the day wasn’t quite settling in the same for the two peoples. That the Osama news was so different depending on where you got your information also had its upside, as the reception was also recognizing World Press Freedom Day.
Poets Nathalie Handal, Bob Holman and Christopher Merrill were in Abu Dhabi as part of the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa. Here’s the official explanation: “The International Writing Program is the flagship cultural partner of the U.S. Department of State. For more than 30 years, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program has brought together more than 1,000 rising and established literary stars from 120 countries to spend a semester exploring the creative writing process. Authors, screenwriters, journalists, and other participants benefit from the rich literary heritage and resources of Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature. On the road, IWP writers carry out programming, often in collaboration with U.S. embassies and cultural centers, that helps audiences around the world think about the role the arts, and especially literature, can playing in building bridges of international communication.” Take that anyone who thinks Iowa is just cornfields and pig farms.
Christopher Merrill, who directs the International Writing Program, read a poem in which a semi-hidden rattlesnake is an easily recognized metaphor. Bob Holman, who studies dying languages for fun and has appeared on shows like HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, improvised in free verse on the possibility of writing from the other person’s side at the rapid, off tangent rate most of us find thoughts running through our head when we try to write. Nathalie Handal, Palestinian American poet and one of the editors of the acclaimed anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (W.W. Norton) read her poem, “Peace.”
I leave you with her latest poem, Freedom, about the current Arab revolutions.
I spoke at TEDx Abu Dhabi last week. TED is hard, writing is hard–being a superhero is even harder. But that’s what I talked about at TEDx: My favorite female superhero, Scherhazade. I also consider her the first female superheroine. I’ll post the video in which I explain why when I’m feeling more heroic and therefore not afraid of looking at videos that have me in them. In the meantime, here’s an article that is the result of a nice chat I had with National report Manal Ismail after the talk.
It seems like most of my life, I’ve been asked what it’s like to be Arab or Palestinian or Lebanese or Muslim. I’ve even been asked questions about being Latino and Jewish, based on my appearance I assume. However, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me what it is like to be an American, although I’ve spent all my life being one. I think there is an assumption that just by being born American I am privileged, privileged by the international power my country has. While I’ve recognized the relative truth of that, I’m well aware that the US is not paradise on Earth for so many of its people. Watch any Michael Moore documentary or just go hang out an urban hospital emergency room eavesdropping on conversations—what doesn’t kill you, will make you question the meaning of life and death. And never mind that so much US Middle East policy pains me.
But on a more personal level, “what’s it like to be an American” is not even a question I would ask myself about myself, although I would ask it of others: I think I’ve always felt quasi American because of my childhood. In the Midwest, where I spent my early years, I didn’t have a Little House on the Prairie homesteading heritage—and not just one but both my parents had accents, didn’t know a twice baked potato from a Tater Tot, weren’t rugged and outdoorsy like the Marlboro Man or Robert Redford and thought camping was something people had to do if they couldn’t afford roadside motels. That childhood reasoning as to why we were not ‘real’ Americans, no matter how much my parents would tell us differently, has somehow always stayed with me, compounded by grown up examples that involve words like terrorism, Muslims, 9/11.
However, this fall at the Frankfurt Central Library, when US Consulate Public Affairs Officer Jeanine Collins introduced me as an American author—just plain American, not a hyphenated American—for the first time I felt that I was indeed an American. I was not just an American because a representative of the US government was introducing me (although that was the first time I’d ever been introduced by an American as an American), but because in that instant I realized that the US was the country that can claim and that I can claim, the country that has educated me, given me my voice to speak for all my other identities, let me question what it is to be American, and let me praise its ingenuity, innocence and hope and criticize its darker sides without punishment. There in Frankfurt, I felt that I had come home, that I had been validated as a real American, not just by the US Consulate but finally by myself.
Here’s a clip of that talk: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7o7s6QssY10
At the baggage carousel at the Stuttgart airport, the first stop of the book tour for Feigen in Detroit (Aufbau 2010), I waited for my suitcase while four Gulf women dressed like they had arrived at a spa at the North Pole waited for their 10 gargantuan suitcases. From eavesdropping, I gathered the baggage was for a five-day stay.
They had no idea how to get the luggage off the carousel themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any baggage handler around, clearly a first for them. Meanwhile, on the other side of me, two middle-aged German women who had just spent 10 days in Jordan each briskly grabbed her lone backpack off the conveyer belt and headed home. The Gulf women were still watching their suitcases turn, waiting for someone—anyone–to lift them off for them. I was somewhere in the middle of all these women, neither able to briskly whip my suitcase over my shoulder nor waiting for someone to carry it for me. I have lived most of my life between “can demand help” women and “can do” women.
I spent eight days in Germany in six different cities. It was cold, it was rainy, and went by so fast that I only added one word to my German: Schweinefleisch. In English pork sounds just like pork, but in German it seems like I might be missing out on something. I loved Germany. Not that I don’t like living Abu Dhabi. It’s just a little different.
1. In Germany, a train scheduled to leave at 8:52 a.m. leaves at 8:52 a.m. If for some reason it can’t do so, you will be informed in plenty of time of the delay. In the Middle East, there is no such time as 8:52 a.m. “Around let’s say 9 in the morning” would be more accurate, and you don’t really have to question if someone is late until around 10 in the morning, perhaps even 10 the evening.
2. I found “Feigen in Detroit” at the Stuggart train station bookstore just to the left of the erotica section, which was next to the children’s Christmas book section. In Abu Dhabi, you might find “The Night Counter” if you can find a bookstore. It won’t be carrying erotica, or porn as we call it in America.
3. I was in Germany for several days before I noticed what I wasn’t noticing—German flags. In the UAE, the flag seems to decorate everything—from doorways to camels. In Germany, the flag appears primarily on federal buildings. Nor can the German flag pass as a Christmas decoration, which is what a recent arrival told me she thought all the red and green lights festooning Abu Dhabi were for. They were for a different season– neon versions of the flag for National Day (which is like Christmas—one day that lasts several days)
4. In Germany, they recycle everything everywhere. People throw their trash in bins marked paper, plastic, and waste. In the Middle East, you just hope people put their trash in a bin, any bin.
5. In Germany, all the pharmacies boost about “bio” (organic) products. In Abu Dhabi, the pharmacies heavily promote facial whitening creams even when you’re not asking to be whiter.
6. There are a lot of kabob shops in both Germany and Abu Dhabi. Thanks to a large Turkish population, Germany has way better kabob, doner kabob that is, which we call shawarma here.
7. Anywhere you see “schweinefleisch” in Germany substitute “lamb” in Abu Dhabi. The cow has it easy in both places.
8. Germans love dates—as a treat. Arabs love dates—as a staple. In the Middle East, you can buy a kilo for about 4 Euros. In Munich, one date costs one Euro.
9. In Germany, the VAT tax hurts. Abu Dhabi is tax free.
10. In Germany, people read everywhere they go—buses, trains, airplanes. On my flight from Munich to Berlin, everyone was sitting and reading. This made me happy. On the plane coming back to Abu Dhabi via Jordan, the Arabs on the plane were just sitting. No books, no computers, not even any iPads. Sometimes it’s good to just sit, but en masse like that, it made me sad.
Many people ask me why “The Night Counter” is called “Feigen in Detroit” in German, which means “Figs in Detroit.” Therein lies the beauty of translation. It’s all about what your translators (Max Stadler and Nadine Puschel) and publisher (AufBau) see in German that you didn’t see in English. I have loved working with
AufBau from the day they aquired to today and I’m looking forward to meeting the people who read it in German. So if you’re in Germany or Vienna this coming two weeks….
More information also on Facebook at “The Night Counter by Alia Yunis”
Wednesday November 17, 2010 at 7pm
Thursday November 18, 2010 at 11 am
ISF International School
Strasse zur Internationalen Schule 33
65931 Frankfurt am Main
Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.
Stadtbücherei – Central Public Library
MedienZentrale Hasengasse 4
Friday November 19, 2010 at 7:30pm
Hauptverband des Österreichischen Buchhandels
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 11 a.m.
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 11 a.m. Munich Literature Festival
Club Ampere im Muffatwerk
Zellstr 4 81667 München
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 4 p.m.
Munich Literature Festival
A Traveling Story, Munich City Walk
Monday, November 22, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Zeitungs-Café Hermann Kesten
Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.
Hugendubel in den Fünf Höfen
Wednesday November 24, 2010 at 6 p.m.
I miss living in the US every day for many reasons, but among the things I don’t miss are the shallow debates on TV that pretty much follow the line of “Muslims: Terrifying or just really scary?”–usually a heated debate book ended with some heart pounding intro and outro musak– like these are one of two extreme positions that need to be taken about Islam’s billion followers. It’s easy for me to tune it out when I’m not Stateside, so I’m glad I missed the whole Juan Williams debacle, and I’m not sure why he got fired when so many others have said way worse things and had it pass as “news.” But I get a kick out of this blog’s response–and feel pretty privileged to be in the company of these fine dressed people.