to the four languages I speak: Arabic (pt. 1)

By Zoha B. Khan

When I was born, they poured Arabic into my ear,
jug-mouth to the bowl of my ear, thick and
rich and ornate, honey-sound,
the nurse-maiden with breasts heavy with Islam, my holy milk.
She is a poet’s tongue and though I am the lover
of another, I am duty-bound to admire her form, the languor
of her curves, to savor
the way her words land from fall, carpeted by their own whorls,
how they slip between my fingers, silk
stretched taut, Pashmina-ink through the rose-gold-ring of
my mouth, curling in my throat,
ballooning into sound as I breathe my voice into the alphabets,
that unfurl and coil their tails over the page,
their diamond-eyes watching, the regal swoop of the kajal,
their generous, matronly curves and open, laughing smiles, lazy discipline
in quiet control.
Sultry, the lascivious hijabi, rendered sensual by her very restraint, sinuous
within her confines,
I pull her into a dance.
She lets me twirl her around, both snake-watchful and panther-loose-limbed
sunned by my attention, spinning a maze around
my pen.
Arabic, a mystery to all who speak her, changing form from tongue
to tongue like a djinn;
Arabic, drunk under the niqab, champagne made dream made sound
made a poet’s fever dream.

Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise, a story of memory, violence, and the elusiveness of homeland

“The homeland that killed us in its name”
Fiction Book Review
by Eman M.A. Elshaikh

Iman Humaydan’s latest novel The Weight of Paradise is a poignant evocation of the fight to defend and restore memory through the cyclical violence, exile, and suffering which seeks to annihilate it. Set mostly in Beirut in 1978 and 1994, the story lives “in the heart of the apocalypse” during the Lebanese Civil War and also emerges from its debris, struggling to piece itself together into an authentic whole. In this Beirut, even small distances are difficult to traverse, as the paths are encircled with violence or buried beneath its aftermath.

“Reconstructing, reconstruction,” laments Sabah, a central character who ties together and ruptures the narrative at different points. “Every day on radio and television they talk like this, too. Maybe they want to build and construct so that people will forget.”

Indeed, the novel feels like a rejection of forgetting, as the characters in their own ways are obsessed with retrieval. The novel interrogates memory and its antagonists masterfully. It probes the process of destruction and reconstruction and the ways in which they are irretrievably bound up in death, violence, and historical revisionism. In doing so, it is an unflinching portrayal of the violence that lives alongside the characters, who “had become skilled at managing their lives in its shadow.”

Humaydan intertwines the story of Maya, a recently widowed writer and mother who returns to Beirut from Paris in 1994 following her husband’s passing, with the stories Maya finds forgotten in a suitcase in an abandoned building. In the suitcase, Maya finds Noura, Kemal, and Sabah, and she instantly becomes obsessed with unpacking their history through their photographs, letters, and diaries.

She seeks out the eccentric but heart-breaking Sabah, an older woman living alone in the old Beirut neighbourhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, waiting for her disappeared husband to return and tending to her small garden, even through bombs and gunfire. Living virtually as a recluse, she initially meets Maya with hesitation, but ultimately tells Maya about Noura and Kemal’s lives as well as her own.

Sabah’s stories and recollections provide Maya with the connective tissue that brings Noura and Kemal’s story together. She learns about Noura’s self-imposed exile from Damascus after a tragedy in her family and how this exile becomes permanent once Noura starts writing the truth about what happened. She learns about the violence that follows such truths and will stop at nothing to silence them. She learns about Kemal, Noura’s lover in Istanbul, and the fragile life they try to build together. But these stories and their tellers are often treacherous, and Maya, like Noura, fights to save truth from oblivion.

Humaydan’s main achievement with this novel, which is full of despair and yet buoyed with a promise of love and hope, is in allowing the reader to “enter history through countless endless gates,” and in doing so, reread history. It imbues the narrative with a subtle promiscuity that disrupts even the reader’s own recollection. In doing so, it forces us to confront the silences and lacunas in our stories and how they can both ruin us and save us. It is also a meditation on the dangers of invented memory and the need to bear witness always. This force is present even in the sweet love story between Noura and Kemal. In her diary, Noura writes, “with him, my doubts about history books started to gain power and take on new meaning.”

Humaydan writes in a poignant and confessional voice, which shines most brightly in the pages of Noura’s diary and the letters from Kemal, where they write about loss, violence, and lost homelands. They trace their wounds together and look for origins and resting places. In their histories, one finds Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Turks and the lands that shift and subsume them under violent nations, lamenting “the homeland that killed us in its name” and yet finding fragments of homeland scattered everywhere.

Though these deliberations on homeland and its erasure are thoughtful, there is also a questionable sense that the violence and oppression of the Middle East are somehow primordial or inevitable. The various scenes, in Damascus, Beirut, and Istanbul, are seemingly always engulfed by death and violence. In these places, both the repressive state and its resistors, both communists and capitalists alike are irrationally cruel. A looming tyrannical government occludes all individuals, who are anonymous, interchangeable, and sublimated within classes or sects. It threatens to destroy indiscriminately and without reason. Government actors, like the ubiquitous and senseless “mukhabarat” are equally anonymous and robotic, incapable of poetry and truth. Though the novel is committed to history, these places seem to exist outside of it.

Perhaps this indictment of these societies as irretrievably violent is in fact an indictment of men, who in the novel are either absent or violent. Even the boys in the novel attain masculinity through violencing women, who in turn “retaliate against oppression by oppressing themselves.” In this novel, men push women out of their homelands, punishing them for their desires and their consciousness. “Oppression pushes women to emigrate, to flee,” Noura writes, “it’s the kind of oppression that often comes in the form of a man.” Indeed, Kemal, who was dressed as a girl in early childhood in order to avoid a curse against the family’s men, seems to be the only exception.

There is no denying the beauty of the intricate lives woven together by Humaydan in this touching novel. However, in The Weight of Paradise, some of these threads are too thin. The reader is riveted by the textured inner worlds of Noura and Kemal but is left craving more of characters like Sabah and Maya. Sabah’s fascinating story still craves excavation, as her inner life remains opaque. The reader gets glimpses of her effervescence and her desire to fly and senses the decay of that spirit over time. Through the moving stories of her two lives, her desire for freedom, and her will to be a witness, the reader does not truly get a sense of her pain, but merely its imminence. Maya’s voice is poetic yet truncated, and though the backdrop of her life is sketched, the reader gets only a hazy sense of its detail. Through the suitcase, Maya inherits a reservoir of memory and seems to exist primarily to dip into it. Because of this, the novel ends before its force can be fully explored and resolved. In other words, the problem with The Weight of Paradise is that it was too brief.

The Weight of Paradise is a powerful call to question our histories, and in doing so, it is a call to question the violence that lives at the heart of it and possibly at the heart of our natures. “But this is us: we feed the poor, we laugh at a passing joke, we love, we mourn, we dance, but we also kill our neighbours in civil wars. Since we are like that, how can we describe ourselves?

Sukoon interviews Arab-American poet and scholar Mohja Kahf

Immigration, Feminism, Revolution

“What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it?” – Mohja Kahf

Rewa Zeinati: Mohja Kahf, you are a professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas. In addition to Hagar Poems, published last year by the University of Arkansas Press, you are the author of E-mails from Scheherazad, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, and Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. You were born in Damascus, Syria, to parents who immigrated to the United States in 1971 when you were almost four years old, and you spent your childhood in the Midwest. Where is home to you? And does one ever stop asking this question?

Mohja Kahf: Never. I’ve moved I count seven major times in my life, one of them a life-changing immigration about which I was too young to have an opinion. Finally I thought I had settled where I am now. I’ve been here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. But when the Syrian Revolution started, for a minute I thought I would have a chance to reverse that immigration, to go “home again,” and I knew I was ready to take that chance. To leave everything again. But of course there is no “home again—” and for Syrians, that is now true in a particularly painful way. But the Syria-hope the Syria-chance shook me up from my illusory settledness and now I know I also am not home yet. I need still to find what I want and seek it and make it home as best I can.

RZ: Your poems explore themes of Arab identity, Muslim identity, and feminist politics. How important is religion to one’s sense of identity?

MK: Well, it varies depending on the person, of course. How important is it to mine has evolved over time. For the last sixteen years in the U.S., however, I’ve found that even though I’ve been ready to talk from another speaking position, something besides religious affiliation, the world keeps wanting to hear me speak as a “Muslim feminist” or “Muslim American.” There is work needing to be done there and I happen to be equipped with the tools for it and so I keep getting pulled back to shoulder some of that work, although I have other work going on to which I also devote energy and wish to see realized. So for example, will I ever be able to publish just a manuscript of love poems? Without bagging it as “Muslim woman love poems?” Hey, I have the manuscript—somebody find me a publisher please.

RZ: The poems you are sharing with us in the current edition of Sukoon are stylistically quite different from your previous poems. What compelled the change?

MK: Two things. I went to a poetry reading where a poet had “list poems,” and the experience sort of challenged me to write list poems. And secondly, Syria and silence. Meaning, I was at the end of my ability to speak about Syria. An impasse. No sentences were getting through. I was at the end of my belief in the efficacy of language, almost. I felt the end in sight of the vocation of writing, almost. What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it? need all three components: text, sender, recipient – need someone at the other end to hear what someone sends out into the world, to hear responsively. In Syria, by the regime for decades, language and narrative and expressive function has been so utterly abused and distorted. And then, regarding Syria in the world, the expressive function of language and writing, also so abused and distorted. So this “list poem encounter” seemed to come just then as a possible path out of my impasse. Cut through all that. Forget syntax. Forget grammar which has been manipulated to obscure truths. Let go and sink down to the level of words. Broken words. One word at a time, one phrase at most, like what would be the only units one could manage to get out if one were being strangled or bled out and lay gasping. Just one word, then another. Get it out. Articulate through inarticulateness. If you can do nothing else. Those are gasp poems. Gasp. Syria. Blood. Betrayal. Gasp. I’m too broken to do more than a one-word line. Take it. Gasp. Make sense of it. Carry it on to the next. Gasp. Run. Gasp.

RZ: Your latest book, Hagar Poems , is a collection written over the course of 20 years. Many of the pieces were written in the ‘90s, but some were written not too long before the date of publication. Tell us about your experience writing this book, and why it took so long to complete. When is a manuscript ever complete?

MK: You’re kind and attentive to have read it and paid attention to such detail as the dates. It’s not complete; it’s never complete. For starters, there are specifically two more good Hajar poems I wish I had not culled out of it. I had forgotten those two set aside and wish I’d put them back in time. There was a third put-aside poem that I managed to get back into the manuscript before publication. Then there are other poems I had pulled out that maybe were not as strong. I pruned and culled for years, decades, because I wanted it to get published; earlier versions of the manuscript were rejected for publication over the years. All the while, up to a certain point in time, I was also adding more Hajar poems (and then pruning and culling from those too).

I first encountered Hajar when my first baby got sick and had a febrile seizure—first time I had seen one, terrifying. Here’s this baby, this life, and you are responsible for keeping it alive, and it’s 3am and where did everyone go? I felt abandoned, tricked, like, this is the fine print of the family program that you signed, get married have a baby, but nobody mentioned you how poor you’re going to be and how alone even if married, with the nature of patriarchy and with immigration and today’s mobility and the global economic system and the lack of universal healthcare all stripping you of those people who might have been around to help in another kind of world. When I woke up from that, I thought, damn, we have glossed over Hajar’s story. There is no way it is as sugar-coated as we learn it in the tradition. We had to silence a whole lot of it to just fast-forward from her in the desert alone with her child and desperate to, bingo, whatever platitudes the traditional view gets out of it wrapped up in a bow. Let me unwrap this bow. I want to cut it to shreds. The bits of text about Hajar in the various scriptures are elliptical and cryptic enough to allow for imaginative spaces; you can cut in and interpolate in ways the traditional readings of the texts do not.

And once you start with Hajar, the same project is waiting to be done with so many other figures. Some other figures pulled me over the years and I spent some time on Maryam, on Asiya, on Balqis. But hey everyone, be my guest, there is an endless amount of reconfiguring that could happen with Hajar and her sisters, and with countless other matter of old, if it happens to grab you anew.

And as for the appropriateness of doing that (I guess it’s to the conservative readership I say this bit), well, if it is not there in order to grab us anew, what is it there for?

RZ: Tell us about your experience writing the sex column Ask Mohja, for the website Muslim Wake up! How did the idea come about?

MK: Well, those were a heady few minutes, hah. The column wasn’t called “Ask Mohja;” it was actually called “Sex and the Ummah,” and I was one of two columnists who were supposed to alternate, but it ended up being mostly me, and then some guest columnists I pulled in to try to still have alternating voices. I am delighted to say that it was the place where one of Randa Jarrar’s fabulous short stories was first published, as a guest column. It somehow got tagged in people’s minds as a “sex advice column,” but it was never that – it was a sexually themed fiction column, is all, mostly fiction pieces, although one time I did pull in a “sex advice” guest column by a gynecologist, a Palestinian American feminist. I had sent in “Little Mosque Poems” to the MuslimWakeUp!.com website editors to start with, in a spirit of feminist Muslim self-critique. An then they and I started conversing, and one of our conversations was about how there’s this Muslim belief that Islam is a sex-positive religion, and then there’s this modern stereotype of Islam as sexually repressive, and the truths are so much richer and more varying than those two positions, so what about exploring the gap between these ideas by delving into sexual experiences from a “Muslim angle” whatever that may mean.

Then there was Abu Ghraib, the exposure of sexual abuse there by U.S. soldiers, and that deflated my joy in doing the column.

What deflated it also was my sense that white readerships wanted to exploit the idea for the wrong reasons, Orientalist reasons. I started getting offers from agents who were interested for all the wrong, imperialist cultural politics, reasons. Well, I had received a death threat from an Islamic extremist reader, and so of course that attracted all the would-be makers of a new neo-con Muslim woman voice or something. And that was not a direction I wanted to go, ever. Man, I coulda been a star if I’d gone that direction, I coulda been rich! Haha.

The whole endeavor of the website was one of progressive Muslims self-critique and of Muslims critiquing conservative Muslim discourse, and that is a project I support. But a few of the writers started going in the direction where “progressive” meant “be a tool of imperialist cultural politics,” not progressive at all, not in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people intersectionally. Just a tiny number, but they got a lot of press. It dampened my enthusiasm for being there with them under that “progressive” label.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers? Especially women writers of color?

MK: Give yourself time to take care of your Self. Give your Self space for creativity. Don’t fill your life with people who won’t nourish you. Remove soul-crushers from your daily life. Also, the people with whom you exchange energies most, their world view will try enter yours, so be careful what you let enter, where you work, where you live. In this white supremacist structure of our times, it is easy as a woman of color to be pushed to be what the structure needs, but is it what You need? What do You need and want? Seek that. This is all advice that I am constantly having to give my Self.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

Tremendously important. Without them we would just have those bigger journals that can get bigger money. We would have fewer and narrower channels where expression must be funneled. With them, we have multitudinous avenues for a multiplicity of voices and audiences. Without a reader goading it on, wanting it, a poem can wither and die. And with a reader who wants only certain kinds of poems, only certain kinds of poems will be written and see publication. The small literary journals find readers who are hungry for just that unexpected poetry but didn’t know what it was until they encountered it.


RZ: What are you working on right on?

MK: A volume of poetry about Syria, about the Syrian Revolution. For whoever will listen. For us, Syrians, if no one else.

Look, I’m sorry if the Syrian Revolution reads to the world’s progressives and leftist only as a conspiracy for rightist and imperialist agendas. It seems like I have to apologize for the existence of Syrians who do actually suffer the enormous human rights abuses of the Assad regime, to apologize for this to a world that does not want to hear this because it doesn’t fit current progressive agendas. The fact that Syrians are also getting abused by the Islamist extremists who are manipulating the grassroots protest movement for their own ends and in turn getting manipulated by regional and world powers only makes it more urgent that the original Syrian grassroots civilian uprising be recognized and respected. Just because the Syrian uprising doesn’t fit what progressives thought about the regime, doesn’t mean the human rights abuse doesn’t exist. Deal with that. Change your eye to adjust to the fact of our existence as Syrians. I say that, while doing internal critique of those Syrians who are selling out the Syrian Revolution to rightist agendas. My poetry on the Syrian Revolution is my own attempt to deal with the multiple silencing of Syrians, by the regime for five decades, by the right and left globally, by each other. Things grew to such a pass that a Syrian cannot find a space to speak amid so many different kinds of silencing. For a while I was so disheartened in so many ways internal and external that I stopped writing Syria altogether. It seemed so futile wherever one turned, like pounding on a thick beveled glass wall that was soundproof. What was the point of any writing at all? Fuck that; I’m back. Publish me.

Interview with Sam Hamod

By Rewa Zeinati

Language, Music, Prayer

Rewa Zeinati: A prolific poet, a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, a critical political writer, a healer, an editor, a professor, a blues musician and singer, a spiritual, multifaceted and interfaith religious Muslim leader who ran The Islamic Center in Washington, DC; founder of the internationally acclaimed, Third World News in Washington DC, Ph.D. from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop where you taught and studied—your teaching career also spanning over Princeton, Michigan, Wisconsin, Howard and more—and since the 1960s you’ve published ten books and have appeared in over 200 anthologies of literature worldwide. You are the founder of Contemporary World Poetry Journal- publishing distinct and diverse international voices in poetry. What drives you on?

Sam Hamod: Rainer Maria Rilke, the great German poet said, “You do not choose poetry, it chooses you.” In my case, I feel that he was correct, that and in the plans of Allah, I became a poet and continue to write; not all by my choosing. If you had asked me when I was young, or even in my early 20s if I’d like to be a poet, I would have said you were crazy.
I am driven by the desire to do the things I want to do, and to add positive things and matter to society. I also feel very blessed. As for my journals, I founded them, Third World News (a weekly and bi weekly newspaper in Washington, DC, which I founded in late 1980-81, I started that newspaper because I felt there were no media voices for the Arabs or Islam, but then I also found out that other third world people needed a voice, so I included those from South America, Asia, Africa and elsewhere); my websites, www.todaysalternativenews.com was a child of Third World News online, but I also used it to speak against the West’s wars against Islam and the Third World, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I started the two literary sites, Contemporaryworldliterature and Contemporaryworldpoetry so that we could publish good quality writers in their own script from around the world. I want to be a “world poet,” and want to publish world-class writers, not just ethnic or weak writers who “lean” on their culture but do not write good poems within or about it.
Incidentally, I have a strong background in rhetorical theory and practice, and even published a paper many years ago, on Arab and Islamic Rhetorical Theory and Practice, A Brief Overview, in 1963.

RZ: Your poetry is rich in language, music, prayer, sound, smells, and scenes, from your country of origin, Lebanon, as well as the Middle East. How difficult/easy was the transition from Lebanon to the US, where you adopted a new culture, new music, new sounds, smells, scenes?

SH: Actually, I was born in Gary, Indiana, but in the house we were in Lebanon, but outside our door, we were in America; thus, in my life, I always lived in at least 2 worlds. I never saw them as a conflict, but as an asset, they complemented one another as far as my vision and understanding was concerned.
I grew up with poor parents, my father and mother ran a boarding house hotel; we lived there and shared it with 40 men from around the world. The men had come to work in the steel mills and railroads around Gary and Chicago. So, I got to hear all these foreign Slavic, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Indian, and other languages as a child, until I was 5 years old. Then my father opened a business in an African-American area, where I heard the blues, and learned different American dialects until I was a teenager when he left that business.
I’ve loved all the Arab sounds, smells, foods, music, culture since I was a kid; we used to go to a small mosque in Michigan City, Indiana many Sundays where we’d learn Arabic and hear discussions about the Qur’an and Islam My grandfather, Hajj Abbass Habhab, was the first émigré to America who went on the Hajj from America. Thus, I had a strong Islamic, Arab background. Later, in the 1960s, my father, Hajj Hussein Hamode Subh, aka Sam Hamod, built a mosque, Mosque El Amin in Gary, Indiana; it became the founding home for the MSA Muslim Students Association, and that later morphed into ISNA. In the 1980s, I became the Director of The Islamic Center in Washington, DC, when it was the focal point of Islam in North America.
I enjoyed it all, all aspects, the good and the bad, but I always trusted in Allah no matter what happened. I learned this from my mother, Zinab Habhab Hamod, though she was no Hajj, she was always a Hajj in her heart and had the strongest belief and appreciation of the gifts of Allah of anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve met hundreds of thousands of Muslims and others, but her example and wisdom sustained me through the best and worst of times.

RZ: How has being uprooted from a home country shaped your craft?

SH: My poems come from my heart and experiences; I might see a line or a word, then suddenly a poem starts to come through me. All my life, I’ve always lived in the USA and in Leb’nan, though I wasn’t there in person all the time, I’ve always kept my heart there; thus, there has been no split in me, just double vision, and more. But, I do get upset when I see the fighting between groups in Lebanon; when I was young and went there, everyone was a “cousin” or “brother” to everyone else. Let us hope this fellowship and brotherhood returns, not only in Leb’nan but elsewhere in the Muslim and Arab world.
I am very influenced by what I felt were the great poems of Islamic Spain, Lorca, Darwish, Rumi, Neruda and those who write from their hearts of justice, love, passion and the beauty Allah has bestowed on mankind in the world.

RZ: You’ve said once, ‘At times, I want to speak only of poems, not of “ethnic poems.” But in truth our ethnicity helps shape the way we see and the way we write—so it is a part of what our poems are made of. But a poem cannot lean on its ethnicity in order to keep from falling—a poem must be a good poem on its own.’ What makes a good poem? What makes great poetry?

SH: Yes, I still hold with that statement; we should not “lean” on our ethnic background, but use it as a source, so that it informs who we are, and the emotion should come through in the passion of our poem, but we should not think that a poem is good just because it speaks of our ethnic background or concerns.
As to what a good or great poem is:
A good to great poem should give you an insight, but must be ineffable, that is, no matter how much you like to explain the poem, it will be more than your word, because of the way it moves with language, sound, smell, feeling and the way it makes you feel and realize something in a way that is deeper than you have felt or understood something before reading that poem. A poem may be great if it is only 2 or 3 lines long, or 30 pages long, length is not a determining factor;
Great poetry can be seen in the work of Lorca, Darwish, Qabbani, Adonis, Neruda, Hafiz, Rumi, Hikmet, Eluard, Borges, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and such American poets as the late James Wright, Ethridge Knight, Robert Hayden and such poets alive as Amiri Baraka (no longer with us, may he rest in peace) and Sonia Sanchez .

RZ: After attending Law School at The University of Chicago then returning to Gary to open The Broadway Lounge, where you hired blues giants such as B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Red Foxx, and others to perform, you must’ve been saturated in African American culture where jazz and blues took center stage. You play jazz and sing the blues professionally yourself. You were a poet who carried a 38, a 32 and a 25 calibre Browning. When did you decide you needed to shift gears and change paths? And why?

SH: I went into the bar business in order to keep my father from going back into that business. He had killed a man in self-defense, but I was afraid if he went back, someone might try to take revenge on him, even though he had not been at fault. I didn’t want to open the bar, but my father insisted, so I left law school to protect him and our family. I enjoyed the people, the musicians, and I enjoyed singing with them, because I’d grown up with blues music and jazz. But after 2 years of that I decided that I should leave and become a professor. We had an offer to sell the bar, but my father didn’t want to; he wanted to take it over, so I gave it to him and left, feeling I had done all I could do and felt that if I stayed, after time, someone would either shoot me or I might shoot someone because the economy was getting worse, and I felt myself getting “cold” inside, and I didn’t want that to happen. It was good, but like other things in my life, I decided it was time to move on, and I’m happy I did; it was for the best.

RZ: While growing up, who shaped and affected your writing the most?

SH: I think it was listening to the stories the men all told us at the hotel, my immigrants from South America, Mexico, Europe, Asia, friends of my father from the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, etc.), and the Americans, especially those who were “hillbillies,” from Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina and Louisiana, as well as stories from my uncles who served in WWII, and the other immigrants I met while growing up. I think the sense of hearing stories, so that I was driven more from “hearing” and “speaking” the sense of “voice”, rather than reading literature that shaped my way of writing. Interestingly, I started college as a business major, but changed into Speech Communications in my junior year at Northwestern University; thus, I have always been more attuned to the oral tradition than the written tradition. But, if you look at the history of great literature, the best poetry always survived best when it would stand up through hearing it aloud (Whitman, Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, Darwish, Lorca, etc.).
Also, with the voice, you always listen for the emotion; then, as a poet, you want to get that emotion into your poems.
I think that music also influenced the way I write; there has to be a lot of rhythm and music through language in my poems. I say this because English is a flat language and you have to create the music in your work to make it come alive. The poems for Ella and Joe Williams, “Joe Williams at the Blue Note” show best what I’m talking about in terms of music; the poem, “Dying with the Wrong Name” best exemplifies my work within Arab/American/Islamic culture in terms of language, food, etc. as does “After the Funeral of Hamad Assam,” (originally published by Perishable Press, After the Funeral of Assam Hamady), where the Muslim prayer, Al Fati’ha’ is in the middle of the poem and necessary to the poem. I deal with the cultural matters in other poems such as “Lines to my Father.” etc.

RZ: You are a descendant of Muslim Lebanese parents, where your faith played a large part in your writing. You were also open to many religious experiences like the Moorish Science Temple and various Muslim sects. How important is it, as an artist, to be open to so many different faiths and cultures and belief systems?
SH: It was always in my nature to learn what I could about everything, whether it was someone else’s culture, religion, food, music, or how to change a washer in a faucet or how to build a house or fix a car. I’ve been taken always by the fact that so many of the world’s great religions, have all pointed to One God, as I’ve found most people are pretty good people; thus, I see the good, and the similarities among people and religions, not the differences.

RZ: What inspires you?

SH: Everything, especially being alive. Each day, each event, different people, different moments, different lines, different poems, stories, songs, sunsets, birds, trees, walking, making love, a beautiful smile, a child’s laughter—just all the things of life inspire me. The poems come from everywhere, but behind it all is Allah. Even doing this interview is inspiring in its own way, but it’s hard to choose poems to send you. You always want to send your very best, but you hope that you next poem will even be better, and at times, the poem that come next is.
Great love and great tragedy, and the possibilities of love and beauty are all inspiring all the time.

RZ: Why did you feel it necessary to establish the platform: Contemporary World Poetry Journal?

SH: As I said earlier, I wanted a truly international journal with excellent writing. [We] had a good response from all over the world with the platform and the other one, www.contemporaryworldliterature.com
No one else had done what we did, but I hope they do; the more good poetry and literature in the world, the better. We never compete with anyone else, only with ourselves to do the best we can, and hope that others add to the beauty and literature of the world, so that we all gain. It is my hope that your magazine will prosper and grow, and grow and grow.

RZ: What do you think of Arab writers who can only write in English? Do you think they owe their heritage the ability to express, and the insistence upon expressing, themselves in Arabic as well?

SH: No, I think a writer should write in the language he or she is most comfortable in. I’ve seen too many who want to write in both languages, but one or the other is stilted. Your first major language that you hear or speak or work with seems to work best. Even among translators I’ve known, they work best in one of their languages when they write poems or stories not in all. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally I’ve found this to be true.
And, because I prefer to be a world class poet, of Arab Muslim extraction, I don’t want to be limited to be just “an Arab or Muslim poet”; I feel Lorca, Darwish, Neruda exceeded their ethnic backgrounds to be great poets, not just Spanish, Palestinian or Chilean poets; we of a certain background, and we carry that within us and it “informs” who we are, but we are also of the larger world, and must live in the larger world, not be restricted to where we came from; as poets, we must travel poetically as Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo traveled in the world.

RZ: What are you working on now?

SH: It seems I’m trying to finish my memoirs, and have part of them done, and will send you part of it if you wish. The first part is called, “At the Broadway Lounge,” but other parts are underway.
But poems keep getting in the way, as does spring, the beauty of each day, just walking in the sun, or swimming or reading or just the daily matter of keeping up with bills, taxes and life. But I don’t want to miss any of this.
But my major focus now must be on finishing my memoirs otherwise certain things about Islam in America, Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Farrakkhan will never be known, or certain Islamic organizations that preceded the MSA and ISNA, etc. I have this obligation in my life, and inshallah I shall be able to finish it well.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

SH: Journals are important if they are good; if they are mediocre, then they are a waste of trees and time, and they add to the distractions of life.

RZ: What advice would you offer emerging writers? (Or musicians for that matter!)

SH: Hope for Allah’s help in whatever you do, and always write or sing from your soul. To become a great writer or musician, you have to have something to say.
Thus, I’d say it is better to live a lot, not go from a B.A. to an MFA because you will rarely have had experiences deep or varied enough to become a good or great writer.
If you listen to B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Joe William, or hear or read Lorca, Darwish, Neruda, Baraka, you will know they’ve lived that life, they are telling you their life, their deep experiences, not some novelty or technique, but something from their soul.
The next best thing to do is to read good writers, great writers, and listen to good and great music, whether it be blues or Um Kulthm, or Fairouz, or listen to a mountain wedding music in Leb’nan or Morocco, or Turkey, an “atabee”, or “taksim” or whatever that will grab your heart and soul, then go on and live, and then write.