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A Beloved Arab American Poet Passes: Celebrating the Life of Dr. Hamode “Sam” Hamod

posted on: Jun 30, 2021

A Beloved Arab American Poet Passes: Celebrating the Life of Dr. Hamode “Sam” Hamod
Photo Credit: Kristen Scott

By: David Hamod / Arab America Contributing Writer

On June 20, my dad, son, and I celebrated our last Father’s Day together.  Two days later, my father – Dr. Hamode “Sam” Hamod – died of congestive heart failure.  His life reflected the quintessential American ethnic experience, yet so much more.

Nominated twice for the Nobel Prize – once in Literature and once in Poetry – Dad was one of America’s most respected poets of Arab descent.  He wrote many powerful poems about the Arab-American experience, such as “Lines to My Father,” “After the Funeral of Hamad Assam,” and “Dying With the Wrong Name.”  His book of the same name (Dying With the Wrong Name) won the Ethnic Heritage Award in 1980 and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. 

A recipient of numerous awards for his poetry, my father was a fearless commentator and prolific writer, with hundreds of articles and more than a dozen books of poetry to his name.  He never stopped.  Even in his last hours, as he lay on his death bed, Dad dictated his final poems to me.

Sito” Promotes Higher Education

In recent days, accolades and condolences for my father have poured in from around the world.  Considering Dad’s remarkable achievements, it is difficult to imagine the challenges that my father overcame to achieve his high station in life.

Dad was the first in his nuclear family to get a formal education.  His father, my Jido, arrived in the United States as a penniless immigrant at the turn of the 20th century.  Jido regarded commerce as the way to advance in American society, not education.  Even when my father entered the University of Chicago Law School, Jido was not impressed.

Thankfully, my grandmother had the last word.  Sito encouraged my dad to leave hardscrabble Gary, Indiana to pursue his education.  She knew the value of education as few others did: Sito achieved only a sixth-grade education because she dropped out of school to raise eight brothers and sisters when her mother died while giving birth.  So, when she saw an opportunity for her son to go to college, she let nothing stand in his way.

Her support for Dad’s college education was fateful: As a poet and professor of creative writing, my father taught at such universities as Princeton, Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Valparaiso, and Howard.  Throughout his academic career, my father was dedicated to his students.  In his seven years at Howard University, for example, he played an instrumental role in creating or strengthening creative writing programs and literary magazines that helped to build bridges among ethnic communities. 

Dad also organized poetry workshops for elementary school students, including those in Native American communities in Arizona, thereby encouraging young people to be expressive and view the world creatively. 

Formative Years in Gary, Indiana

In the 1950s, Gary, Indiana lived and breathed for Bethlehem Steel, and my father – like so many other young men, especially immigrants – spent time in the steel mills.  A Muslim who was not a drinker, Dad also ran a tavern in a tough part of town.  That was the only time in his life that my father packed a pistol at work every day.

It is said that every dark cloud has a silver lining, and Dad’s work in the tavern turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  He came to know such music legends as Muddy Waters, Sarah Vaughn, and B.B. King, who performed periodically at Dad’s bar, The Broadway Lounge. 

This was a formative experience for Dad, shaping his views of hard-working immigrants and Blacks, who made up most of the clientele.  Beginning with this experience in Gary, my father came to form a special kinship with the African-American community.

Because of Dad’s reputation as a dedicated Muslim and no-nonsense guy, he became a bridge between America’s Black Muslims of that era and mainstream Muslims in the United States and across the Arab world.  For example, Dad worked with Elijah Muhammad, leader of The Nation of Islam, which had many adherents in those years in major Midwestern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Gary.

It was also in this context that my father came to know such Muslim leaders as Muhammad Ali, the boxer, and Malcolm X, the political activist.  Over time, each gravitated toward mainstream Islam, and I understand that my father and Jido played a role in this transition.

My family built the Al-Ameen Mosque in Gary, Indiana, which was inaugurated in 1960.  One of the Muslim dignitaries who drove from Chicago to Gary to attend that inauguration was Ahmad Jamal, the acclaimed Jazz pianist.  Ahmad and my father built a lifelong friendship, one that lasted 60 years, until Dad passed away.  In recent months, the two of them spoke every night – the 90-year-old pianist and the 85-year-old poet – and no day would be complete until that telephone call took place.

Community Leadership in Washington DC

In the 1980s, my father was well known as an Arab-American community leader, based in Washington DC.  More than any other community leader in the nation’s capital, he helped to bring together Muslims and peoples of other faiths in remarkable ways, drawing upon his years of experience and knowledge as a Muslim born in the United States. 

During that period, he founded and served as Editor-in-Chief of Third World News, the first international weekly of its kind to bring a developing world perspective to policymakers in the nation’s capital. 

But not everyone appreciated the hard-hitting stories of Third World News and Dad’s ability to showcase success stories across the developing world.    

Throughout his life, Dad received threats from those who did not share his thoughtful, inclusive views, but the word “fear” was not part of his vocabulary.  He knew firsthand what these threats might mean: His father was assassinated, and Dad thwarted numerous assassination attempts, especially during his time as Director of the Islamic Center of Washington, DC in the mid-1980s.

That was a fraught era in Washington DC, and my father literally did battle with Muslim extremists and Jewish extremists alike.   For example, Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of Israel’s extremist Kach Party, brought activists to the Islamic Center to rabble-rouse.  In the end, the two men met face-to-face, and violence was averted.

More complicated was the relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini’s adherents, who took over the Islamic Center and refused to let other Muslims pray there.  With encouragement from the Arab Ambassadors Council, my father – backed by a SWAT team and the Washington DC Police – took back the Islamic Center so that Muslims from all walks of life could once again pray peaceably in that center of worship.

Throughout his life, Dad fought against narrow-mindedness and racism in all its forms.  He faced discrimination in his personal and professional lives, but it never slowed him down.  For every “hater” he encountered, there was always someone willing to open a door because they saw Dad’s great potential.

Poetry: Finding His Calling

Dad studied business and law before yielding to his passion, devoting himself to creative writing.  He received his M.A. and B.S. degrees from Northwestern University in rhetorical theory and mass communications, respectively.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, where he was part of the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Other award-winning figures in the program during that period included such literary notables as Kurt Vonnegut, James Alan McPherson, Galway Kinnell, Ted Berrigan, and others.  The stature of the program, unrivalled in the United States, enjoyed the support of such luminaries as Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, John Berryman, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Lowell.

Dad’s poetry was not limited to the Arab-American experience.  He was renowned for his love poems, which were well received by the literary community.  Ishmael Reed, a celebrated poet, put it this way: “Sam Hamod is a brilliant poet in the ancient sense of the word.  He can write as though his pen were a sword, as well as write as though his pen were the stem of a rose.”

Dad’s poetry circled the globe.  He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature by the acclaimed Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, who said: “Sam Hamod is a great poet, a man who has a unique voice, understanding and vision, a poet who speaks for his people, for himself and for others — something that a great poet must do.” 

Pablo Neruda once noted, “There are few poets who combine emotion, rhythm, clarity, and language in the way of the American poet, Sam Hamod.”  And Jorge Luis Borges, himself a recipient of the Nobel Prize, said simply, “Sam Hamod is one of us, a man of the South.”

Sam Hamod Memorial Scholarship

The time that Dad spent in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop represented some of the most transformative years of his life.  For this reason, my father’s writings will become part of Special Collections at the University of Iowa Libraries, where they will be available to scholars and researchers in the years to come. 

In addition, the University of Iowa Center for Advancement has established a new scholarship to honor my father, the Hamode Samuel Hamod Memorial Scholarship.  The purpose of this annual award will be to provide a “second chance” to those who have taken unconventional paths to poetry – as Dad did – especially individuals who have overcome challenges and disadvantages along the way. 

The first recipient of Dad’s scholarship has just been named: Ryan “Red” Danielson, a construction worker who was recently accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  He sent a note to my father, which I shared with Dad in his final hours:

“I bought a copy of Spring Will Come Soon and I have been reading it over and over the last few days.  You’ve touched me deeply with these poems . . . .  It’s such an amazing thing to get a gift/funding from someone to help to free up time to write, but to also find a profound connection to a poet’s work is deeper than human life . . . . Bless you, you wonderful human being, for your giving and for channeling the deep poetry into the poem.”

Lines to My Father

Like any son, I did not always agree with my father, of course.  But he had the courage of his convictions, and I have always admired the fact that Dad spoke out fearlessly and tirelessly in the face of those who would silence him.  People in power tried to co-opt my father over the years, but he would have none of it; he was an apologist for no one.  In life, as in his poetry, Dad spoke from the heart.

He wrote “Lines to My Father” after his father was assassinated while tending the grounds of his mosque.  That poem, excerpted below, has more meaning for me now than ever:

My Father is watching over his mosque, silently
he hovers now, praying
My Father is planting maples beside his mosque

digging each hole
carefully,  patiently,  knowing the trees will grow
Now my Father covers the grass with
love.

Dad was laid to rest in the Muslim National Cemetery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but his spirit will live on through his scholarship, stories, and poetry.