Jun 27, 2019

The Feminist Novel is on the Rise in the Arab Gulf: An Interview With Mona Kareem

(c) Manal Husain

Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections in Arabic, a translator, and a literary scholar whose research is offering new critical perspectives on feminist novels in the Arab Gulf. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. In this interview with Salwa Benaissa, Kareem discusses her ongoing study, Good Mothers, Bad Sisters: Arab Women Writers in the Nation.

“I’m trying to introduce intersectionality as a way of analyzing [Arabic literature],” begins Kareem. Intersectional feminism, a term first coined by American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and the buzzword of the moment, acknowledges factors in women’s oppression besides gender such as race, class, or ethnicity. Over the past decade, the concept has gained ground in mainstream discourse, but Kareem believes intersectional theory has yet to be embraced in the Gulf, or in analyses of Arabic literature at large. “[Feminism] has to be inherently anti-racist,” Kareem tells me. “This is an idea we haven’t been engaging with in Arab feminism.”

In the early 2000s, as geopolitical upheaval swept over the Gulf region, a cultural shift was underway in the literary world. Against a backdrop of 9/11 and the Iraq War, the feminist novel began to experience a renaissance. “The liberalization era that happened in the Arab Gulf and Saudi Arabia in particular came at the very time the Internet became accessible,” says Kareem. “This is when novels like Girls of Riyadh [were] published.” Described as the Saudi Sex and the City, the best-seller by blogger-turned-novelist Rajaa Alsanea was published in 2005 and sparked a flurry of similar titles across the region, such as The Others by Saba al-Hirz or Immoral Women by Samar al-Muqrin, all one-time best-selling novels for their respective authors.

While Kareem’s research focuses on contemporary feminist novels from the Arab Gulf, she approaches these as part of the larger feminist lineage in Arabic literature. The novel as a literary form has served as a space for feminist theorizing and influenced public discourse throughout the history of Arab feminism. “If you are studying the Arab Gulf, you will notice that even [scholars in] sociology and political science go back to the novel. All of our first-wave [and] second-wave feminists were novelists.” Trailblazers from the 1960s and 70’s include Fatima Mernissi from Morocco, and Latifa al-Zayyat and Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt. Unlike these North African authors, contemporary women writers from the Arab Gulf have shown more interest in stories of marginalized groups than in middle-class subjectivities.

Jun 6, 2019

The Mingus Poems

Loring Eutemey, album artwork for Charles Mingus, Oh Yeah, 1961. Atlantic


Separate one egg for one person. Each person gets an egg.

Two sugars for each egg, each person.

One shot of rum, one shot of brandy per person.

Put all the yolks into one big pan, with some milk.

That’s where the 151 proof rum goes.
Put it in gradually or it’ll burn the eggs,

OK. The whites are separate and the cream is separate.

In another pot— depending on how many people— put in one shot of each, rum and brandy. 

This is after you whip your whites and your cream.

Pour it over the top of the milk and yolks.

One teaspoon of sugar. Brandy and rum.

Actually you mix it all together.

Yes, a lot of nutmeg. Fresh nutmeg. And stir it up.

You don’t need ice cream unless you’ve got people coming and you need to keep it cold. 

Vanilla ice cream. You can use eggnog. I use vanilla ice cream.

Right, taste for flavor. Bourbon? I use Jamaica Rum in there. Jamaican Rums. Or I’ll put rye in it. Scotch. It depends. 

See, it depends on how drunk I get while I’m tasting it!

May 18, 2019

الأدب العربي والآخر الأفريقي

بعدما انتقلتُ للدراسة في الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية، عملتُ باحثة تحت إشراف المفكر والباحث الكيني الراحل علي مزروعي. في تلك المرحلة من حياته، كان مزروعي قد يأس من الأحلام العروبية والأفريقية معًا ، ليتبنى هوية إسلامية فضفاضة بدلًا عنها. لكن في عام 1992، كان مزروعي قد قدم المقترح التالي: «درس الفرنسيون ذات مرة علاقتهم الخاصة بأفريقيا وتوصلوا إلى مفهوم (أوروأفريقيا) Eurafrica كأساس لتعاون ذي طبيعة خاصة. في المقابل، علينا دراسة العلاقة الخاصة، الأقدم تاريخيًا، بين أفريقيا والعالم العربي لنطلق عليها (أفرابيا Afrabia).»

وجدت في مقترح مزروعي دعوة طموحة وملحة، لأدرس في بحثي الأكاديمي الأدب العربي الحديث لتقديم قراءة لعلاقات العرق والهوية في المنطقة حيث يشكل تاريخ العبودية والأفرو-عرب جزءًا كبيرًا من تاريخها. قد يسمح مقترح (أفرابيا) للأفارقة بإعادة النظر في تاريخ الإمبراطورية الإسلامية الطويل في أفريقيا، وتقاطعاته اللاحقة مع المشروعات الاستعمارية التي جعلت من العرب والجنوب-آسيويين أسيادًا في أفريقيا، فضلًا عن تاريخنا المشترك في النضال ضد الاستعمار وطموحاتنا المتقاطعة ضد الرأسمالية. أما بالنسبة للعرب، فإن (أفرابيا) تأتي كدعوة ضرورية لمراجعة طال انتظارها للتاريخ واللغة والآداب والفنون التي تتعامل مع أفريقيا والسود والأفرو-عرب من منظور رجعي وعنصري.

في مارس الماضي، نظم «بيت الرواية» المنشأ حديثًا في تونس مؤتمره السنوي الثاني للرواية العربية. واتخذ المؤتمر الذي استمر ثلاثة أيام عنوان «قضايا البشرة السوداء» مدفوعًا بـ «الوعي السياسي للجماهير الشابة في جميع أنحاء العالم العربي» وبحضور عشرات الروائيين والنقاد العرب. استغربت عنوان المؤتمر وتساءلت كيف وصل المنظمون لهذا الوصف غير المألوف، بدلًا من عنوان مثل «قضايا السود» أو «قضايا الأفرو-عرب»، إلا أن الصياغة لم تأت من فراغ.

Arabic Literature and the African Other

When I first migrated to the United States, I worked as research assistant to Ali Mazrui, the late Kenyan thinker and scholar. At that point of his life, Mazrui had grown hopeless of pan-African and pan-Arab prospects, instead adopting a broad Islamic identity. But in 1992, Mazrui had a proposal: “The French once examined their special relationship to Africa and came up with the concept EURAFRICA as a basis of special cooperation. We in turn should examine the even older special relationship between Africa and the Arab World and call it AFRABIA.”

It was a radically ambitious and urgent proposal. My own research uses modern Arabic literature to look at race and identity in the Arab Gulf, of which the history of Afro-Arabs and eastern slavery are a big part. The project of “Afrabia,” as I interpret, would allow Africans to revisit a long history of the Islamic empire in Africa, its intersecting points with colonial projects subcontracted to Arab and South-Asian masters, as well as a shared history of decolonial struggles and anti-capitalist ambitions. For Arabs, it would mean a much-needed and long-overdue revision of their history, as well as of language and artistic expression that deal with Africa, blackness, and Afro-Arabs in reactionary, racist, and apolitical terms.

Mar 5, 2019

Unlearning Poetry with Pat Parker

Sometimes it’s hard to engage with a love song when you’re not feeling loved. Sometimes you’re in love and cannot relate to pain. Sometimes your feelings are not sophisticated enough to understand the poem. Perhaps this is why I’ve been in a loop of reading the poetry of Pat Parker for the past two years. The complete volume of her work sits on my coffee table next to a wine bottle I use for water. They say dehydration is the reason to all your aches, so I keep it in the range of my sight as a reminder to drink. When I first laid my hand on Parker’s work, it was not hard to fall in love with a radical handsome woman who casts waves of meanings from her vulnerabilities and strengths. Her queer jokes made me giggle, her love poems fell on me like stones. I continue to return to her poems with no expectations yet feeling safe and assured that I will find something. The more I grow and experience, the more her poems reveal themselves to me.

Parker’s poetics are not sentiments or rhetoric, they are epistemological sounds that can only be received and transmitted on common grounds. When I share her work with friends and lovers, most of them writers or artists, they are quick to judge its aesthetic of ease, flow, vernacular, and rhythm (aka non-elitist black aesthetics); they call it “simple.” The abrupt shortness of her poems is not amusing to them, the absence of titles signifies a lack of craft. I was amazed to find out that such accusations were not new to Parker’s work. In her day, the same judgments were communicated in reviews.

Sometimes, they were even addressed in tributes to her work. In her review of Parker’s Jonestown and Other Madness, Adrian Oktenberg writes: “if Parker’s poetry is simple it is deceptively so. She gets down on paper complicated states of feelings, lightning-quick changes of thought, and she deals with complex issues in language and imagery that any bar dyke can understand… You don’t have to have an education in poetry to read her poems, though the more you have, the better the work becomes.”

Perhaps as Oktenberg suggests, it is the reader that fails to enjoy Parker’s simplicity in non-simplistic terms. The elitist conditions of expecting poetry to come over you as an explosion of images, an exhibit of tools, a disarming breath-taking experience surely make it hard for the contemporary reader to relate to Parker’s poetics — their senses are too sharpened, sanitized, and sensitized for a poet who breathes very slowly through her memories, pains, and loves. Even her contemporary, Cheryl Clarke, has taken fault with Parker’s unpolished writings, and tried to justify it as an intentional move from the author to not lose her “vernacular power.”

Feb 1, 2019

He Who Goes to the Place: Sargon Boulus Translates Himself and Others

Every bit in Sargon Boulus’s world is worth a story and a few drinks. On his headstone in California, they wrote: “Sargon Boulus (1943-2007), Beloved brother, Renowned Assyrian poet, Founder of Free Verse Arabic Poetry movement, Translator of Shakespeare, Ezra Pound, Pablo Neruda, Jubran Khalil Jubran, and many others.” Sargon was a scarce poet and a prolific translator who left with six collections of poetry and 130 poets in translation. In a new volume, al-Jamal publishing house collected most of the poet’s translations, which he had completed between 1964 and until his death. Sargon started publishing in Baghdad and Beirut in the mid ‘60’s but did not care to see his poems in a book until 1985 with Arrival In Where-City, published by a small Arabic press based in Athens.

Looking at the contents of his anthology of translations, we see the poets organized according to language groups; from Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Bengali, and Turkish, he translated Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Zhang Yanghao, Basho, Ghaleb, Tagore, Shinkichi Takahashi, and Hikmet. From English, he did Shakespeare, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Allen Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Carlos Williams, Pound, Marianne Moore, Kunitz, Roethke, Karl Shapiro, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Levertov, Etel Adnan, Ammons, Robert Bly, Merwin, Anne Sexton, Gregory Corso, Derek Walcott, Sylvia Plath, McClure, and Seamus Heaney, among many others. From other European languages, translations included de Quevedo, Rimbaud, Machado, Pessoa, Lorca, Vallejo, Borges, Alberti, Neruda, Paz, Heine, Rilke, Brecht, Ritsos, Milosz, and Vasko Popa. Sargon spoke Modern Aramaic and Arabic as his native languages, English as a second language, and tried learning French and German. He relied on his writing craft and a comparison of English and Arabic translations to produce his own. He also translated poetry into English, mostly the work of his Iraqi and Arab contemporaries.

In his final years, Sargon was busy preparing all of his work to be published after his death. In 2008, his translation of Jibran’s The Prophet came out, becoming the seventh Arabic translation of the book.  Sargon argues that Jibran is the unnamed father of the Arabic Prose Poem (also referred to as the Free Verse Poem) who didn’t think his work would realize its potential if written in Arabic. In 2010, Sargon’s self-translated poems were published by Banipal Magazine for Arabic Literature entitled Knife Sharpener. In 2012, his translation of Auden’s poems was released, followed by a selection of Ginsberg’s poems two years later. His vast knowledge of poetry and his practice of the art via translation established a poetics that continue to gain momentum among Arabic readers.

In Sargon’s poems, the figure of the poet-translator manifests itself through the stranger who is constantly departing and arriving, with blurred memories of the journey itself. He often starts a poem in the second-person, the poet or the exilée, who then shifts to the third-person; the reader, the witness, or a fellow clandestine. Many times, Sargon recalls his journey out of Iraq, smuggled through the desert, in great detail. Alone this trip is remembered from the rest of his departures. In the poem “He Who Goes To The Place” published in his fifth collection If You Fell Asleep In Noah’s Ark in 1998, one can notice the absence of the journey between the first and second stanzas. Like someone healed from a sickness, the stranger returns from death, chased and breathless, only to reappear abruptly in distant places. The stranger’s only revenge is his reappearance, his reoccurring arrival, in some shape, “under a monument, in a place, a public square,” constantly passing, never sure of his memory, yet content with half endings.