Five Minutes With
Nathalie Handal poems are laced with jasmine, the scent of pine trees, and anthuriams. She savors flavors of habichuelas negras, green olives and baklava equally and transcends boundaries of race, nationality and the “us against them” mentality.
A native of Bethlehem, Handal grew up in Paris, Boston and the West Indies. The hyphenations imposed on her multicultural, multinational and multireligious heritage melt away in her writing – French, Arabic, Spanish and English flow into one.
Through meringue, dabkhe, bachata, and Nina Simone, Nathalie Handal’s nomadic poetry moves readers seamlessly through Jaffa, Palestine to Marseilles, France to New England and then to the French Caribbean. Handal captures the gentle cultural links between groups of people, and simultaneously tackles complex realities of our time with honesty and courage. She stands fiercely against war, occupation and cruelty.
Handal’s style belongs to everywhere and nowhere – her voice is golden and light enough to fly above the borders of national identity as she wrestles with exile and displacement:
Tonight we will see
tattooed waistlines and Kalashnikovs
in the back trunk of cars
paralyzed memories and
every house door…
Tonight exiles, immigrants, refugees
will be caught in songbirds
cracked asphalt will recite old verses
Her body of work includes an award-winning anthology of poetry by contemporary Arab women, which showcases the poetic diversity of more than 80 Arab women. She is also the author of two books of poems The NeverField and The Lives of Rain and a poetry CD, Traveling Rooms. Aside from being a noted poet and literary critic, Handal is a gifted playwright, film producer, and teacher at Columbia University. She is currently working on a film called Gibran, based on the life of Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran, written by Rana Kazkaz and a Tribeca Film Festival Screenplay Winner.
Listen to exclusive audio tracks of Nathalie Handal reading from her work.
Nathalie Handal recently sat down with CampusProgress for an interview.
CP: Your writing includes a mixture of English, Arabic, Spanish and French. How has this rich linguistic expression affected the reception of your work?
When the word is powerful, it transcends nationality and language. People are drawn to what they instinctively feel close to… whether it’s the theme, the style, or the language that inspires them. But we are also drawn to what surprises us, to new cadences that we hear, to what takes us away…. that mysterious force. I have also noticed that whether I am reading to an American, European or an Arab audience, that there’s a natural gravity towards the Spanish language, it’s rhythm, the emotions it invokes.
CP: How do you reconcile your life which seems to be an ongoing cross-cultural odyssey?
The reconciliation happens naturally. It’s amazing, even to me, when I reread my pieces – how the different languages just flow together on one line, how they weave themselves into something whole. Today, I can be grateful and praise the richness of knowing and being part of so many different cultures, places, and languages. But growing up, it was different. The experience of not being able to go back to Palestine, not belonging anywhere, was extremely painful. It was difficult to reconcile and understand. I tried everything to get to Palestine. There were a few times when I thought I had reached my destination, and then I found myself in front of a wall. Nothing worked. One day I opened a book and read a poem by Mahmoud Darwish. I felt something tremendous overtake me, a feeling I still cannot really express. The more I read, the more vivid, the more real, and tangible everything became to me. That day, the words held my hands and took me home. That day, when I wrote, the words taught me how to take the wall down.
CP: When did you first start writing?
I can’t remember when I wasn’t writing, really. I always wrote, but after reading the Darwish poem, I became conscious of what I was doing. My mother told me that I was a storyteller even when I was a little girl. I grew up surrounded by storytellers. My mother was one of them. Not long ago I was sitting with her in the kitchen in Santo Domingo where my parents live now. She was cutting parsley to make tabouli [Arabic salad]. She started telling me these stories about her grandmother. And it was amazing because just when you think you’ve heard all the stories, many more keep revealing themselves. It’s really a powerful experience listening, I mean really listening to the lives and the details.
CP: Tell us more about the music you grew up with.
I grew up with Arabic and French music. I grew up with Oum Kulthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez and French singers like Charles Aznavour. My parents had an Arabic and French education so that’s what was transmitted at home.
CP: Can you talk about how your anthology of poetry by Arab women highlights the parallels between Arab women writers but also shows that their experiences are too diverse to be stereotyped.
Yes…the Arab world is a vast and varied region. That’s why in the book I separated poets in sections like North Africa, the Levant and the Gulf. Each country has it’s own history, wars, local as well as national concerns. We cannot generalize about Arab women. They are, as readers of this anthology have found out—diverse—thematically, stylistically, structurally, religiously, and so forth.
CP: Do you think your anthology can be seen as a tool of empowerment for Arab women?
The anthology is a tool to bring awareness of Arab women poets to the West, to help eradicate their invisibility. Is the anthology an empowerment for the women in the Arab world? Yes, perhaps… in that it has hopefully helped inspire young Arab women to continue to write. But mainly, this book was translated into the English language primarily for Western readers, although I have received tremendous support from Arab readers, writers and intellectuals.
CP: In your research, you have noted that there is a new generation of Arab-American poets surfacing. How is the landscape of Arab-American and Arab writers shifting?
I am finishing a book which should be out next year, Inshallah [God Willing]. It’s an anthology entitled Arab American and Arab Anglophone Literature. It’s the first collection of its kind, which includes all genres—poetry, short stories, excerpts from plays, novels, and creative nonfiction—by Arab Americans and Arab writers of English expression.
I started doing research for this book more than five years ago, and had I published it just a few years ago it would have been a completely different book. In the past five years alone, there have been incredible changes in our writing community… more young Arab and Arab Americans are writing and encouraged to write. And the publishing houses are somewhat more open to Arab voices.
CP: How is writing a way to master one’s own narrative, especially for Arab women?
When we write, we have to be brave…. after all, powerful writing is honest, true.
You have to put yourself aside and let your pen do what it is meant to: write… Tell. And from there, are immense possibilities for the writer and for those who will read the work.
CP: What are some of the projects you are working on now?
I am editing an anthology of Arab American and Arab Anglophone Literature and an Anthology of Dominican Literature; co-editing, along with Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar, Contemporary Poetry of the Eastern World—which brings together the work of South Asian, East Asian, Central Asian, and Arab poets.
I’m currently the Associate Artist and Development Executive for the production company, The Kazbah Project. I am working on the film Gibran, and different theatrical projects, to name a few: Acts for Palestine: A Theatrical Benefit, Blue Heron Theatre, NY, October 16 and 17; a play (co-written with other playwrights) that will tour major European cities and then come to North America; my play, The Details of Silence, will have a stage reading in NY and London in the fall.
And I have a new CD coming out in the fall—my poetry and music by Egyptian tabla player Will Solimon.
CP: What advice would you give to younger writers who are trying to find their voice?
I would say continue traveling, listening, observing, searching, continue believing in your voice. Read, read, read, and of course, never stop writing. Everything is something and when you feel the farthest away, you’re closer. Inform yourself about the world—its people, cultures, customs, histories, politics, art and literature. Be active in the world. Be part of your communities. We are connected. We have to be conscious and have a conscience.
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