Mirene Ghossein, Adonis’s friend and translator, and from whose apartment on W 86th St Adonis first explored the streets of Manhattan, arrived in the afternoon and discussed ‘A Grave for New York’ with us. Mirene encouraged us to forget rational readings, to break barriers, to see the productive spaces in fragmentation. She asked us: What imprint does the poem leave?
On Tuesday we welcomed two new participants, poet Hala Alyan and musician George Ziadeh, and the group began to explore possible directions and ways of working together. Alexandra wrote some reflections on the day:
One of the ideas I pull from the poem is the poet’s (artist’s) power to re-order the world. Adonis can take New York and make of it the symbol he wants; he can redefine it in the way he sees it, and that truth, his truth, is what is on the page. With the smallest mark of his pen, a dot, he can transform the Arabic word for love into a cistern: love as the vessel for the most important element for sustaining life—water.
In the improvisation that started yesterday, the musicians (among whom I include Kevork) were able to fall into an easy communion and create together. They were able to redefine the space by displacing the other sounds of the city (the noisy generator, the traffic) to make space for their notes, their tonalities, their “accents” as Tarek said on the first day. Carrie’s body redefined the space by shifting the air to fit her form into it. When Hala read the poem she’d written, inspired by the music, she re-defined the space by attributing new meanings and images to the action.
I think in images and in metaphors to be used in theater, and the poem and the music inspired in me the image of a Statue of Liberty exhausted from being used so much as a symbol. She’s stepped off her pedestal and gone and started a family, and let the world call her a technicality: “The difference between a breast and a tomb is a mere technicality.” The way the hegemonic power, symbolized by New York, considers life a technicality, dispensable, has exhausted her and caused her to retire. That is her response to Adonis.
This project is a huge challenge. We need to figure out how to work as a group. It would be easy if there were a director, but that defeats the purpose, which is to explore the possibility of bringing so many artists of different disciplines together to create a common piece. Somehow we need to find a way for the non-musicians to work with the musicians in a way where everyone is feeding off of each other. Also, and this has to do with the always-challenging dynamics of group work, we need to remember that in improv “yes” is the magical word. We were pretty good yesterday at listening to and accepting suggestions, but it’s useful to remember that “no” is never a constructive word in improvisation.
Anais Alexandra Tekerian
Photos from Day 2
Launching its new interdisciplinary program, Alwan for the Arts aims to re-imagine Arab
culture in New York
December 7th, 8pm, Alwan for the Arts, 16 Beaver St, New York City
Tickets: $20/$15 (students/seniors/Alwan members)
Doors open at 7:30pm
The Resonance Project begins the first week of December at Alwan for the Arts, a vibrant downtown hub for Middle Eastern arts and culture in New York. Partially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Resonance Project is an innovative new program that invites members of Alwan’s core community of visual and performing artists to participate in a week of interdisciplinary improvisation, experimentation and creative inquiry. The week will culminate in a public performance at 8pm on Friday, December 7th.
Participants include: Filmmaker Tala Hadid, visual artist Kevork Mourad, performer, singer and playwright Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian, choreographer and dancer Carrie Ahern, poet Hala Alyan and musicians Zafer Tawil, Tarek Yamani, George Ziadeh and Kinan Azmeh.
With a year-round calendar of film screenings, concerts, literary readings and discussions in its loft space in Lower Manhattan, Alwan has been a hub of artistic activity and creative experimentation since its inception in 1998, nurturing and learning from a large family of artists and intellectuals who play an active role in shaping programs.
Resonance draws from this organic community and takes its inspiration from the notion of tarab, an open-ended, interactive musical encounter that transports performers and audience alike. Expanding this concept across disciplines, Resonance aims to disrupt standard forms of cultural consumption that generally occur in segregated settings unique to each genre—the concert hall, the movie theatre, the art gallery. Resonance is about creating connections for audiences between forms, ideas, moments and locations.
The 1971 poem, ‘A Grave for New York’, by Arab modernist poet Adonis is the week’s point of departure. In this seminal work, Adonis explores New York’s urban landscape with the incisive eye of an outsider attuned to the city’s seductive mythologies. He responds to its signs, disinterring lost histories that span eras and geographies. From Greenwich Village to Beirut, from Harlem to the Arab slave trade, Walt Whitman to Al-Niffari, Adonis teases out hidden connections and unexpected resonances.
The Resonance Project, likewise, is the first part of a multi-phase Alwan initiative to map out the intellectual and cultural affinities of its creative community, to engage in a critical exploration of its past and its place, and to imagine new possibilities for its future.
Carrie Ahern is an acclaimed independent dance and performance artist based in New York City. Many of her works involve unexpected interdisciplinary collaborations and research. In 2009, she presented Sensate, which began as a collaboration with Nietzsche scholars. She then performed this piece at Princeton University in conjunction with the Department of Music and at Columbia University through the Anthropology Department. Her work has since premiered across the globe. In addition to collaborating with artists across the mediums for performances and exhibitions, she has been a guest speaker at NYU for philosophy classes in Spectacle and has taught movement to actors at the University of Washington, master classes in improvisation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and movement workshops for academics. http://www.carrieahern.com
Hala Alyan is a Palestinian-American poet living in Brooklyn. Her poetry has appeared in several journals, including Eclectica, The Dirty Napkin and The Journal. She was one of the ten winners of the 2012 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival Competition, held in North Carolina. Her first volume of poetry, ‘Atrium’ was published by Three Rooms Press in May 2012. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in the field of psychology. http://halaalyan.com/
Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh is the first Arab to win first prize at the Nicolay Rubinstein international competition in Moscow (1997). A graduate of the Juilliard School in New York, the High Institute of Music and the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Damascus. He is currently working towards his music doctoral degree at the City University of New York. Kinan has appeared as soloist, composer and improviser worldwide including The Library of Congress, The Kennedy Center, Opera Bastille, Berlin’s Philharmonie, The Mozarteum, Carnegie Hall, UN’s
General Assembly and the Damascus Opera for its opening concert. He has shared the stage with artists such as Marcel Khalife, Francois Rabbath, Zakir Hussein and Daniel Barenboim. He is the artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Players. http://www.kinanazmeh.com
Tala Hadid is a filmmaker who studied Fine Art and Philosophy at Brown University. In 1995, as she was graduating, she co-wrote and directed a feature documentary, “Sacred Poet,” on Pier Paolo Pasolini. In 2005 Hadid received her MFA in Film Directing from Columbia. Her prizewinning film, “Tes Cheveux Noirs Ihsan,” was screened at numerous film festivals and won awards including a Tiger Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2006 and the Panorama Best Short Film Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006. She was a fellow of the Sundance Institute writers’ and directors’ lab 2009, and her work has also screened at, among other venues, the MoMA in New York City, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C, L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the Seville Biennale in Spain, Oxford University, and the Photographer’s Gallery in London.
Kevork Mourad is a visual artist who explores collaborations in which art and music develop in counterpoint to each other. He has pioneered a technique of spontaneous painting that involves sharing the stage with musicians to create visual and audio stories that unfold both as the musicians perform and as Mourad’s visual creations fill the space of the stage. Mourad, born in Kamechli, Syria, of Armenian origins, obtained his MFA from the Yerevan Institute of Fine Arts in Armenia. He has collaborated with Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh, as well as with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble among others. He has performed across New York and in Japan at the Nara Museum. His paintings have also been exhibited at the JK Gallery in Los Angles and the Rafia Gallery in Damascus. www.kevorkmourad.com
Zafer Tawil is an accomplished musician whose areas of expertise include the oud, violin, qanun and Arab percussion. Born in Jerusalem and based in New York City, Tawil has performed in concerts across the country, including with Sting and Elliot Sharpe, as well as with Arab musicians Cheb Mami, Simon Shaheen, Bassam Saba and George Ziadeh. He has worked on many collaborative projects and concerts that have explored Indian and Persian music as well as Arab and jazz fusion. Tawil performed in and composed music for director Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-nominated feature film Rachel Getting Married. Currently Tawil is composing and performing for Demme’s next film, Zeitoun, based on Dave Eggers’s nonfiction book chronicling the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Additionally, Tawil has held workshops at institutions and universities across the United States.
Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian
Anaïs Alexandra Tekerian is an emerging performer, singer, and playwright living in New York City. Born in San Francisco, Tekerian studied theatre at Yale University where she sang with and directed the Yale Slavic Chorus. She co-founded Zulal, an Armenian a cappella folk trio, which has performed at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, Symphony Space, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among others. Her first play, Tangled Yarn, premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2010, followed by Waterlogged in 2011. Tekerian is also a piano teacher.
Tarek Yamani is a New York-based, self-taught jazz pianist, and composer who was exposed to jazz around age nineteen. He was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, where he obtained a BS in Computer Science from the American University of Beirut. He received a BA in jazz Piano from the Prince Claus Conservatoire in the Netherlands before moving to New York City. In 2010, he won the grand prize of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Composer’s Competition for his composition “Sama’i Yamani,” and, in 2012, Yamani performed with renowned jazz musicians at the inauguration of the UNESCO International Jazz Day. Yamani has worked with on diverse projects: he has partnered with the pioneer Lebanese hip-hop band Aksser, collaborated with the directors Eva Bergman and Omar Rajeh on music for dance and theatre performance, cofounded Funjan Shai, a multi-style band, and given jazz workshops at international jazz meetings and festivals around the world. http://www.tarekyamani.com/
George Ziadeh was born in Birzeit, Palestine, and pursued music from a young age. In 1986 he moved to the United States, where he has studied oud with Simon Shaheen and classical singing and voice with Youssef Kassab. George is considered an authority on maqam theory and Arab classical repertoire.
For more information, please contact:
Land-grab, Law and Capitalism in India discussed by Medha Patkar and David Harvey, land speculation versus industrial production. Renowned Indian social activist, Medha Patkar is founder convenor of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), founding member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA; Save the Narmada Campaign), awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1991 and served as a commissioner for the World Commission on Dams between 1998-2001. David Harvey is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). A social theorist of international standing, he is widely known for his critique of global capitalism and neoliberal development.
Land has become a key issue for both neoliberal capitalism and for people’s movements. Land Acquisition Act of 1894 is used to take over land of indigenous and rural peoples today in the name of the common good. India has had 55 million people displaced by large dams.
Event April 23, 2011 at Alwan for the Arts, sponsored by Association for India’s Development – New York Chapter, Sanhati, South Asia Solidarity Initiative, The Center for Place Culture and Politics (CUNY)
Camera, audio Joe Friendly
On 11th of March, Alwan hosted a conversation moderated by Amy Goodman and Sharif Abdel Kouddous between Ahdaf Soueif and her son Omar Robert Hamilton, both of whom were in Tahrir Square, Cairo, participating throughout, filming and disseminating information, and have since been writing about it all, but have never had the opportunity between themselves for a reflective encounter.
Last night, Alwan hosted acclaimed journalist and author Nir Rosen, in a discussion and book signing of his new book, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World. Having spent the majority of the past eight years living in Iraq and in other Middle Eastern countries, Rosen’s firsthand experiences in the region inform his work. Frustrated with the international community’s current attitude towards Iraq as a won-and-done conflict, Nir Rosen spoke about the current situation on the ground, describing from that perspective what he sees America really leaving behind as it withdraws its troops.
Rosen’s frustration was clear as he began to speak about the problems that still plague Iraq after the American invasion, many of them a direct result of the US’s intervention. Clearly upset with the dearth of coverage western media now affords Iraq within the larger regional happenings connected to the Arab Spring, Rosen attempted to contextualize the rises and declines of conflict in Iraq over the past eight years, beginning with the start of the Iraq War.
Rosen painted a picture of present-day Iraq very different from what US media typically presents as a timely exit strategy from a stable country. Rosen did not dispute that the current government is now stable, as it faces no insurgent opposition, but did not equate that stability with the safety or security of citizens. Rosen described Iraq as being a country with daily assassinations, extreme police corruption, and tense sectarian relations. Some direct consequences of the United States’ entrance into Iraq include the polarization of the country along Sunni and Shia’a lines, as American military forces supported Shia’a militias in their attempt to overthrow the Baathist party, which had in turn strong Sunni affiliations. Once Saddam’s regime was ousted and the US prompted government elections, most Sunnis, in protest of the United State’s involvement in Iraq’s affairs, chose to boycott the elections. The boycott backfired and the Sunni population of Iraq became drastically under-represented in government. This sparked new tensions between the Sunnis and Shia’as, and had a role in igniting a civil war in Iraq that Rosen claims began in 2004, two years earlier than the US media’s reports of the civil war starting. The fighting was largely carried out by local militias, of which many claimed an affiliation with Al-Qaida in order to boost their legitimacy, where no such affiliation existed. During this civil war it was not unusual for random men to be abducted and to be found murdered weeks later, often with some identifying mark to show their Sunni or Shia’a affiliation.
The fighting largely stopped with the declaration of a ceasefire by Shia’a and Sunni militias, which coincided with the timing of the United States’ new surge tactic. US media attributed the drop in violence to their military success, when in fact it had more to do with internal shifts in Iraq. The cessation of wide-spread violence was not symptomatic of the end of sectarian tensions in Iraq; rather it was a result of the Shia’a community’s comfort and stability in Iraq’s highest roles of government. There was no longer a significant Sunni threat, as many Sunni militias had been weakened, and much of the Sunni population had fled Iraq to the relative safety of Syria and Jordan.
Currently Iraq is more severely divided along sectarian lines than ever before. Sunnis have lost much of their political and military power, making them easy targets. Militias easily made the transition from open violence to organized crime, currently carrying out assassinations, car bombings, and the like for those that will pay. The Iraqi criminal-law system as it stands is riddled with bribery, and police corruption is common; many officers make arrests for personal profit. Illegal checkpoints break up the landscape of the city, and US troops stationed in Iraq are rarely seen, content to remain mostly in base camps.
Given this current state of affairs, Rosen contends that the US media’s portrayal of Iraq as an American victory and as a finished fight is fallacious, the reality on the ground being that the US leaves in its wake a country for whom stability only means the stability of control that violent factions have in different sectors of government, state, and civil life. In a country thus divided, with organized crime being rampant, and corruption ubiquitous, Iraq has been left behind a dangerous, and by no means socially stable place.
Rosen went on to discuss the current conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Isreal and Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya. For more insight into his work on these places, and for a more comprehensive account of the United States’ effects in Iraq, please stay tuned for our videotaping of the event to be uploaded here and on our Youtube channel. To purchase Nor Rosen’s book for an in-depth understanding of his perspective on this subject, be sure to check out his book Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.
Here are some reactions of the Alwan for the Arts volunteers to Nir Rosen’s lecture.
“This was one of the most comprehensive but concise overviews of the 21st century Middle East that I’ve ever heard. You can tell he really knows not only the events but the groups and the people in these countries inside and out so you just feel like you’re getting information straight from the source. While it’s nice to be informed, it’s now more frustrating than ever knowing that US media so inadequately reports on Middle Eastern events.” – Bahij Chancey, Intern
“There has been too much emphasis on the conflictual underpinnings of the events unfolding in the Arab world, when one would be better served to see them as the strife of civil society to recreate itself more positively and energetically. Obviously, resistance is rife in the Arab civil space and that is to be celebrated.
Also, there has been too much credit given to Al-Jazeerah, or “Nokia” as opposed to Facebook, Twitter, etc…when in fact revolutions happened in the past and have always found modes of communication, and transmission of knowledge from one revolution to the next is common practice through history, well before social media, which is not to discount the role of the media.
Moreover, in such an overwrought narrative, there is a disproportionate risk of depriving, better yet, stripping away agency from the other, and marking resistance as futile. In other words, power compounds itself, power is always associated with power, and does not work differently. I think that is social over-determinism, far too narrow for the complex fabric of Arab society, of any society.” – Ahmed Issawi, Executive Board Member
“This presentation was useful because it balanced the excitement and hope brought about by the Arab Spring with a testament to the human rights violations, violent sectarianism, and geo-political manipulation that continues in the region. This is not to say that I walked away only pessimistic from Mr. Rosen’s talk. Instead, I am grateful for the work of journalists and researchers like Mr. Rosen whose coverage force us to confront the wider historical picture in the Middle East as we move into a new era in the region. ” – Katie Merriman, Volunteer
“By his own admission, Nir had little that was hopeful to say about the prospects of ending, at least in the near future, the conflicts under discussion. However, his main thesis – that the situation in Iraq (and elsewhere in the region) devolved into a violent confessional conflict in response to external pressures – is an important antidote to the mainstream American view that inter-denominational and inter-ethnic conflict in the Middle East is a millennial condition that can only be managed by oppressive, undemocratic regimes that act as a bulwark against atavistic animosities. Nir contended that the individual actors participating in such conflicts are not motivated by ideological fervor so much as responding to social pressures that are created and exploited by those same oppressive regimes: pressures that stifle civil society and, when a power vacuum is created, lead to social breakdown and factional violence.
The prospect of altering these conditions, and, most saliently in Nir’s talk, the corrosive effects of U.S. foreign policy, may be bleak, but Nir’s recognition that the source of conflict being contingent, rather than culturally essential, is a refreshing and much-needed alternative to the dominant narrative.” – Liz Behrend, Acting Director
Full Event Video
A video of the full event will be posted here and uploaded to our youtube channel soon.
Last night Alwan hosted a four person panel to discuss the racial and religious profiling of muslims and arabs in the United States after the September 11th attacks.The panel included Dr. Irum Sheikh, the author of the new book Detained Without Cause: Muslims’ Stories of Detention and Deportation in America after 9/11. Joining her was Sandra Nichol, a private practice attorney working in NYC who specializes in immigration cases, and Martin Stolar, well known NY attorney and former president of the NYC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. The panel was moderated by Adem Carroll, a relief coordinator for Islamic circle of north America.
Dr. Irum Shiekh, a filmmaker and scholar, discussed her newly published book, Detained Without Cause: Muslims’ Stories of Detention and Deportation in America after 9/11, published in 2011, alongside New York City attorneys Sandra Nichols and Martin Stolar and mediated by Adem Carroll.
Dr. Irum Shiekh presented various cases of Muslim Americans, from her book, who have faced severe charges for minor crimes ranging from expired visas to unpaid penalties. The subjects have been either incarcerated in high-security prisons or endured physical abuse and torture by the mere fact of them being Muslims. Through the means of oral history, Dr. Shiekh denounced the bigotry and racial discrimination and profiling that has plagued the United States since the events of 9/11.
Renowned New York City attorney Martin Stolar, highlighted a parallel between today’s racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs and the internment and racism against the Japanese-Americans during WWII or the repressive discrimination against Communists during the McCarthyist decade. He also brought up the degrading conditions in which these detainees were kept, in many cases far outweighing the harm of their non-existent or very petty crimes. Some of the men were put into solitary confinement and shackled, and another was held for 15 months for a negligible offense. Mr. Stolar also made apparent the justice systems exploitation of the legal structure to detain men that would have otherwise been free to appear before a court by order of supine.
Attorney Sandra Nichols attested to the unfair extra-judicial measures that are taken against Muslims in the United States by relating a few of her clients’ experiences. The consequences of law-enforcers actions on these men were harmful and far-reaching, most of them were deported and many still live in shame having been forced to leave the country. There are actions being taken against the unfairness of these situations such as lawsuits and detainees recounting their story, yet there is no strong or united movement to demand justice or reparation on their part, and most victims still keep their grievances under silence.
“It was very interesting to finally hear people stand up for the rights of minorities and realize how fallacious the american model is. I was very moved by this event. It was not anything brand new, but it was very interesting” - Hélène Barthélemy
“It was extremely informative, I learned a lot. Some of the stories about the detainees were extremely moving and touching and I feel inspired to do something.” – Colin Stokes
“I think it was extremely interesting, I think it was really interesting as well that most of the people on the panel were not muslims so to see that it was not something only for the muslim minority but that it was also something coming from the entire city and the US and that people were complaining about it is something really really good.” – Julia Hug
“I was pretty shocked by the sub-human treatment of the detainees and how widespread the fear and paranoia towards Muslim-Americans was and continues to be. The degree to which people acted on their gut fear and ignored the legitimate justice system was horrifying.” – Bahij Chancey
“I was particularly impressed with Martin Stolar’s lucidity vis-à-vis the American Justice system and his unwavering and passionate devotion to justice and ethics. This panel was a breath of fresh air in a putrid world of bigotry.” -Alia Massoud
Full Event Video
Rula Jebreal was born in Haifa in 1973, and spent her early years living in East Jerusalem with her family. After her mother’s death she entered the Dar El-Tifel orphanage and school at age five. She remained there until she received her diploma in 1991.After receiving a scholarship from the Italian government, Jebreal left East Jerusalem to study medicine at the University of Bologna. While there she obtained a degree in physiotherapy and then decided to go back to school to study journalism. She began working for Italian newspapers specializing in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
In 2000, Jebreal became the first foreign anchorwoman in Italy to broadcast the evening news on national television. Since 2004, Jebreal has hosted numerous high profile Italian television programs including: Omnibus, her daily talk show during which she interviewed Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen, and Nobel prize-winner Mohammad El Baradei, among others. Jebreal was recognized by Media Watch in 2004 for her coverage of the Iraq war. She is the author of The Bride from Assuan, which was awarded the International Fenice Europe Prize, and Divieto di Soggiorno, a study of the history of immigration in Europe.
Q: Can we start by talking about you a bit, your career as a journalist, move to Italy?
R: I moved to Italy when at the age of 19 I received a scholarship to study there. I started studying medicine then moved to journalism and became the first foreign journalist to read the evening news. I also worked in the media in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt,
Q: Tell me about some of your most memorable moments as a journalist
R: I began as an anchorwoman, reading news, then wanted something different so I developed my own TV show on politics and foreign affairs. In 2004, I interviewed Berlusconi about the terrorist attacks in Europe. He asked me what my position was. I answered: I am a media woman. If you want to make change, you need to send a wider message about the Iraq war. Obviously there is a connection. Send a wider message that you’re against the war. He said he was, but I said nobody knows it. You must publicize your position more widely. He listened to me. Came on my TV show, declared war to be a mistake, and said he’d tried to avoid it by attempting to convince Bush not to go to war. We sold the interview to 17 networks.
Another moment was while doing a program on the death penalty. I interviewed the governor of Texas and was able to prevail on him to stay the execution of a 17-year-old accomplice of murder and have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment instead.
Q: Let us talk about Miral. Was it your first experience in writing fiction?
R: Yes, it was my first fiction writing experience. Started in 2000 when there was hope and prospects for peace.
Q: There are significant autobiographical elements in the novel.
R: Everything is based on true facts, things that happened to me and friends and family. That’s how novels are written I think. Writers observe their world – as if it were an emotional mirror.
Q: There is an overriding theme that I noticed in the novel – a failure to protect, for example, Nadia or Fatima in the novel. For many of these women characters, society has failed them, not offered them protection. As a result there are willful, powerful women who take matters into their own hands as is clear with Hind and Miral.
R: Representation of different choices in Palestinian society. Each woman represents different options. It is the stratification of Palestinian society and how they react to the conflict with different choices. Hind opens an orphanage because it’s her perspective on life. Fatima turns to violence. Nadia represents the collapse of society, lack of choice. One kills herself, one kills others, Hind turns to love. Pulled in all directions, these different facets, ultimately the question becomes which will win in the end?
Q: The men in the novel are, well, there are some good men, Hany and Jamal and governor Anwar Khatib – but they are not as powerful as the women, or fully capable.
R: True. Less is more. Writing about Jamal who’s humble, strong and powerful through understanding and commitment to the woman he loves. How Western culture sees Muslim culture today as patriarchal and oppressive of women is completely different than how I lived it, what I witnessed. I found religious men dignified and honest. When Jamal tells Nadia how do you want our daughter to grow up, he knew she was self-destructive. But nonetheless loved her unconditionally, despite her fragilities, and was willing to have a daughter and share a life with her.
Q: The biological father of Miral who is a professor of literature, an accomplished worldly man, is absent from the novel.
J: Yes. Men in the book are not weak or marginal. But it is the women who are the major protagonists.
Q: There’s a very feminine quality to the book, in its sensuality.
R: These are the senses of my country; I describe the poetry of living in such a place. How can you see the poetry in a war zone? I decided to look for beauty in the world, in my life. Once you look for it, you keep seeing it. I write about small hopes. It changed my life and saved me. Everyone else writes about war and violence, stones and rockets. I write about flowers, hope and love.
Q: Something very nurturing about the book in spite of pain and catastrophe. Hopeful – small hopes are everywhere. How was it, transforming the novel into a script that is intended to meet visual ends?
R: It is more difficult to write life than to live it. Primarily it was my shared understanding with the director, Julian Schnobel, about how to present each character. In Miral, the film, visually everything is present. The visual aspects are meant to describe relationships, emotions, hate, anger and passion. We needed to gain sympathy of the audience with the characters’ experiences.
The visual transformation is the director’s role. He saw my story through my eyes. It is really moving to see a Jewish director understand my story, our similarities. More than anyone else, Israelis should understand our aspiration for freedom and to have a country and home, to preserve our identity.
Q: Did you feel that the camera accurately captured the complexity of the events?
R: Absolutely. I was present for each day of filming, and during preproduction. Julian was generous to include me in the process and invite my point of view. It’s very authentic as if a local person made it. It was shot in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Tunisia and Ramallah. And the audiences who have seen it are shocked by its authenticity. If the book has touched you, the film is very similar.
Q: What’s next?
R: Working on research for a novel.
Q: Writing in English or Italian?
R: Still deciding. I don’t know where the story will take me. I know the beginning and what will go into it overall. It is different from other novels – about the relationship between media and power. I have always written in Italian. Need to decide if I will write in English this time.
Q: So this is not autobiographical?
R: I was a journalist for 16 years, so of course there is some autobiographical element. Anchormen/women have a daily struggle with power because they tell the truth, against the interests of media owners, politicians, and so on. Our main problem today is that there’s no free media. We’re overloaded with information that confuses public opinion. That’s why no one dared to tell governments anything different or oppositional about the Iraq war, that there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Questioning came two years after the war. Why didn’t anyone question earlier? How often does this happen in less high profile issues?
Q: You won an award for your Iraq reporting. What’s your analysis of how the media played along with the war?
R: If you protested the war, you were called a terrorist. I was one of a few journalists in Europe who spoke out. My only agenda was to tell the truth. I didn’t care much about what I was accused of. I was recognized for it two years later by people who came to understand the tragedy of the war and loss of life whether Iraqi civilians or others. I got an award but would rather have avoided the war than won an award. You know, I was born in Haifa, lived in an orphanage from 5 to 19 and I have come to understand that only humans are capable of making a difference, good or bad.
Q: Do you go back?
R: Every year. I love my country. The orphanage where I grew up is still there, still a place of hope for many orphans, especially girls.
Omar Khalifah is a PhD student at the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Deparment, Columbia University. He received his B.A and M.A in Arabic Language and Literature from the University of Jordan, Amman. In 2006 he received a Fulbright fellowship and started his M.A at Columbia University. Ka’annani Ana (As if I Were Myself) is Omar Khalifah’s first book. Written mostly in a first person narrative, the twelve stories of the collection take place in a real/imagined New York, with few glimpses at an Arab homeland that lurks distant and obscure.
Q: How and when did you begin writing?
OK: To be honest, I hardly wrote fiction, in Arabic when I was in Jordan. Before I came to the States I was writing more critical essays on cinema, and I published a few of them in Jordanian newspapers. I wrote a few poetry pieces, a few short stories, but I never felt like I was going to be a writer of short stories until I came to New York, which is ironic for me because I’m far from the spoken language itself. But I think one of the things that made me want to write is the fact that I want to be close to Arabic in New York – I felt nostalgia for the language.
At the time I began the first two or three stories of the book in 2007, I didn’t realize that I was writing a collection, so I just wrote things – I just felt that I had some things to say and wrote them. After a few stories, I began to feel like I was writing a book, like a whole narrative was beginning to emerge.
Q: Is this book autobiographical?
OK: This is one of the problems that I had with this book. There are twelve stories in the book, and ten of them are narrated in the first person, and most of the stories talk about someone of almost my age who came from the Middle East and experiences a new life in New York. It’s tempting for any Arab reader who knows me or who knows anything about the writer to identify the narrator with the book, which was a big concern for me, so much so that I actually censored my writing in a sense to distance myself from the narrator. In the first couple of drafts there were even more references to my real life, but after that I had to edit it more and more to create this distance. I don’t want the book to be read as only autobiographical.
But of course, this book had to be written by someone who came from the Middle East, who speaks Arabic, who experienced New York for the first time in the last couple of years. There is bound to be an autobiographical element in the book, but it’s not an autobiography.
Q: Do you have a specific audience intended for this work?
OK: I want to be read by Arabs mainly, that’s why I’m writing in Arabic. There is an audience in mind, but since it’s mainly about New York, my audience is not here and might not know what I’m writing about when I mention a name like Lincoln Center or even things happening in the subway, references that the narrator sometimes explains.
At the same time, I really want my friends who don’t know Arabic at all to read it, but at some point I was feeling that some of the things that we take for granted in Arab culture and language might sound awkward when you write them in English. At one point, I tried to edit myself a little bit, to shape my writing so that if this book were ever translated it wouldn’t sound awkward.
Q: Do you address any specifically Palestinian issues in this book?
OK: I was conscious about distancing myself from any clear political reference while writing, if that is at all possible. I want to introduce myself to Arab readers as a writer, not as a Palestinian writer, because Palestine is a privilege in a sense. If you are a Palestinian writer, people come to read you first with expectations, “where is Palestine in your writing?” Second, they privilege you. They look at you in an almost empathetic but not quite sympathetic sense. I don’t want to give myself this privilege yet. I just want to present myself as a writer who writes in Arabic with almost no Palestinian background. There are very few stories where Palestine is present. The stories could happen to any Arab or any foreigner really.
Q: Do you consider this a pan-Arab immigrant story?
OK: Any good story is a universal story. An American, someone native to New York, might not feel what I’m feeling here, but this is one of the greatest things about New York. I think anybody who comes to New York, who’s new in the city, who doesn’t know English very well (especially at the beginning of the journey), who still feels lonely in the city, might feel that these stories speak to them
At the same time, I don’t actually qualify as an Arab immigrant—I am not. I came to New York as a student, and not sure yet what to do after I finish—stay or go back. I don’t feel that I am a would-be resident in New York, which could have driven my writing toward a different atmosphere.
Q: What are your future writing plans?
OK: I’m actually waiting to see the reaction of people who might read As If I Were Myself. When you finish something, you’ve put your energy into that thing, and you want an in between time to reflect on it, to see what people might say, to benefit from their criticism. I intend to write another short story collection where I’d like to experiment more with the third person rather than the first so that it doesn’t primarily center on the narrator.
October 9, 2010