Marwa Helal

The Vernacular Home

Although Arab Americans have been contributing to the diverse landscape of American literature since the early 1900s—Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (1923) and Amin al-Rehani’s The Book of Khalid (1911)—few have ventured into American vernacular literature. In this case, vernacular literature means literature that incorporates Arabic dialect with English. One prominent Arab American, Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, is one of the first authors to create a body of work that does precisely this.

It’s hard to say why other Arab-American writers have not experimented with vernacular text in their work. Hammad has an advantage in that her chosen genre of poetry lends itself more easily to innovation in language, welcoming the playfulness and musicality of two or more languages merging. And Arabic being a poetic language in and of itself—a language with a vocabulary where single words often have meanings so dense that they require several words of another language, especially English, for accurate translation—makes it unsurprising that Arab-American vernacular would first appear in poetry. Hammad has an added advantage in that her work lives on both the page and on the stage.

An accomplished spoken word performer and part of the Tony Award-winning HBO Def Poetry Jam (2002-2007), she has succeeded at creating a space for her work in both places. In a brief interview with Hammad after the release of breaking poems (2008), she said simply, “I wanted to write more like how I think and speak.” But on the page, Hammad risks alienating readers who do not understand Arabic, as well as exoticizing her work. But overall, her poetry not only attracts a diverse audience and sparks dialogue not just about language, poetry, music, national or ethnic origins, Palestine and Israel, but also hits home with Arab Americans of all backgrounds who hear the sounds of a language they grew up with or left behind dancing alongside the language they now live in.

As the author’s body of work has evolved, so has the fluidity of the voice and the use of vernacular. In Born Palestinian, Born Black (2010), the use of vernacular has more of an exotified feel only because it stands out in italics as the text of “the other,” whereas in breaking poems, the Arabic transliterations sit equally alongside the English text. The repetition of words such as “wa” and “ana” also create a thread for the non-Arabic speaking reader to follow and can be understood from the context: for example, wa=and, ana=I.

In James Baldwin’s 1979 essay titled “If Black English isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”, he writes: “Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other—and, in this case the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.” If that is the case, then Hammad has succeeded at refusing to be defined by the English language alone. Since her earliest works, ZaatarDiva (2006) and Born Palestinian, Born Black, she has always merged Arabic words with English ones in her collections. Baldwin goes on to write, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And, if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.)” While Baldwin wrote this well before Hammad’s time, this statement becomes an important theme to keep in mind as the poet becomes empowered through her use of language in retelling stories of Palestinian refugees, returning to the Middle East and Zionism. Baldwin, again: “It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identity: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.” And it is in lines like the following that we see the inner-workings of Hammad’s mind and various identities through her dance between languages as she creates her own vernacular.

Excerpts from Born Palestinian, Born Black. From “dedication”:

his heart transcending his…

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