Nathalie Handal Rachel Barenblat One on One

portrait Nathalie Handal

interviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 54 ~ November, 2001

Rachel Barenblat: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your

Nathalie Handal: I grew up in Europe, the United States and
the Caribbean. My grandfather was born in Bethlehem and emigrated to
the West in the early twentieth century, and my parents mainly grew up
with a French education, and of course, with strong Christian
Bethlehemite traditions, this was transmitted to me. When my parents
left Europe and went to Boston I was about one or two. I spent many
years in Boston before we left again for the French islands, and then
eventually, I went back to study and live in Boston, France and much
later on England. So I basically grew up with a strong
French-American-Bethlehemite culture if I could put it that
way…. I often go to Bethlehem and its narrow streets, stone
houses, the olive trees, lemon trees, orange trees, the smell of rose
wood in the prayer beads, the nativity church, constantly roams inside
of me… even if it is a fragmented experience…

RB: How did The Poetry of Arab Women come into being?

NH: When I left the United States for Paris in 1992, I started
to work more with the Arab world, and I soon realized that Arab women
writers were marginalized in Arabic literature and the Arab literary
scene. I also knew that in the United States, Arab-American women
authors were one of the most invisible groups in the American literary
circle. At the same time, Arab women writers were virtually unknown to
Arab-Americans and Americans in general, and Arab-American women
writers unknown to the Arabs. So it became very important for me to
give birth to this project in order to eradicate invisibility,
introduce Arab women poets and demonstrate the incredible diversity of
Arab women’s poetry. It was equally vital to unite these Arab
women poets regardless of what language they wrote in and whether they
were born in the Arab world or not. Hopefully, this anthology will be
taught in schools, colleges and universities and will finally give
Arab women poets the recognition they deserve.

RB: How did you find poets to solicit their work?

NH: A lot of research and lots of frustration… It was a
real challenge to conduct research on Arab women poets writing today,
gathering their poetic oeuvres and locating them personally. I went to
as many cultural centers, consulates, libraries, bookstores, literary
festivals, obtained as many newspapers and journals that I could, and
contacted as many critics, translators, friends, and writers that I

In the Arab world, poets’ publications are subsidy-based, so
anyone can publish a book of poetry… you can imagine what I
found, amazingly lengthy bibliographies of poetry books published by
Arab women. And of course, I could not really base myself on these
bibliographies because it is a subsidy-based publishing world. So I
needed to discover, apart from the well-know poets, who were the women
poets publishing and continuing to publish, was at the foreground of
poetic activities and that critics were writing about.

Finding the poet’s works and contacting them personally was
extremely difficult. When I started researching, many Arab women poets
living in the Arab world were still struggling with the fax. By the
end of my research, though, not only were most of them more reachable,
but some of them even had e-mail. The francophone poets I knew about
because I lived in France and because the ones included are well-known
in the French literary society. The other poets I discovered through a
mixture of circumstances as my research brought me to them or they
found their way to me. And of course, being in the United States I
knew many Arab-American writers. By the end of the project it was
astonishing how many new generation Arab-American women poets

RB: Were you already familiar with most of the writers whose
work appears in the collection?

NH: No, not at all… Of course, I knew many of the
Francophone Arab writers and Arab-American women poets, but I was
pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed to have discovered so many women
writers in the Arab world.

RB: Did the book/project meet with opposition from within the
Arab community, or skepticism from within the (Western) feminist

NH: No, not that I am aware of. Everyone has been very
positive and responsive.

RB: In your introduction, you discuss “the problem of the
third generation immigrant.” You write that “many Jewish-Americans are
more extremist in their views on Arabs than many Israelis.” But
Israelis are not ancestors to most Jewish-Americans, except in the
loosest Biblical sense; most Jewish-Americans are of European descent.
Still, I think you’re right that there’s a complicated connection
between Jewish-Americans and the land of Israel/Palestine. To what
extent do you think that Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans operate
within a similar framework? To what extent do you think the identity
politics of the two groups are similar?

NH: You tend to be more reluctant towards those you do not
know. You tend to be more aggressive, especially if that unknown is
‘supposedly the enemy.’

In my opinion, the fact that many Israelis and Palestinians interact
on a daily basis make them no longer strangers to each other…
They know each other, even if often they do not agree with each other.
There are many similarities between the two people… However,
for many Jewish-Americans, Palestinians are “the Other.”
[Jewish-Americans] often do not realize how closely linked the two
people are… the same goes with the Arabs and even the
Palestinians in other Arab countries. In the past, a
Jordanian-Palestinian tended to be more hesitant when interacting with
an Israeli than someone from the West Bank [would be]. I stress that
this is just my opinion, many might not agree with me. Also, much has
changed over the last ten years, both sides have opened up more,
however, when I was growing up this was how I experienced it…

Yes, most Jewish-Americans come from Europe, are Ashkanazi Jews, but
most are also Semites. Thus, uniting them to the Israelis and making
them one in that sense, as they share the same ethnicity, religion,
tradition and historical memory. A Jewish-American can go settle in
Israel at any moment and become Israeli—it is his/her “home.”

I suppose I was trying to convey the fact that the two societies
(Palestinian and Israeli) are composed of many different facets and
have had different cultural influences and varied socio-political
experiences, even if they join in one common struggle. And then again,
within each group there are many different view points and ideological
and religious approaches to their fight for “homeland.” Therefore,
there are connections between different facets of both sides…

I suppose racial classification is a long and complicated discussion
to bring up here and to really have this discussion we would have to
answer—Who is a Jew? Who is an Arab? Who is a Semite? And would
also have to bring up the point that most Arabs are Semites, like most
Jews? This is a common factor that the two share that is not discussed
much— both Arabs and Jews are Semitic.

To the last part of your question, I would say that, I think at many
levels the two groups possibly operate within a similar framework,
however, the Jewish-Americans are so much more powerful than the
Arab-Americans that to compare the two is difficult. However, in terms
of identity politics, the two groups are extremely similar. Two
people, both having suffered oppression, dispossession, exile, both
fighting for a homeland…it is tragic that they are not able to
look at each other in the eyes when they have the same eyes…

RB: What do you hope The Poetry of Arab Women will
achieve or change within either the literary world or the Arab world?

NH: Most people did not know that these Arab women poets
existed, so they could not imagine that these women writers are
vibrant and growing. Thus, I hope that this book brings Awareness.
Then an even more profound awareness—these poets’ poetic
diversity and the cultural, political, historical and religious
diversity that exist in the region.

account_box More About

Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at