By Jamal Saidi
By Jamal Saidi
Morocco World News
Casablanca, July 27, 2012
Arab American literature has developed over a century. The importance of this type of literature, I believe, lies in the very glaring fact that Arabs’ experience has been at the core of focus of many nations, especially the United States. I shall therefore give an overview on the different stages which this ethnic literature underwent.
Arab American literary experience reflects a story of different waves of immigration. This ethnic literature moved from a period of nostalgia to embracing its ethnic roots to self-critique.
The first presence of Arabs in America dates back to the late 1800s. Most of the immigrants were mainly from the Ottoman provinces of Syria which also included Lebanon. They were identified as Turks because of their Ottoman citizenship; they preferred, however, to be classified as Syrians. They were all Christians, though from different sects: Greek Orthodox, Maronite and Melchite. Many of them worked as itinerant peddlers and shopkeepers due to their limited professional skills. They mostly settled in cities such as New York and Boston. The Naturalization Act of 1790 gave the right of citizenship to “Free white persons”, a term which could fit to a certain type of Arab individuals. These facts influenced, to a great extent, the written literature of Arab Americans in that period.
This period in Arab American literature was characterized by nostalgia, though it marked an attempt to stress the similarities between Arabs and their predominant hosting society. The authors had an attitude of stressing the cultural features that were familiar within the American cultural context, whereas they tended to belittle those that were unusual to Americans. They often highlighted their Christian beliefs and their geographical origin, the “Holy Land.” Shakir points out that, “The first generation of Arab-Americans dressed carefully for their encounters with the American public, putting on the guise of prophet, preacher, or man of letters.” Rihbani’s “The Syrian Christ” (1916) mirrors this nostalgic tone as well as attempts to prove one’s worth to belong to American society:
I was born not far from where the Master was born, and
brought up under almost the identical conditions under which he
lived, I have an ‘inside view’ of the Bible which, by the nature of
things, a Westerner cannot have. And I know,” he continues, “that the conditions of life in Syria to-day are essentially as they
were inthe time of Christ. . . . [W]henever I open my Bible it reads like a
letter from home (5).
Rihbani shows strong attachment to his homeland through idealizing Syria’s life style by comparing it to that of the time of Christ. Jesus becomes a means to gain others’ sympathy and most importantly recognition. The author is seemingly attempting to satisfy his nostalgic needs but also to stress the belonging to the Christian community. He tries to convince “a Westerner” that he has an “inside view” which is needed and worthy of being accepted. He draws this legitimacy from being born near to “Where the Master was born”.
In the 1920s, a group of writers formed what was known as “The Mahjar” and “ Arrabitta Alqalamiya.” They were represented in both South and North America. They invocated Western literary writers such as Emerson and Thoreau. It is even argued that they were influenced by Western Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. It can be viewed as an attempt to bridge the gap between Arab immigrants and Americans, East and the West.
With this in mind, Khalil Gibran’s “The Procession” (1919) shares a lot with Emerson and Thoreau in relation to its attitudes towards the self and society. It is divided into two parts. The first portrays the conditions of man in society, and condemns its negative and corruptive influence on him. The second part depicts the man in a natural state of purity and happiness.
Most of people are machines set into motion by
Time’s fingers for a day and then they break
Say not this is a learned scholar
Or this is a revered master
For the best of people are herds
driven by… shepherds…
Gibran holds almost the same concepts of man and society. He considers people to be “machines” just like Emerson did in his The American Scholar when he refers to man as a “machine.” Thoreau, for his part, states in his Walden that the individual “has no time to be anything but a machine.” Like Gibran, the masses are depicted as “herds” by the two authors in the two previous works.
After the Second World War, Arab American literature entered a period of “quiescence.” The main writers of this period were Vance Bourjaily, William Peter Blatty and Eugene Paul Nassar. They identify themselves as Americans rather than Arab Americans. They do not use ethnic literary markers in their writings. Hence, it is hard to distinguish them from the mainstream literature. Evelyn Shakir stresses the idea that “American boom children—those who came of age in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s— costumed themselves as “regular Americans” and hoped to pass off as such, which may be why they produced so little literature.
A close reading of Vance Bourjaily’s two novels The End of My life (1947) and Confessions of a Spent Youth (1960) demonstrates almost no feeling of ethnicity, which may show any sort of identification with Arab culture. One may conclude that the author distances himself from his Arab American identity. With this in mind, William Peter Blatty went even further and felt embarrassed by his ethnic identity, which is personified by his loud and domineering mother in his novel entitled The Exorcist (1971). Arab ethnicity becomes a social stigma, which he faced early in his childhood through camel jokes of neighborhood children. This sort of embarrassment towards one’s identity is very much stressed in his autobiography Which Way to Mecca, Jack? (1960). Eugene Paul Nassar, for his part, gives “an unabashedly sentimental portrait of an ethnic community” in his memoir, Wind of the Land (1979) .
After the 1970 s, a new wave of Arab immigration to the United States took place. This wave took place due to new liberalized laws that put an end to the quota system. It is different from the first in the sense that most of the new immigrants were Muslims and were educated and skilled. They identified themselves as Arabs and were very much aware of nationalist ideologies, which were predominant in the Arab world. Third generation Arab Americans join them. In this period, there is a shift towards critiquing.
The notion of identity is questioned. In her What Does a True Arab Do Now? Shihab Nye sees that Arab American identity can only be discovered through a process of making sense of disparate experiences rather than a static identity which relies on the past and linked to the preservation of cultural heritage. In doing so, she both celebrates and criticizes her ethnic community. In Blood, she demonstrates some self-content with her father’s folktales on being a “true Arab”. However, she seems to question the implications of holding this identity. The poem was written in 1982, the year of the massacre of Sebrah and Shetila. Diana Abu Jaber, for her part, mirrors this sort of self-critique in her Crescent (2003). Sirine, the protagonist, is looking for a sense of self, while distanced from her Arab identity.
Having discussed the stages which Arab American literature underwent, we are left with a question: what is the contribution of Moroccan literature, if there is any, in what is termed “Arab American Literature”?
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