Sukoon Interviews Lilas Taha author of Bitter Almonds

Rewa Zeinati: Lilas Taha, congratulations on winning the 2017 International Book Awards for your book entitled Bitter Almonds, published by Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press. Tell us a little about the process of starting the idea for this book, up until the moment it was published and then nominated for an award.

Lilas Taha: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my book and writing journey.

As a child of a Palestinian refugee father, I always wanted to tell the story of what happened to his generation—scream it out loud, if I could. Anger and frustration at the injustice of it all accompanied me through the years, much like most Palestinians who grew up watching their parent(s) try to move forward, while clinging to a land—a world—often described as perfect or magical, yet unreachable. Living in exile, my father carried his Palestine in his heart and managed to plant its seeds in mine and my brother’s. Hope flourished, and I arrived to adulthood determined to do the same for my children.

On my father’s last visit to me in the US, however, I saw something different in his eyes, a lack of luster, something was missing. After being displaced three times in his life, hope deserted him. That realization hit me very hard, and I struggled to engage him, to bring him back from the brink of despair. It pained me to see him that way; knowing he would not return to his beloved Palestine. So I started writing about his familiar world, involving him in discussions and challenging him to express more, talk more, remember more. Our daily sessions, when I read to him what I’ve written the night before, became our time together. We argued a lot, stepped into dangerous emotional zones often, and sometimes, we sailed into happy places. I wanted to create characters he could connect to and care about, and describe events as he and others in his generation experienced them, not as history books recorded them. That was my goal, and that’s how Bitter Almonds was born.

It took me a year to write the story and I was on my final edits when a lady, who had read my first book Shadows of Damascus, attended a writer’s event in Kuwait and mentioned my work to one of the editors present. At the time, Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press was under the umbrella of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishers. The editor got in touch with me, and I sent her my manuscript for Bitter Almonds. A publication contract followed. The book was released world-wide, translated into the Norwegian language, and will come out in Arabic translation January, 2018.

Being nominated for, and winning, the 2017 International Book Awards in the Multicultural Fiction category provides wonderful exposure and is definitely the icing on the cake.

RZ: Your novel is thematically, among other things, about displacement and exile. How do these themes tie into your own life and experiences?

LT: I grew up in Kuwait among a mix of Arab nationalities. I spent most summer vacations in Syria with my mother’s family and my father’s relatives who settled there after their removal from Palestine in 1948. I was fortunate to absorb all cultures, but there was always a sense of being in transition, functioning in temporary mode: living in one place where my parents worked (Kuwait), visiting another where most members of my family lived (Syria), and yearning for a land I never experienced (Palestine).

With the Gulf War, I lost the patch of stability I was floating on. Through difficult circumstances, I ended up in a new land (US) speaking a different language. I pursued my studies, married a wonderful man—a Palestinian—and tried to build a secure future and a family. Eventually, my parents joined me, but by then, they had to resettle again (Jordan). And after the war in Syria erupted, some members of my mother’s family also became refugees. So displacement and exile were persistent companions in my life.

RZ: You are an electrical engineer by training and you mention that creative writing is your passion. Why didn’t you pursue this passion earlier on?

LT: Ever since I was a child, I’ve written short stories and personal reflections, but always in Arabic, and I never really entertained the idea of publication. I kept it as a hobby as I earned my engineering degrees and raised a family. Writing took me to my comfort zone, a respite from the stresses of life, and it stayed as a personal escape tool.

When the sad events started unraveling in Syria in 2011, the uncertainty and worry about my relatives frustrated me to the point that I started writing a story to reflect my emotional upheaval, but I used the English language for the first time. With persistent support from my husband and friends, I joined a writer’s guild and read parts of the story to the mix of writers. Their feedback was surprisingly positive, which encouraged me to keep writing in English and, a year later, I had a published novel. Bitter Almonds came next accompanied by my desire to join writers who shine a light on the Palestinian struggle and other issues pertaining to the Middle East for readers in the west.

I can’t see myself not writing. In an irrational way, I think of myself a girl hugging her security blanket. I hope to be able to stay on this writing track, perhaps publishing original works in Arabic, too.

RZ: What was/is the most terrifying part about your writing journey? Its beginning, or now? Or both?

LT: I don’t think it is the beginning. When I started this journey, I really had no clue what the writing and publishing worlds are like. Don’t they say ignorance is a bliss? I can relate to that. I just pushed forward, learning as I go, and the more information I gathered, the more aware I became of how rocky this path is. After all the hard work I pour into a book—my baby—I let go of it for readers to judge and criticize. There are no training wheels to gradually lift from its bike, no kindergarten to slowly remove it from my care. Once my book is released, the baby suddenly becomes an adult.

Therefore, I’m in constant learning mode. I want to produce a better product, a higher quality book, a more expressive novel. I don’t believe there’s an end of a road for a writer. There’s no ultimate goal to reach. That in itself brings me to the terrified state.

RZ: Your book is dedicated to the loving memory of your father. Tell us a little more about that.

LT: I’ve explained how I started writing Bitter Almonds to engage my father. Sadly, he passed away about three weeks before I signed the publishing contract, so he never really knew I got the story out. But I believe he is smiling at me from his special place up above, perhaps with a new twinkle in his eye.

RZ: You’ve moved around a lot while growing up. What or where is ‘home’ to you?

LT: Although I have many places where I feel at home, in my mind and heart, the absolute definition of home has always been Palestine, a place I had only heard and read about growing up, but didn’t have the chance to see until fairly recently as an adult. Palestine holds a powerful grip on my emotions and imagination.

My Arabic dialect is colored by my mother’s Syrian accent, and sometimes I surprise people when I passionately talk Palestinian, even have my sincerity brushed aside because of it. That infuriates me. The feeling of being Palestinian has been talked about in so many ways, and written in plenty of poetry, wonderful books and articles. Yet, I think it’s an indescribable state of existence. All we can do is hold on to it, try to creatively express it, and pass it on to the next generation.

Just as my mother instilled in me her fabulous culture and values, of which I am very proud, my father did the same, and the both of them together created a special environment independent of the geographical location where we actually lived. My husband and I tried to do the same for our children living in the US.

Spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually speaking, Palestine was always, still is, and will forever be my true home.

RZ: Would you describe Bitter Almonds as more of a political story or more of a love story? Or maybe love is political anyway?

LT: I would describe it as a human story at the center of a political pie with a slice of love, a dose of culture, a pinch of history, and a dash of hope. I don’t believe that romantic love solely transcends borders and politics, for I see love of country and homeland is just as enchanting.

RZ: Are any of the characters in your novel based on, or inspired by, people you’ve met or know personally?

LT: The simple and straight forward answer is no. There isn’t a specific character based on someone I know or met. But I used my experiences with the people in my life to see my characters with clarity and shape them to the way they turned out. My father’s personality was very complex, and I borrowed some of his traits to create both Omar and Marwan in Bitter Almonds, so in a way, their combined personalities were inspired by some of my father’s attributes.

Additionally, I’ve always admired the sincerity of my teachers, and the ingenuity and strength of the women in my family, starting with my mother’s ability to always see the big picture. I drew on all of that to develop the different female characters in the book.

RZ: You were born in Kuwait to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father, and you left for the United States after the Gulf War. Tell us a little about your experience living in the US, in terms of identity, exile, “otherness” and/or belonging.

LT: Although I was exposed to the western world as a child through trips to Europe that my parents took us on, I experienced cultural shock just like every immigrant who arrived to the New World. At first, everything was difficult. I missed moving within a big homogeneous community. The little things I took for granted became very important and even essential. I longed for the smells, sounds, and tastes of the Middle East. I remember I had a panic attack the first time I talked one-on-one with my professor when I was studying for my master’s degree.

As time went on, I eased into American life, graduated, married, and moved to another state to start a family. My husband and I made the effort to keep our children within a sphere that combined mainstream America and the Arab American community around us. Furthermore, living in the big mix of ethnicities and backgrounds of the US helped me to assimilate while proudly maintaining my cultural heritage.

The sense of being an outsider diminished, but it didn’t completely disappear. I’m thankful for that. I know where I belong, but of all the places I lived in, I’m not sure where I don’t belong.

RZ: What advise would you give budding writers who might be afraid of pursuing this path?

LT: Don’t write as if someone is looking over your shoulder. Write what you want, more so if it is difficult and thorny. Write what is begging to be released, and be patient, for a writer’s vehicle moves slowly. Don’t let your ego stand in the way of improvement, and always, always, seek honest feedback.

RZ: Which writers were you influenced by while growing up? Which writers are you drawn to now?

LT: Growing up, I read most books by the known Arab geniuses, namely Naguib Mahfouz, Ghassan Kanafani, Taha Hussein, Gibran Khalil Gibran, Anis Mansour and many more. I also read a good number of the translated literary classics for western writers like Earnest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Jane Austin, the Brontë sisters, and Leo Tolstoy to name a few. As I gained more command of the English language, I re-read those classics in English, which provided me with additional levels of enjoyment and different angles of understanding for the same books.

Currently, I’m drawn to Arab writers such as Susan Abulhawa and Saud Alsanousi. Other writers I like are Khaled Hosseini, and Jodi Picoult.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

LT: I’m working on two novels in parallel. Something I haven’t attempted before. One is a sequel to my third novel, which will hopefully come out next year. The plot is current in time and it deals with American Palestinians connecting with their roots and themes relating to resistance.

The other novel I’m working on explores a rarely touched topic of Palestinian life, and is entirely set in the Middle East.







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.

Two poems by Mohja Kahf

Flora Fauna Syria
By Mohja Kahf

plum trees
cherry trees
janeric trees
like me, like you
Syrian LGBTQ
police brutality
Razan Ghazzawi
free press
student protest
city protest
water hoses
electrocuting billyclubs
live fire
laurel trees
laurel soap she handmade
mama, what he brought me
crates of grapes
and underneath the grapes,
my love packed the apple crates
starvation sieges
Yarmouk, Khaled
Ferguson, Michael
Daraya, Ghiyath
water bottles
Standing Rock
truckbed of eggplants
Tianenmen Square
Tahrir Square
Daraa al-Balad
Clock Tower Square
Bayda village
I am a free woman, daughter of a free woman
local bodies
local council
solar panels
Adra Women’s Prison
torture tire
Razan Zeitouneh
cats of Douma
olive tree
holy sea
rape farms
field clinics
field morgues
torched crops
scorched lungs
mate tea
wheat fields
I am a human being
almond trees
quince trees
walnut trees
laurel trees
laurel soap she handmade
and underneath the crate of grapes
my love packed the apple crates

Aleppo the Necklace Broke All the Words Fell Apart
By Mohja Kahf

my spine
pine nuts
they have taken the one I love
sworn to me
evil eye
tiny blue buttons
earlobe soft flesh
thin gold hoop
blood river
seeron ahkchig
a dream in quarter tones
lowered lashes
bone juts wound pus
gouged gagged
Aleppo love
answer me
amaun, amaun
Halab Halab

Suffer the Little Children

By Marguerite Bouvard

It took me too many days to muster the courage
to pick up the newspaper with the front-page photo
of Abu Anas Ishara’s three-year-old daughter
half naked, her sweet face held in a scream
of extreme pain and confusion
from yet another chemical shell
that landed on her house
enveloping her parents and her newly born
sister in dust and foul smelling
smoke. Her scream remains
without answer, with no arms
to hold her, no medical care in Marea. Her skin
carries the map of a country that pundits
discuss from afar and disagree
among themselves according to their
own needs. But her scream will not
go away. Her pain will travel
like the clouds sweeping across
the sky and when it finds the open
chambers of a heart, it will be bathed
in tears, it will be answered by
a mother’s loving voice.

Marea is an agricultural village in Syria


By Marguerite G. Bouvard

the cradle of ancient civilizations
where monuments inspired by
Greco-Romans and Persians
hold up the sky, and time

stands still, when my hands can’t
reach out or encircle the children
who were unable to flee
or to rebuild the walls of bombed out

houses, are unable to light
candles of hope when night and day
are reversed, and a woman who was a wife
and mother lies on the cobbled street

her blood leaving its marks,
while the blind-hearted man
who destroyed so many names
and faces turns away with his rifle

cocked, believes that he is cleansing
Syria in a holy war, cloaked
in ideology, exchanging
a slogan for his soul.