Celebrating pen and brush

Mizna journal promotes contemporary expressions of Arab-American culture
Friday 11/09/2015
Mizna front cover 2015

Washington - The 30th issue of Mizna, the only Arab-American literary journal, is out, offering prose and po­etry by 19 Arab-American writers bound in a cover featuring Samia Halaby’s exuberant Green Earth painting. The journal in­cludes works of poetry, fiction and seven of Halaby’s vibrant colour-studies.

Mizna is Arabic for “desert cloud”, which shades and protects the desert traveller, easing the journey.

Arab-American writers are in­creasingly recognised and lauded. Khaled Mattawa, a poet whose work Mizna has published, was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2014. Lebanese-American An­war Accawi, featured in the 30th issue, has been published in Cana­da, France, Iceland, Japan and the United States in such prominent magazines as Harper’s and the Utne Reader.

The latest issue of Mizna offers Angele Ellis’s dark dystopian tale of imprisonment in a twisted Unit­ed States, where the pledge of al­legiance has morphed into a right-wing loyalty distortion. Accawi offers a nostalgic coming-of-age reminiscence of his childhood in the tiny Lebanese village of Magda­luna. Hasan Dudar writes mov­ingly about his relationship with Palestine: one’s ancestral village, he says, and Palestine itself “have become metaphors and you were born into that metaphor. As I stand here, overlooking [Jerusalem], I’ve learned one thing: we never had to return because we never left.”

Jennifer Zeynab Maccani’s four-page short story teases the reader with wonderful descriptions of Arabic food and tradition, which become the enduring connection through which a young girl’s dying mother says goodbye. Expressing her fear of being alone, especially at story time, she asks poignantly: “When you go, how will I know who I am?” Her mother replies: “Hayati [the Arabic endearment meaning “my life”], I’ll be in the stories. I’ll be in the spices. I’ll be in the wind.” The story ends on a sweet note with baklava.

Donya Tag-El-Din’s prose poem Living Art also focuses on a parent-child dialogue. Baba is eating pis­tachios, silently regretting an un­derachieved past and living in an unkempt present. His daughter ob­serves paintings on the wall above his head, wondering symbolically “Where did he go?” His response is pithy: “There’s no money in art. You can’t build a life on imagina­tion and you can’t eat oils on pa­per.”

It’s quite a coup that Palestinian painter Samia Halaby is featured in the issue. Revered as a pioneer of contemporary abstraction in the Arab world, her acrylic-on-canvas work is owned by prestigious in­stitutions and galleries worldwide. In her eighth decade, she remains prolific as both a painter and a writ­er.

The cover’s Green Earth paint­ing celebrates dancing colour. One might ponder mapping, computer chips or kaleidoscopes with its overlapping squares — seemingly random, yet somehow organised — in patterns of Chiclet-sized pastels floating among deeper coloured, larger squares.

While perhaps facile, the compo­sition prompted childhood memo­ries of Lebanon and the iconic yel­low Chiclets gum sold by the pair in small rectangular boxes. (Leb­anese-American Helen Zughaib painted a pop-art style Chiclets box last year.) Four of Halaby’s paintings are reproduced in the journal, including Women with its fertile figures swirling in flame-like shades of orange, pink and yellow. Halaby writes that the most beau­tiful attribute of abstraction is “its ability to imitate nature’s general principles rather than nature’s ap­pearance… What I paint is an ab­straction that describes the world.”

Asked why Mizna matters, Artis­tic Director Lana Barkawi said: “For the Arab and Muslim community, it’s really empowering and soul-gratifying to see some facet of the truth of your experience reflected on the pages — something we don’t see in mainstream American cul­ture. Also, for those outside the community, Mizna fills a void for people who value literature to be able to read writing by Arab authors that is both strong and beautiful and coming from a different point of view. Reading this writing works to undo a lot of the stereotypes about Arabs and Arab-Americans.”

In spring 2015, Mizna launched a pilot programme called the Mizna Pages in a high school classroom in St Paul, Minnesota. Students read from past journals, with accom­panying study guides that define terms and provide political and historical context. Mizna hopes to receive renewed funding from state and regional arts councils to formalise and expand this teaching module.

Mizna is not just the journal. It is Minnesota-based non-profit arts organisation that promotes con­temporary expressions of Arab- American culture, including its own Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, which will include readings, perfor­mances, art projects and communi­ty events involving a diverse range of local, national and international Arab-American artists. The event is scheduled for November 5th-8th.

Mizna, Volume 16, Issue 1 is 63 pages including notes and donor acknowledgement. Mizna is avail­able by subscription or by individu­al issue at www.mizna.org.