On the cold, blustery evening of November 11th, the second floor of the Literati bookstore teemed with life. Coffees in hand, people sat and stood around the mic, eagerly anticipating the poetry to come. The weather hadn’t stopped anyone — the bookstore radiated a warmth of its own to juxtapose the loneliness of the night.
On this Saturday evening, three poets recited compositions as a part of Literati’s FRUIT series. FRUIT advertises itself as “a moment and a movement of reclamation,” specifically pertaining to marginalized voices in the community. This communal reading of poems seeks to highlight the struggles minorities face as a way to reclaim one’s own identity, both for the readers and the audience. In this installment, all three poets were Arab Americans, voicing their clashes with societal expectations through their words.
Alise Alousi is an award-winning Iraqi American poet based in the Detroit area. Alousi is also the director of InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a writing program for youth in Detroit, and Alternatives For Girls, a program that helps keep local girls in school. Kamelya Youssef is a young local poet born to Lebanese immigrants, as well as a student and a teacher. Tariq Luthun, a Palestinian American, is an Emmy-award winning poet and one of the founders of FRUIT.
Through their fairly abstract poetry, the speakers highlighted different facets of the same problem. Arab Americans are perceived by U.S. society in a drastically different way than they perceive themselves. This creates a poisonous environment in which Arab Americans fight to create a voice for themselves in a society that is all too eager to place them in a box. You’re either “Arab,” or you’re not; there’s very rarely an in-between.
Many argue that 9/11 was the start of this “boxing in” of Arabs. Inam Kang, one of the curators of FRUIT, mentioned that, each year, he doesn’t check the news or Facebook on the day of September 11. This national mourning for an event that at the same time perpetuates the hatred towards Arab Americans is too much for him to bear. The 2016 election, another popular topic of discussion, made this toxic environment worse. Muslims were more easily labeled as “terrorists” and antipathy towards them grew. Youssef and Luthun both spoke of trying to convince their parents that everything would be all right in the aftermath of the election. There was a chuckle from the audience when they heard this topic, but the laughter quickly died down as they realized the more serious undertone. That exact event was a scary reality for many Arab American families.
The speakers also mentioned the flip side of boxing in Arab Americans; many fall pray to the bombardment of Western culture and lose aspects of their Arab identity. This is the other category of Arab that society has created, the one that isn’t inherently “Arab” in their behaviors and practices. Yousef said, as a light skinned Arab woman coming from a less religious family, she has been placed in this category. Luthun spoke of this phenomenon as well through his poem about gathering mint leaves, a popular spice used in Arab cooking, from behind his house as a child. He saw how easy it was to run beyond the yard and ignore his cultural heritage, but he always returned back home and away from the pressure of an imposing Western society.
The poetry presented wasn’t happy, but this was exactly the intention of the speakers — to spin their poetry in a positive way would be to lie about what they, as a minority, face daily. Nothing about the stereotyping of Arabs in U.S. society, and the pressure they feel to conform to these arbitrary categories, is uplifting.
It’s easy to think of the U.S. as a melting pot of cultures. By using this term, however, we often forget that each culture contributes to the overall “pot” in uniquely different ways. And very often, many cultures are inadvertently silenced and categorized by the majority. FRUIT didn’t just give a voice to Arab Americans — it provided a space for the community to grow. We should all take a lesson from FRUIT’s book. Maybe then our society will change from merely sustaining survival for Arab Americans to, as FRUIT put it, giving them a chance to thrive.