In the Country of My Dreams

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Oakland is one of the unannounced boiling pots of ethnic literatures in the United States.

Elmaz Abinader

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Wednesday, March 22 2000, 10:07 PM


Oakland is one of the unannounced boiling pots of ethnic literatures in the United States. The city's literary productivity has been announced throughout the twentieth century, but to little heed. Gertrude Stein, whose contempt for Oakland's culture was legendary, refused to see modernism in the working class ethos of the city. A writer like Danny Romero, whose neo-existentialist street prose emerges from an unhesitating engagement with the intermixed cultures of this city, finds unending experimentalism in its too-often harsh lives. This is not the gentrification of high-priced San Francisco; this is the realism of a city where problems often outpace answers.

Ethnicity and its expression constitute an experiment in memory, and Oakland's enormous diversity and continual in-migrations have contributed to a groundswell in its culture of words. Elmaz Abinader, whose 1991 book Children of the Roojme recounts her extended family memories from among Lebanese immigrants in western Pennsylvania, migrated to the city as a teacher. Abinader's voice is in many ways an example of the intertwined inflections and tones through which the force of ethnicity continually re-invents the mythical beast of 'American literature'.

The first poem of this new volume, 'We are the Nile,' almost half-consciously invokes Langston Hughes' famous lines "I've known rivers; / I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the / flow of human blood in human veins." My own family origins in Altoona tell me that here is not the voice of Abinader's Uniontown: we are far, far away. Rather, as she argues in this opening poem:

We are the Nile.

We are here now bound

in histories the precede

the very sky we recognize

and name, We are here,

our colors side-by-side fused

to one arc...

Hughes' Nile merges with the Mississippi; Abinader's Nile is a tributary of San Francisco Bay. The force that creates these mental geographies, following Yi-fu Tuan, is the force of the drive towards the cosmopolitan. The imaginative borrowings and fusings that create a cosmopolitan vitality inhabit Abinader's poetry, shaping its cross-cultural form and concerns. If historical circumstance plays its share in that shape, Abinader expresses a determination to bring personal observation and ethics to bear in creating this far-bridging cosmopolitan-ness. Oakland is neither beginning nor end, but a weaving room.

Crossing worlds by force of imagination leads to realization of that imagining. This volume is an exploration of a borderless country, a state of mind. Yet it is simultaneously a mental travelogue through the bordered countries that have lent themselves to the creation of borderlessness. A tripartite poem like "The Burden of History," for example, traverses time, geography and family generations from Baalbek, to Ellis Island, to Carmichaels, Pennsylvania in the 1990s. What remains after reading the poem is not the separateness of locales and generations, but rather their integration into a continuity. Although the narrative voice emerges from Pennsylvania, its immediacy remains far-off, for "Even now a boat crosses the ocean... / I look for the desert, the smell of heavy grapevines, / the bleached white cities." Although the boat arrived long since, the voyage has never ended. This same preoccupation with unending traverses characterizes Abinader's observations whether she watches Saudi women negotiate cultural self-alteration as they disembark from a Frankfurt-Jeddah flight or her own sense of cosmic bemusement as she stands in her parents' village overlooking Junieh Bay.

In more than one poem Abinader aligns herself with the passions of Khalil Gibran, whose immigration to the United States left him in a world of dreams. Gibran, for whom immigration was an unhappy and short exile, had nothing left in the end but those dreams. He began in America with the Sandburg-esque evocation of possibility: "It is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, / "I am the descendant of a people that builded Damascus, and Biblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, / and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.'" ("I Believe in You") Yet in the words of Fadwa Tuqan from another autobiographical context, he "entered the vast phantom world of memory." Gibran left Lebanon, but in more than one sense he never arrived in America. Abinader leaves America, but can she reach Lebanon? The trope of dreams is her search for enablement of this journey.

Dreams have their dangers; dreams have their snares of self-absorption, entrapments of inaction, and when active, perversions of realization. The Middle East of the last century has been a ground of contest for opposed dreams, often the dreams of those whose families are spread between continents. Abinader, like Gibran, has the soul of a pacifist in these conflicts. In the title poem, dedicated to Marcel Khalife and Gibran, she writes:

... a fire burns

in the country of my dreams, wicked and consuming,

flying from the hands of soldiers, from the mouths

of children who have been raised by war. Smoldering

on the lips of mothers...

...in the country

of my dreams, no one plots invasions with

armies of soldiers. From the edge

of the sea, it's our poets who set sail...

Thus the dreams that Abinader announce are those of a cultural utopianism, one that repudiates the Levant's conflicts in favor of its rich voices. In poems like "Sixty Minutes" and "Preparing for Occupation" these conflicts do find their political specification and representational identities. Abinader makes clear her opposition to Israel's occupation policies and to the exchange of violences that have defined life in Lebanon for over three decades. Equally, in a poem like "Sixty Minutes," she denies the export of that violence in the form of anti-Arab stereotype and media images unrelieved by humanity.

...You have forgotten

my small hands can grip nothing bigger than a pen

or a needle, that my eyes wander; they do not focus and aim.

But remember that I am an Arab, too, looking for a home

of my own, unoccupied, without siege. I need my fires quiet...

Abinader remains a poet in search of the quiet moment, one where a narrative of internal displacement struggles to incorporate immediate sights into brief written memory. Her language prefers the effects of simplicity and accessibility. Her meditative voice relies on a vocabulary of the instant and the quickness of a descriptive line. The latter section of the book presents this more meditative vein, often in travel poems from Guatemala and Spain where Abinader especially speculates on the consciousnesses of women. Actions and imaginative interiorities meet briefly, sometimes merging and sometimes passing each other by. In Guatemala,

...the men take cover in the hillsides

of Quiché as trucks thick and dangerous with soldiers

grind by. Colors stream down the mountains

where the pebble eyes of women stare at the empty roads.

("Living Without Guatemala")

If men disappear into the foliage hiding from other men, then women hide from them all behind their own eyes.

For Abinader, like poets engaged with their world, a local address is at best a resting point. Oakland is her port of entry into the rest of the world.

Sufi Warrior Publications, 1999 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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