When you learn that this novel won prizes, you won’t be surprised. It’s a cracking good read. Excellent writing style, sweeps you along like a desert wind. Cool and refreshing, too.
The quirky, lusty characters remind me of Tom Robbins at his best. But the philosophical musings are unique to the immigrant story. Who are we? Where is home? Was it better or worse “back there”? How can we belong?
Two sisters: Melvina, a determined nurse, and her sister, Jemorah, a tormented hospital jack-of-all-trades, must find their way in a confusing landscape where no place is home.
Originally from Jordan via Palestine, the sisters were removed from the Middle East when they were small. Their extended family “back home” is loud, crazy, marriage-obsessed, and just plain strange. Their Americanized musician father no less. There is a dead mother and family tension to the max.
In the billing department of the hospital, Jemorah has the awful job of answering phones and telling weeping patients that she cannot help them. An aura of despair and anxiety hangs over her workplace. She needs to quit, but she feels stuck. Is the answer to marry a man, like her aunts keep urging her?
Being an impatient American of my generation, I wished the story were told in a straight line in chronological order. Instead, the author had chosen to present events in the present day with numerous flashbacks to the past. It’s a sign of just how good a writer she is that I was willing to go with the flow of her story anyway.
The Dearly Departed
The book gave me a lovely moment out on the deck: I suddenly had a sharp, visceral memory of what it felt like to hug my maternal grandmother. In the book, a retarded janitor calls everyone at the hospital Honey Bunnies. She’s cheerful and indiscriminate and suddenly it came back to me, my Grammie Beth.
“Hello, Hunnie Bunny!” she would say cheerfully. Aw. That was lovely.
Recently, local authors Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter had a podcast on the topic of whether or not minority writers can write from the perspective of white people, and visa-versa. In this book, Diana Abu-Jaber has characters that are New York white trailer trash, part Onadaga Indian, and Jordanian-American. Somehow she images them with aplomb. I think part of her success is that you the reader never assume that all Jordanian-Americans are like Jemorah, or like Melvina, or like Uncle Faoud (a pure Jordania) or his half-assed sons. Each character contains multitudes, like Walt Whitman said, each is unique. There are no “isms” here, especially not the evil and false absolutism.
Oh No, She Didn’t!
The book is extremely comic – despite years in the US, the father is half-fluent in English and massacres the proverbs he tries to tell his daughters; the aunt is obsessed with the marriage of her nieces who are not at all interested, and the owner of the small town garage will not give one of his employees coveralls to wear to work because he’s afraid if anyone found out that the notorious Ricky Ellis was working for him, they’d think he employed criminals.
The father tries desperately to become as American as he can by buying a crapload of tacky lawn ornaments. The younger daughter is embarrassed by this and takes to removing and rehoming them in the middle of the night, but he just buys more. This cycle is somehow symbolic of their relationship. And it’s funny as hell.
The Ties That Bind
The characters are heavily tinted with Arabism: The women are obsessed with marriage and men and what the are “allowed” to do while the men are obsessed with strippers and American TV and treat women like objects.
Jemorah has internalized rules about being “a good girl”: A good girl does not leave her home. Does not go out in public, does not speak to a man, does not show her ankles, does not talk back to her parents, does not go to school, does not live alone. (There are no rules about what “a good boy” does.) Nonetheless, the Rahmood clan also struggle with the same inter-family issues as Westerners:
“[Rich uncle] Faoud’s mere presence was as oppressive to him as the jinni-heavy lamp had become to Aladdin. Faoud’s personal hobby was cultivating guilt and penance. Ever since Nora’s death, Faoud had made sidelong comments and asked personal, needling questions. How was her typhus caused? How might it have been prevented? Nora must have had a sickly constitution after all.
“The message that Matussem tried to ignore was that he’d been wrong to marry and American. That it was time to marry again, an Arab this time. Still, the mystery and waster of Nora’s early death took root in his heart. From seed so doubt sprouted a garden of shame and regret, leading Matussem to question almost everything: his choice of a job, a home, a school for the girls, and finally a place to raise them. Uncle Fouad, hoe in hand, dug at Matussem, nurturing fear wherever the ground looked fertile. Every hear he began anew. He had as many stories as Shahrazad, regaling his audience with the charms of the Old Country, while pointing out t he vulgarity and all-around inferiority of the New…”
Matussem Rahmood, like many of us, has chosen to leave the spiderweb of his family of origin and strike out on his own, to recreate family in the way he feels it should be, without the clinging death-grip of the past. But, like most of us, he soon discovers the past doesn’t let go without leaving claw marks.
The Last Word
The whole thing was a most enjoyable read and a great study of the inner workings of human beings: Jordinian and American and everything in-between. Five helpings of Mansaf!
PS – I think we have to remember that the ones who leave their country of origin to come to America are always the ones who didn’t like it there – the ones who didn’t fit in. So you can’t look at any country and judge what immigrants from that country to America are like. If they liked it, they’d still be there.