Even though Edward W. Said and Anwar Abdel Malek are recognized as two of the most distinguished scholars in the United States today, Arab American literature remains largely neglected in the study of American ethnic literatures and cultures. The American reading public is probably more familiar with names of Arab writers such as Naguib Mahfouz and Ghassan Kanafani than with works produced by Arab Americans. The problem is partly occasioned by the fact that English is not first- generation Arab American immigrants’ native language and partly by the fact that Arab Americans do not belong to any of the four established ethnic minority groups. Nevertheless, as is demonstrated by Diana Abu-Jaber’s Arabian Jazz, the second- and third-generation Arab American writers are ready to take on the challenge of diversifying the ethnic voice in America.
Abu-Jaber’s is a fresh voice in Arab American literature. Arabian Jazz is her first novel; it describes an Arab American family’s struggle in Euclid, New York, a small poor-white community. The thematic power of Arabian Jazz is generated by the collision between the past and the present, dream and reality, and the ways of “the Old Country” and the lifestyle in the New. Structurally, the novel’s humor relies heavily on the anachronistic appearance of characters whose faith in “the Old Country” brings into question their cantankerous relationship with the present. Yet Abu-Jaber’s thematic treatment of the conflict between traditional Arab culture and modern American culture goes beyond the conventional exploration of irony. It reveals a painful paradox built on what African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) calls the experience of “double consciousness,” or “a peculiar sensation,… the 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.”
It is true that in The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois’ argument mainly focuses on displaying how the influence of the mainstream culture can sometimes obscure, or even obliterate, a person’s ontological relationship with his or her ethnic cultural heritage. As is shown in Arabian Jazz, however, as well as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), too much pressure to identify oneself with an ethnic group can produce an equally detrimental effect on the individual’s sense of identity. This is especially true for people who are born into a family with two cultures, which is the case of the protagonist, Jemorah Ramoud, in Arabian Jazz.
Jemorah’s father, Matussem, is a first-generation Arab immigrant in the United States; her mother Nora, who died of typhus on a trip to Jordan when Jemorah was three years old, was white. Because of her mother’s untimely death and her father’s close ties to his relatives who live in Syracuse’s Arab community, Jemorah feels constantly under pressure to conform to traditional Arab customs she does not quite understand. She complains to her sister, Melvina,
I’m tired of fighting it out here. I don’t have much idea of what it is to be Arab, but that’s what the family is always saying we are. I want to know what part of me is Arab. I haven’t figured out what part is our mother, either. It’s like she abandoned us, left us alone to work it all out.
Fast approaching thirty, Jemorah becomes the main topic in her Arab relatives’ gossip. Aunt Fatima Mawadi, for example, simply cannot stand the fact that Jemorah is still single. Fatima has strong faith in the traditions of “the Old Country” and is obsessed with the idea of wanting to join the social committee of the local Syrian Orthodox Church, whose roles include, among others, “marriage makers and shakers, preservers of Arabic culture and party throwers, immigrant sponsors, and children- police.” Because she does not have children, Fatima believes that it is her responsibility to help find a fitting bridegroom for Jemorah within the family, so that the family’s name and honor can be preserved.
Family pressure is one reason that Jemorah is struggling with her identity and her relationships with other people. Even though she has met and dated several men, Jemorah cannot decide which relationship is worth pursuing. There is Gilbert Sesame, a dreamer and free spirit who eschews commitment and responsibility but is very good at pinball; there...
(The entire section is 1874 words.)