Arab American Soundscapes: An Evening of Music, Poetry, and Performance lit up the Cedar Cultural Center. Presented by St. Paul-based Arab American arts organization Mizna, the program highlighted live readings and performances from eight different poets–some local and some national, but all identifying in various ways as Arab American. The event was one of the many offshoots of this year’s massive Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference.
A video projection of a rippling Euphrates River and digital music from local artist Naj Bagdadi served as the backdrop of the evening, both literally on stage and more symbolically as cultural and historical touchstones. (The video was an original Mizna commission, by Iraq-based video artist Ali Al-Tayar.) Opening the evening were poets Hedy Hebra, Glenn Shaheen, Trish Salah, Philip Metres, and Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán. Many pieces touched on themes of displacement, cultural identity, queerness, and love, among others.
Mizna Executive and Artistic Director Lana Barkawi says that creating a space for Arab American voices to tell these stories was one of the main reasons for the event. “We live in a country and a culture that speaks for Arabs,” said Barkawi. “We’re in the headlines. We’re victims of hate crimes. We’re profiled and under suspicion. Mizna exists to flip that conversation so that Arabs have a space to tell their own stories and be the artists who we are, on our own terms.”
For headlining poet, performance artist, and Mizna Program Director Moheb Soliman, that has meant looking outside of political categories of identity and thinking about ways of identifying as a human being in relation to, for example, nature or geography. For his performance on Thursday, he emerged on stage barefoot in a sleep mask, hoodie, and boxers, feeling his way (in words) through displacement, as represented visually by a Google Maps projection live-navigated by a collaborator.
By contrast, Chile-based Palestinian-American poet Ismail Khalidi delivered his poetry in a powerful spoken word style, speaking to issues such as anti-African sentiment in Israel and Palestinian dispossession. Closing out the night, poet and Columbia University professor Nathalie Handal read about experiences in Bethlehem and the Arab-Latino diaspora, as well as of experiences independent of place.
“We hope to believe that just because we may come from these war torn countries [it doesn’t mean] we can’t write about love or any other topic,” said Handal. “I think in general, we should just focus on the beautiful words and song and art and the message that these art works bring to us, without analyzing or labeling them so much, but just voyaging with them.”
That seems to be exactly what Mizna has always done and intends to do—provide a platform for Arab American expression, wherever those expressions may lead.
For more activities from Mizna beyond “Arab American Soundscapes,” they also have an active literary journal and annual Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. For more information: www.mizna.org.