Far From Algiers, my first and only book of poems, has reportedly caused something of a stir among Algerians.
Amari Hamadene, the editor who first published the title poem, has written to me that at the recent Algiers Book Fair some Algerians marveled that an American university press had published a book by someone with an Algerian name.
Amari proposes to translate the book into French. No easy task, I’m sure. Amari is the founder and editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review, a trilingual journal.
The marvel, if there is anything to marvel at, is that Algerians should think the book’s circumstances remarkable. I’m an American. I’ve lived in the United States my entire life and served in the Navy. My name is common in Algeria, highly unusual in the United States. I could have published under the name Del, my byline as a newspaperman, but I thought my birth name more appropriate because some of the poems are about my birth.
My book isn’t about Algeria. It’s about belonging and yet finding it difficult to belong, a common theme in this migratory world. I never knew my Algerian father, his family or culture. My mother’s family was German-American-Polish and did not find me an easy fit. My book is sometimes about that ill fit.
It’s also about nativism, demonization and cold shoulders. The Algerians who find life in France and other parts of Europe sometimes harrowing will certainly relate to these poems. But so will American Hispanics, African-Americans and Native Americans, all of whom have experienced the pain of being singled out as unusual guests, a euphemism, to be sure, for something much darker; and it’s not lost on Native Americans that the guests are singling out the guests for alienation.
The theme of my book emerged in the recent election campaign. Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, suggested that some Americans were not as American as others and that some parts of America were not as American as others. This cheap jingoism is a familiar refrain to me. My mother’s family raised the same issue about me, and so did some kids in the boarding school on Long Island where I lived for more than a decade. Who did they think belonged? Themselves, certainly. Belonging is an issue as crucial to America as its economy, because as long as we try to impose a litmus test beyond that of honorable citizenship, there will be injustice and polarization.
What was interesting about my boarding school experience is that during World War II many of my schoolmates were English war evacuees, so they weren’t raising an issue about my Americanness, they were raising a more blatantly racial issue. That’s how I learned that there are many ways to disguise racism, to call it by other names, and to hide behind the sheer smarm of coding bigotry.
The Algerians who found it interesting that an American academic press should bring out my first book of poems knew perfectly well-they could tell from the book’s cover and jacket-that the poems had won a prize. And, with a little web research, they could have seen how the judging was conducted. But nonetheless their cultural orientation led them to assume something unusual had happened, something having to do with my name, unusual to Americans, usual to them. They seemed to think that an American press had had to rise above a cultural bias to publish my book, a notion that is patently untrue.
The subject came up last month when TV interviewer Mimi Moriarty asked me why I had broken a silence of some 35 years to write poems after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. My stock answer has been that I wanted to affirm creativity in the face of such stark nihilism. But I realize now that while my stock answer is not disingenuous, it is facile. I had found some aspects of our response to the attacks disquieting and redolent of my own struggle to fit in. We immediately profiled Arab-Americans and called their loyalty into question. We bullied each other, some of us trying to make the case that those of us who didn’t agree with Bush Administration decisions-attacking Iraq, curtailing civil liberties, suspending certain rights, incarcerating Muslims in Guantanamo, etc- were not as American as the rest of us, might in fact be the sort of persons who ought to be detained in airports.
Instead of reaffirming our dynamism, our creativity, our commitment to civil and universal liberties, we began diminishing our democracy and imposing a federal security state. I knew something about security states, because they can be imposed by families, neighborhoods, institutions, traditions. So I saw that my stock answer had shied away from confronting my profound disquiet at the way nativism had so readily reared its head in the wake of an outside attack. It seemed to me that an American Kristallnacht was not far off. I felt that we could no longer pretend not to understand how the Holocaust had taken place, since we had now become adept ourselves at scapegoating and scaring ourselves into repudiating our own democratic ideals when, indeed, it was exactly the right time, the best time to reaffirm and strengthen them. Security is always the reason for dismantling democracies, and it’s always a bad reason.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller’s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.