In a brilliant and personal essay on the history of Bidoon literature, Mona Kareem shows why literature cannot be thought along national lines.
Here we are in exile once again. We’re not the first Arab generation to cast itself into the labyrinth, and we won’t be the last. Sometimes they call us migrants or refugees; at other times they call us marginalized—then they invite us to talk, from the margin, about the margin: “How’s the weather over there on the margin?” They put us in anthologies that no one will read but the mummies in Middle East Studies, and they consider our poems and novels as documentaries, or treat them as confessions from the dark end of the tunnel. Perhaps there might be a little progress, consisting of a hyphen, tantamount to a mist-shrouded bridge, being placed between our identity and theirs: “Arab-American.” It’s a bridge not intended for crossing, one they take it upon themselves to guard; someday they’ll erect an electric fence on it.
I’ve spent ten years in the USA now. I haven’t obtained nationality yet, so I still travel on a twelve-month refugee passport, each annual renewal taking three months on the grounds that travel is a luxury. I am referred to, without hesitation, as an “Arab-American” writer; I don’t know when exactly this transformation occurred, shifting my classification from “exiled Arab” to “Arab-American.” By contrast, I was born in Kuwait and raised there until the age of twenty-two, by which time I had already published two poetry collections and worked for five years for local newspapers. In fact there was hardly a field I hadn’t dabbled in, from acting to theater criticism to literary translation to political organizing—feminism, workers’ rights, and the Bidoon cause. I also played violin, oud, and piano, and if my voice hadn’t been thin and ugly, you would even have found me singing in the shopping malls and on the polluted beaches of the Gulf. I lived large during a short life, succeeded and failed and grew, all of it without a denotation or a classification to my name.
In 2011, after the Bidoon movement was born in the streets, there came to be something known as “Bidoon literature.” Prior to that, “Kuwaiti literature” anthologies and encyclopedias had ignored our very existence, their raison d’être being to shore up the idea that Kuwaitis actually had such a thing as a literature—and that by extension they also had a nation, a history, and a state. They excluded us Bidoon from the Kuwaiti Writers’ Association and from all public benefit associations. Although these are supposed to be more democratic than the state, they are in reality even more reactionary, grim, and racist than the state is. We would chat with our migrant comrades—the Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, and other Arabs wandering lost in petroland—and make friends with them in the knowledge that all of us existed on the margin, the margin of here and the margin of there, without knowing how to create anything out of this margin—a geography of our very own, say, or at least a space based on something other than His Lordship Mr. Citizen. “Bidoon literature” would never have been born without the birth of the Bidoon movement. Every political cause has an innate need for literature, for culture, to voice the suffering of a people and recount their progress towards their collective aspirations. Someone’s profile would be defined by the single vague line “born in Kuwait,” with the phrase “a Bidoon poet” deleted by the editor, because how can anyone be defined by a negation?