RAWI Anthology Offers a Glimpse of Arab-American Literary Talent

Kim Jensen
A Different Path: An Anthology of the Radius of Arab-American Writers
Edited by D.H. Melhem and Leila Diab
Detroit, The Ridgeway Press, 2000, 86 pp
An anthology is never unforgettable masterpiece. By its very nature, the anthology is a frustrating and truncated literary form — just when you are beginning to enjoy the fruits of a writer’s labor, you are cut short and asked to move on — sometimes to a piece that you find far less interesting than the one you were just reading.
On the flip side, an anthology does serve a valuable purpose. It can introduce you to good writing that you might not have previously known about. It can give you a hint of some of the talent in a particular area of literature; and from there you can pursue the author’s larger body of work.
Such is the case with the new RAWI (Radius of Arab-American Writers) anthology “A Different Path.” This small volume, edited by D. H. Melhem and Leila Diab, serves as an introductory showcase for the writing of many, but not all, of RAWI’s members. The variety of styles and genres represented within these pages in vast, ranging from poetry to literary criticism to political and personal essays. There are traditional approaches to the poem found here, as well as some rather postmodern/experimental pieces.
Well known to many in the field of literature are such authors as Etel Adnan, Naomi Shihab Nye, Issa Boullata, Salma Jayussi, and Barbara Nimri Aziz (co-founder of RAWI). But this volume also presents the work of a new generation of writers, such as Lisa Suhair Majaj, Mohja Kahf, Marti Farha Ammar, Micaela Raen, among many others.
What’s excellent in this anthology is the work that explores deeply the meaning of being both Arab and American. It’s one thing to join the ADC and to pay homage to the most salient aspects of Arab culture (rolled grape leaves, Sabah Fakhry parties, and debke). It’s another thing entirely to produce engaging literary work that re-creates the contradictory and sometimes hallucinatory experience of belonging to two different societies that are often at odds with each other.
The little excerpt from “The Autobiography of Ariel Sharon, a Novel” by Ron David, a Lebanese-American, is successful in exploring this strange and painful terrain. Beautifully written, surreal and intriguing, David’s piece is sophisticated in the way that it crosses between America and the Arab world in daring postmodern leaps.
Also wonderful is a short sketch by Iraqi writer Aseel Nasir Dyck about her tea-drinking, feminist Aunt Rabia back in Baghdad. The writing is crisp, detailed, and draws so fine a portrait of Aunt Rabia that I felt that I was in the room with her.
While some of the poetry in the volume is hard to appreciate without seeing the body of work from which it emerges, there are some poems that hint at a subversive emotional life behind the surface of words. Etel Adnan’s piece has this depth and a stinging bitterness. So does the seering poem called “In the Beginning was Lebanon,” by Lawrence Joseph.
With selections about hope, grief, war and dreams of peace, this well-rounded anthology ends both alphabetically and appropriately by a heartfelt poem, “Our Mother is Watching Over Us,” by Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis, in which she calls for a universal brotherhood and sisterhood. This sincere cry for peace encapsulates the humaneness that radiates from this whole collection:
If I were to call you brother
you might take me for
a religious well-wisher,
a spiritual soul by nature,
or a servant of the cloth.
You might think me
African-American, Chicana,
Native American, Arab or Asian.
You might call me a masquerader,
Or an only child lonely for a sibling.
You might not hear what I call you.
You might not have learned to listen.
I might not hear what you call me,
And I too, might not listen.
I call you brother
In the spirit of love and oneness.
If I were to call you sister,
you might think me
suffering from an emptiness
acquired by having only brothers…
…Think again,
I might be a feminist, a flower child…
I might be reaching out to convert you…
…If I were to assign everyone on planet Earth
(Which I call Mother)
a mantra, it would be two words,
Repeated daily by living souls
around the world—
Brother-sister, brother-sister, brother-sister
(translations permitted)
could result in positive global change
for a species who have not loved unconditionally,
and who have not co-existed peacefully.
While repeating, the voice and heart will soften.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol.6, No. 33, Fall 2000.
Copyright © 2000 AL JADID MAGAZINE