Issue 35, Final Fringe

The World Comes Together: Dual Identity in the Poetry of Sam Hamod

by Anna L. Cates Issue 17 12.01.2008

According to Edward Said, Palestinian Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, “Many travelers find themselves saying of an experience in a new country, that it wasn’t what they expected, meaning that it isn’t what a book said it would be” (295). Often, the surprise experienced by recent immigrants upon entering America could better be described as disappointment. They may have had high hopes and dreams for a better life, only to find them not fully realized. They may miss family and friends they left behind. Or they may become bewildered, suffering from a kind of “culture shock.” Whatever the experience may entail for the creative, it can become the basis from which poems can be crafted. Such personal poems that center on culture, race, and ethnicity can sometimes reveal a “dual identity” within the poets. In one sense, they see themselves as Americans. Yet in another sense, they still identify with their countries of origin and cling proudly to their nationalities. These poets may find themselves faced with the challenging task of “resolving the claims of two potentially contradictory cultures, as well as dealing, on a more immediate level, with the conflicting demands of family love and loyalty, on the one hand, and personal growth and fulfillment, on the other.” Poems of this genre truly reflect American poetry’s multi-cultural aspect, a literature “rich in immigrant cultures,” both first and second generation (Gioia 282). Many of Sam Hamod’s poems reflect ethnic poetry’s dual identity; although he identifies with his Lebanese roots, he also expresses a sense of being an American.

Sam Hamod is among the few contemporary poets of Arab American descent. Since the 1960s, he has published poetry about his country of origin, Lebanon, as well as the Middle East in general. Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, he has published ten books and has appeared in more than 200 anthologies of literature worldwide (“Window into Palestine”), Unsettling America serving as only one example. He earned his Ph.D. from The Writer’s Workshop of the University of Iowa and has taught at Princeton, Iowa, Howard and Michigan, to name a few. He was the Director of Washington D.C.’s Islamic Center and the founder and editor of Third World News, also in the capital (Hamod “Today’s. . .”).

One aspect of the dual identity in ethnic poetry, such as that written by Sam Hamod, is a strong identification with the country of origin. Interestingly enough, this particular identity seems to be on the rise today. Many scholars consider that multiculturalism and globalization may have lessened the attachment between Americans and the nation. Americans seem to be moving in the direction of a “stronger sense of ethnic, as opposed to national, identity”. Some scholars have pointed to the possibility that ethnic identity provides a source of self esteem for cultural minorities and helps to foster accomplishment of group goals. On the other hand, a number of people maintain that ethnic identity “weakens common bonds and intensifies group conflict” (Citrin 71-2). Either way, this powerful sense of ethnic identity is clearly discernable in Sam Hamod’s poetry. In the words of Marte Broehm, editor of Hamod’s Just Love Poems for You collection, Hamod in his poetry and in person expresses “his groundbreaking ethnic honesty and directness, never flinching from his Lebanese/Muslim heritage—mixing it with his rough-house and youthful gang life in Gary, Indiana” (Hamod).

Hamod’s “Leaves,” anthologized in Unsettling America, uses concrete specifics to show dual identity in an American family. As the poem opens, Sam and “Sally” are cooking a traditional Mediterranean dish: stuffed grapeleaves. The leaves are depicted as icons of heritage; cultural emblems, which must be cherished:

		. . . we get out a package, it’s
		drying out, I’ve been saving it in the freezer, it’s
		one of the last things my father ever picked in this life . . .
		we just kept finding packages of them in the
		freezer, as if he were still picking them (lines 2-8)

Hamod is drawing a parallel between ethnicity and the grapeleaves. Just as heritage goes on and on, so do the grapeleaves; they are symbolic. His father, defender of the “faith,” takes extra precautions for their preservation, “packing them / carefully,” so they don’t “break into pieces” (9-11).

In addition to the grapeleaves, Hamod’s father himself emerges as a kind of cultural icon. Very little about him is American. He speaks and writes broken English in a heavy accent: “To my Dar Garnchildn / Davd and Lura / From Thr Jido” (12-14). In contrast, his Arabic letters are strewn everywhere in the upstairs storage.

But the marks of Americanization are still found in him. Hamod says the above composition of his father’s, “English lettering / hard for him to even print,” is “one of the few pieces of American / my father ever wrote” (lines 17-21). The language is significantly described as “American” rather than English. It is actually culture, the dual identity, that is being described here, though the family patriarch’s “American” qualities are rather inadequate, compared to his ethnic Lebanese.

Yet American advertising and mercantilism have still made their impact, having been found among the scraps of nostalgia in the upstairs storage. Hamod includes a somewhat humorous illustration, a letter dated 1932 from Charles Atlas to his father, telling him, “‘Of course, Mr. Hamod, you too can build / your muscles like mine . . .’” (26-27). The gadgets, gizmos, and gimmicks offered to him from American vendors are parts of his history; the partial legacy of the capitalist West.

Hamod’s father and all that he represents, culturally and otherwise, has deeply impacted his son, and is the reason why Hamod chose to write. The songs he sang in the car “were poems” (31). Hamod ends “Leaves” with a strong sense of ethnic identity: “Even now, at night, I sometimes / get out the Arabic grammar book / Though it seems so late” (32-34). “Leaves” becomes in actuality, a story about human language, communication, poesy; figurative “leaves,” and the importance of language to culture.

Hamod’s “After the Funeral of Assam Hamady,” also anthologized in Unsettling America, depicts this dual identity as well. The poem begins like a screenplay:

		Hajj Abbass Habhad:  My grandfather
		Sine Hussin:  an old friend of my father
		Hussein Hamod Subh:  my father

		6 p.m.
		middle of South Dakota  (lines 1-7)

This opening suggests the impact that coming to America has had upon the “cast.” America is famous for its films. Therefore, being part of a film suggests Americanization has taken place. However, it also signifies something unnatural, unreal, or fake about the roles that the cast plays. To not be, By having a dual identity, one is not a “true” American and merely an actor. The idea of being part of a movie is enhanced throughout the poem, with short stanzas that emphasize the quickness and scene-like quality of the scenario, like a fast-paced movie that slips from one piece of action to another.

The narrator of the poem, “me,” Sam Hamod, is driving a 1950 Lincoln, an American-made car. Significantly, the model is named after, arguably, the most famous and well-favored president in American history. Moreover, he carries with him in the vehicle a “Navajo blanket.” Although Navajos may not typically seem “middle American” to most readers, they are a part of the broader category that represents the oldest residents of the land, and they certainly have nothing to do with Hamod’s country of origin, Lebanon; he has adopted foreign emblems.

But a difference exists between Hamod and the older generation. They are not as Americanized as he is; their ties to the Middle East remain stronger. As they drive back from the funeral, they demand that Hamod pull over along the side of the road so that they can get out and pray, which is the primary action of the poem:

		                                             Grabbing my arm from the back seat
		“Hysht Iyat?  (What’re you yelling about?)”—my Father
		“Shu Bikkee?  (What’s happening?)—Sine Hussin

		I stop

		“It’s time to pray”—the Hajj (17-21)

But while the older generation begins their devotionals, Hamod does not join them, and instead remains “sitting behind the wheel” while “car lights scream by” (29-31). He is too Americanized to endure the nuisance of maintaining the inconvenient traditions from his homeland. They urge him to join them, but he refuses: “‘Hamod! Get over here, to pray!’ / No, Ill watch / and stand guard” (41-43). In this stanza, punctuation disappears, building suspense and quickening the pace of the action.

The whole scenario reels with irony and humor. Hamod writes:

		Three old men
		chanting the Qur’an in the middle
		of a South Dakota night

		        Allahu Ahkbar
	                    Allahu Ahkbar . . .
		in high strained voices they chant
		more cars flash by . . .
		I’m embarrassed to be with them (58-73)

Hamod’s confession is full of portent. He has become so much a part of America that he feels emotionally discomforted now by displays of his prior culture, literally embarrassed by them. Yet maintaining the old ways seems to be difficult, even to the family patriarchs. Their voices are “strained.” Continuing old practices are not easy for them. This word choice could also suggest the idea of belligerence in their unwillingness to compromise for the sake of convenience.

Yet this same word recurs a bit further into the poem, but this time is applied to an American: “people stream by, an old woman strains a gawk at them” (76). It is significant that she too is of an older generation. Hamod is suggesting that elderly people get “set in their ways” and lose the freedom to look at the world and at each other objectively, to try new things and posit fresh ideas. In an ironic way, despite their cultural differences, she and Hamod’s older companions are very much alike in this respect.

The word “Ameen,” pronounced with a thick accent reminiscent of the Middle East, signals a transition from the past to the present. Here, Hamod re-evaluates the past and concludes that he’s missed something cultural. Some parts of his roots are gone, and it fills him with longing and a desire for some degree of restoration:

		I hear them still singing
		as I travel half-way across
		to another job
		burying my dead
		I always liked trips, traveling at high speed
		but they have surely passed me
		as I am standing here now
		trying so hard to join them
		on that old prayer blanket—
		as if the pain behind my eyes
		could be absolution (95-106)

Hamod is now juxtaposing his previous conclusion, making a complete reversal. Whereas before he was siding with Americanization, now he is siding with loyalty to an ethnic identity. He feels that his ancestors have outdone him, “passed” him along life’s road. He regrets missed opportunities to partake in the cultural practices of the wizened of his people, and now those opportunities are lost. He will never have the chance be a part of them again. Hamod desires to recapture some of what he has lost, but now that he is older, he too has gotten stuck in his ways, and he cannot detach himself from his Americanization. He has a dual identity.

Hamod’s “Dying with the Wrong Name,” another selection from Unsettling America, continues the theme of dual identity. “Dedicated to all the immigrants who lost their names at Ellis Island,” this poem centers on the name-changing or abbreviation that takes place as people are displaced from their homelands to America. Hamod writes:

		These men died with the wrong names,
		Na’aim Jazeeny, from the beautiful valley
		of Jezzine, died as Nephew Sam,
		Sine Hussin died without relatives and
		because they cut away his last name
		at Ellis Island, there was no way to trace
		him back even to Lebanon . . . (Lines 1-7)

Careful word choices convey the difficulty, even the injustice, of having your name forcibly altered upon entering America. Your name, the grand title to your personal identity, is “cut” out of you. But it is not just your name that is knifed away: “the loss of your name / cuts away some other part, / something unspeakable is lost” (21-23). A loss occurs as a result of this transaction: “There is something lost in the blood, / something lost down to the bone / in these small changes” (11-13). Forced re-naming is depicted as a dirty deed: “suddenly—as cleanly / as the air, you’ve lost / your name” (15-17). Considering the air quality of New York City, the reader must conclude that this practice is quite unclean.

As the immigrant continues carrying on his or her life in America, the process of Americanization takes place and a dual identity develops. Hamod uses second person to put you in the place of such individuals: “you move / about as an American” (19-20). Your activities may be similar to the “average” American. You drive your Ford. You run your business, “a cigar store in Michigan City, and / in the back room a poker game with chips and / bills . . .” (27-29). You may procure employment at a factory, one of the “packinghouses in Sioux Falls / and Sioux City,” before ending up in Gary, Indiana (32-33). You work hard, conform to America’s protestant work ethic, and maybe even develop a degree of prosperity, “from / nothing to houses and apartments worth more than / a million—in each sweaty day in Sioux City” (33-35). You listen to the same kinds of music as other Americans, “B. B. King and T-Bone Walker” (39). You “buy time”: “each dollar another day mixing names and money” (40). And then you die to be buried “under / a stone carved in English” (47-48). But the language isn’t right, and neither are the names:

		. . . the Arabic of Hussein Hamod Subh,
		Na’aim Jazeeny, Sine Hussin
		each one sealed away
		with the wrong name (48-52)

But this conflict does receive some degree of resolution—the “world comes together,” Hamod writes. America and Lebanon fuse within the immigrant’s dual identity:

		Sine Hussin is still sitting in that
		old chair, upholstered in brushed maroon wool . . .
		you know the smell of this room, meat and fried onions,
		fresh garlic on the salad, tartness of lemon
		twists into the air, and an ease toward evening
		as you walk in
		all the silence splits into hellos and hugs
		while the world comes together
		in the small room (56-72)

A sense of family is retained. You find that English words (i.e. “Hello”) are friendly too. You discover recreant pleasures in the new land, good food to enjoy, and the rift is healed; dual identity is achieved.

But just when you have begun to forget about your country of origin, its reality re-manifests itself. You remember eating fatiyah with your forebears who came to America in 1914. Two realities exist; one is America, the other Lebanon, “that other reality, where his name, that / language, Hussein, Sine Hussin, Im’a Brahim, Asalamu Aleikum / all of these sounds were part of his name, this was that other /edge of Lebanon he carried with him, that home” (86-89). Even the sounds in names, each individual phoneme, are important. These linguistic aspects are a significant component to one’s cultural identity. Hamod shows that the Lebanese identity and culture remains in the lives of the immigrants, in the moments of “good food of the rich smells” (90), in the places where they dwell, “in this house, in these people, in this moment” (93). Hamod emphasizes that the Lebanese identity has not been lost despite a name change, rather, two identities have merged.

Williams and Clifton point out in “The 10 Lenses,” that one vital part of one’s identity is the legacies with which one associates. Legacies are historical situations or important events for members of diverse cultures, races, genders, ethnic, religious, and political groups, etc. Significant events that have impacted one’s ancestors, community, and family comprise legacies. Immigration or migration to a new country is one example of a legacy (8). The act of immigration becomes a powerful moment of extreme significance; the genesis of the dual identity.

Hamod’s “from Moving” in the Unsettling America anthology, depicts this genesis and its aftermath. Once one loses one citizenship and gains another, the dual identity forces one into a sort of limbo where one never stops moving. Torn between two places, two cultures, one wavers back and forth, seeking to stabilize one’s identity.

The poem uses the extended metaphor of being lost at sea to describe the experience of emigrating from one nation to another. Through figurative language, a feeling of displacement is re-created for the reader.

The poem’s title, “from Moving,” is almost like an explanation for the phenomenon that it portrays: the aftermath of moving, of immigration, as if to say, “I got messed up like this from moving.” It is as if one never stops moving after that point. Perpetual confusion results, and a feeling of separation, as members of an extended and nuclear family float in the sea, out of reach of each other. This sense of separation is furthered through the technique of adding extra spaces between select words:

		so we move now
		my new wife and I, my children
		move further away          like lost
		shipmates crying to me for help (Lines 1-4)

Hamod conveys a desperate yearning to understand, with double entendre. He speaks of his children, “trying to grasp at these new patterns in the early morning darkness,” (8) as if they are both reaching out for some flotsam and striving to comprehend their new world. The idea of incomprehension is encouraged with repetition of the words “wondering” and “wonder.”

But despite the separation and confusion, the reader does have a glimpse of some degree, of American identity. Hamod writes, “. . . I sometimes think about a life / I’ve never known except for a little while / in some old country of time that I remember my father and / grandfather / talking about, when I kept wanting to go out and play baseball” (17-20). He wants to play sports with the rest of the American boys. He feels distanced now from the traditions, ways, and thought processes of his ancestors.

But the “reality” of his country of origin won’t abate. This reality relates to a “time” when the family seemed connected: “where at least the whole tribe moved together / it was that way in my “old country” of / stories of truth” (23-25). Whether or not “reality” is a time or a place remains ambiguous, but this confusion is just more of the aftermath of moving.

Hamod uses italics and quotation marks to emphasize key terms. Togetherness, something that has been compromised, is emphasized with italics, as is the term “old country”, with quotation marks, conveying the idea that this is a phrase Hamod has heard over and over but does not relate to as strongly as those who keep nostalgically repeating it. The idea that the older generation’s dual identity is not nearly 50/50, but leaning more towards the country of origin, is a reiterated theme in Hamod’s poems dealing with this subject.

The poem ends with extra spaces between words that continue to play up the idea of separation:

		before them
		everyone          everything stuck together          things stayed
		and when they moved
		grandfathers          grandmothers          fathers (26-29)

Here the poem trails off and ends rather abruptly, as if the family members have lost contact for good now. They have floated away in the currents, out of sight of each other. This conveys the idea that when one immigrates to a new country, there are always family members that one leaves behind that one may never see again. In addition, a parent may have always imagined raising a child within the standards of their home country, only to find that they’ve lost that child and are now raising an American.

Sam Hamod agrees that he has a dual identity, but to him it goes beyond this. In an email to the author, he relays:

i am even more than those two identities, as u read about my life in the back of Just Love Poems…i see myself as more of the “the world” than just limited to that because of my background in travel and work in what is called “the third world.” s u read more the poems, u’ll see what i mean. look closely at the poems in Unsettling America and u’ll see what i mean, and then the books will open up even more for u. (“Identity . . .”)

Such poems as “Leaves,” “After the Funeral of Assam Hamady,” “Dying with the Wrong Name,” and “from Moving,” all portray the dual identity of Sam Hamod, an American with Lebanese roots. In an email to the author, he affirms that his poems “. . . are autobiographical and all true, not fictive” (“Re: . . .”). His experience, as depicted in the content of these poems, parallels that of many other ethnic poets. His portrayal of dual identity supports the researched conclusions of those scholars who see less of a sense of solo American nationalism within the U.S. populace, and more of a hybrid self-conception, perhaps even a greater sense of ethnic identity than in years past. As Hamod conveys in his poem, “At Fakhani, The Shoe: Lebanon, After the Bombing,” from his The Arab Poems, The Muslim Poems collection:

		. . . what am I
		to say, a stranger now
		to my parent’s land, in the
		Bright Washington afternoon . . .
		. . . feeling grief in
		Arabic saying it in English . . . (Lines 53-60)

In the final analysis, Hamod shows that we are all Americans, but we come from many different lands.

Works Cited

Citrin, Jack., Cara Wong, and Brian Duff. “The Meaning of American National Identity: Patterns of Conflict and Consensus.” Rutgers Series on Self and Social Identity 3 (2001): 71-100. 7 June 2008 .

Gioia, Dana and X. J. Kennedy. An Introduction to Poetry. New York: Pearson, 2007.

Hamod, Sam. “After the Funeral of Assam Hamady.” Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. Ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York: Penguin Group, 1994. 288-292.

Hamod, Sam. The Arab Poems The Muslim Poems: New and Selected Poems. San Marcos: Cedar Creek Press, 1999.

Hamod, Sam. “Dying with the Wrong Name.” Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. Ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York: Penguin Group, 1994. 130-132.

Hamod, Sam. “from Moving.” Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. Ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York: Penguin Group, 1994. 19-20.

Hamod, Sam. Just Love Poems for You. Ed. Marte Broehm. San Marcos: Contemporary Poetry Press, 2006.

Hamod, Sam. “Identity . . .” E-mail to the author. 9 June 2008.

Hamod, Sam. “Re: Questions 4 Professor Hamod.” Email to the author. 17 June 2008.

Hamod, Sam. “Leaves.” Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. Ed. Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York: Penguin Group, 1994. 132-133.

Hamod, Sam. “Today’s Alternative News.” Requested Article. 26 Apr.-May 2006. Today’s Alternative News. 8 June 2008 .

Said, Edward. “Crisis [in orientalism].” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge. New York: Longman, 1988. 294-309.

Williams, Mark A. The 10 Lenses: Your Guide to Living & Working in a Multicultural World. Sterling: Capital Books, 2001. 7 June 2008 .

“Window Into Palestine.” Sabra/ Shatilla: in Sorrow Poem by Sam Hamod. 2007. 8 June 2008.

Anna L. Cates

Anna L. Cates

Read More

Born in Brunswick, Maine, Dr. Anna L. Cates received her BA in English from Asbury College before earning an MA in English from Indiana State University and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction/English. She’s a recipient of the I.S.U. Van Til Graduate Award for Writing in Spring 2001 and is currently working on an MFA in Creative Writing from National University. Cates resides in Wilmington, Ohio and enjoys nature, animals (especially dogs), writing, literature, music, and art.