I'm reading Gregory Orafalea's book of essays Angeleno Days: An Arab American Writer on Family, Place and Politics. Orafela, born and raised in Los Angeles , has written two histories The Arab Americans: A History and Messengers of the Lost Battalion. I'm supposed to know something about Los Angeles history and literature because I teach it, but I just discovered Orafela's writing. On the book jacket it says, "With more than 4000,000 Arab Americans, Los Angeles probably surpasses Detroit as the largest contingent in America." That statement is probably a huge surprise to most Angelenos.
Angelenos know about our huge Persian community--the largest in the world outside Tehran. Many Persians live on the westside of Los Angeles, particularly in and around Westood. I've had many Persian students--both Muslim and Jews. A Beverly Hills art movie house often plays Persian films to packed audiences. The Persian students at Santa Monicia College have celeberations of Ei'd, the Persian spring festival. Persians have a high profile in Los Angeles but Arab-Americans do not.
Orafelea has an excellent chapter "The Arab in the Post-World War II novel" in which he begins by discussing William Saroyan's 1940 autobiographical novel My Name is Aram praising how this Armenian-American writer created real Arab characters in his coming-of-age story in Fresno in the 1920s and 1930s. Orafelea also praises William Durrel's Alexandria Quartet calling it a masterpiece that captures the beauty of Alexandria. Next he criticizes a whole bunch of U.S. novels that stereotype Arabs including Leon Uris's potboiler about Israel Exodus; spy writer Eric Ambler's The Levantine, James Michener's adventure story about Masada The Source, Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift etc. Orafelea praises Joan Didion's intelligent perceptions about the Middle East but asks, "are there no American novelists besides Didion since World War iI who have avoided stereotyping by trying to evoke a broader, deeper view of the Middle East and the Arabs..." He comes up with a short list: Mona Simpson novel the Lost Father, Diana Abu-Jabar's novel Arabian Jazz, and Arab-American Vance Bourjaily's fouth novel Confessions of a Spent Youth.
Orafelea says since 9/11/01 a new group of fine Arab-American novelists have appeared: "Laila Lalami, Moroccoan american; Mohja Kahf, a Syrian American; Alicia Erian, a Lebanese American; Laila Halaby, a Palestinian American; and the 2007 winner of the first ever Arab American Book Award for the Novel, Libryan American Hisham Matar." Orafalea goes on to have a fine discussion of these novels as well as a assesment of Updike's novel The Terrorist both praising and criticizing.
I find this all fascinating because since 2001 I have been writing a manuscript of poems The War Years about the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, and have actively looked for novels or poetry about these wars but found very little by Americans. British write more novels about the Afghan wars--two I've reviewed on this blog (Nadeem Aslam and James Meek). Before the Iraq War started, Sam Hamill and other U.S. poets put up a poets against the war website and there were thousands of anti-war poems by American poets on this website.Leading U.S. poets refused to go to Laura Bush's poetry conference at the White House in protest of the Iraq War. Also U.S. poets across the country had anti-war readings; American poets en masse seemed to be saying "no" to the Iraq War. Also right before the Iraq War began, theater groups across the country did anti-war plays--I went to two. I bought Hamill's anthology of anti-Iraq war poems Poets Against the War edited by Sam Hamill (Thunder's Mouth/Nation Press, 2003).
After the war stated in the United States there were a few more anti-war poetry readings and then all this activity stopped. I kept on plugging away at my manuscript but felt all alone. Oh well. The Iraq war went on and on and on and is still going on and on. U.S. writers seem on the whole to ignore it as a topic for a rare exception. Orafalea has essays on many topics including a couple on the Iraq war--he seems one of the few still writing about it. I find it all perplexing why U.S. poets, novelists, and essayists did this huge burst of anti-war poems, readings, Poets Against the War anthology and then the poets quit. Why?
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