Celebrate National Poetry Month & Arab American Heritage Month with Ten Arab-American Poets
By Yaara Aleissa / Arab America Contributing Writer
This month is the celebration of the rich heritage of Arab Americans across the country which coincides with another remarkable celebration of language through National Poetry Month.
Arabs have had a significant impact on the world of poetry that cannot be ignored through influential writers like Al-Mutunabi, Mahmoud Darwish, Khalil Gibran, and many more. These poets leave behind the voice of their experiences and a story of their cultural and religious backgrounds through their writing. This is one of the many ways to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month in unison with National Poetry Month.
1. Naomi Shihab Nye
“People won’t leave Him alone.
I know He said, wherever two or more
are gathered in my name…
but I’ll bet some days He regrets it.
Cozily they tell you what He wants
and doesn’t want
as if they just got an e-mail.
Remember ‘Telephone’, that pass-it-on game
where the message changed dramatically
by the time it rounded the circle?
People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.”
Naomi Shihab Nye, born in St. Louis, Missouri is the daughter of a Palestinian refugee father and an American-German-Swiss mother. She spent her childhood between San Antonio and Jerusuelem, experiencing her background in two cities. Nye has published over 30 volumes of poetry in her lifetime and continues to write avidly. One of her poems, “I Feel Sorry For Jesus” incorporates her religious background of Christianity with her Palestinian heritage. She communicates some common assumptions that tend to be made with frequently repeated religious stories. In a creative twist, she puts her readers in two perspectives. The one judging those making these false assumptions and being the one who tells these assumptions.
2. Dunya Mikhail
“I liked Eva’s musical tone.
She said, I am from Stockholm,
home to no war for two hundred years.
I am from Baghdad, I replied,
a city we call the “home of peace,”
though war has lived in it
for two hundred years.”
Dunya Mikhail was born in Baghdad, Iraq but has been remarkably known for her poetry published both in Arabic and English. Her work addresses the tragedies of war, exile, and loss to the innocence of folk tales. In her poems, she uses a string of poems to tell a story. Mikhail’s poem, “Eva Whose Shadow is a Swan” speaks of two people from regions that seem so distant and yet are tied together so intricately.
3. Diana Abu-Jaber
“When someone tacked threats on my office door,
My friends begged:
Change your name, why not change it?
Why don’t I change it?
Just a lost daughter, among a nation of lost daughters,
Claimed by a name I didn’t make.”
Diana Abu-Jaber was born in New York to a Jordanian father and an American mother. Her writing spans a wide range of genres and her talent has earned her numerous awards. In 2017, Abu-Jaber wrote a special poem for Arab America titled “Exit Plan”. In this gripping poem, Abu-Jaber tackles the stereotypes that many Arabs are falsely attached to. Yet, she beautifully dismisses the critics of her heritage and embraces her background in a redefining sense of self.
4. Safia Elhillo
“my language cursive & silent glottal & knotted
& scarring the cheeks of my dead adorning the hair
of my dead tallow in their braided hair
i read the books in translation where is the poem
& circle every word i know”
Born in Rockville, Maryland, Safia Elhillo is a Sudanese-American poet. Elhillo has received awards as an African poet and Arab American poet. Her history as a poet stems from her early years of participating in Slam Poetry competitions throughout college. Her poetry is known to take on jarring conversations of identity through the intricacies of her religious and cultural background as showcased in one of her poems “Ode to Sudanese-Americans”.
5. George Abraham
“do not let His throat close
into a lightless moon as it did
in life if our breaths converged once
what now will become of our apneas’
entanglement? I ask the machine breathing
into my throat each night holding me”
George Abraham is a Palestinian-American poet from Jacksonville, Florida who is the author of numerous poetry books. Abraham has won various awards for his work and participated in Poetry Slam competitions. His work has allowed him to express his personal relationships as represented by the poem “Let Him Rest” a tribute to his father which is told in detail of eloquent emotions tied with descriptive metaphors.
6. Noor Naga
“this city is too big to be small.
I need elbow
room. I need room
to jostle, elbow-wise
into new bodies,
until the day I lean.”
Noor Naga was born in Philadelphia to Egyptian parents, raised in Dubai, studied in Toronto, and now resides in Cairo. Naga has had experiences in diverse locations across the world and shares some of these through her writing. Her short poem “Lean” does just that expressing the feeling of being trapped in a city and wanting the ability to move freely. This poem is very fitting for Naga considering her work is a free-flowing expression based on her many novels.
7. Noor Al-Samarrai
“A spray of bullet holes on a shady wall. I did not finger the
grooves of cool concrete, despite the city’s heat.
Soldiers in army fatigues, leaning on arm-length black rifles
like green figurines, guarding the McDonald’s.
The constant toots of car horns for weddings: I want mine
to be like this – a caravan of noise. Only thing for which I
want an automobile: an unraveling-me parade.”
Noor Al-Samarrai is an Iraqi-American poet. She studied in Amman through a Fulbright Grant examining the oral histories of Iraqis in the Diaspora which helped produce some of her current publications. In her poem “El Cerrito” she writes about various locations in the Middle East telling stories of the location. She portrays some of the daily normalities which plays a juxtaposition of just how abnormal these normalities are.
8. Fady Joudah
“Between what should and what should not be
Everything is liable to explode. Many times
I was told who has no land has no sea. My father
Learned to fly in a dream. This is the story
Of a sycamore tree he used to climb
When he was young to watch the rain.
Sometimes it rained so hard it hurt. Like being
Beaten with sticks. Then the mud would run red.”
Fady Joudah is a Palestinian-American poet who was born in Austin, Texas but grew up in Libya and Saudi Arabia. Joudah is an internal medicine physician yet writing is still an integral part of his work. He won the PEN USA award in 2010 for his poetry. Joudah writes with vivid imagery that draws readers to his poetry as he does in the “Sleeping Trees”. A story from his childhood brought to life and drew in on his family relationships.
9. Lena Khalaf Tuffaha
“However broken the sentences
you believe them preferable to silence
the kind that crowned
the remains of the village…
for each of us, let this language be enough
or let silence
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a first-generation American immigrant born to a Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian heritage. She has written three poems alongside various essays and translated many works from Arabic to English. In her poetry, Tuffaha references her various backgrounds tying in both the language and the culture to write poems such as “Dialogic”. This poem tells a gripping story of the reality faced by many Palestinians under the occupation.
10. Threa Almontaser
“Speech becomes a slagged pot I bang crude
beats on. I long to play a song that doesn’t terrorize,
a song that’s understood. The mushkila* is I am a surging
current of feared language. Words have stopped arriving
easily. Was it Rumi who said silence is the language
of God and all else is poor translation?”
*mushkila is the Arabic word for problem
With or without her pen Threa Almontaser is an activist which is represented by her involvement in her community and her writing. The Yemani-American poet has been recognized for her work by the Arab American Museum and supported by various organizations in furthering her passion for justice. The poem, “Heritage Emissary” beautifully portrays the complexities of being Arab-American and the blend of two languages intertwining.
Many of these poets were found through the Arab American Writers Organization or by the Arab American Museum Book Awards. To learn more about the various Arab-Americans contributing to the vastly growing collection of poetry.
Check out the Arab America Blog here!