Table of Contents
Chapter One: Anglophone Arab Fiction
2-1 Memory and Home
2-2 Double-Consciousness and Racialization of Arabs
2-3 Identity and Representational Dilemma
Chapter Two:Post-9/11 Politics of Writing
3-1 The Realities of Post-9/11 and Anglophone Arab Literary Responses
3-2 Anti-Arab Sentiment and the Urgencies of Expression
Chapter Three: De-oriantalizing the Arab
4-1 Hybridity and In-Betweenness
4-2 Towards Intercultural Understanding
This book is about Arab Anglophone fiction produced after 9/11 in the United States. It attempts to analyze how the writers of such a period portray the life of Arab Americans in a post-9/11 America. The study shows how Arab Americans dealt with the consequences of 9/11. It reflects several aspects that characterize Arab American writing as a diasporic narrative, such as memory and home, racialization, anti-Arab sentiment and urgency of expression, and how Arab Americans responded to the terrorist attack of 9/11. The study also investigates the role of Anglophone Arab fiction in paving the way for more intercultural understanding and attempting to de-orientalize the Arab. What I found is that some writers often try to negotiate with the American culture in order to arrive at an identity that incorporates multiple elements from both the culture of origin and the host culture. Hybrid and cosmopolitan in their approach, such writers also attempt to be cultural mediators, and they show much concern about subverting the normative judgment and stereotypical image that has fixed the Arab American. Works of fiction produced by Anglophone Arab writers, such as Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land, Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, and Alia Yunis’ The Night Counter represented how Arab Americans faced difficulties after 9/11 in terms of identity construction, cultural identification, and the conflicting sense of belonging and non-belonging. These works genuinely depict the life of Arab Americans and give a better understanding of who Arabs are. They also interlink both the Arab culture and American culture, celebrating both cultural identities.
Anglophone Arab literature has been in existence for more than a century, but it only gained a wider recognition after the tragic incident of September 11, 2001. Since that time, there has been a dramatic increase in publication by Anglophone Arab writers. This literary burgeoning, as seen by Lisa Majaj, reflects in part the shifting historical, social, and political contexts that have pushed Anglophone Arab writers to the foreground, creating both new spaces for their voices and new urgencies of expression, as well as the flourishing creativity of these writers (62). Due to such and many other factors, Anglophone Arab fiction came to the limelight with many emergent voices, expressing the anguish and the harsh experiences of Arabs and Muslims in an attempt to talk to and negotiate with the American culture.
Geoffrey Nash explained that there is a qualitative difference between Arabic literature, Arabic literature translated into English, and a literature conceived and executed in English by writers of Arab background (11). Indeed, the Arab Anglophone novel is different from the one written in Arabic and translated into English. Since colonial time, there have been many Arabic novels which were translated into English and contributed to introduce Arabic culture to Western readers. But the Anglophone Arab novel is uniquely different in the sense that it encompasses various elements from the host literary tradition and culture as well as the literature and culture of its original place. In this regard, Zahia Salhi has also explained that such a hybrid literature is “neither entirely Arab nor fully English, but instead occupies a place where both home and host cultures converge, intersect, and even clash, resulting in a third culture”(45). Interestingly, it is the hybrid nature of the Anglophone Arab literature that makes it a promising literary and cultural field of research, not only for its minority status, but also because it would serve as a primal bridge of communication between the Americans and the Arab world in a time during which ongoing conflict and tension is frequently growing between the two sides. Culturally blended, this fiction would provide the Western readers with fresh and authentic portrayal of the Arab world, away from what has been transmitted to them through Orientalists’ works as well as manipulated media channels. Thus, in giving a vivid and authentic picture of the Arab world with its diverse cultural manifestations and its religious and political specificity, Anglophone Arab fiction is more likely to maximize the possibilities of constructing cross-cultural bridges between the West and the Arab world. Culturally, Arabs have been misrepresented and misunderstood since the first encounter between the Arabic culture and the Western one. According to Driss Ridouani, “the Western representation of Muslims and Arabs is not a recent fabrication, but it had been operational and deep-rooted in the West conceptualization ever since the first contacts with Arabs and Muslims” (4). What he emphasized is that the West preserves a persisting conceptualization of Arabs and Muslims as an alien “other” or rather “enemy” (12).
Anglophone Arab authors increasingly demonstrate both the diversity of the Arab cultural roots on which they draw and the diverse ways in which these cultural roots play out in the West. For some, Arab-Anglophone literature will always be about the narrative of leaving behind one identity and acquiring a new one. For others, Anglophone Arab literature takes its place on a global scale, as a constituent of a worldwide Arab diaspora in which cultural ties can be revived. It is this notion of “cultural ties” which is of great interest to me and which I will elaborate and discuss in my thesis in an attempt to promote cultural understanding. This is in light with what Layla Al Maleh stated about the capacity of Anglophone Arab writers to play a crucial role in disseminating through the wider world their images of hyphenated Arabs and of the Arab people as a whole, thereby fostering acceptance through understanding (5). Despite the obstacles, Arab Anglophone writers have a great role to play in the Western literary sphere. Al Maleh cheerfully indicated that “nothing matches the vitality with which Arab-American literature has been carving a place for itself in mainstream American writing as well as among hyphenated literatures on the American continent” (21). Such fiction that fuses foreign linguistic backgrounds with Arabic cultural context would, indeed, contribute to the reshaping of bridges of cross-cultural and trans-cultural dialogue away from political, geopolitical and socio-economic arenas.
In today’s world, there is much tension growing between the West and Arabs/Muslims due to several factors. Arab Americans face and suffer from this ongoing tension that causes prejudice, suspicion and racial discrimination. Arabs have been misrepresented in the Western literatures as well as the mainstream media. Consequently, there is much misunderstanding and a gap of communication between the Middle East and the West that requires bridging. Hence, the significance of my research topic springs from its emphasis on initiating a constructive dialogue between the West and Middle East, using Anglophone Arab fiction as a cultural marker as it is written in a language accessible to all. More importantly, Arab-Americans are victims of racial discrimination because they are viewed as enemies of the West, a hostile stereotyping that has been formulated over and over again. As minority groups, those hybrid Arabs give my research its due significance as it will address, study and analyze the fiction produced by some Anglophone Arab writers who neither extol nor demonize the host culture or their culture of origin, offering an opportunity of compromise. It is through this fiction that the Anglophone Arab writers can contribute to subvert the traditional stereotypes that have been attached to Arabs in the Western hemisphere. Therefore, a great burden is placed on the Anglophone Arab writers as they are entitled to voice their experiences in the West as well as to unravel the threads that knotted the devastating image of Arabs and their culture. My thesis attempts to examine the way in which the works by authors of Arab origin reject the boundaries once drawn by Orinetalists, and show how these works blur the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘here’ and ‘there’. What I intend to do is to broaden the scope of current investigations by moving beyond the dilemma of 9/11. In my project, I will also explore the role of English, as an international language, and how it could be used as medium of communication that could alleviate the tension and build bridges of communication between the East and the West. My argument is that English could be used by Anglophone Arab writers to initiate a dialogue between the Western culture and the Arabic/Islamic culture. In today’s globalized world, there is a need to know the “other” more closely and to promote mutual understanding between the two sides, rather than romanticizing and fossilizing Anglophone Arab fiction in the labyrinth of displacement, split identity and inclusion.
Thus, my attempt will be to explore the extent to which Anglophone Arab writers employ literary strategies to subvert the stereotypes commonly associated with Arabs in the US, and how they look at the Arab American communities from within in order to examine some of the problems they encounter. For this purpose, I selected three novels Once in a Promised Land (2007) by Laila Halaby, The Hakawati (2008) by Rabih Alameddine and The Night Counter (2009) by Alia Yunis. In the works of these young Arab-American writers, a sense of in-betweenness and hybridity is prevalent and highly pronounced; a feature that the first Anglophone Arab writers reflected in their works, a kind of ‘metropolitan’ hybridity ensconced in the heartland of both national and transnational citizenship that would undoubtedly help them negotiate the ‘identity politics’ of their place of origin and their chosen abode with less tension. It is in these works that a move beyond stereotypes is initiated; an attempt to de-orientalize the Arab. This is the major reason why I selected these works as my thesis primary texts. My approach for studying these texts will be a mix of many modes of reading, including deconstructive, psychoanalytic reading, and narratology.
The first chapter discusses the concept of home and memory and their manifestation in Anglophone Arab fiction. The chapter also reflects upon the issues of identity, representation, double-consciousness, and racialization of Arabs which featured prominently after 9/11 in Arab American writing. The second chapter is a study of the Arab American literary responses to the stereotyping of the Middle East in the wake of 9/11 attacks. The chapter also addresses the urgency of expression and discusses the possible ways through which Arab Americans can express themselves to the American society. In the third chapter, hybridity and in-betweenness are highlighted as they grant the author a unique point of view that they can reflect in their works.
Chapter One: Anglophone Arab Fiction
My attempt in this chapter is to draw a kaleidoscopic image that would reflect the various perceptions and conceptualizations of ‘Home’ among the authors of Anglophone Arab fiction in the United States. Moreover, this chapter investigates and presents the role memory plays and how it evokes a sense of belonging and nostalgia among such writers. As double-consciousness coupled with racialization characterizes the fiction of Anglophone Arab authors of the early phases, in this chapter I also explore the identity politics as well as the representational dilemmas that Arab Americans have been baffled with and subjected to and which are manifested in the novels under study.
2-1 Memory and Home
Memory and home have a fundamental role in the emergence of Anglophone Arab fiction. Memory connects the individual to his remote past; his own origin, heritage and history. That is what drove Salman Rushdie in his essay Imaginary Homelands (1992) to posit that, for writers like him, it is “present that is foreign and the past is home” (9). Memory and nostalgia are truly entwined and Rushdie and writers in his position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, as he explained, are “haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt” (10). Memories, in fact, are the source or flashbacks that enable diasporic writers to construct an imaginary homeland, as they also have an indelible effect on constructing an individual’s identity. Creating a collective sense of identity, memories of home also thrust a feeling of belonging. At the core of diasporic writing, there is usually longing to reunite and, in such a case, the past acts as a catalyst. “Memory becomes a pretext that frames the content of the authors’ experience and a pretext to construct a dual or juxtaposed picture of their mental make-up” (Al Maleh 37). However, as Naeimeh et.al argued, “the strife for preserving memories of homeland may result in generating inauthentic precedent imagery, and such obsessive desire to mystify the imagined origin may lead to fictionalization” (386).
The images and memories of home have significance in diasporic narratives. Memory offers the individual as well as the society as a whole with a temporal map. Naeimeh et.al have argued that as “most migrant communities might feel second class citizens or ‘other’ in their new host cultural society, their reproduction of their imagined homelands is a kind of a defense mechanism to preserve their selfness, a way to integrate a plausible sense of identity, and for them, this sense of nostalgic production of past is a mixture of national prejudice along with a sense of detachment to dissolve, in the host culture” (387). Nonetheless, the positivity and negativity of the portrayal of home in diasporic narratives is not one-sided. Female writers, for instance, might display less nostalgia towards home than any other groups, since home for them might merely be reminiscent of patriarchy. For exilic writers, home might be portrayed positively as they feel that they were forced to leave their homeland. This coercive expel leads them to nurture a nostalgic feeling, and thus leaving them troubled whether to assimilate or to keep on imagining the home they left behind. Those who left their countries voluntarily, seeking temporary employment or settlement, would present manifold attitudes towards the host culture as well as varied imagery of their home. In all such cases, what can be noted is that memory provides raw material for picturing home whether positively or negatively. As Naeimeh et.al pointed out, “images of homeland are hugely dependent on the personal motifs, social patterns and cultural paradigms of the remembering agent” (388).
Extolling and mystifying home are common trends in diasporic writings, and they play a role in the formation of identity. Home, in this sense, becomes transcendental, portrayed and re-portrayed over and over again. Other than identity construction, home and memory also engender a sense of sensibility and responsibility towards homeland, culture, and heritage. As soon as they set foot on the host land, most immigrants turn to be more nationalist. Nevertheless, the matter for Arab Americans seems to be perplexing. Arab-Americans, for instance, are not a homogenous entity. There are Arab Muslims, Arab Jews, Arab Christians, Arab Druze, and Arab Copts as well. For each of these groups, home is understood differently. Since there have been several attempts to empty the Middle East of Christians due to the communal violence inflicted upon them in the last two decades, Arab-Christians would undoubtedly view the images and memories of home with less concern. The same is true for Arab-Jews. Even for Arab-Muslims, the most feared and hated group in the United States, home is conceptualized in different and numerous terms.
William Safran identifies six characteristics that feature the categorizing of diasporic communities. The first feature, as he mentions, is the “dispersal from center to periphery, a creation of a collective memory, non-belonging to or indeed non-acceptance by the host country, a strong wish to return to the ideal homeland, a belief that the homeland will be peaceful, secure and prosperous and lastly a continuous relationship with the home country and its people” (84).The sense of non-belonging can really be debated if we take into account the Arab American situation in the United States today. The feeling of non-belonging is clearly depicted in the works of some of the early Arab American writers, and came into a full picture immediately after 9/11 attacks. But for Arab American writers who were born, raised and educated in the United States, and whose memories hardly conjecture up home, the idea of the so-called non-belonging is really blurred, as they are struck in-between ‘belonging’ or ‘non-belonging’. Safran has explained this by saying that “some diasporas stuck in the host culture as there is no homeland to return to, and even if a homeland may exist, it is not a welcoming place with which they can identify politically, ideologically, or socially or because it would be too inconvenient and disruptive, if not traumatic, to leave the diaspora”(91). In the meantime, Safran asserts that “the myth of return serves to solidify ethnic consciousness and solidarity when religion can no longer do so, when the cohesiveness of the local community is loosened, and when the family is threatened with disintegration” (91).
Though they immigrated in hope that they would find a better life and escape the bitter situation imposed at home, most diasporas are troubled even abroad. “The concept of homelessness for migrant, exilic, deterritorialized, ethnic, transnational or diasporic people, as Esra Oztarhan views, is considered as one of the major troubles of existence” (63). People of such categorizations really live their lives in a state of uneasiness, and sometimes later generations strive against the notion of not knowing which home they belong to. Critics have developed distinct approaches that address the theories about diasporic people and their respective situations in terms of belonging and rootlessness. The first group of thought assumes that being a migrant without a home creates a constant loss and pain for the individual. Accordingly, theories proposed by this group of thought emphasize the fact that being away from home always has negative connotations. On the contrary, the second group of theories posits that lacking a homeland literally or metaphorically opens a new dimension for people who are in diaspora. According to this group, as rootlessness and homelessness create a sense of constant uneasiness, such feeling can be positive in some ways for the individuals. For them, belonging to a home means constant stability for the individual with no movement at all, hence no wish to change. They claim that, on the contrary, moving in and out of homes or cultures brings development for the migratory selves. The third group seems to accept a mid position, favoring a fluid concept of home neither as a real nor an imagined place. Ian Chambers, in line with the second group of thought, highlights that “moving or traveling and changing home creates an aura of freedom” (3). Being mobile, for him, is not as “a site of estrangement and entrapment, but he rather comments that “exile knows that homes are always provisional, and borders and barriers which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory can also become prisons” (2). The theories about the positive aspects of diaspora also mention the plurality and importance of homes in diasporic peoples’ lives. Sara Ahmed claims that “home is not a particular space but can be more than one space, and she is of the opinion that exilic people falsely perceive the concept of home as something precious and desirable as a fetish object” (65). In today’s shrinking world, I think that Sara Ahmed’s idea of having more than one home either as a result of forced or voluntary migration can be positive for people as it challenges the notion of a fixed or unitary home or origin to belong to (65). In spite of the proclaimed negative connotations of homelessness being defined as instability along with constant longing for home with uneasiness, Ahmed asserts that sometimes belonging to a home is, too, the actual source of discomfort as it ties the individual to a fixed territory, a fixed identity with no motivation for change or movement. And in this respect, having a single home to which one belongs can be, for some critics, a source of uneasiness as well, with no movement, no change and a fixed identity.
Ian Chambers asserts that “migrancy is a movement in which neither the points of departure nor arrival is certain. It is, according to him, a site of “constant mutation…always in transit with no promise of homecoming” (5). Mentioning no promise of returning home, Chambers discusses an identity construction which is also, in his view, “an incomplete journey, no fixed identity or final destination (25). Such instability causes a constant uneasiness for immigrants and a never ending nostalgia about home. Reacting to this state, Sara Ahmed thinks that “the impossibility of returning to one’s homeland, results in a lifelong feeling of out of space” (343). As these subjects suffer from a sense of longing to return to their roots, Sara Ahmed agrees that “even the act of remembering the past and imagining home brings discomfort and, as there is no solution to this discomfort, but this feeling also ruins the feeling in the present space they are in” (63). According to Esra Oztarhan, “home is sometimes an obscure, a utopia, a non-fixed geography where nobody can prosper” (64). Many scholars consider the homes of diasporic people as unreal. Salman Rushdie, for instance, admits that “there is a loss which exiles and immigrants have as a result of their experiences” (10). This loss, in his view, creates fiction with imaginary homelands.
What can be observed is that the concept of home has various articulations. It cannot be considered as a unified experience; it rather takes its shape as a consequence of the ongoing interaction between the present and past as well. Sara Ahmed states that “the definitions of home shift across a number of registers: home can mean where one usually lives, or it can mean where one’s family lives or it can mean one’s native country” (338). Based on such definitions, one may have multiple homes, as in the case of Alia Yunis and Laila Halaby. It is clearly apparent in Laila Halaby’s novel Once in a Promised Land, in which, Salwa, one of the major characters in the novel is Palestinian by blood, Jordanian by residence, and American by citizenship. One may explore the extent to which memory influences the perception of home, but what about those who have lived for a long time in a foreign country? Taking it further, what about those who were born, raised and educated in a host country, a country that does not belong to their parents but may belong to them? What does home mean to such writers, Alia Yunis and Rabih Alameddine, for instance? Thus, it is only through Anglophone Arab fiction that we can derive plausible answers to such questions. In almost all the works of fiction produced by Anglophone Arab writers, we come across various conceptualizations of ‘home’. What one easily observes is that through the three phases of Arab immigration to the United States ‘home’ was perceived differently. For the writers of the first phase of immigration, ‘home’ was not an issue of much significance. As Al Maleh explained, “they reflected in their works a sense of collective optimism, celebration, exultation, and there was a kind of ‘metropolitan’ hybridity ensconced in the heartland of both national and transnational citizenship, a hybridity that undoubtedly helped them negotiate the ‘identity politics’ of their place of origin and their chosen abode with less tensions than their successors” (4). “There was, according to Al Maleh, not a literature of displacement, there was the typical ‘now’ and ‘then’, the ‘here’ and ‘there’, the ‘them’ and ‘us’, but the writers maintained their balance amidst the disjunctions of temporal and spatial distance and to have preserved their dual allegiance” (4). In a way contrary to their successors, writers of such phase viewed the past and the present critically as they did not betray their cultural memories nor did they disclaim their past.
More than expected, the backlash of the horrific incident of 9/11 revived a strong sense of home and nostalgia among Arab American communities. According to Liza Marchi, “during the period of the third wave of immigration, stereotypical and biased representations of Islam and the Arab world began to be increasingly diffused by the media to the point of damaging the status, reputation, and self-image of the Arab population and Arab American community”(7). Orfalea has also stated “that 9/11 represents a crucial moment in Arab American history, as it subjected the Arab American community to an extreme visibility and gave rise to feelings of deep vulnerability” (312). Thus, we see fear, despair, anger as well as vulnerability reflected in the works by Arab American authors published after 9/11. Arabs, indeed, faced collective hysteria that destabilized their emotional state and, consequently, made them feel as if they were betrayed. They came to the United States to pursue their dreams, yet after 9/11 America became for Muslims and Arabs a land of no promise. Such feeling is clearly portrayed in Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land (2007), where we find a couple enjoying their life in America, but when the incident of 9/11 took place their situation turned upside down. Salwa and Jassim are the two main characters in the novel. They knew each other in Jordan and they got married after then. Salwa was born in the United States, but her parents were unsuccessful in attaining the American dream. Meeting Jassim, whom she later married, at Amman University where he was visiting from the United States and giving a guest lecture, ignited in her a hope of returning to the United States. Indeed, they marry and settle in Arizona. Their lucrative jobs there, Jassim working as a hydrologist and Salwa as a banker and a real estate agent, made them forget Jordan, even temporarily, and also lulled them to believe that America is their home. Their luxurious life there marked their attainment of the American dream, yet 9/11 brought a sharp turn in their life. It was only at the wake of the 9/11 that they began to rethink and consider their home, and therefore, they gradually became fully aware of their Arab identities as they realized how monstrous America is, tricking immigrants and their children into believing the American dream. What one realizes is that Jassim and Salwa’s infatuation of America and their embrace of a comfortable American life style deceived them into nurturing a sense of American belonging. It was only the daily prejudice, suspicion, and downright racism after 9/11 that raised in them a sense of injustice and outrage which turned later into a nostalgic feeling.
It is in Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land that we find that tragedies of the 9/11 compel the characters to reexamine their past, allowing their memories to flash and replay over and over again. In their post-9/11 life, the straight and narrow were not normal as they were before but curved and widened, leaving them paralyzed with disturbed minds. Salwa recalls her grandmother’s childhood tales trying to find meaning in them. When a customer came to the bank to deposit an amount of money, Salwa offered to serve that customer who never stopped staring at her. Out of no curiosity but suspicion, the customer asked Salwa where she was from. Salwa answered saying that she was from Jordan, but unfortunately the woman, who was the customer, flared up. “What does that mean?” “Does it mean that you will steal my money and blow up my world?” the customer burst out, leaving Salwa’s desk and seeking somebody else’s service. Apparently, the novel portrays the mistrust that surfaced overnight. Salwa was really numbed to realize that her dream and interest in her job all evaporated. Her husband, Jassim, kept assuring her that it would pass, as he was confident that it was momentary. But when he himself tasted the same bitterness, he began to rethink the matter over and over again.
Each day that Jassim had gone swimming since that fateful Tuesday when the planes hit, his mind had not cleared on entering the water but rather captures memories, mostly of home, and rolled them around for the duration of his swim. The memories were neither pleasant nor unpleasant; it was as though he had a stack of DVDs to review that could be seen only while he swam (Laila Halaby 62).
Though Jassim and Salwa are Americans citizens, this only augmented their agony. They could not handle this anymore, nor could they tolerate the violent racist actions that targeted them. Salwa, even though she is a holder of an American passport, asks for deportation. One can sense how severe the treatment against them was, and consequently home, for them, is the only home, as America turned to be sham. Tragedy made them re-examine their past and allow their memories to be revived.
After completing his master’s degree, Jassim was struggling whether to return to his home or to stay in the United States. He finally made up his mind and left the United States. While in Jordan, Jassim was invited to deliver a lecture about water. His friend introduced him saying:
I’d like to introduce to you a very dear friend of mine, who is one of Jordan’s great minds, with so much to offer….He has been temporarily wooed by the seductive swish of America’s broad hips, but he promises that he will return to us one day soon to fix our water problems. Professor Jassim Haddad is a purist and has come to talk to us today about his first love: water (65).
Unfortunately, home was not prepared for Jassim. He spent much time looking for a job in Jordan but all his dreams were shattered. Consequently, he decided to return to the United States to pursue his PhD. Salwa was not at all comfortable after 9/11.The United States for her turned to be “ghula”, meaning a monster. She laments:
They say that once upon a time a peasant girl was born far from olive trees and falafel stands in a land where fathers-and often mothers too-labored so that their children could change their fates. She was born to parents who were refugees from their real home, a land snatched away and reworked, a story taken and rewritten (Laila Halaby 331).
The “ghula”, meaning monster in Arabic, as Salwa insisted on calling America, was suspicious by nature (Halaby 334).After 9/11, girl, Salwa grew sadder, longing for her home and yet somehow unable to return. “Each time the girl mentioned her homesickness, the old woman, the United States, offered her a new gift to assuage her sadness…”( Halaby 334).
On the contrary, writers, such as Rabih Alameddine and Alia Yunis, represent home as a fluid and porous site of inhabitance subjected to a constant transformation and mediation (Marchi 31). While for other writers, home was of greater significance and their characters are usually set between the host culture and the culture of origin. Such writers were able to recognize the significance of redrawing the threads of encounter between home and abroad, subverting those binary oppositions between the country of origin and the new homeland. Home, for Rabih Almandine, triggers memories of history, civil war, loss and despair, and he, therefore, finds his America as a safe haven. Despite all this, in his novel The Hakawati, he crafted stories within stories with an aim to break the reader’s preconceived ideas and rattle the misconceptions about the Middle East. Osama Al-Kharat, the protagonist, who has been living in the United States for years, returns to Lebanon to see his dying father. In the novel, there are a number of tales, anecdotes, and fables drawn from various sources, Quranic, Biblical, traditional and historical, and are stitched altogether with humorous threads that grab the reader’s fascination further. The author was capable to juxtapose both truth and fiction, delineating the misery of today’s world and the sorrow of the ancient one. As the family reunites in Beirut to stand vigil at the dying father, Osama beguiles them with his stories which could be described as palliative, as they all gathered to ease the dying father. Through his stories, Osama proves that his stay in the United States, with all the mirth and wealth, could not erase his memory of his culture and heritage.
Alameddine goes deeper and deeper into the Arab ancient culture peeling a layer after layer, rather than deploring nostalgia. He dazzles the reader with stories of lust, adventure, murder, scandal, and war, all drawn from the Western and the Eastern traditions, a celebration of both civilizations that he intends to mark. He, in one way, shows how diverse the Middle East is. Rather than dispersing gloom, Alameddine’s hakawati thrills his audience with stories that picture the complex Middle East. In another way, his perception of the world is macrocosmic rather than microcosmic.
In Alia Yunis’ The Night Counter, the concept of home is also persistent, but, we observe a broader notion of home. For example, we see characters whose parents are troubled with the idea of assimilation. Fatima, the grandmother, realizes that some of her daughters’ children fit well in the American culture and show no interest in exploring the idea of home. The later generations of Fatima’s family seem to be more reluctant to accept the idea of one home. Fatima and Ibrahim, her ex-husband, used to speak to them in Arabic, yet they respond in English, an indication of their reluctance to accept the language and culture of their parents. On the contrary, even though some characters in the novel had desire to assimilate, their attempts raised absurd contradictions. We see Randa, Fatima’s daughter, with her pathetic attempts to establish an American identity. She moves to Texas, dyes her hair blonde, and changes her name to Randy, and persuades her husband Bashar to change his name into “Bud”. Trying to demonstrate her “Americanness”, Randa also offered to work for the FBI and told her family that she and Bud didn’t want anyone to think that they were terrorists. In the same way, Amir thinks that he is an American in all sorts, as he is gay. On the contrary, Nadia and Elias, Zade’s parents seem to be interested in pursuing a different perspective. Both are professors and used to teach Arab things mostly to Arab kids. After 9/11, their classes became full as there were many people who want to learn Middle East things. They embraced their culture, and this encouraged their son to open a café under the name Scheherazade’s Diwan Café, which became a cultural centre for Arab Americans, a place where they can smoke hookahs and enjoy sipping cardamom coffee. Fatima brought something of Lebanon to America to remind her of her home. She brought seeds and planted them there, creating a garden in Detroit with the seeds of her grandmother’s garden in Lebanon. Arab food and smoking hookah are also pictures of home. Feeling that she has only some days left in her life, Fatima tirelessly attempts to convince Amir, her grandson, to accept her bequeathal of her house in Lebanon and also her other possessions, such as photos, wedding dress, and letters from her mother.
The Night Counter is a text of cultural mobility that Alia Yunis wants to emphasize. By resorting to the figure of Scheherazade, Alia Yunis aims at gaining entry into the American culture, rather than remaining on the margin. We know that Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights is depicted as a smart girl who, by telling the king several astonishing stories, was able to save her life. In Yunis’s novel, Scheherazade teaches Fatima in the art of storytelling and helps her discover how personal memory and family history open a world of redemptive and life-sustaining stories Thus, The Night Counter, by drawing on Scheherazade’s art of storytelling, depicts Arab American presence and informs them of the multiple ways of belonging that can be exhibited. Fatima, the main character, narrates a series of stories of her family, indirectly telling the reader that several geopolitical factors were all behind the tribulations that drove them out of their homeland. These intersecting stories that Fatima narrates about her family open new possibilities for reconfiguring Arab American heritage and multiple modes of cultural belonging. In the process, they also trace the ways in which cultural mobility informs contested negotiations of gendered, sexualized, and racialized notions of national and transnational belonging.
What The Night Counter suggests is that Arab Americans, in a racist assimilionist society, cannot protect themselves solely by distancing themselves from Islam and Arab culture. They can, however, embrace a more expansive view of both their Arab heritage and their American presence. The Night Counter insists that Arab Americans must stop “covering” and “misleading” or “masquerading” themselves. Rather than searching for a better agent, or a better heritage, as Amir would have it, they should instead seek to understand the heritage that they have. This heritage, the novel suggests, can be found through a recovery of Scheherazade and the Arab-Islamic framework of her life sustaining tales. It is interesting to note that the culture that Alia Yunis intends to demonstrate in The Night Counter is not that fabricated by Oriental despotism or Islamic terror, but a pluralist one which is capable of embracing and accommodating varied human experiences, ethnicities, and races as well.
1-2 Double-Consciousness and Racialization of Arabs.
It was Du Bois, in his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), who first proposed the notion of “double-consciousness”. He describes double consciousness as follows:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois, 1903).
Double consciousness has been described as the sense that one has more than social and cultural identity which has been thought of as impediment to the development of one’s sense of identity. For Du Bois, African Americans lived in a society that was oppressive and that did not regard them as equals. This double-consciousness, according to him, makes African-Americans look at themselves from the perspective of the African as well as the American cultures. It is this, as Du Boi views, which makes it difficult for Africans to unite their two strands of African-American subcultures with their overall American identity.
Du Bois’ concept of double-consciousness is still relevant today, particularly for Arab Americans who are caught between two extremes; self-conception of being an American citizen and of being a person of Arab origin. This fluctuation of identity has been reflected in several Anglophone Arab works. There are many characters whose lives are tormented by two conflicting selves that they could not merge together. Despite all this, double-consciousness is seen by some critics as an advantage. The claim is that the feeling of two-fold reality gives Arab-Americans the gift of second-sight through which they may be able to see themselves from the point of view of their society and also as seen by Americans. Positive as it may appear, in the sense that it gives rise to a critical consciousness of the world around, I believe that the agony of the divided self wrenches most of Arab-Americans, especially after 9/11 whereby Arab Americans have often been the target of discrimination, as many Americans associate Islam with terrorism. Even at schools, children often tease Arab-Americans just for their foreign sounding names, clothing, and anything that that is part of their culture of origin. Due to the constant and unjustified racialization, Arab Americans’ two-ness—being Arab and being American at the same time- two souls in one body and two thoughts in a single head leave things unreconciled, and unsettled. Arab Americans are striving to be both American and Arab, and that requires double-consciousness. As stated by Wisam Abdul-Jabbar, “the political overtones resonate in Arab diaspora because they generate a differentiated form of migration community, and the result is a dual consciousness, a state that describes a person who is ‘neither being fully assimilated to the new culture nor able to fully preserve the culture of origin” (5).