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Middle West, Meet Middle East

Arabic by birth, hipster by choice: Kathryn Haddad (center) and team Mizna
Tony Nelson

Kathryn Haddad is definitely not a waffler. "Most Americans don't even know where Lebanon is," the executive director of Mizna, America's only Arab-American literary journal, says of the war there last summer. "They have no compassion for the people whose homes and lives were destroyed, no idea of what happened there. They just think, 'Oh, those people fight all the time.'"

Devoted in its entirety to the conflict in Lebanon, the magazine's 19th issue offers a street-level view of the devastation, complete with visual art from people who were in the thick of it.

Anger and grief are the order of the day. "Thursday, July 27," begins the caption below the first panel of Jana Taboulsi's chronicle of the bombing. "I can only hope that today's Arabs and Muslims will not become the Jews of yesterday, and that we will not learn from our tormenters as well as they have." Taboulsi's drawing shows a gargantuan hand holding a commensurately large match, burning over the heads of a few tiny people.

Resignation is a hot item, too. "Beirut's been bombed so many times," says Haddad, a thirtysomething Lebanese-American who grew up in Coon Rapids. "When the planes come, people—the ones who can, anyway—just go up into the mountains. When it's all over, they return and start rebuilding."

Haddad, who is compact with wavy brown hair, has a gentle demeanor that belies her day gig—teaching high school English in a Minneapolis suburb. She's in the office on this unseasonably warm Saturday morning, along with the rest of Mizna's staff, to prepare a mailing for the group's Arab-American Film Festival, which starts Thursday, March 29. It's all hands on deck...more or less. Board president Lana Barkawi is boxing postcards. Film curator Mohannad Ghawanmeh sits at a computer near the spacious room's only window, immersed in festival preparations. Writer Mazen Halabi and Arabic-instructor-around-town Antoine Mefleh take a conversation break, the short stack of neatly addressed cards in front of them proof of their industriousness. Barkawi's little daughter runs around doing the kind of important work that kids do.

Haddad started learning about the realities of life in Lebanon when she was only a little older than this girl. "I grew up in a bicultural household," she says. "My mom was from here. My dad was from Lebanon. My grandmother came over when I was 14, during the civil war. She didn't speak any English. I was embarrassed because she did all these things I thought other people would think were strange, like go out in the yard and pick dandelions to eat—essentially just the things you do in a Lebanese village.

"There was definitely this disconnect when I was growing up, especially during the civil war. At home, I'd hear about how beautiful Lebanon was, see all these beautiful photos. But in the media and at school, I'd hear all these terrible things about Beirut."

As an aspiring writer, Haddad didn't have much in the way of role models. Not that they weren't there. The Arab-American literary tradition stretches back to the turn of the last century, when the first wave of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants hit the U.S. In the 1920s a group of writers that included pop star poet Khalil Gibran made a stab at forging a unified identity with Al Rabital al Qalamiyah (The New York Pen League).

The League thrived for a couple of decades, then dissolved, a victim of the melting pot. "Arab-Americans tend to blend in really easily," says Haddad, "even the ones who are forthright about their heritage. I've met Kasey Kasem. He's very active in the community, speaks at Arab-American conventions. But he really doesn't have a forum beyond that. It's not like his show really provides an opportunity to talk about being an Arab. Look at Ralph Nader. He's very connected, speaks Arabic and everything. Sometimes he talks about being Arab, but he really keeps it pretty quiet."

In the most basic sense, then, Mizna's mission is to speak up. At its founding in 1998, Mizna was a modest outgrowth of the newsletter for the Minnesota branch of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Since then, it has become a major local hub of Arab-American cultural activity. In addition to the magazine, film festival, and art shows, Mizna offers three levels of Arabic lessons (all taught by Mefleh).

In a sense, though, Mizna is programming against the nightly news, and it's not an easy task. "There's so much ignorance here about the Middle East," Haddad says, "the history, the culture, the politics. All the media presents is these really graphic images. People in the U.S. subscribe to all these vile stereotypes—that all Arabs are violent, that they're unreasonable and ignorant, that they hate freedom and peace—all that nonsense that we're fed."

 

Even if you get past the stereotypes, the fact remains that conflict abounds in the Arab world itself. Tensions between the Middle East's Sunni and Shiite have spread around the globe like wildfire, with the war in Iraq providing a limitless supply of fresh fuel. Mizna's current focus, Lebanon, is riven along factional lines, with Sunni parties backing Prime Minister Fouad Siniora while the Shiite forces of Hezbollah try to toss out the government. We won't even mention the Christians and Druze.

On second thought, let's. "The situation in the Middle East is a lot more complex than most people think," says Haddad. "Some Christians in Lebanon side with Siniora. Some side with Hezbollah. The press here rarely brings up the secular left, which is definitely a factor. A lot of differences in the Arab world are intrinsically political. Religion is used as a tool, to divide people, to draw them to one side or another.

"For most Arab-Americans, these religious differences aren't even a topic of conversation. When Lana"—Mizna's president—"was in high school, she saw a movie about Shiite self-flagellation and she was shocked. One of her classmates said, 'Oh, you must be Sunni.' She had no idea. She had to go home and ask her parents."

Deciding which Arab voices to publish would seem to be a challenge in the current political climate. Mizna has met that test by publishing writers as far-flung as the Japanese-American wife of a Lebanese-American man. Likewise, this spring sees the organization hosting a photo exhibit by Iranian-Minneapolitan Jila Nicbay—despite the fact that Iran is overwhelmingly a Persian culture, not an Arab one.

"We're not an Islamic organization," Haddad elaborates. "We're not religious at all. We're a secular organization. Anybody can see how many different points of view are represented in the Lebanon issue. We don't necessarily want to separate politics from art, but at the same time, we don't want to put ourselves in a position where people expect us to always be a political forum.

"By the same token, we try to be respectful of people's religious beliefs. For a while, we debated whether or not to serve alcohol at events, and decided we would. That doesn't mean we'll soon be selling pork chops."

One wonders whether this cosmopolitan outlook has affected Mizna's efforts to reach out to the biggest Islamic population in the state: Somali immigrants. While Haddad is pleased to have enlisted a new Somali board member, that community is massive enough to support its own cultural orbit. "We've been getting a few Somali supporters at events," Haddad says. "But I don't think our effort has been that successful, overall, which is unfortunate."

Typically inclusive in spirit is the Arab Film Festival, now in its fourth year and already, Mizna boasts, the biggest in the country. Its 23 films include a Basque-made war documentary, Baghdad Rap; an Algerian political drama, Ania's Tea; and a Moroccan emigration meditation, I See the Stars at Noon. (Some directors will be on hand; for capsule reviews, please see p. 47.) One of the most eagerly anticipated films in the series is The Devil Came on Horseback, Minneapolis native Annie Sundberg's chilling documentary about the Arab-inflicted genocide in Darfur.

"It doesn't show Arabs in a positive light at all," says Haddad.

Sensing film talk, the preternaturally handsome Ghawanmeh, who is of Palestinian descent, ambles over from the computer. "I think it speaks to the progressiveness and confidence of our organization that we're willing to champion the film," he says. "It tells the story of a tragic situation pertaining to Arabs and it tells it really well."

"We're trying to reach out," says Haddad, "to all the Middle Eastern and North African immigrant communities: Somali, Iranian, Armenian, Kurdish, Sudanese. We all share some of the same concerns, some of the same woes."

If Haddad and Mizna can somehow manage to bring all these cultures into accord, there's a little situation she might want to resolve in Lebanon....


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