Keeping "An Ear to the Ground"

Mona Fayad

Edited by Scott C. Davis. An Ear to the Ground: Presenting Writers from 2 Coasts. Cune. Seattle, WA. 1997. 492 pages, ISBN 1-885942-56-7. $19.95

Picking up the anthology An Ear to the Ground, edited by Scott C. Davis and published by Cune, my first reaction was to feel puzzled. This was not what I expected. The book was not divided into clear subdivisions. There was no index that gave me a list of different sections so I could find a section on "Arab-American" writers. I had to leaf through the whole book to find the writers with Arabic-sounding names and they were all over the place.

My next frustration was with the way they are presented, and the way they present themselves. I expected a common topic, or some common themes at least, that would define clearly that what I was reading was "Arab-American" writing. I start reading the first essay, by Jocelyne M. Ajami, "A Different Path," and for a moment I think that I am on the wrong page. The essay starts: "According to the Tao Te Ching...." Wait a minute! An Arab Taoist? I backtrack, check the name again, and look at the biography. Yes, Ajami is an Arab American writer, and yes, the essay is breaking my expectations.

So my next question is C what defines these writers as Arab-Americans? I decide to take a trip to the library, to do some reading. The topic: ethnicity. Luckily, I hold myself back just in time, realizing that "ethnicity" is precisely what the collection is shying away from. An Ear to the Ground is not an anthology that promises a "multicultural" experience that neatly classifies the writers, supporting stereotypes about each of the ethnic identities that are supposed to exist in America. It refuses to make assumptions about any group as a group. Instead, it quietly includes a variety of voices, and, through including them, it provides us with glimpses of what it is like to be an American from any of the many, wonderfully varied, multifaceted backgrounds that everyone comes from.

Having recognized difference as the basis of the anthology, I began to see that the American essays do have some common issues. Above all, they reflect our basic need to situate ourselves in space and time. For, if we who have left the Middle East have become wanderers, nomadic, dislocated, how can we construct our new identities? Where and how do we ground ourselves?

Lisa Suheir Majaj, author of the piece "Tata Olga’s Hands" has provided us here, as she has elsewhere, with a possible answer. Memory, of course, can locate a culture in a person, in a place, and in a physical reality that goes beyond words. Hanna Eady’s "On the Back of a Donkey" roots his identity by evoking a particular place, a village in the Upper Galilea Mountains, and a particular person, his grandfather. Eady grounds himself into the earth itself, which defines clearly who he is: "I returned to the village with the soil of the land between my fingers. Now I was a young man."

Similarly, in Majaj’s piece, Teta in the kitchen, the smell of cooking wafting off her, is a root that expands beyond the kitchen, transforming into a "jasmine vine", into the earth outside, her hands a link between the world of everyday reality and God, between the author and her culture, between the present and the past. As a Palestinian, Teta in her own way becomes a metaphor for loss, absence and displacement.

Natalie Handal takes the question of location and identity even further in "Boston Yellow Cabs." Handal starts her essay with the statement: "I feel most at home when I am sitting in a Boston Yellow Cab." The Yellow cab provides a stark contrast with the donkey Eady uses to travel to his village. Yet Handal asserts: "[I]f one day I am lost .... I’ll find a piece of myself in one of these cabs." Outside that space, darkness extends. A flicker of light, of location, exists in a remote house in rural Iowa, far removed from Boston and even further removed from her country of origin. For a moment, the narrator grounds herself as she plays Arabic music to an immigrant family who has forgotten its past. But then the elusive moment disappears as the narrator returns full circle to the cab, and to a life of transition.

If Handal portrays the transitory nature of identity, Nimri Aziz in "Move Over" raises the issue of self-definition from yet another angle. Rather than starting by defining ourselves, says Aziz, we are up against an overwhelming barrier - the need to classify the unfamiliar, to make it easy to comprehend, to simplify it. This is as true of the feminist movement as it is in the West generally. And Aziz does well to remind us that through history we can understand the racist roots of such classifications, and that the past plays an essential role, not only in defining where we are now, but where we need to go as well.

If there is anywhere the search has to start from, it is with the move from the stereotypical to the real, to the recognition of individual men and women who make up a group. In Sara Nadia Rashad’s "Walking Like An Egyptian" (how do Egyptians walk?) Rashad returns to her father’s past in Egypt, and learns to move beyond media portrayals to understanding real life people. She walks away with a new knowledge of what it means, to her, to be an Egyptian.

Reading the Arab-American essays in An Ear to the Ground, I began to feel uneasy about only picking out some of the essays from the rich mosaic of writings. I was clearly going against the purpose of the collection. After all, if we want others to hear us, shouldn’t we be willing to listen ourselves? Slowly, as I read on, I discovered that the anthology in this sense is truly an ear to the ground, an attempt to listen, to avoid abstractions and preconceptions, and to keep a connection with the immediate and concrete. Hats off, Scott C. Davis. Or should I say - shoes?

Mona Fayad is a Professor in Comparative Literature and Post-Colonial Studies. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has taught at several universities in the U.S. and is currently at Salem State College, Massachusetts. Last summer, she completed a novel, Chameleon Tracks, set in the Middle East and in the U.S. She has also finished a book manuscript on gender, nationalism and Arab women writers.

This article appeared in Vol. 3, no. 20 (Summer 1997)

Copyright © 1997 by Al Jadid