Two New Poetry Volumes by Arab Americans: Inner Voices in the Shadow of the Twin Towers Inner Voices in the Shadow of the Twin Towers

By Judith Gabriel

By Suheir Hammad
Cypher, New York, 2005

Into It

By Lawrence Joseph

New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005


Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos

By Lawrence Joseph

New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Their voices muted in the chilling shadows of post-9/11 hysteria, Arab Americans dwell in a realm of uncertainty and daily indignation, the targets of demonization. While lawyers and civil rights groups may publicly raise their legal outcries against discrimination and  prejudice, few mere humans who have been stung, slighted or struck because of their Arabic name or accent dare to speak out. With all the fear, indignation and outrage that they might express amongst themselves, there is no individual narrative to describe the draining, infuriating shadows that permeate and shape their daily life.

To produce such a narrative, one would have to be a poet, for perhaps only that voice slips through the tightly controlled gates of media compliance and neighborhood prejudice to bespeak the complexities, indignities, vulnerabilities and prayers of being human – and Arab American  – in these times.

Two Arab-Americans residents of New York City at the time when the Twin Towers were toppled on 9/11, Suheir Hammad and Lawrence Joseph, have expressed their individual responses to that and other aspects of contemporary urban life in newly published collections of poetry. 

There is plenty of such voice given here, some with a discernible “accent,” incorporating their ethnic identity – and much more in a distinctly universal “American” vein. And while the poems do not only focus on images at Ground Zero, or the suspicion with which immigrants and second-generation children of immigrants are treated in America, these experiences and observations are integrated into the other parts of their lives: their memories, their loves, their sidewalk encounters still occur in the space of being Arab in America.

Suheir Hammad was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan in 1973. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was five, settling in the New York City area (first Brooklyn and later Staten Island). She is most often referred to as a Palestinian from Brooklyn, and her work carries with it the sense and beat of the city streets where she grew up around the 1980s hip hop culture.

Her first book of poetry, “Born Palestinian, Born Black,”  was published when she was 22 years old, and she went on to write “Drops of this Story.” She was an original writer and cast member of the TONY Award winning Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, and  has twice received the Audre Lorde Writing Award from Hunter College.

Her recently published “ZaatarDiva” is poetry about love, politics, humanity and art, all emerging, as it were, from Hammad’s bag of za’atar, the traditional Arab spice mix made of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. (And in fact, for people ordering her book online, a free bag of the spice mix is sent out. For everyone who buys the book, it comes with a CD of her reading the collection.)

Hammad weaves the personal into the public, a public transformed in the wake of 9/11 and other calamities. As a Palestinian American, the political status of her identity infuses her compassion for other displaced persons.  Everywhere she goes in the movements of her daily life, she cannot escape flashes of the human drama around the globe. Her poetry is infused with rhythm, building into the sense of urgency with which she addresses the alienation she sees around her.

In “first writing since” (all her titles are lowercase), she responds to the events of 9/11 in a seven-part poem. She describes distraught New Yorkers frantically, hopelessly, looking for survivors, and how she prays, “please god, after the second plane, please, don’t let it be anyone/who looks like my brothers.” And one person “ask me if i knew the hijackers.”

She questions the public Arabophobic reactions: “and when we talk about holy books and hood men and death,/ why do we never mention the kkk?” she asks; and later declares, “if there are any people on earth who understand/ how new york is feeling right now/ they are in the west bank and the gaza strip.” She concludes the poem explaining that  “i have not cried at all while writing this. i cried when i saw those/ buildings collapse on themselves like a broken heart.”

Another Arab American whose observations and questions focus on various frontlines of urban and international life is Lawrence Joseph.  “Into It” is  Joseph’s new book of poems woven from events before, during and after Sept. 11, 2001. He lived just a block away from Ground Zero, and he interjects surreal details from the twin attacks in several of his poems. In “Unyielding Present,” he imagines himself inside the targeted towers and wonders “what transpires in/ a second. On an intact floor/ A globe of the world/ bursts like a balloon. A ceiling mounted/ exit sign is melting.”

Weaving in the experiences and tensions of being an Arab American in the post 9/11 U.S., his poetic questions and meditations are woven into his sharp-eyed meanderings in the city streets. He views the geopolitical terrain with a stung and savvy scrutiny, and he challenges the times when “The technology to abolish truth is now available/ not everyone can afford it, but it is available/ when the cost comes down, as it will, then what?”

Joseph was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1948. His grandparents were Lebanese and Syrian Catholics, among the first Arab-American emigrants to the United States. He attended Catholic schools in Detroit, where his family endured segregation and violence. In 1970, his father was shot when the family’s market was robbed at gunpoint, and the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s gave him another powerful subject, suggesting a “God/ who changes tears into bombs.”

Since then, he has had five books of poetry published, and one of prose.  His settings are the urban landscape, as well as images from his childhood, reflecting the strong influence of his family. He still lives in downtown Manhattan, and is a professor of law at St. John’s University School of Law.

A collection of his poems written between 1973 and 1993, titled “Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos,” was also released at the same time as “Into It.”  It includes the previously published poem, “Sand Nigger,” which made a shockingly dramatic statement when it was first published in 1988. (“In the house in Detroit/ in a room of shadows/ when Grandma reads her Arabic newspaper/ ...Outside the house my practice/ is not to respond to remarks/ about my nose or the color of my skin. ‘Sand nigger,’ I’m called...”)

His work is an intense meditation about the causes and consequences of these times when  “the weight of violence/ is unparalleled in the history / of the species.”   And elsewhere, he notes: “The immense enlargement/ of our perspectives is confronted/ by a reduction in our powers of action, which reduces/ a voice to an inner voice inclined to speak only/ to those closest to us ...”

Unless, of course, the voice is that of a poet, and those “closest to us” become the readers.

This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 11, no.52, (Summer 2004)

Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid