Out of the Desert

The only literary journal by and for Arab Americans in the nation is a one-year-old creation that does not limit itself to Arab-American writers, and is not solely intended for Arab-American readers. Such is the fluid self-identity of a magazine called Mizna, published by the Minneapolis-based arts organization of the same name. Founded by Kathryn Haddad, a local playwright and essayist who teaches high school English, Mizna is run by a predominantly (but not entirely) female, predominantly (but not entirely) Arab editorial and advisory board.

"Originally we were going to be a journal just by Arab Americans and for Arab Americans," explains Haddad, who wears jeans and a cardigan to a board meeting held in a St. Anthony Park coffee shop. This self-conception was consistent with the journal's origins as a newsletter for the Minneapolis chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. But that format soon proved too small to include the pages of poetry and essays that the newsletter generated. "Now we've broadened to say that others who share our interests, views, and experiences can write, and that it's for a broader audience. Our desire was to inform and educate," she continues, explaining the organization's shift in policy. "We've realized that we don't really need to do that to each other. We need to do that out in mainstream society."

Haddad then mentions Lisa Gizzi, the editor in chief who joined the board after the second issue, as well as Nahid Khan, who does promotion for Mizna. Neither is Arab, she says, but both increase Mizna's accessibility to non-Arabs and, in Khan's case, the Islamic community (some members of which took offense at drawings by an Islamic female artist in the second issue, which they saw as indecent depictions of women).

With a current subscriber base of 200 and a production run of 700 copies, Mizna's assortment of poetry, prose, and visual art still reaches a small, mostly self-selected audience, though some readers live as far away as Hawaii and Beirut. The current issue includes an essay by a non-Arab political activist and a poem by a Syrian immigrant that begins: "Dear Mom, I landed in America--/Might as well say the moon." Two different pieces address the awkwardness experienced by American-born Arab women who travel to the Middle East, while a third recalls a family's attempts to incorporate facets of Christmas into an Islamic and communist 1970s household ("Propaganda," the mother exclaims. "Jesus--how could he be the king of Israel?").

If such experiences set some Arab Americans apart from the mainstream of American commercial culture, Mizna does not set out to define this ethnic experience as an exotic one. The name "Mizna" comes from an Arabic word meaning "cloud of the desert," specifically one that shades and cools travelers, making an arduous journey bearable. Haddad and other members of the board draw an explicit connection between such a desert and the state of being Arab in America. A constant stereotyping, they assert, is the beginning: "You're either a terrorist or a belly dancer," says Kathryn's sister Lorie Haddad, who is Mizna's CFO. In addition, Arab Americans often struggle with a sense of dislocation, even among people perceived by many to be just like them. For some second-generation Americans, both sisters say, the sense is that one is "not Arab enough" compared with more recent immigrants or residents of the Middle East. Then there are the political, religious, class, gender, and sexual-orientation differences that divide the community.

Using a literary journal to combat these two separate issues means that Mizna has set itself to the curious task of trying to unite a community even as it protests the way Middle Eastern cultures are senselessly lumped together by the American media. Keeping both aims in balance has led to some difficult decisions in the journal's first year. Haddad reports that while Mizna is willing to acknowledge and explore problems in the Arab community, the board is less inclined to address conflicts that embody existing Arab stereotypes. For example, early in Mizna's existence, a woman submitted a poem about her traditional Muslim veil, or hijab, which she felt oppressed her and covered her identity.

"That poem rang like she was writing to the mainstream notion that wearing a veil is oppressive," Haddad says. "That is the general stereotype, and it doesn't reflect the complexity of what is going on." She adds that, in her experience, a minority of Arab Americans perceive the hijab to be oppressive, and concludes: "The idea and the issue of the hijab is something that we would address, but we would publish it in the context of lots of viewpoints on the same subject. To just publish that one viewpoint would be irresponsible."

Though only on its third issue, which was just published this month, Mizna has already received submissions in greater numbers than expected--and from more established writers, as well. (Haddad attributes this latter to the lack of similar venues, as well as to her regular appearances at national conferences.) Just last week, Haddad reports, she received a submission from a woman in Texas. Handwritten on a piece of paper that had been ripped from a notebook was a poem about the woman's cousin, who had just died in the EgyptAir crash. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Mizna has published work by poet Naomi Shihab Nye, whom Haddad calls "the most famous Arab-American writer nationally."

Further development in soliciting contributors should be aided by a grant from the Jerome Foundation, which will provide $200 for each published writer, and $500 for visual artists, beginning next year. Overall, Mizna has raised approximately $30,000 from private donors, advertisers, and local grants. Along with such institutional support, the Library of Congress recently requested a subscription, and a Michigan professor has collected back copies with the intent of using them in her classes.

Beyond the continuing efforts to raise money and collect submissions, and in addition to putting together events like calligraphy or writing workshops, the next challenge facing the board seems to be engaging the local community, which hasn't been as supportive as the national audience.

"Just because someone is Arab doesn't mean they like to read poetry," Haddad says, while noting that Mizna's previous profile in the area dulls a sense of novelty. Similarly, she acknowledges that some Arab Americans fall outside their likely readership, while recounting her father's warnings that some Lebanese Maronite Christians might be put off by a journal that seemed to be endorsing, for instance, the politics of Palestinian Muslims. "Literature explores the boundaries, definitions, and complexities of life," she says, and recalls that she answered her father by saying: "'Well, they're not going to like literature then.' After all," she adds, "there are a few closed-minded people in any community."

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