Meet Jess Rizkallah: The Lebanese-American Whose Poem On Being Torn Between Being Arab & American Will Blow You Away

I’ve been into slam poetry for more than two years now and Button Poetry is one of my favorite YouTube channels. I love it so much that it’s the only YouTube channel for which I’ve enabled notifications.

Late last night, Lebanon-time, I get a notification that a new poem by Jess Rizkallah has been uploaded. Intrigued by the name, I open the YouTube video to find one of the most enriching, gut-wrenching poems I’ve listened to on that website in months.

In three short minutes, Jess Rizkallah was able to convey the struggles that she, a Lebanese-Arab-American woman in the United States goes through trying to juggle her Arab side with her American side, in a culture that is increasingly putting both of her components at odds. I mean just look at a creature like Donald Trump existing and at people, many of whom are Lebanese unfortunately, applauding him.

Jess Rizkallah is a Lebanese-American woman who’s trying to find herself in the dichotomy of cultures in which she is stuck. She is light-skinned enough to pass as white, but brown-souled enough for white people to call her on it and make her question who/what she is, and question she does: From the injustice her family went through, to the change of beauty paradigms in the United States that now include her and her sister (thanks Kim Kardashian?), to the politics in general that make her people feel like lessers.

The poem may be Jess Rizkallah’s personal experience, but I find it’s something most of us as Lebanese, who have been outside the country at certain points, who are immigrants, who might immigrate soon, have to deal with or have dealt with at a certain point: this need to assimilate while also wanting to maintain the semblance of who you are.

Find the transcript below:

i am but i’m not

white man says to my brown father

go blow up your own country i’m not buying a car from you

fires my father replaces him
with another white man.
the first time i hear my father cry,
my grandmother says a hail mary.
& he smashes the statuette of white jesus

we still brought it with us when we moved
to the white neighborhood where the children
broke eggs into our living room named us loud & dirty and the white father smiled at us
the next morning
as he mowed
his lawn.

& now white man leers at my brown sister
who no one believes is my sister he likes how exotic & kardashian she is all bellydancer hatching
from double apple smoke something entrancing
in the way she talks / way she walks
white man better keep walking say the Lebanese men who say they will protect my sister
they say they are her Big Brothers
i say No, actually I am her big brother.
I am all of her big brothers & I am her big Sister

so they tell me my problem: i’m too White
for them too loud & dirty won’t shut up, but they like the way i wear my shorts
& my arabic is too dull of the knife
my tongue could open them with so i let them
drive me home

then white man asks to use my phone
tells me i look like a Nice White Girl
not like those Not White girls winks. do i know what he means and suddenly
i hate him it is so easy to hate them

but it’s midnight by an alley on boylston & a strange man has
my phone so I just tell him No, I don’t know what you mean and suddenly I feel very much like a white girl because I am.

But I’m also not but when I’m scared
& I want to be, it’s not impossible it’s actually really easy.

but white girls still ask me where I’m from.

no, where are you really from? when you go back do you have to cover up?
& their boys love middle eastern girls
but oh man, all that hair would have to go

so i don’t shave anything for weeks because fuck you

then an arab man tells me he loves a woman with body hair
and i fantasize about setting fire to every individual hair on my body because fuck you

and my mother tells me i’ll never find a man if i don’t get rid of it

but she also tells me to be less american so less white? but i am white. so is she but she watched people die & still, white people called her the smelly immigrant

but white people invite me to their potlucks.
ask me to bring my mother’s food. they like me. except when i’m angry and they don’t like me. or when they don’t like my brown family.
i don’t look like most of my family.
i look like the people that hurt my family.

the census classifies middle eastern people as white but if we can be called terrorists and white people can’t then are we really the same?
is the distance between guantanomo and an acquittal just a pair of parentheses?
i’m safe in spaces others are not but invisible when my white friends make bomb jokes
when they say we deserve it
maybe i am the insurgent that hollywood says i am maybe they’re not safe from me from my tongue from its rage living in the space between
all my loud & my too much

& it’s funny
that’s the only thing white people and my people agree on
when they look at me

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When An American Nails An Arab Talent Show

Jennifer Grout is an American who doesn’t know a word of Arabic. Yet she still managed to nail the song “Ba’id Annak” by Um-Kulthum, all while playing the oud.

Many of us have American relatives and we all know exactly how difficult it is for them to learn Arabic. More often than not, their attempts at pronouncing some letters turn into pure entertainment, which makes Jennifer’s achievement even more impressive.

At a time when our TV stations are littered with contestants vying to become stars, Jennifer Grout manages to make a dent. I’m very intrigued as to what she will do next. Even over here, Americans got talent.

Lebanon Described in 1982

I’m currently reading the book “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas Friedman, in which he tells parts of his stay in Beirut between 1979 and 1984, as our civil war raged on.
While some parts so far are not entirely correct or too autobiographical to be generalized, the read is very interesting to say the least.

The excerpt I’m quoting is the most interesting part of the book so far. What rang true in 1982 still resonates today – and Friedman has to be commended for having the mind to see it, especially as an American Jewish outsider whose stay in Beirut was nothing more than an experiment.

“The real problem with the Lebanese today is that they have gotten too good at this adapting game—so good that their cure and their disease have become one and the same. The Lebanese individual traditionally derived his social identity and psychological support from his primordial affiliations—family, neighborhood, or religious community, but rarely from the nation as a whole. He was always a Druse, a Maronite, or a Sunni before he was a Lebanese; and he was always a member of the Arslan or Jumblat Druse clans before he was a Druse, or a member of the Gemayel or Franjieh Maronite clans before he was a Maronite. The civil war and the Israeli invasion only reinforced this trend, dividing Lebanese into tighter-knit micro-families, or village and religious communities, but pulling them farther apart as a nation”

This goes well with a previous description from over 140 years ago. Some things look like they’ll never change.

2012’s Most Powerful Pictures

Buzz Feed has recently published a set of 45 pictures that they’ve called 2012’s Most Powerful Pictures. And the least that can be said about these pictures is that they’re chilling. Some of them are haunting, others will bring tears to your eyes. And they are all supremely striking.

Woman suicide Greece

A Greek woman’s suicide attempt as she’s told she would be laid off work

Bangladesh Riot Beating woman with baton

A woman from Bangladesh defies the police

Palestinian girl punching Israeli soldier

A little Palestinian girl tries to punch an Israeli soldier

Syrian Father saving daughter hospital Aleppo

A Syrian father trying to save his daughter’s life after his city, Aleppo, was shelled by regime forces.

Father begging Bangladesh soldier Myanmar

A father from Myanmar begs a border control officer from Bangladesh not to deport his family back to Myanmar

An American woman mourns her son on Memorial Day

An American woman mourns her son on Memorial Day

Check out the rest of the brilliant pictures here.

Fuddruckers Lebanon Closes Down?

 

The country’s current economic situation hasn’t been kind. Buddha Bar will soon close down and rumors were swirling around about the possibility of Metropolitan shutting down too. These were later discredited. However, it seems the current situation of the country is going to add another victim to its growing list and it’s the American diner chain Fuddruckers, which opened last year.

A friend who happens to like the place had decided to visit the diner yesterday and was surprised to find it completely closed, with a ribbon in front of its main door and no parking service in sight. And you’d think seeing as November 1st is a day off for most schools in the country, the place would open in order to attract students who probably decided to go out with their friends.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if the place ended up really shutting down. Based on personal observation, business wasn’t exactly booming back when the situation in the country was better than its current state. I personally visited it once with Australian friends and wasn’t too taken by their burgers which I found to be very plain. However, we were the only people there and only three other customers came in during our one hour stay.

The question to be asked is the following: If a chain like Fuddruckers has truly shut down in Lebanon, what would that say of the much smaller businesses spread all around the country? How struggling are they currently?

And if Buddha Bar and Fuddruckers couldn’t weather down the current storm, you cannot but wonder: how thick is the bubble for the collective Lebanese population that seems to be absolutely oblivious to how horrible the economy currently is?

At the rate this is going, it won’t be long before we get another chain closing down.

Lebanon To Sue TV Series “Homeland”

An episode of the American TV show “Homeland” is titled “Beirut is Back.” No, it’s not the comeback we’d want: that of the city that is slowly but surely getting back on its feet, it is that of terrorism. Supposedly, the events portrayed were centered around Hezbollah and CIA. The main character was in Beirut to kill a Hezbollah agent who worked with Al Qaeda. That’s enough for me to put the entire things in the realms of fiction. But for your regular American Joe, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda are probably working together. They don’t know that the animosity between both groups is unsurmountable.

The entire episode was shot in Haifa. Because the Israeli city apparently can serve as a dummy for ours. Ila ma ba3da Haifa, anyone? The TV show producers didn’t even bother getting their setting to resemble Beirut – they just went with it. Their audience wouldn’t care.

So over the course of an hour, Homeland turned Beirut, Hamra Street basically, into a terrorist city where foreigners are abducted for just being foreigners, where women wear veils to go out on the streets and where it is very unsafe to basically do anything.

Based on all the above, the Lebanese government has decided to file charges against Homeland. Details can be found here.

My opinion regarding this is two-folds.

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Thoughts On Weinergate

Weinergate

The latest “scandal” to hit US politics has been named Weinergate, a play on the infamous Watergate scandal, involving president Nixon.

For those who don’t know what Weinergate is, here’s a brief description of the events.

Anthony Weiner (that’s his real last name, not a pun) is a democrat representative in the state of New York. A picture of a man in underwear got sent from his twitter account to some woman. Weiner said his account got hacked. A couple of weeks later, cropped pictures of a shirtless Anthony Weiner, which were meant for another woman to see, got leaked also. That afternoon, a press conference was held in which Anthony acknowledged that he had, in fact, sent out those pictures, as well to other more explicit ones. He added that he had been in six inappropriate relationships using social media, that he wasn’t going to resign his seat and that he had his wife’s full support. She’s “the good wife” isn’t she?

Well, soon enough, this whole thing exploded in the US news and media circuit. Everyone was bashing Anthony Weiner, up and down. Parodies about the situation were made and calls for his resignation started (the most recent of which is US president Barack Obama).

What started out as tabloid gossip has turned into an American cultural frenzy, up for discussion whenever by whomever.

But should this whole “scandal” be as big as it is?

I believe not. What Anthony Weiner did is, after all, something that everyone does. Granted, it is a representation of indiscretion and dishonesty, but don’t we all do that? Why the hypocrisy? Haven’t those people, who are bashing Weiner today, sent similar pictures before, except those pictures did not come back to haunt them yet?

With the current cultural atmosphere and political craze, Anthony Weiner was also portrayed as a harasser. I don’t understand that as well. Not only did he not have any power over the women he was sexting (they could have ignored/deleted him anytime) but I believe those women had the upper hand in their virtual relationship. If Weiner was a harasser, then what do you say about he millions who send dirty pictures and receive them?

So as Weinergate gained momentum and attention shifted to it, it also shifted away from things more important than a congressman’s nakedness. After all, how messed up does the American economy need to get before people focus on how badly the current administration is handling it? Or how long do the Americans want to go without a decent healthcare plan before they cry wolf? Or when will Americans notice more intently that their troops haven’t left Iraq?

Sometimes the most hip thing in a political scene is not the one you should be discussing. And weinergate needs to die already – enough overanalyzing a horny man’s behavior.