On the Fourth of July: America through Arabic Literature

Wake up, America! Read about yourself in Arabic literature, for goodness sakes.

Arab-American literature is an interesting place to land on the 4 of July, but — on the USA’s Day of Days — I wanted to reflect on how the nation appears through Arabic literary lenses.

Yes, many Arabic-language depictions focus on the rich and complex vein of US politicians’ and soldiers’ actions abroad. But many literary works also portray Arab immigrant lives in the States (Rabee Jaber’s America; Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s Embrace at Brooklyn Bridge; Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights; Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s Sleeping with Strangers; some poems by Sargon Boulos). Others portray dream-visions of America (as in Samuel Shimon’s Iraqi in Paris) or depict ordinary Americans living in Arab countries (as the “Marcia” in Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song or the visiting Americans in Sahar Khalifeh’s Of Noble Origins).

These visions should be of particular interest to American readers: After all, who doesn’t want to know what they look like to a keen-eyed stranger? Sometimes, Arab authors can get things “wrong” (as Chip Rossetti writes about re: Sleeping with Strangers, and Sinan Antoon remarks on with regard to Inaam Kachachi’s An American Granddaughter), but these infelicities are no more “incorrect” than American writers’ visions of Arab countries, and they’re sometimes wrong in more interesting ways.

There are also, of course, depictions that are pointed and deeply knowledgable, as in Boulos’s poems:

Where is it?
Where is the America I, the dreamer
crossed the sea for
Will Whitman’s America remain ink on paper?

And another, not just about the USA, also from an essay by Sinan Antoon:

The screeching of wheels on the tracks
the appearance of the next station at the turn of the howl-filled tunnel
A few vagabonds on the platform
gulping alcohol from bottles hidden in paper bags
It is the same void emerging
At the end of the night in any city
Full of the living and the dead: Paris, Berlin, London, New York
The farthest point West
The end of the line
The end of the track.

It is a shame that more of these visions aren’t available to American readers: Sonallah Ibrahim’s Amrikanlifor instance.