Arab-American writer is ambassador for Middle East

By Andrea Shalal-Esa
Wednesday, December 20, 2006; 2:42 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Arab-American poet, playwright and scholar Nathalie Handal is a sort of Renaissance woman for the 21st century.

She lives in New York, she's editing two literary anthologies, she's helping to produce a feature film about the poet Gibran Kahlil, and she's founding a new British-based theater company.

Like other Arab-American and Muslim writers, Handal is riding an upsurge in interest in all things Arab and Muslim since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But it's still an uphill battle for most Arab-American writers and playwrights to get published or produced in mainstream venues, said Handal, 37, whose most recent work is a CD of poetry, "Spell."

Instead, young Arab-Americans are producing their own plays and creating performance spaces for their still largely unknown community, including events such as the New York Arab American Comedy Festival last month.

"It's very much a question of eradicating invisibility and bringing awareness to who we are as Palestinians and Arabs," she said in a telephone interview between performances.

Handal's anthology, "The Poetry of Arab Women," published by Interlink Publishing in 2001, introduced many unknown Arab women poets to a wider audience, and is now used in university classes around the country.

Next year, Interlink will publish Handal's newest book, an anthology of writings by young Arabs writing in English from New Zealand to Canada to Britain to the United States.

"It's really going to show a whole new generation of Arab writers," Handal said. "Most of the people in the anthology are in their late 20s."

Handal's own poetry as "luscious and sensual," said Naomi Shihab Nye, one of the best-known Palestinian-American writers. "She's an incredible ambassador for the entire Middle East," said Nye.

Steven Salaita, assistant professor of American and ethnic American literatures at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, said Handal and others provide a counterweight to stereotyped portrayals of Arabs and Muslims.

Mainstream publishers are still keen to publish romanticized books by and about self-pitying Arab women or "stories of escape," while actively excluding works with more varied and positive portrayals of the Arab-American community, Salaita said.

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