Coming to America: My Story As A Lucky Immigrant, Poet And Muslim
Born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, I came to realize at the age of 32, that I could not live, love and create there any longer. I required new air and it was, finally, time to dare and take a leap. Later I would notify only a handful of family and friends of ‘this audacious, purifying, elemental move’ – to borrow the words of the poet Philip Larkin from his Poetry of Departures.
But first I attempted to articulate this terrifying-liberating position to my boss at the United Nations (UNESCO), where I’d worked for nearly a decade. It’s not you, I respectfully suggested, it’s me. I need to move on. In turn, I appreciated his gracious unwillingness to immediately accept my resignation, his insistence to think it over, as well as his generous offer of a promotion.
Still, I politely insisted that I needed to get out while I could and see if I might live differently. I felt I had, at the very least, a few books within me, fluttering wildly against the bars and if I did not act now I might never be able to set them free.
It dawned on me how utterly destabilizing this leap of faith was, and that it meant leaving behind the security of everything I knew: work, family, friends, all familiarity. Yet there was a woman I cared for at the other end (isn’t it always a matter of the heart, when seemingly-mad decisions are involved?) and I had made up my mind to return to the United States, where I’d gone to college a decade earlier and met lady friend.
Even though my lawyers stateside warned me it was a long shot, less than a year after applying for an artist visa, I was very lucky to be granted one for Aliens of Extraordinary Ability (O1) – which made me feel a little like E.T., as if the tip of my index finger might glow when I write.
In retrospect, I realize how especially fortunate I was to be granted this honor, considering that I was a young, single, Muslim, Arab male — a combination regarded with increasing suspicion. Counting my blessings, I came to accept that I had also found a new home and, feeling more confident, I proposed to my college friend (who had patiently, loyally been by my side all along) within the year.
More than 11 years have passed since this fateful move. In all this time, I have not mustered the courage to visit Egypt. I watched, with my heart in my mouth, the rise and fall of the Arab Spring, as we collectively struggled for liberation and rebirth. Considering the dashed hopes of Egypt’s heroic 2011 people’s uprising, from this great distance, I admit that I found it demoralizing to see many of our once fearless freedom fighters experience revolution-fatigue and allow themselves to become desensitized to the current military propaganda machine.
Over time, I’ve come to regard my beloved Cairo as a joyous child whose confidence has been shaken by repeated scolding and attempts at molding. We’re not quite ourselves at the moment, I tell myself, and are battling for our souls.
I remind myself that we’re just experiencing what the French would call “un mauvais quart d’heure” (a bad quarter of an hour, or a brief unpleasant experience), something, I suspect, many in Trump’s America might relate to. Our unfortunate present moment does not define us; we’re better than this fear and loathing. The lengthening shadow of violence and intolerance that we are witnessing — in the Middle East, in Europe, in the Divided States of America — is just a hiccup in time, viewed in the context of humanity’s long illustrious history. And when my spirits sag, I am buoyed up by the noble Arabic slogan that circulated following our Egyptian Revolution: ‘Despair is betrayal, and Hope a responsibility.’
Examining my own present moment I recognize, with gratitude and wonder, how one seemingly unavoidable shift (from one continent to another) presented me with a new world of unforeseen possibilities. At 43, I find myself happily married for nine years and, incredibly, with six critically-acclaimed books of poetry and prose to my name. Mysterious thing, art; if one is faithful to it (and fortunate), in time, it can alter the artist and recreate them in its own image.
Upon further reflection, I am beginning to better appreciate the significance of having been raised in an Egyptian culture, where proverbs were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in pithy sayings: a string of maxims, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion.
Also, being half-Lebanese meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, celebrated poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect that matters of literary heritage might have been written in blood since I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet who passed away long before I was born, yet bequeathed me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and epigrams I felt that, for the first time, I was truly beginning to earn my name.
Lately, I feel another sort of calling and sense of renewed purpose in contemplating my momentous immigration to the United States.
In this age of short attention spans and shot concentrations, there seems to be (in the U.S., at least) a Renaissance of Aphorisms (a pithy observation that contains a general truth), something that I would never have imagined when I first started writing these brief arts — anachronistically, I felt — over 20 years ago. Recently, for example, I had the distinct honor to be featured in the first book of modern American aphorists, Short Flights (Schaffner Press, 2015) alongside some of this country’s finest thinkers and poets.
Living in America at a historical moment when there is mounting mistrust and murderous ignorance directed towards immigrants and, more specifically, the “Arab/Muslim world,” I also feel a kind of responsibility for my writing to serve as witness, protest as well as a kind of bridge, or peace offering, addressing our shared humanity.
One way of doing this is to try and communicate through my brief meditations the great peace and beauty found in Sufism, the mystical branch of a little understood, much-maligned faith: Islam. “Ah, to be one of them! One of the poets whose song helps close the wound rather than open it!” — Juan Ramón Jiménez.
Last year marked a kind of mid-life achievement for me, as a person and artist: 23 years of my marveling, questing and helplessly confessing in verse were bound in one book, and published by Press 53. The launch of Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993-2015) surpassed all my expectations, in Spring, when it debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases, under Middle Eastern poetry, ahead of heroes of mine such as Rumi and Gibran. I had achieved far more than I imagined when I made this decisive leap. Now, it’s dawning on me that everything accomplished, thus far, is mere apprenticeship and the real work might just be beginning.
There is a Persian proverb that says: “Epigrams succeed where epics fail.” I was so struck by this line, I chose to name my forthcoming book of aphorisms, Where Epics Fail, to be published through UK publisher, Unbound, in partnership with Penguin Random House. Composed over a 10-year period, the subtitle of my latest collection of brief meditations is Art, Morality and the Life of the Spirit — three life-giving spheres of our existence where the grand narratives seem to be failing to hold our attention or capture our imagination. “Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread,” says poet Pablo Neruda.
As an immigrant, a Muslim and a writer living in Trump’s bewildering America, I sense this peace-mission with renewed urgency. Also, as a citizen of our increasingly polarized world, I feel called upon to use my art, in some way, to try and alleviate the mounting fear and loathing, directed at those of different backgrounds/faith traditions.
The 800 or so aphorisms in Where Epics Fail are what is worth quoting from my soul’s dialogue with itself, yes, but they are, I hope, more than a series of personal reflections. On one level, they are addressed to general readers or lovers of language, and specifically resonate with those who appreciate wit and wisdom: pithy sayings, inspirational or spiritual sustenance in a sentence. On a deeper level, the aphorisms in my new book are intended for seekers, thinkers and devotees of beauty, who share my belief that it is art’s duty to try and ‘make a joyful noise.’
It is my passionate wish that, in the short meditations found in Epics, readers will encounter thoughts that might begin to liberate and heal (their wounded selves, and in turn, our wounded world). Aphorisms are headlines, but they are also the stories — inviting readers of sensitivity and conscience to breathe life into them, by living at a higher level of consciousness.