Walking into the back room of Magers & Quinn Booksellers, someone who didn’t know the night’s schedule of events would have assumed that they had happened upon a strangely located family reunion rather than the release party of a literary journal. Between tall shelves housing the bookshop’s eclectic assortment—volumes on topics ranging from math and science to weddings, grilling and agriculture—the gathered crowd chatted, excitedly greeting newcomers. Every new person who entered the room seemed to immediately spot a familiar face and I had to get out of the way of several excited individuals beelining their way through the room to be welcomed with hugs and kissed cheeks.
The crowd had gathered that evening to celebrate and hear readings from the last two issues of Mizna, an Arab- American literary journal based in the Twin Cities that has been publishing for fifteen years. As evident by the palpable sense of family in the room that night, Mizna has built a strong following and community in those fifteen years and is now involved with various other initiatives besides the publishing of their journal. Mizna is a participant of Northern Spark, a yearly Minneapolis arts festival, and is also developing Mizna Pages, a project to bring the journal and accompanying study guides into local classrooms, as well as having their contributing writers visit and teach in these classrooms.
The evening’s program showcased Mizna’s commitment not only to literature and artistic expression but also to exploring social issues. The first speaker to take the stage, Macalester professor Khaldoun Samman, spoke about the social usages of food, which he wrote about in the introduction to Mizna’s recent food themed journal. Professor Samman addressed among other things, the appropriation of traditional Palestinian foods into Israeli culture and the resulting silencing of Palestinian cultural history. He also looked at the more broadly applicable popularization of Middle Eastern and Arab foods in western cultures, postulating that Arab food seemed to be more palatable to westerners than Arab culture as a whole.
The next two speakers shared poems they published in the food issue, which sought to put food into a supporting role to tell larger stories. The first poet explored the connection between food, family and cultural differences in a piece entitled “Steak and Grape Leaves” in which he detailed the inner conflicts of being a gay, Arab man by contrasting life with his boyfriend, grilling steaks, to eating stuffed grape leaves at his family home with parents who believe his sexual identity to be a phase. The second poet drew a picture of his childhood in Nazareth, comparing his mother’s cooking to a religious, mystical practice and then detailing the emotional journey he took as a grown man to replicate his mother’s cooking after her death: “I was praying mother into the dough” he says of the experience.
More performances from the most recent journal followed, each demonstrating a unique style and perspective, but it was the finale of the evening, orchestrated by the editors of Mizna, that powerfully reminded the audience of the important social issues Mizna is trying to address. Over twenty audience members were asked to read tweets written using the hashtag #CivilPoem, which was started at a Mizna conference and is a call to action to defend the free exchange of ideas and to combat the censorship of artists and academics. The poems, in 140 characters or less, were poignant and raw, made more powerful by the fact that they were read by audience members, reminding us that there is unheard struggle in our communities too, struggle that we need to lend our voices to.
Mizna will be holding its next event, entitled Arab American Soundscapes: An Evening of Music, Poetry and Performance, on April 9th at the Cedar Cultural Center.