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Literary Journal 'Mizna' Celebrates 20 Years Of Arab American Writing


In Minnesota this weekend, the nation's first Arab American literary journal celebrated its 20th anniversary. Mizna was founded in 1999 by a group of friends, and in the two decades since, it's become a haven for artists challenging perceptions of the Middle East and its people. NPR's Hannah Allam reports from Minneapolis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One, two, three. Wahed, ithneen, talata (ph).

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Inside a historic theater in downtown Minneapolis, friends are posing for pictures against a backdrop emblazoned with an Arabic word. Mizna - it's the name of a groundbreaking literary journal that took root here in the Twin Cities. An Egyptian-born poet, Nader Helmy, kicks off the celebration.

NADER HELMY: Thank you very much for coming together tonight to support this organization that has worked for 20 years to create a space for Arab, Muslim and other Southwest Asian and North Africans to tell our own stories.

ALLAM: Mizna began as an arts section in a newsletter put out by an Arab American advocacy group. When the organizers issued a national call for submissions, the response showed that artists with Middle Eastern roots yearned for a place of their own. Mizna's executive director, Lana Barkawi.

LANA BARKAWI: They were sort of inundated by writing from all over the country - not just Minnesotan Arabs. And that was just sort of the spark.

ALLAM: Mizna was just getting off the ground when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Overnight, the community it served went from being largely unseen to being hyper-visible, stereotyped, vilified. Barkawi again.

BARKAWI: The need just became so much more urgent.

ALLAM: The journal's pages chronicle what it felt like to be an Arab in America over the last two decades - poems and essays about surveillance, exile, conflicts at home and abroad. And the pressure continues. Last year, Barkawi says Mizna tried to bring several filmmakers to Minnesota. Their visas were denied or delayed because of the Trump administration's travel restrictions.

BARKAWI: I say every year when I open the film festival, it feels like our work is more important now than ever. And I wish I could stop saying that.

ALLAM: Today, Mizna is a scrappy nonprofit that's pushed its way into the Twin Cities arts scene. Co-founder Kathryn Haddad has a play showing at a theater in Minneapolis. A Mizna-curated exhibition is on display at a museum in St. Paul. Contributors include a MacArthur genius, an Oscar nominee, prize-winning poets and authors. Full disclosure - as a young journalist in the Twin Cities in 2002, I contributed a piece to Mizna about a girls' school in Saudi Arabia.

WILLIAM NOUR: If I don't tell my stories, I fear that someone else is telling my stories the wrong way.

ALLAM: That's Palestinian American William Nour. He made his poetry debut in the journal and says the experience unlocked his creative side.

NOUR: So now I'm a playwright and a drummer. You know, it's all thanks to Mizna.

ALLAM: The celebration is in full swing. There's traditional music, platters of meat and rice.


ALLAM: It's time for the keynote speaker, Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, the second Muslim elected to Congress from Minnesota. She tells the crowd that some of her earliest cultural memories come from Arabic-language music and TV shows. Mizna's work, she says, is a reminder of the role of the arts in times of hostility.

ILHAN OMAR: And it is the artists who throughout history are at the forefront of political change. Mizna is no different.

ALLAM: Twenty years down, and Mizna organizers say they're not going anywhere.

Hannah Allam, NPR News, Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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