Ammiel Alcalay

2006 EP. NO. 3
AMMIEL ALCALAY is a poet, prose stylist, scholar, critic, translator, and political activist. Born and raised in Boston, he is a first-generation American, son of Sephardic Jews from what was once Yugoslavia. His work often examines how poetry and politics affect the way we see ourselves and the way Americans think about the Middle East.

Alcalay grew up solidly middle-class in the Boston area but learned various trades and eventually supported himself as a mechanic and carpenter, amongst other occupations. As a young teenager, he had the opportunity to meet and hang around the poets and writers of the day, such as Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini, who left an indelible mark on his sense of “place, landscape, light, speech patterns – the lectures of everything deeply familiar.”

Alcalay’s formative years would lead him to become a Middle Eastern scholar and university professor at Queens College CUNY and CUNY Graduate Center in New York. The former chair of Classical, Middle Eastern & Asian Languages & Cultures at Queens College; he is on the faculties in American Studies, Comparative Literature, English, and Medieval Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. He has taught Sephardic Literature (both Hebrew and in-translation), and a variety of courses on Middle Eastern, Mediterranean Cultures (Hebrew and Jewish literature of the Middle East, in its Islamic, Levantine Arabic, and Israeli contexts), intellectual history and its contemporary and modern reception. He also teaches 20th century American poetry and poetics, theories of translation and the social and political roles of writing and culture. In addition to teaching, Alcalay edits and publishes translations of Bosnian, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish, as well as articles and his own prose and poetry.

An activist on many domestic and international issues, Alcalay was one of the original members of the East for Peace movement in Israel in the 1980s, and he worked for Amnesty International and the Palestine Human Rights Data Base. Equally active in Sephardic cultural life for many years, Alcalay is also a co-founder of IVRI-Nasawi (New Association of Sephardi/Mizrahi Writers International), and along with Anne Waldman and others, was one of the initiators of the “Poetry Is News Coalition.” He was also instrumental in the Human Rights at Queens Memorial Lectures Project, and International Visiting Writers@Queens, Queens College.

During the war in former Yugoslavia, Alcalay became a primary source for providing access to Bosnian voices in the American media. He edited and translated For/Za Sarajevo, A Tribute to Bosnia, a bilingual English and Croatian collection published by Lusitania Magazine, which was named by Art Forum as one of 1993’s top 10 choices. He edited and co-translated Zlatko Dizdarevic’s Sarajevo: A War Journal (Henry Holt, 1994), a collection of essays that vividly describes the carnage and destruction caused by the Serbian bombing of the city; and Portraits of Sarajevo (Fromm, 1995), Dizdarevic’s follow-up to Sarajevo. Alcalay was also responsible for the publication of the first survivor’s account in English from a victim held in a Serbian concentration camp, The Tenth Circle of Hell by Rezak Hukanovic (Basic Books, 1996), which he co-translated and edited. Alcalay translated Semezdin Mehmedinovi c’s, Sarajevo Blues (City Lights, 1998), and Nine Alexandrias (City Lights, 2003). Sarajevo Blues are stories and poems written under the horrific circumstances of the recent war in Bosnia-Hercegovina; while Nine Alexandrias explores Mehmedinovic’s new home, America, in a post 9/11 environment. Both books have been prominently reviewed.

Alcalay’s literary and historical criticism includes the following: Poetry, Politics & Translation: American Isolation and the Middle East (Palm Press, 2003), which is based on a talk sponsored by the Cornell Forum for Justice and Peace in the series Critical Perspectives on the War on Terror; Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays, 1982-1999 (City Lights, 1999), a groundbreaking collection that surveys the complexities of Mediterranean cultures, including the diverse changing space of the Balkans, Middle East, North Africa and in particular the dislocations and genocidal exterminations that have provoked nationalistic and religious fanaticism; and, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993), which single-handedly redrew the cultural and literary map of the Middle East, and was chosen as one of the year’s top 25 books by The Village Voice and named one of 1993’s notable books by The Independent in London.

He also edited and co-translated a major new anthology of contemporary Middle Eastern Jewish writing, Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing (City Lights, 1996), the first book to feature twentieth-century Israeli literature of writers who were born in, or whose families originated from the Levant, Turkey, Iran, India, and the Arab world. Alcalay also translated two books from Spanish by the Cuban poet Jos Kozer, Projimos /Intimates (Barcelona, 1990), and The Ark Upon the Number (Cross-Cultural Press, 1982).

With this body of work, Alcalay has managed to publish his own poetic works, including: the warring factions (Beyond Baroque, 2002), a book-length poem dedicated to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica; and the cairo notebooks (Singing Horse Press, 1993), a “novelistic photo-poem” of the Arab East, which fuses photographs and historical accounts of the compassion, cruelty, pain of love, and the tearing apart of fateful encounters. His earlier works include A Masque in the Form of a Cento, (hole chapbooks, 2000), a book length poem/play consisting of characters such as Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Dryden that provides a didactic conversation about the state of our world, including politics and literature as it is today.

Alcalay’s poetry, prose, reviews, critical articles and translations have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, Time Magazine, The New Republic, The Village Voice, The Jerusalem Post, Grand Street, Conjunctions, Sulfur, The Nation, Middle East Report, Afterimage, Parnassus, City Lights Review, Review of Jewish Social Studies, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Michigan Quarterly, Caliban, Paper Air, Paintbrush, Mediterraneans, and various other publications. He has been a regular contributor to the two most prominent publications in former Yugoslavia, the Croatian weekly Feral Tribune and the Bosnian magazine DANI.

Current projects include co-translation (with Oz Shelach) of the Hebrew novel, Outcast, by Shimon Ballas (City Lights, 2007); A Little History, a book of essays on politics and poetics (Beyond Baroque, 2006); and The Selected Poems of Faraj Bayrakdar, a project by the New York Translation Collective, edited by Alcalay with Shareah Taleghani (Beyond Baroque, 2006). A mixed critical poetic piece, tentatively called Scrapmetal, was published by Factory School in the Heretical Texts series. In addition to teaching at CUNY, Alcalay also teaches at Bowery Arts & Science, a nonprofit organization developed by the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, whose mission is to keep the tradition of poetry alive through readings and education. He also organized, with Mike Kelleher, the OlsonNow project, at http://www.olsonnow.blogspot.com.

Through literature, history and culture, Alcalay confronts the deep resistance of change by using his personal, intellectual, cultural, spiritual, and political endeavors to help break down barriers between peoples, nations, and languages.

Last updated 2009.

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