Recommended Books by and about Arab Women

I am always asked for a list of books that are “must reads” by and about Arab women. I’m including a list below — it is an update of the list I usually hand out at my talks and readings. It is by no means complete! Email me if you have an addition or suggestion.

Abdulhadi, Rabab and Evelyn Asultany. Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging

Aboulela, Leila. The Translator and Minaret

AbuJaber, Diana. Arabian Jazz, Life Without a Recipe, The Language of Baklava,  and Crescent

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate and A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America.

Barakat, Hoda. The Stone of Laughter

Faqir, FadiaThe Cry of the Dove and Pillars of Salt

Haddad, Joumana. I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman

Handal, Nathalie. The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology

Jarrar, Randa. Him, Me, Muhammad Ali and The Map of Home

Jensen, Kim. The Woman I Left Behind. 

Lalami, Laila. The Moor’s Account and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Maznavi, Nura and Ayesha Mattu. Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women

Naber, Nadine. Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism

Serageldin, Samia. The Cairo House. 

One Maryland One Book Top Ten!

A Curious Land has been named a top-ten finalist in the One Maryland One Book Program!

The program’s 2017 theme is “Home & Belonging”. According to the Maryland Humanities Council, which sponsors the program, “Readers across Maryland suggested 140 unique titles via email and the Maryland Center for the Book Facebook page. Our committee narrowed the list to the top 10 and will select the top 3 titles in late January.”

 

Put Christ Back in Palestine

I’m interested (and amused) when Americans feel that “Christ is being removed from Christmas.” For example, expanding the winter holiday season to include non-Christian holidays, like Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and even Ramadan when it falls in the winter, is somehow an assault on Christianity.

This time of the year, I see on the news and on my Facebook feed, stories and posts about customers who are angry about Starbucks coffee cup designs, or parents who are angry that their children’s schools are having a “holiday party” or a “winter concert” rather than a Christmas celebration.

We’re so deeply invested in defending Christ, it seems, in restoring him where he belongs.

I wonder if those same people know that they should think about perhaps putting Christ back in Palestine, the birthplace of the Savior and of Christianity itself.

Yes, it’s true – Jesus Christ lived and died in Palestine, and places like Bethlehem and Nazareth are not just towns in Pennsylvania. They are real cities that are the centers of Palestinian Christian life. All those places mentioned in the New Testament, such as the Galilee, are real places, in which Palestinian Arabs still live despite a brutal occupation that has lasted over 60 years.

My parents’ hometown, al-Taybeh, is the Biblical town of Ephraim. After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus went to Ephraim to think and meditate:

Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim. (John 11:54)

Al-Taybeh, or Ephraim, is still a vibrant place, and its people and its several churches celebrate Christmas every year, along with the churches in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other towns that have Christian populations. In Ramallah, near al-Taybeh,  a large Christmas tree is erected every year, and this year it was named by the Huffington Post as one of the memorable Christmas tree displays in the world.

All of this is to say that the Middle East is more diverse than people realize. Palestinians are regularly depicted as terrorist and fanatics, out to destroy Israel. The truth is that the Palestinians have lived under a colonial occupation and have been struggling to liberate themselves from it — Muslims and Christians alike. In my collection, A Curious Land, there is a story titled, “Christmas in Palestine,” in which my main character returns to Palestine in the Christmas season and is confronted by the changes that have taken place politically since she left.

It would be refreshing for once to see American interested in restoring Christ historically. The historical Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem and in the hills of the Galilee, which are still in existence — they are not just ephemeral places without root, or just words delivered from a Sunday pulpit.

Palestinians are a wonderful, diverse, and progressive people. As Sandra Cisneros writes, in her beautiful poem, “homecoming,”  “ain’t like they say in the newspapers.”

Ruby’s Grant Awarded by the GBCA!

Many thanks to the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance for funding my new project, a novel titled Brotherly Love. The Ruby’s Awards are a special program in the Baltimore region that support many artists, writers, and filmmakers. How wonderful to live in a state that supports the arts! Special shout-out to fellow awardees, Andria Nacina Cole and Carla DuPree!

2016 American Book Awards – Acceptance Speech

Acceptance of 2016 American Book Award for A Curious Land: Stories from Home

October 30, 2016

San Francisco Jazz Center

It’s a pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you so much to the Before Columbus Foundation for this honor. This book took me eight  years to write, and I feel so grateful that my attempt to celebrate the voices of Palestinians and Palestinian Americans is being recognized with this award.

Palestinian-American literature is still growing as a genre, and I’m happy about that. Growing up, I had a hard time discussing my Palestinian heritage, mostly because people easily equated Palestine with things like terrorism. You could see it on their faces – I would say that I was Palestinian-American, and their expression would show: “Palestine… PLO…. terrorism.” That was it.

I had a college professor tell me once that there was no such thing as Palestinian people, that it was a “made up” nationality that Palestinians conveniently invented after 1948. This book is my answer to his comment, so many years later, because at 19 years old, I didn’t have the words.

And of course, as a kid I could never find Palestine on a map of the world — I still can’t — and say, “That’s Palestine. That’s where my parents came from. Right there.” That hurt in many ways, as if indeed it were something that wasn’t real.

Being a Palestinian Christian was also challenging, and still is. We get painted with the same “terrorism/ sharia law” brush as Muslim Americans. The ignorance astounds me sometimes. There is a weird disconnect from history on the part of Western Christians, who want to stereotype Arab Christians — this ancient community — people who come from places like Nazareth (Nasra), Bethlehem (Beit Lahem). They don’t understand our community but they’re ready to stereotype us.

I had a woman ask me once if I was Muslim, and I said, no that I was secular but my family was Christian, and she looked stunned and said, “Did they convert?” And I said, “No, you did.”

And of course, the elections are just a week away, and we’re breathing in the toxic air of this climate. We’re seeing more than ever, that the denigration of Arabs and Muslims is an efficient tool for politicians and some media personalities, to get noticed. To get a boost in the polls and the ratings. For some candidates, it is their entire platform, along with the denigration of our fellow Americans.

Here, I want to pay special tribute to African American writers, whose work has always served as a model for me. When I was starting out, there weren’t many examples of Palestinian American writing that were available, and I looked to African American writers to find ways of expressing my identity. The title of my boo, A Curious Land, comes from an essay by WEB DuBois, who said of the deep South in 1901, “How curious a land is this… how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter…” This quote speaks to me about Palestine as well, a land people don’t really know.

I’ve learned that, in order to change the narrative, you have to seize the narrative. And that is why this award is so special. Palestinian and Arab writers have been seizing the narrative for some time now, and the Before Columbus Foundation is one of the few organizations that has always recognized them.

Thank you to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), which awarded my book the Grace Paley Prize, which led to its publication, and to the members of my writing group – four wonderful women who read and edited every word of the original manuscript.

Thanks to my parents, who reminded me that you can love your culture but also question it, to my children, who are my source of joy, and to my husband, Elias Darraj, who has supported my writing for the last sixteen years, before I ever published anything or won anything.

Thanks to the Foundation, and to all of you. Congratulations to my fellow award winners. It’s my honor to be here with you.

 

A Rubric for Your Negative RateMyProfessors Review

Nobody in academia will admit to checking RateMyProfessors, but we all do, secretly, at night, on our smartphones.

I’ve read my reviews, and I can quote some of the lines verbatim, the way I used to memorize poetry in grade school.  My personal favorite is a flippant comment by one student: “Does she like teaching?” (This has actually become a punchline among my friends. When I am cooking, for example, my friends will whisper to each other in my kitchen, “What an attitude. Does she even like cooking?” Or at the playground, when I am reprimanding my kids for throwing sand, my colleague and fellow mom will sarcastically wonder aloud, “Does she even like children?”) One student wrote that I am a terrific professor because I don’t care when people walk in late to my class, which astounds me to have been misread like this. One review stated bluntly, “Buyer beware. Her moods seem to swing.” (I kinda love that one.)

Another student wrote that I “go out of my way” to help students, which makes me feel – honestly – fantastic.  And I’m going to do it now.

Here’s the deal: Negative reviews frustrate me, not because they are attacks on my teaching or that they hurt my feelings.

My real problem is that they’re just not written well.

As a teacher I feel compelled – even at this point, post-semester – to “go out of my way” and to give those students, who are considering writing a negative review, some advice.

So, to my students, here’s a rubric (since you’re always asking for one):

Writing Your Negative RateMyProfessors Review

Your review will be assessed according to the following standards.

The writer has a clear purpose. (worth 10 points)

 

The RateMyProfessors website tells you straight up: “the fate of future students lies in your hands.” You have been to the battlefield and returned alive, and it’s your job to persuade the rest of the troops to march on or retreat. All of your comments should focus on this goal: In a negative review, you must ensure that no student would willingly enroll in this professor’s class. Stick to that purpose – forget it not. You only have 350 characters to use in your review, so include straight-forward comments right at the beginning, such as DONT TAKE THIS PROFESSOR! (The caps will convey authority.) Or If youre in this class, drop it now! Dont wait drop it! The sense of urgency can be persuasive.

 

The writer successfully conceals his or her identity. (worth 10 points)

What’s the point of writing a negative review that gives away your identity? What if you have to take that professor’s class again, especially considering that you didn’t do so well the first time? (No, your D won’t transfer to the state university, so guess what? You’re back in my class.) Keep your identity secret. Think carefully about the way you speak or write: Are there certain phrases you repeat? Her empathy is lacking. Don’t you remember that you wrote that in your paper on whaling, that the “empathy of the whale hunters is lacking”? You don’t remember? I do.

 

In this vein, don’t mention anything exceptional that happened with that professor. Prof is totally unfair accused me of plagiarism on my Virginia Wolf paper. Me!  It’s not my fault that I still think “borrowing text” from Sparknotes.com is plagiarism: Don’t  forget that I’m old. But don’t you see how this line gives you away? Because I didn’t catch anyone else using a website meant for high schoolers. This professor thinks like Virginia Wolf is God. Yes, I do. That part is quite true. Virginia Woolf is God.

 

The writer makes sure to mention something blistering about the professor unrelated to his or her teaching. (worth 10 points)

Does your professor dress like a cougar? Or a gypsy? Or like your grandpa?  This is why they don’t get your writing because you are attired in Hollister’s fall line, your feet stuffed in your Ugg boots, and your professor looks like he shops in Goodwill. Mention it. Professor dresses like a weirdo whats up with the blazers? Shoulder pads are sooooo 90s. (Actually, they’re from the 80s.) Hello — the 70s called and they want their Birkenstocks back. RateMyProfessors advises you, in its list of tips, to “keep it profesh,” but you can still throw in something like Teacher is a dork who talks about Jane Austen EVERY SINGLE CLASS — that chick died without a husband too! That’ll get her. Let her have it – don’t feel bad… she failed you! You!

 

 

The writer thoroughly reviews all previous RateMyProfessors postings and has successfully refuted the positive ones. (worth 15 points)

 

Do your research. Your goal is to paint a thoroughly horrible portrait of this professor, so make sure nobody has made a claim that could sway the unsuspecting freshman. For example, I don’t know wtf everyone is talking about. She’s the worst. I emailed her 4 times on Saturday night and by Monday morning she still hadn’t gotten back to me. Or how about this: Not sure why everyone says hes fair. NOT TRUE! He refused to even accept my paper! How was I supposed to know it has to be typed?  It might take time to review all previous posts, but it will be worth it.

 

The writer ensures, after convincing his or her friends to also post negatively about this professor, that they all post on different dates, preferably one week apart. (worth 5 points)

 

Your friends have never had my class, but they’re loyal. Make sure you are strategic in exploiting their enthusiasm. Nothing gives you away more than having 10 negative reviews posted on the same date as yours, which might also be one day after grades come out. Offer a timeline to your friends. Carrington, you post on Monday, and then Bryce, you wait until Thursday. Got it? Take charge of the situation and make a schedule.

Also, make sure they don’t repeat the same complaints – vary them slightly. If everyone uses the same wording, as in Professor has a bit of an attitude, that indicates that all ten reviews had the same author. Not everyone uses the phrase “a bit of an attitude” – see? (Refer to #2 on the rubric, about concealing your identity.)

 

The writer successfully pretends that he or she was very interested in the class. (worth 20 points)

 

This is essential. Nothing speaks more about bad teaching than a teacher who completely ruined and destroyed a student’s genuine enthusiasm for a course. I was so excited to take this class because I love reading Shakespeare. But this professor ruined me forever for English lit. I swear I now suffer PTSD when I open any book at all. Just don’t take this one too far, or you’ll give yourself away. Nobody will believe that you were excited about English 101 or Intro to Physics.

 

The writer successfully and regularly uses slang and emoticons to express ideas that can also be better and perhaps more simply expressed in actual words. (worth 5 points)

 

Show that you know and understand your audience. UGH!!!! Hes horrible!!!!!!

 

The writer reveals information selectively. (worth 5 points)

 

Mention several times that the professor was not helpful to you. So unhelpful she doesnt even care about her students and wants us all to fail. Do not mention that you only came to class every other week, and that when you did approach the professor for help the week of finals, she did not know who you were.

 

The writer clarifies that no student can realistically achieve an A in this class. (worth 10 points)

 

It’s true, right? You didn’t take a survey or anything, but nobody who sat in the back row with you got an A, so you know for a fact that the prof doesn’t give them out. The kid with the glasses, who sat in the front and wears Old Navy probably did, but he’s a geek anyway. He’s wearing Old Navy.

 

The writer suggests that the professor should retire. (worth 10 points)

 

That’ll really burn them up.

 

 

Susan Muaddi Darraj is a college English professor who genuinely loves her students (well, 99.5% of them). Her book, A Curious Land, won the AWP Grace Paley Award for Short Fiction. She is proud to have two separate RateMyProfessor ratings because students cannot seem to spell her last name.

 

 

 

 

Words That Have Haunted Me

I was a college sophomore when I signed up for a course in Middle East history at Rutgers University. The professor was a nice enough man, but one who was not willing to talk much outside of his lectures, or who stared blankly at you when you tried to extend a conversation started in class. He taught us the basics: the rise of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, the emergence of the Ottoman empire, the impact of World War II.

And then we got to Palestine.

This was most exciting to me – I was in this class to learn about my own history, beyond the stories my parents told me, beyond the West Bank village where we vacationed in the summer, beyond the yellowed photographs my mother kept in an album.

But the professor, standing behind his lectern, said, clearly, reading right from his notes, “There was no Palestine, and there were no Palestinians.”

I raised my hand to disagree. And my nineteen-year-old self said, “But I’m Palestinian – my parents came from Palestine.”

“No, no,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling, as if he were about to tell a little kid that Santa Claus didn’t really exist. “Your parents are actually Jordanian – the Palestinians didn’t have an identity until the Israel question arose.”

I protested further, but he needed to move on. The lecture had to be delivered. And of course, he wasn’t really willing to talk much after class. Attempting to engage him in future classes was useless – I realized quickly that I annoyed him.

But his words haunted me for a long time. I felt erased, not just by him, but by the whole of academia – he spoke in such an assured and confident tone: “There were no Palestinians.” As a first generation college student, who already felt out of place on a college campus in many ways, his words added to my feelings of inadequacy.

It was most devastating because it had always been difficult, as a Palestinian-American, growing up in the United States, to talk about my ethnicity. Most people didn’t really know what Palestine was, and it’s not like I could show it to them on a map. The people who did have a glimmer of what “Palestinian” meant usually also had some negative associations with the term: terrorism, bombs, oppressed women. Those were the people who typically looked twice at me and said, “I would have never guessed you were Palestinian,” as if I were somehow the exception.

There have been other troubling words.

During a conversation about our parents, a good friend of mine once casually asked, “Aren’t Arab fathers very controlling of their daughters, and just… you know… dominating?”

Once, someone asked me “Did you convert?” when learning that my family is Christian, and then shrugged and said, “Oh right,” when I reminded them Jesus Christ was born in Palestine.

There have been comments expressing shock that my mother worked. That my father was a really nice guy. The earnest advice to “please be careful” when learning I was about to travel to the Middle East. The references to “over there.”

These words, small as they are, haunt me.

They are the outgrowth of the deeply entrenched myth in the Western mindset that Palestine was a desert, uninhabited, uncultivated, just waiting for someone to come along and make it bloom. That the Arabs who were there were a backwards people, who didn’t value life, who adhered to old, barbaric codes of living.

There have been other words, from historic figures, that have haunted me. Golda Meir’s famous comments that “There were no Palestinians…. They simply didn’t exist,” confirmed the fable that Palestinian was a made-up identity, conjured up for political purposes. Then there is her often quoted “There will be peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us,” which is horrifyingly racist.

Last week, my book, A Curious Land, was finally published. When I initially set out to write it, eight years ago, I tried to simply tell some good stories. As I created the characters and wrote the individual stories, as I wove them together, I realized that I was speaking back to the words that had haunted me for so long.

I was testifying to the existence of the Palestinian people, in Palestine, over the course of a century.

In contrast to what Golda Meir said decades ago, there will be peace only when we all learn to listen to one another’s stories and to acknowledge one another’s victories, defeats, and struggles. Words can haunt you, or they can put you in a place where you can willingly understand.

 

Winner of the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction

AWP has announced that Susan Muaddi Darraj’s book of short stories, A Curious Land: Stories from Home, has won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction.

Here’s what judge Jaime Manrique had to say about A Curious Land, which is set in both the Palestinian West Bank and in the United States: “These linked stories about the people of the village of Tel al-Hilou, and their descendants in today’s United States of America, span over a century. The author’s empathy for the large cast of embattled characters is miraculous. In particular, we get to know the quietly heroic Palestinian women in these stories as intimately as we know the people closest to us. Astonishingly, this collection is, above all, about the transformative powers of love.”

A Curious Land: Stories from Home will be published in 2015 by the University of Massachusetts Press.