Find the Others: on Becoming an Arab Writer in English

15 November, 2020

Rewa Zeinati presents poetry at a     Sukoon     event at The Mansion in Beirut (Photo courtesy Rewa Zeinati)

Rewa Zeinati presents poet­ry at a Sukoon event at The Man­sion in Beirut (Pho­to cour­tesy Rewa Zeinati)

This essay was inspired by the orig­i­nal script for a Tedx Talk giv­en at Phoeni­cia Uni­ver­si­ty in Lebanon enti­tled “Unset Your Mind­set: Exper­i­ment, Explore, Excel”. 

Rewa Zeinati

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and pre­cious life?” goes a line from a gor­geous poem by Amer­i­can poet Mary Oliv­er. A line that can be inter­pret­ed in mul­ti­ple ways depend­ing on how you see the world. Speak­ing of poet­ry and writ­ing, my part­ner once asked me, if I were forced to choose between him and writ­ing, which one would I choose? 

Before I got the chance to answer, he told me that he already knew what I was going to say. Of course, I did­n’t dis­ap­point him. I said that I would choose writ­ing over him. And so he asked for a divorce and that was the end of it. 

Of course I joke. What real­ly hap­pened was that he nod­ded and smiled at my expect­ed response. The point is, he under­stood that writ­ing, to me, was some­thing that I could not live with­out. He under­stood that it was so a part of who I was, who I am, that not writ­ing would be like I was choos­ing, con­scious­ly choos­ing, to go against my nature. He also under­stood, and he told me this, that I was lucky to have found my calling—most peo­ple did­n’t or don’t, and they end up in places and choic­es which, for the most part, they had lit­tle to do with. 

It was not always the case though. What I mean to say is, it was not always the case that I always knew that I want­ed to be a writer. To me, it was­n’t a real­is­tic option while I was grow­ing up. 

Oth­er peo­ple did that. Oth­er peo­ple pub­lished books and poet­ry, oth­er peo­ple wrote plays and act­ed in them, or com­posed music and albums and fash­ion labels and art. Oth­er peo­ple came up with ideas and orga­nized events and cre­at­ed things. 

I was mere­ly the recip­i­ent, or a medi­a­tor of sorts. 

Hamra Street art, Beirut (Photo courtesy Rewa Zeinati)

Ham­ra Street art, Beirut (Pho­to cour­tesy Rewa Zeinati)

I was able to dis­cov­er this pas­sion, or call­ing if you will, as an adult, only in the past decade and a half, thanks to sev­er­al expe­ri­ences along the way. 

Expe­ri­ences that, had I resist­ed, I would not be the per­son I am today. Expe­ri­ences, which I allowed to take me by the hand, and lead me into the heav­i­est fog, into anoth­er kind of future, or three. 

What I had orig­i­nal­ly planned to do was teach Eng­lish to high school stu­dents, with my under­grad degree in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture, and post­grad­u­ate teach­ing diplo­ma. This was my life path, I safe­ly thought at the time. A path my par­ents fig­ured was good for me, as a woman, in gen­er­al, and as an Arab woman, to be more specific. 

My moth­er, a biol­o­gy teacher her­self, always believed school­teach­ers had the best vaca­tion opportunities—they took off dur­ing the school year hol­i­days and had the whole sum­mer to them­selves, to spend with their fam­i­lies, as wives and moth­ers. Thank you king patri­archy, for the per­fect­ly assigned roles pre­con­ceived for each gen­der, with a whole set of expec­ta­tions, or in oth­er words, in my mind, limitations. 

But not to get too detailed, I did teach Eng­lish to high school stu­dents in schools in Lebanon. But then life took me to oth­er coun­tries and oth­er places. And the key thing, in ret­ro­spect, was that I did not resist. 

Life took me to the Unit­ed States of Amree­ka, for instance, where I lived in Iowa City for a while. But I still held on to the safe plan and ambi­tion of teach­ing Eng­lish; this time at Amer­i­can schools. Nev­er mind the irony that one friend point­ed out when he joked, “You mean, you, an Arab, are going to teach Eng­lish to peo­ple whose first lan­guage is English?” 

But it did­n’t work out quite the way I had in mind because I soon found out that, because I was for­eign-edu­cat­ed, there were rules, reg­u­la­tions and require­ments that I need­ed to con­sid­er in order to be cer­ti­fied to teach in the US.

So dur­ing the time that I was sup­pos­ed­ly seek­ing to be cer­ti­fied as a valid teacher, I worked in var­i­ous oth­er fields; jobs that I’d nev­er con­sid­ered doing but I did them anyway. 

For exam­ple, I fold­ed clothes as a Sales Asso­ciate, and prac­ticed my smile, espe­cial­ly with despi­ca­ble cus­tomers. I have to say I now appre­ci­ate what it takes to do this job and try as much as pos­si­ble not to be that despi­ca­ble cus­tomer myself. And dur­ing my job in retail I had my bag inves­ti­gat­ed for stolen items each time I checked out at the end of my shift. It was stan­dard pro­ce­dure and every sales asso­ciate went through the same ordeal so I should­n’t have tak­en it per­son­al­ly. But I did. I could­n’t help it. Maybe I’m small-mind­ed but I could­n’t help feel­ing offend­ed and hurt by this so-called “stan­dard procedure.” 

I fold­ed bras and under­wear at a famous Amer­i­can lin­gerie out­let that turned women into angels. Enough said. That last­ed about two days before I said thanks, but no thanks. I also worked as a book­seller at a major Amer­i­can book­store. I loved every minute of that, sur­round­ed by books and peo­ple who loved books and read­ing as much as I knew I did. Some­how no one checked my bag at the end of my shift there, because, real­ly, who would steal a book in Amer­i­ca’s hyper-con­sumerist culture?

But all the while I wrote long emails home to fam­i­ly and friends, about my expe­ri­ences abroad. Long intri­cate, care­ful­ly con­struct­ed emails about the details of my life in that Mid­west­ern set­ting; I wrote about my long­ing for my home­land, and I wrote about my per­cep­tion of the world around me as a for­eign­er, as a woman, as a post 9/11 immi­grant in the US. And with time I began to receive com­ments from fam­i­ly and friends and friends of friends whom I’d nev­er met, who’d some­how received my emails, about how much they enjoyed the sto­ries and looked for­ward to receiv­ing more. 

Halabi Bookstore in Beirut (Photo courtesy Rewa Zeinati)

Hal­abi Book­store in Beirut (Pho­to cour­tesy Rewa Zeinati)

With time it became more and more obvi­ous that peo­ple, oth­er than my moth­er, actu­al­ly want­ed to read my crap. And I began to real­ize that I enjoyed noth­ing more than com­pos­ing those let­ters back home and I began to real­ize that this is prob­a­bly what I want­ed to do with the rest of my time. To just write. And read of course. And it was one of the scari­est thoughts I’d ever had. Because this was not part of the plan of becom­ing a high school Eng­lish teacher. 

But I took that scary thought and I went with it to apply for a Mas­ters degree in cre­ative writ­ing at one of the top uni­ver­si­ties in the nation. But when I asked about the appli­ca­tion process I learned that I need­ed to be pub­lished first. 

That’s when it struck me. 

Seri­ous­ly? Me? Pub­lished? As in I do the work and some­one likes it enough to make it pub­lic on beau­ti­ful­ly bound sheets of paper? To me it felt impossible. 

But I kept at it. I kept at the writ­ing. And after a while, a few years and var­i­ous jobs lat­er, I reap­plied for a Mas­ter’s degree in Cre­ative Writ­ing at oth­er uni­ver­si­ties and got accept­ed into UMSL — Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri, in Saint Louis. 

That’s when a whole new world opened up around me. 

My being the only Arab in the whole Eng­lish depart­ment was irrel­e­vant. I was sit­ting in a space where peo­ple loved and appre­ci­at­ed words and writ­ing as much as I did. And it was a nat­ur­al expec­ta­tion to pro­duce work that had the poten­tial of being published. 

That’s also where I became famil­iar with lit­er­ary and poet­ry mag­a­zines and lit­er­ary and poet­ry read­ings, where peo­ple would stand up in front of an audi­ence and read or per­form their work, while no one in the room thought this was a sil­ly waste of every­body’s time. 

I felt at home.

Not only was it not a com­plete waste of every­one’s time but I real­ized that peo­ple, includ­ing myself, felt some­thing there. 

Words mat­tered, I began to under­stand. Words could change peo­ple, minds, per­cep­tions, life paths. It was a pow­er­ful tool. I knew how much it changed me as a lover of books and read­ing, but I nev­er thought that I would one day be a pro­duc­er of pos­si­ble books and read­ing myself. 

So I kept at my writ­ing, and I began to send out my work to be pub­lished, and I got a zil­lion rejec­tion let­ters before I began to get a glimpse of publication. 

I still remem­ber the feel­ing of hav­ing my very first poem pub­lished in a mag­a­zine, years ago. It was a tiny poem about Lebanon enti­tled “Sis­ter.” I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked at myself, or more amazed at the idea that I pro­duced this work; I was no longer mere­ly a pas­sive recip­i­ent. I was ‘oth­er people.’

But dur­ing my time in the US, I was not only a poten­tial thief, remem­ber the sales asso­ciate pro­to­col? I was also some­one whose voice would eas­i­ly be muf­fled or dis­missed. I don’t mean my lit­er­al voice, what I mean is the voice that rep­re­sent­ed me. 

Very few peo­ple whom I met at work or at school were aware where Lebanon was locat­ed on the map. Very few seemed to care where I was real­ly from, and when I even­tu­al­ly got nat­u­ral­ized as an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, I was told on more than one occa­sion, in var­i­ous work or play set­tings, to no longer say that I was Lebanese. I was expect­ed to sud­den­ly become ful­ly American.

It did­n’t sit well with me. All of a sud­den, with­out warn­ing or clar­i­fi­ca­tion, I was sup­posed to be an Amer­i­can. Even though Amer­i­ca was in my head and heart from a very young age, through music, film, lit­er­a­ture, fash­ion, aca­d­e­mics; i.e. impe­ri­al­ism, I was­n’t yet sure what being an Amer­i­can actu­al­ly meant. So I would­n’t have it, and at that point I decid­ed to take my voice back, even in the small­est of ways. 

So for instance, dur­ing my Mas­ter’s pro­gram, my writ­ing did not include char­ac­ters whose names were Jack and Jen­nifer and Don­ald. (Def­i­nite­ly not Donald.) 

They includ­ed com­mon Ara­bic names like Lay­la, Salma, Ziad. They includ­ed fla­vors from my kitchen, the weath­er in Beirut, street names and jar­gon from my ances­tors. They includ­ed things that I cared about, social­ly and polit­i­cal­ly and inti­mate­ly. And iron­i­cal­ly the more I did this, the more I felt like I belonged. And Saint Louis began to feel like a sec­ond home to me. 

Anoth­er exam­ple was when I began to par­tic­i­pate in poet­ry events and read­ings, and I began to share my work, my voice. And with time, dur­ing those read­ings, I would have peo­ple come up to me after the event, and talk to me about my words, which indi­cat­ed all that I knew of my home, my angst from a dis­tance, my wars, in oth­er words, my lens, only to tell me how it made them think about their lives, their priv­i­leges, their dis­tance, in oth­er words, their some­what par­tial lens. 

So this was all good and well. But I have to admit some­thing. All the while that I was liv­ing in the US, and had dis­cov­ered my pas­sion for writ­ing, I felt that some­thing was miss­ing; some­thing relat­ed to my iden­ti­ty as an Arab Anglo­phone writer. I felt that the jour­nals that I became famil­iar with in the West and had work pub­lished in, were most­ly run by old­er white men, or white men in gen­er­al, or white women, or peo­ple of col­or, but who were based in the West. Noth­ing that rep­re­sent­ed me, as an Arab Anglo­phone writer, not nec­es­sar­i­ly an Arab Amer­i­can writer, was pro­duced in the Arab “world” by an Arab-speak­ing per­son, and so one morn­ing over cof­fee and a cig­a­rette, I thought, why don’t I do it myself? 

Why don’t I start some­thing that I feel would fill a gap in the Anglo­phone lit­er­ary narrative? 

The idea was born a while before I actu­al­ly made it hap­pen, as is the nat­ur­al case with a lot of ideas. Fear and self-doubt have a lot to with the delay. 

But then final­ly, when I moved clos­er to home, to a city called Dubai, to be more spe­cif­ic, I made it hap­pen. Thanks to tech­nol­o­gy and Word­Press and a lit­tle bit of per­se­ver­ance and com­mon sense, and some years of expe­ri­ence with peo­ple and places and jobs and uni­ver­si­ty edit­ing boards, and var­i­ous neg­a­tive opin­ions that I chose to ignore, I found­ed Sukoon, an Arab-themed art and lit­er­a­ture mag­a­zine, pub­lished in English. 

And I’ve been so grate­ful to have received so much pos­i­tive feed­back and inter­est from writ­ers and read­ers, sup­port­ing me for start­ing this mag­a­zine, for fill­ing up a much-need­ed gap, for high­light­ing mar­gin­al­ized voic­es in a scarred and under­rep­re­sent­ed region. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of thing. 

And lat­er on, I also had a cou­ple of unex­pect­ed expe­ri­ences while liv­ing in Dubai. My non­fic­tion col­lec­tion was picked up by a pub­lish­er and my poet­ry man­u­script was also accept­ed for as a chap­book by anoth­er. Whole books, my words, out there in the uni­verse. I felt nau­seous and incred­i­ble all at once. 

So, in a nut­shell, I moved from my set plan of being a high school teacher to my dis­cov­ery of becom­ing a pub­lished poet, writer, cre­ative copy­writer, edi­tor, orga­niz­er of lit­er­ary events, and uni­ver­si­ty instructor. 

I learned so much about myself as a writer and as a per­son from each and every turn of expe­ri­ences and events that came my way. From every city and coun­try I was either forced, or chose, to live in.

I don’t think we real­ize how vital it is to step into unknown ter­ri­to­ry, to always keep our minds and eyes open to what unex­pect­ed­ly comes our way. We won’t know what we’re capa­ble of, or what we tru­ly care about, if we don’t allow our­selves to let go of rigid sys­tems about our­selves first. Sys­tems that we inher­it, sys­tems we believe, with or with­out, our permission. 

Even my teach­ing oppor­tu­ni­ty came unplanned, coin­ci­den­tal­ly around the same time that I was mov­ing back to Lebanon after being away for years and years. Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents are prob­a­bly the most ter­ri­fy­ing bunch of humans you can meet. But when the chance turned up, I was open to it, and those ter­ri­fy­ing bunch of crit­ics quick­ly became friends and collaborators. 

Beirut revolution NOW, free your mind, kill your TV (Photo courtesy Rewa Zeinati)

Beirut rev­o­lu­tion NOW, free your mind, kill your TV (Pho­to cour­tesy Rewa Zeinati)

But my jour­ney did­n’t stop there. And I had no say in it except to buy a tick­et and leave with noth­ing but my win­ter clothes and lap­top. And I am painful­ly aware of the priv­i­lege, as Lebanon increas­ing­ly became one con­tin­u­ous heart­break for which I no longer have the words. I thought I did­n’t before but now it’s a whole oth­er kind of mourn­ing I nev­er knew I could feel. 

Today I build a new life in Dear­born, Michi­gan, where I’m told all the Bint Jbeil Lebanese are. And I’m told, by the Lebanese, to be wary of the Lebanese. And I am not from Bint Jbeil and it is extreme­ly irrel­e­vant any­way and that’s a whole oth­er kind of racism we cre­ate amongst our­selves. And speak­ing of racism, a new pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States of Amree­ka was just elect­ed and I am look­ing out the win­dow at the gor­geous Michi­gan fall as I won­der about my two-year-old life here. How many times can one start over, how many times can one be an immi­grant or an expat in a sin­gle lifetime? 

When you’re from the coun­tries I come from, you don’t plan your “one wild and pre­cious life.” You just live it. And con­sid­er your­self lucky. And when it’s not work­ing any­more, you pick up and go. And you keep going, if you have that kind of advan­tage. And then you write about it and you write some more and you find the oth­ers who care about the things you do. You always find the oth­ers. If they don’t find you first.

Arab AmericansBeirutpoetry and literature

Rewa Zeinati—recipient of the 2019 Edward Stanley Award for Poetry, Lebanese American poet, writer, and educator—is the founding editor of Sukoon. She is the author of the poetry chapbook, Bullets & Orchids and her work is published in Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Mizna, Uncommon: Dubai, Making Mirrors: Writing/Righting by Refugees, among others. She’s lived in three countries and eight cities in the past decade, and now considers metro Detroit her new home.

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