Book review: Tales from the Arab-American front

One is a tightrope walker in a French circus who tries to lasso the moon. Another is a child who has been kidnapped from a Pathmark in New Jersey by people kinder than her own mother. And another searches for the remnants of family in the bombed-out buildings of the Gaza Strip. 

There is no easy way to connect the dots between the mostly fictional female characters in “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” Randa Jarrar’s debut collection of short stories, except that they are all of Middle Eastern descent and all deviate from the usual perceptions many Americans have about Arab women.  

“Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” finds a young, trash-talking Egyptian American pregnant with her irresponsible boyfriend’s baby — much to the horror of her parents. In “A Sailor,” a woman who’s grown apart from her husband tries to make him jealous — or to at least care — by sleeping with a Turkish soldier. 

“A Frame in the Sky” reads like an autobiographical account of Jarrar’s own family experience of being forced to leave Kuwait after Iraq invaded in 1990. Jarrar, in her late 30s, is the American-born daughter of Palestinian and Egyptian parents and grew up in the Persian Gulf and Cairo as well as on the East Coast. 

“Him, Me, Muhammad Ali” follows her award-winning novel, 2008’s “A Map of Home,” about a girl growing up between the Middle East and the U.S. Her own experience of moving between continents and cultures is reflected all over “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali” through characters that always seem to be searching for that one place where they fit in. 

Often, they don’t, so it’s the nebulous in-between space where their lives unravel. In “Accidental Transients,” 29-year-old virgin Dina describes life on a farm with her Arab family. Dina has disappointed her overbearing father and even feels the burn when she’s grappling with a personal crisis brought on by learning her brother is getting married before her. 

“I just pulled into the farm and was lugging my mannequin head into the house when I found out about this,” writes Jarrar. “I use the head when I teach at Moda College. My parents once hoped I’d become a scientist, marry an Arab (even though there are none around), pop out three or four kids and win the Nobel Prize for science. Instead I’m a hairstylist and I teach on the side. Today’s class was on blowouts.” 

This collection is not flowery or sentimental in the way that many personal stories about the immigrant experience or Middle Eastern family life can be. It’s instead sharp and irreverent, sometimes even unapologetically crude. In the title story, the fictional daughter of an Ethiopian father and Egyptian mother tells how her journalist parents met while covering Ali’s legendary boxing match with George Foreman in Zaire. 

Her father credited Ali and Foreman’s sparring partner with his daughter’s existence: “ ‘If he hadn’t have pulled up his sharp and ashy elbows, Foreman wouldn’t have run into them and split his eyelid open. The fight wouldn’t have been delayed five weeks.’ As it turned out, those weeks were all it took for my dad to capture my mother’s heart and her prissy Egyptian panties.” 

Jarrar is hardly the romantic. Love between couples here is often no more than sex, casual and flippant in the new world, or the unwanted consequence of an arranged marriage in the old world. When her characters are in relationships, it’s often in the context of a parent or family with whom they never really had a strong bond. 

It might be the resentment-filled space between mothers and daughters or the disappointment of fathers who are just far enough out of touch to remain a mystery. But when Jarrar’s sense of humor tangles with her character’s feelings of estrangement, the results are often charming and funny — in a bittersweet sort of way. 

Here’s how one character describes the social life of her immigrant father: “My dad’s best friend is an Argentine named Astor, a longtime fact checker at the Sun. Their friendship was a tango and involved very little verbal exchange. 

They played chess and drank coffee and maybe once or twice went fishing. Their dynamic: My father would say something — he had a way of saying everything as if it were the truth of God — and Astor would raise his full eyebrows, blink his eyes once, tilt his head and respond: ‘Yes, I remember that,’ ‘Not true,’ or ‘That never happened.’ 

I was twelve and recently arrived in New York City when I first met Astor at a dive on the Lower East Side. ‘Meet Astor. He is named after Piazzolla,’ my father said, and Astor raised his brows, blinked once, shook his head and said, ‘Not true.’” Many of the stories in “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali” have been published elsewhere, over a wide span of years. (It has been eight years since Jarrar’s novel was published.) 

That explains the inconsistent tone that is refined and detailed one minute, reckless and immature the next. About half of these short stories don’t feel fully explored or finished. They are unique and original but sometimes lack a satisfying conclusion or realization. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Nothing is conclusive, or clear, or clean — especially when the world around you never seems to be your own. 

by Lorraine Ali

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