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