Lalami, or your life

unneccessary woman

How do you replace a country?

By creating the fiction of a new one from the sinews of the one you lost.

Indeed, immigrants to the United States have always created a rich fictional narrative that indelibly defined their place in the sun.

So where is the great Arab American writer novelist?

Fein, oh fein?

As elucidated by Dr. Ramsy Battoum, the famous Syrio-Greek literary critic, who recently sat down for a wide ranging interview with the Paris Review:

Even if one takes into account the inevitable and ubiquitous Laila Lalami, or the sporadic Rabih Alammedine, Arab American fiction has proven to be stunted, moribund, obscure and second-rate. Compared, for example, to the extraordinary cadre of Jewish novelists who redefined American literature throughout much of the 20th century, Arab American novels have, alas, proven to be nothing more, in effect, than thinnish gruel indeed.”

Dr. Battoum, who is widely reviled in certain circles as a self-hating Moslem, continues with his interlocutor:

Just look at the work. Arab America fiction lacks originality or even basic creative vitality, despite having as monumental a subject matter as 9-11 there for the writing, which the late Norman Mailer once said would take writers at least 10 years to absorb. Well, its been 16 years, and still nothing. The Dates of Wrath is not a very good book; in fact, it is a very bad one. Arab-American novelist Raouf el Kharouf’s metaphorical idea for imagining Cairo’s Bourg mistakenly taken down by F-35s during a joint US-Egyptian training maneuver is in outrageous poor taste. The sad truth is that Arab-American literature has remained unsure of its place in the American literary firmament. Its fictional palette is derivative, its stock characters defined not by the imagination of true writers, but by hacks who seek to contextualize external political events, lament the past, or gratingly prove through forced novelistic historical marches that Arabs were part of the American experience since the days of Spanish conquistadors.”

In this inflammatory interview, which elicited howls of protest from Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen, the Egyptian Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef, and the artist known as Ganzeer, Dr. Battoum continue to harp on this theme, by making the following questionable if not libelous assertions:

“This is primarily a victim literature, unable or incapable of being truly American. For example, it’s use of American vernacular invariably feels… acquired. I’ll just leave it at that. This is not the situation with Arab-American literary or cultural criticism — Edward Said immediately jumps to mind — despite the fact that he borrowed many of his best ideas from my work.”

Holding up the coming issue of Mizna on Islamophobia, the flagship magazine for Arab-American literature, Dr. Battoumi singled out a beautiful poem called Tell Me What You See, reproduced here in its entirety.

Trans. to exquisite Arabic by Google

It’s Zareef.

Or even better, it’s Falafel Zareef.

He’s pushing his shiny cart on a busy street corner.

He’s cries out: “Felafels, felafels here!

Strangers rush by on the sidewalk.

Some of them stop by the cart.

They want a quick felafel to go.

With extra hummus.

They hand over their baladi dollars.

Thanks, they say.

But then the unimaginable happens.

After the carnage is over, the strangers turns around and stare at Zareef.

He doesn’t blend in so much any more.

He’s growing a beard, a big thick black one.

Or is he?

In the following rant, Dr. Battoum dismembers Tell Me What You See rather harshly:

As someone whose interest in literature has driven me to earn advanced degrees in Classical Philology at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford Universtiy, I summarily reject this coy poem as complete garbage. Yes, I’m cognizant of the reputation of this publication’s feminist cadre of junior editors for completely mangling submissions. Yet, shame on Mizna for accepting this sort of tripe for publication. It’s neither prose nor poetry. It is just someone sitting in a room at his computer typing. It is just something from Minnesota, like Al Franken without the laughs or the Hazelden clinic.  I have had enough of rubbish poesy from the likes of Mizna, and find that I have to look elsewhere to hear the music of the real poets of the desert; for example, there is a modern-day Bedu writer, totally uncompromised, from Trans Jordan, whose work has not yet made it to the US in translation, due to temporary difficulties with the Israelis.  His work is engaging, dynamic and not weighted down by the usual cloying aromas of couscous and Om Ali.”

Dr. Battoumi concludes his unpleasant broadsides with the following:

The wadi of Trans Jordan fiction may not be wide or deep, but nevertheless it is literature that is defined by a Hawitat writer who has some real skin in the game. He is not the product of one of those innumerable, elitist, soporific MFA programs, so popular in the US, but which genuine writers such as Carver and Cheever repeatedly dismissed in private as places more suitable for getting laid or drunk and collecting a paycheck than producing literature. Wadi Rum is this writer’s Breadloaf, and goat milk his Fullbright scholarship.”

We look forward to catching up Dr. Ramsy Battoum in his next outing, which we trust shall not be anytime soon.