The Poetry of Arab Women Rachel Barenblat Book Lovers

book The Poetry of Arab Women

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 54 ~ November, 2001

The Poetry of Arab Women, edited by Nathalie Handal, came
across my desk some months ago. I was impressed; it’s an
extremely thorough collection, featuring a wide range of Arab women
poets from around the world. I thought it was an good book, and
figured I’d review it sometime soon, and basically let it sit on
my bookshelf for a while.

As news footage of 9/11 took over American televisions, and as a
clamor of voices began immediately insisting that Arabs were
responsible for the tragedy, I felt compelled to pick this book up
again. What I had initially enjoyed as an addition to the literature
of identity politics became something much more relevant.

I think the events of this fall cast Handal’s collection in a
new role. After 9/11, after watching the world approach what could
turn into an Arab/American war, I want every American to read this
book. Americans need to remember that there is a vast multiplicity of
voices in the Arab world — that it’s not only unfair but
also ridiculous to paint Arabs with a single brush.

Handal’s introduction does an excellent job of setting the poems
in context. It is occasionally hard to plow through — there were
times when I was tempted to just skip ahead to the “good
stuff” — but I am glad I read the whole thing. “[T]he enthusiasm
for the written word among Arabs manifests itself from ancient times
until the twenty-first century,” Handal notes, pointing out that
contemporary Arab women’s poetry manifests “a richness of voice
and imagination.” She outlines for the reader a history of Arab women
poets from the Pre-Islamic times until the present, taking into
account both historical and literary trends.

“The first concerns and preoccupations of Arab women poets were,
unsurprisingly, their unjust degradation, marginaliation, and
oppression by the social system, and their boundedness by tradition,”
she writes. She cites food and family as primary sources of identity
and, hence, primary poetic themes.

She addresses the question of how to identify Arab women poets.
Sometimes the classification is easy; women poets of Arabic descent
who continue to live in Arab lands, for instance. Arab women poets in
the diaspora, who have clearly Arabic surnames and write about being
Arabs. But sometimes it’s tricky:

Then there is Mona Simpson, who was born in the United States,
writes in English of course, and is of Arab descent (her father is
Syrian), yet is hardly ever referred to as an Arab-American writer.
Is it because her work does not reflect her Arab heritge or is it
because she doesn’t really present herself as an
Arab-American? We can use various facts to define a person’s
identity, but finally we do not really have that right; an
individual’s claim is ultimately the most essential and must
be respected.

This is largely the conclusion to which I came when wrestling with the
question of how to define a Jewish writer, so I see her point.

Speaking of Jewish writers, here’s a word of warning to Jewish
readers of this book: reading this may not be easy for you. It
wasn’t always easy for me. The Palestinian struggle for
self-determination is woven through this book, for obvious reasons,
and if you were reared to hew to the line of unquestioned Zionism you
may experience some cognitive dissonance between the way you believed
the story went and the way it’s presented here.

I also had difficulties with the part of Handal’s introduction
where she addresses third-generation immigrants. She makes the
excellent point that “what the son wishes to forget, the grandson
wishes to remember” (borrowed from Marcus Lee Hansen’s essay
“The Problem of the Third Generation American”) and notes that
hyphenated-Americans are often more extremist than their original
fellow compatriots. For instance, many modern Armenians are interested
in improving relations with Turkey, but many Armenian-Americans

My problem arises when she extends the idea to Jewish-Americans,
indicating that many Jewish-Americans are more extreme in their views
on Arabs than Israelis are. But the parallel doesn’t work; most
Jewish-Americans aren’t descended from Israelis. Jewish-American
hostility towards Arabs is complex and I don’t pretend to be
able to explain it, but I feel certain that it’s not “the
problem of the third-generation immigrant” — Israel’s not
where we, or our ancestors, generally emigrated from.

I can’t say “politics aside, the poetry here is
fantastic” — putting politics aside would negate many of the poems
in the book, and would be unfair to their authors. My advice to
readers of this book is to keep politics in mind (there’s no way
not to), but try to relax your guard. If the poems start to get under
your skin, let them. And if you don’t like one poet’s
work, something different will magically appear in a page or
two — that’s the wonder of anthologies.

The poets whose work appears here are largely excellent. They come
from all over the world; they write in Arabic, French, English and
many other languages; they span many centuries. Most were women I had
never read.

Although many poems have stuck with me, three are my favorites: “Two
Little Girls,” by Fawziyya Abu-Khalid, “of woman torn,” by Suheir
Hammad, and Mohja Kahf’s “The First Thing.” In “Two Little
Girls,” Abu-Khalid writes (for, and about, her mother),

I hang on to the hem of her dress like a child hanging

On to the string of an immovable kite

I climb her braid like a squirrel climbing a hazelnut tree

In the late afternoon we jump from one world to another

we play in the wind

like sparrows that opened the door to the cage

and, later:

We share one apple and innumerable dreams

We paint a paradise of questions on the face of the desert

We spray each other with the water of the mirage

accompany a fleeting doe

I want to show this to everyone who regards Arabs as “those other people
who aren’t like us.” What mother and daughter wouldn’t warm
to this poem?

“[O]f woman torn” is a trickier poem, a thornier poem. The images are
exquisite and terrible.

did her skin smell

of zataar her hair of

exploded almonds

between the olive trees

her father lit the match brothers poured the flammable

the women they watched the women they tucked

their sex away under

skirts under secrets

and, later:

family pride laid

between her thighs

honor in her panties

and no oslo accord

or camp david signing

could free her sex

from its binding

and, later:

where was he when they found the swelling

of your belly proof of humanity

where was he when they stuck fists up

inside you to prove you loose

I am horrified by the story the poem tells, but impressed and amazed by
Hammad’s courage in writing it. It makes me angry. I am glad I read

Kahf’s meditation on Hagar is what Hebrew-speakers call a
midrash — a rewriting, revising, retelling of a Biblical story
that shows a new angle or unspoken voice. Because Jews traditionally
read the story of Sarah vs. Hagar, Isaac vs. Ishmael, in synagogue
around the time of the Jewish New Year (which this year fell one short
week after 9/11), I always spend early fall searching for poems in the
voices of Hagar and Sarah. Like many contemporary Jewish and Arab
women, I am troubled by the Biblical tale that shows the first split
between our peoples. I want the common causes of sisterhood and peace
to unite us, but how can that be, when both peoples look to this text
to begin their national narratives? Kahf’s poem provides an
alternative to the traditional text.

I left the world of Abraham

jugs sealed with cork,

cooking-grease fires

Sarah’s careful kitchen fires

The horizon is a razor

I moved over, severing

slates of earth,

sediment of ancient seas

Of the many Hagar poems I have read, this is one of my favorites. It
doesn’t answer my questions, but it allows Hagar a chance to speak,
and I love the language and images she uses.

Overall, these are impressive poems, brave poems, diverse poems. And
this is an impressive, brave, and diverse book. Although I found it
painful sometimes, I recommend it highly. No: maybe because I
found it painful sometimes. This is a book that people need to read.
Will everyone read it? No, of course not; its audience will be drawn
from from the audience of who love poetry. But I hope everyone who
loves poetry will get their hands on this book. Especially now,
especially after the disaster, it is something we need to read.

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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