#SummerReads 2015 #1: “Arab on Radar” by Angele Ellis

This summer, my goal is to read ten poetry collections. Click on the summerreading2015 tag to chart my progress

arabonradarI found Arab on Radar by Angele Ellis by accident. I was looking for a new novel (can’t remember which one, now), and this collection came up in my search. It sounded interesting, so I checked it out.

Each poem reveals a layer of the Arab experience in American pre-9/11.

The parallels to then and now shocked me. I was in ninth grade on 9/11, and had been completely unaware of the Arab world before then (except for vague recollections of my father almost being called up from the Navy reserves in the early 90s to fight a faraway war in a faraway desert).

Each major immigrant group in this country has faced racism, bigotry, and hatred. The theme is familiar, but the details are new.

My favorite poem,  is “Through the Looking Glass:”

Dusty glass door with its skeleton key
becoming soft gauze, mist, mizna.
Scrambling through like Alice.
In my grandparents’ looking glass world,
books opened backward, right to left.
No mirror image could reveal
the riddle of a jabberwocky rhyme.
A vorpal blade on the wall
outgrinned the Cheshire cat.
The Caterpillar’s hookah sat unsmoked,
on the Sheep’s unreachable shelf.
It’s looking glass name was narghile.
When they used a word, it meant
just what they chose it to mean.
She the Red Queen, he the White King,
mismatched on their adjacent squares.
The game was checkers, not chess.
She was one of the thorny kind
yet he, moving twice as fast,
ended up with all the crowns.
Believing in six impossible things
for breakfast, lunch, and dinner–
we would have settled for jam
tomorrow and jam yesterday.
Living backward made us giddy.
It is only now that memory works
both ways. Which of us dreamed it–
those from the country of nights
five times as warm as cold,
or those who turned away and woke?

(There is a glossary of Arabic terms at the back of the book, where I learned that mizna means “cloud of the desert” and a narghile is a hookah or water pipe used for smoking hashish.)

The fact that the narrator describes various objects her grandparents have brought with them from Lebanon in Alice-in-Wonderland terms is telling: Lewis Carroll is more familiar to her than her culture of origin.

I like that the poem ends on a question that implies many questions. Should the narrator’s family have stayed in their home country, or did they make the right decision by leaving? What have they gained; what have they lost? What of those left behind?

These aren’t the kind of questions you can answer easily, but answering isn’t the most important thing. Recognizing that they exist and pondering them, even if you don’t come to any conclusions, is what matters.

Ellis’s other poems carry this theme of tension between generations and the desire to fit in. “It was all about whiteness,” the narrator of the collection’s eponymous poem states. She never outright states that she was discriminated against, but she does point out hurtful and often wrong stereotypes and feelings Americans had (and still have) toward people of Arab descent.

In “Federal Building,” Ellis describes her precarious situation as an Arab American: “Now we are lucky to stand unmolested / on the public sidewalk, / the thin edge of the wedge of democracy.”

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