The American society can be described as a melting pot of culture with different people of different nationalities with different cultures coming together to form a nation. The history of America depicts a continent that is sparsely populated by the Indian tribes of America who are the original residents of the continent and whose existence is in jeopardy due to assimilation.
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The dominance and identity of the different races in the American society can be attributed to the time of their arrival in America and their numbers as well thus giving them a strong position in being accepted in society. This issue has been the biggest challenge to the minority groups that came to America late, and whose numbers are still low compared to other communities.
Thus, they have tended to be made to look like outsiders in a country where their ancestors came and were buried. One minority group that has suffered the stigma of not being easily accepted in the society is the Asian group and specifically the Arab society. Most of the Asians who have migrated to America have tended to stick to their culture thus further alienating themselves from the community that is so diverse.
This issue has therefore affected the reception of the Arab American literature and its acceptability in society because it ropes in their cultural practices and beliefs, which are not subscribed to by other communities as Hassan (‘The Rise of Arab American Literature’ 248) reveals.
As the study reveals, in a bid to change this situation, authors such as Abu-Jaber have come up with novels written in a form that would integrate the peculiarities of Arab literature with the mainstream American forms of writing as a way of finding acceptability in the American literary world. The study therefore provides a detailed review of the Arab literature using Abu-Jaber’s works as the basis of argument.
Reading Arab American Literature
America’s nature as a melting pot of culture is rich in different forms of literature that tend to identify with different groups. This diversity has been the only way for many different groups making up the American society to retrace their steps and curve out an identity for their society.
As Majaj finds, by so doing, different communities in the American society have turned to literature as a way of expressing their culture and practices as well as a way of preserving the same for the future generations (69).
The effect of a mosaic society is that the cultures of the groups in that society tend to fade with practices that are more acceptable across the board remaining firm as the only ways the society has for a common ground.
Many writers in America have therefore focused their style of writing on what is perceived to be acceptable to their ethnic or racial communities as a way of selling or educating the larger society of their culture.
The success of literary writers in society has therefore been pegged on the perception of the society on the community of the specific writer and its attitude towards the style of writing the writer will adapt (Hassan ‘Arab American Autobiography’ 9) because the levels of tolerance for different communities’ practices differ. In most instances, these practices are informed by culture.
Strong and rigid culture has been known to attract resentment due to its nature of not conceding anything in exchange for acceptability. Acceptability of culture in society has always been hinged on the universality of the practices making up the culture as well as practices that are tolerable. This one aspect about society has gone a long way to determine the acceptability of literary works in the American society.
The different ethnic groups in the American society play a big role in promoting the works prepared by the members of their community through the numbers in the sales of books. Communities with big numbers tend to promote the sales of one of their own thus reflecting the outcome as a success.
Minority groups can only attract sales from their own, which in the end will be too little to count. Therefore, the population number in the society of given communities counts so much when it comes to success in writing unless the writers’ work is not a reflection of the society from where they are coming.
Arab American literature has gone through so many challenges since the first Arab writers started to publish works in the United States of America (Hassan ‘The Rise of Arab American Literature’ 247). To date, the Arab American literature is still in a state of transformation in such a way that it cannot be definitely defined.
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In her interview with Abu Jaber, Shalal notes that most Arab American writers have struggled to penetrate the American society beyond their communities because of literary, social, and political issues that have for a long time acted as an inhibition to their growth. Arab American literature comes across as work meant to preserve and defend a culture as well a society where most cultures have been melted together.
The Arab American society has been defined along cultural, political, and religious lines, which have been resented by the larger American society (Orfaela 117). The need by the Arab Americans to maintain their culture has been expressed in their literary works thus becoming a defining point of their work.
This case has made it difficult for the larger society to be attracted to the work because it pursues a narrow community’s hegemonistic interests that may not be the interest of the whole society in general. The earliest Arab American publications were newspapers that leaned on religion, which in this case is Islam and politics in their countries of origin in the Middle East.
Naaman indicates that this was all done with the belief that the Arab community will one day go back to its homeland and hence the need to preserve its Arab identity (267). The need therefore made this kind of literature a preserve for Arabs who would want to one day go back to their motherland. There is no way that the works would have elicited any interest in the larger American society or commanded acceptability.
Reading Arab American literature requires one to first understand the Arabic cultural practices that provide the tone for the writings. Thus, without this understanding, one may not be able to understand the thoughts or messages as they are being delivered.
Transformations in Arab American Literature
The Arab American literature has gone through so many transformations for many years since its advent because the styles and themes employed were narrow in such a way that they were specifically meant to capture a specific audience, which was the Arab community.
Therefore, according to Rana, the authors were whatsoever never interested in capturing an audience beyond their community thus leading to their works being limited in scope (548). The need to uphold a form of filial piety in their works led to the Arab American writers concentrating more on a writing tone touching on their culture and in turn simply making their writings look like an Arabic translation.
The wider American society thrives on the independence of the mind and utmost liberty, which does not expect one’s mind to be tied by cultural beliefs and laws that act as a prohibition to being a creative mind. This case therefore made the Arab American literature produced by early generation Arab Americans seem more of a critique of the American society’s practices as Ludescher (96) finds.
As the Arab American literature continued to grow, it grew to a sort of nostalgic tool that would be used for craving for home by the writers. The use of Arab tradition as a defining tool for Arab American literature was simply a way of reconnecting with their homeland by the writers thus making it difficult for their literature to find acceptability among the masses (Ludescher 103).
On the other hand, the need to gain acceptability by the masses has led to a change in tact by Arab American writers. In fact, they have had to come up with works that resonate positively with the society they live in because the acceptability of their works by publishers has been limited due to societal expectations and stereotypes that the larger society holds towards the Arab community.
As Abu-Jaber confirms in an interview with Aljadid, her work has been limited largely concerning what is acceptable for publishing. She has been forced to edit and re-edit some of her works numerous times until they have lost the lustre the writer had intended for them (Shalal Para. 2). Arab American literature has always had two themes that are identifiable with their work. These themes are religion and politics back home.
These two constitute the sensitive issues in the American society because the larger American society is always on the other side of the divide when it comes to matters touching on Arabic politics and religion.
Therefore, Arab American writers have been inhibited with these factors whenever they want to express them in their literary works because most publishers would not want them expressed in their publications. More so, they would receive condemnation from the lager society (Shalal Para. 3).
In search of acceptability, the Arab American literature has had to continuously transform itself over time with the hope that it would create resonance with the American society. Much still, most of the early generation Arab Americans are now gone. In their place, there is a new generation of Arab Americans born and brought up in America, and with distant roots and touch with their motherland.
This group has most of its people identified as Arabs who cannot speak a word in Arabic. Just like the black community in America, all they know of their motherland is that it was where they originated but have no roots completely. This group is at last producing writers who do not have too much attachment to their Arabic culture but in essence trying to create a balance between the two communities to which they belong.
Most of the young Arab American writers have been critical in their writing, a fact that has endeared them to the public. Their criticism though has been balanced in that they criticise both communities. Previous Arab American writers were reluctant to criticise their community because, being in a foreign land, they felt that it would be disloyal to disown their practices.
This view according to Allen has not been so with young Arab American writers who do not feel compelled by the filial piety their customs demand (474). They tend to air their views in an American fashion. Their belonging to the American society has made them understand what the society wants to hear. The big challenges that the previous Arab American writers had can still be traced to the present-day upcoming writers.
The issue of politics as well as religion in the Middle East can be described to be part of any Arab identity. Arabs of all generations passionately hold and express the views.
The American publishers have not tolerated the criticism of Israel in their works since they will be otherwise branded anti Semitic, a fact, which would have much harsher implications from the American public, which has a substantive number of the Jewish population (Shalal Para. 2).
Reading the Arab American literature therefore can be interesting in that the writers employ different forms of writing that they are hopeful will endear them to the public thus making the Arab American literature a form of mosaic that cannot be defined in one way.
Challenges in Arab American Literature
Different writers employ different styles that they hope will identify them as Arab Americans because no single writing style has established a foothold in the Arab American society. The continuous transformation of the styles can be attributed to a need to find a foothold.
Therefore, according to Albakry and Siler, the latest style by younger Arab American writers that tends to be critical of their own society is just one of the ways that are being followed to find a standing point for the same (113). A critical point that should be noted about the Arab American literature and acceptability in society is the political situation around the world.
Though the Arab American literature had started picking up, it was upset by the 9/11 events that have since opened new doors for alienation and stereotyping. Most Arab American writers have found it difficult to convince the literary world to look at them with a different eye thus extending the case to their work (Metres 3).
The larger society tends to look at them with a suspicious eye thus resenting any form of writing that is defensive of the Arabic culture or one that seems to be promoting it. Reading the Arab American literature, one finds that more women dominate this field than would be expected of the Arabic culture.
As Naaman points out, women have used Arab American literature to find their lost voice in a society that is believed to be patriarchal (269). It has been identified as one way that women have found a platform to communicate their problems to the larger society, which for a long time has been shut out of the goings in the Arab society or which has been disinterested in the Arabic culture.
The difference that comes out is that most Arab American male writers have tended to lean towards the status quo because they are the beneficiaries of the system at the end of the day.
Abu-Jaber has employed symbols in different ways in her novels to reveal the theme of culture. They can be identified in the way she has portrayed her subject and the main themes that come out of her work. The division of cultures is identifiable in this work. The motif here can be described as half-half experiences by the characters (Limpar 483).
This technique is metaphorically presented in her work when she portrays her characters as belonging to two worlds to which they are torn apart in identifying with. In the Arabian Jazz, Matussem’s family is seen to belong to two worlds that refuse to fuse comply. The characters are made to shed so much of either world to be accepted in one world.
Nora complains of her life in Jordan where she suffers from gossip from other women. Her two worlds refuse to integrate completely because her American descendants granted her freedom while her new life as an Arab wife is meant to take away the free will (Limpar 485). Matussem too has a division of the two worlds when he marries an American wife.
He learns and admires the American lifestyle thus ending up gravitating and finally relocating to America. Jemorah is a representation of two halves with one being an American half while the second one is an Arab half. These two halves are represented in her race as well as her culture whereby she cannot fully define herself as American nor Arab.
Her origin and skin colour describe her as Arab while her home, the American home country, defines her by the American culture, which she is supposed to identify with. Jazz music too has been defined into a half- half. In the Arabian Jazz, the music whose origin is African American has been called Arabian jazz thus depicting it as being found in two worlds.
Sirine who is the protagonist in The Crescent has also been depicted as belonging to two worlds. Thus, her existence is half – half. Her half Arab and half American have been used to show the confusion that Arab Americans face especially the young ones with very little connection to the Arab world.
The American influence is so strong that it is difficult to ignore or simply do away with while the Arab influence too is strong and emanating from the family. The half–half world is full of confusion as the characters strive to fit in the two worlds while at the same time trying to find a sense of belonging.
Abu Jaber’s book, ‘The Arabian Jazz’ strategically presents the theme of seeking self-identity for Arab Americans especially the immigrants. The author writes from an Arab-American point of view by bringing out the situations that many Arab Americans experience in their live away from home. The Arabian Jazz explores the different ways Arab Americans have tried to integrate themselves into the American society.
This integration has more so been driven by the need to find a new home and a sense of belonging now that circumstances have driven them away from home. The author has chosen fiction as the best way to bring out the story of the Arab American society in America because the use of fiction can allow her to expand her narration and include so many different experiences in one text (Cherif 215).
Retelling a real life story sometimes limits the author to specifics that happened. This case might just inhibit the way the author wishes to tell the story. This argument reveals why Abu-Jaber in the Arabian Jazz has chosen to use fictitious characters to retell a story that so many Arab immigrants undergo (Hartman 160).
Abu-Jaber uses music as a meeting point between two cultures that have a few commonalities in the American society. El-Hajj and Harb find that she uses jazz to marry the Arab and the African, American communities, which are known to be the owners of Jazz music (139).
Due to the need to seek identity in a society that is racially prejudiced, the author portrays a society that is trying to find a starting point for its acceptability in a new civilisation. Matussem finds himself at a loss on what he should do to become fully acceptable as an American because the best linkage he had to the American society was his wife who is now demised.
The picture of an Arab man trying to raise two daughters in a foreign culture makes the story more interesting to read. Abu-Jaber has fused the two cultures through music when she indicates in the book that the racial card used against Arabs made them try to find a definite group to identify with it.
In this case, the issue of Arabs not being defined as white nor black leaves the characters in the book hanging in between therefore forcing them to find on their own the closest group they can identify with (Fadda-Conrey 189). Therefore, for not being white enough to be fully accepted to be white, the characters choose black as the group to be identified with as one that they seem to have common tribulations.
Thus, jazz has been used to connect the two groups together as a form of identity search. Jazz in this case can be viewed as a metaphor to portray a person who identifies himself or herself with something he or she is not. Jemorah seeks to find her identity in this case.
She settles for black as her identity because she is not acceptable as a white though her mother was white while her father was of the Arabic origin (Abu-Jaber ‘Arabian Jazz’ 294).
Music as a Cultural Tool
The author has used music to create a bridge between two communities. In this case, jazz has been chosen because it is the music originating from the black community, which the Arabs are leaning towards in search of their identity. While responding to her employer’s ridicule, Jemorah says that her paternal grandmother was black and that she used such roots to identify herself as black (Abu-Jaber ‘Arabian Jazz’ 295).
Thus, this identity with blacks can only have a common ground in music because, at the end of the day, the Arabic and the black culture seem to have a distant meeting point. Music is sweet to the ears since it tends to attract attention from all. Music beats from any community are danceable by people from all societies without even understanding it.
Therefore, the author’s employment of music as a platform for marrying the two cultures is a seamless way of integrating the Arab story into the American society without making it look foreign. The author has used music to integrate the Arab culture into the American culture in the conservative Arabic way. This strategy can be found in the choice of jazz as the music to integrate the two cultures.
Arabic culture is very conservative in nature and hence the reason why Arab Americans have taken too long to integrate into the American society. On the other hand, jazz as music is acceptable across the board. Its appeal does not seem to offend conservative groups and hence its acceptability within the Arabic setting.
Therefore, the choice specifically of jazz has been deliberate due to the need by the author to relate the black culture and the Arabic culture. The use of music also fuses well with Arab oral tradition, which is one of the ways the Arabs use to pass their culture down to the next generation. Thus, its use in this case cannot be viewed in the extreme of being just Arabic but as an entertainment topic.
Therefore, music has been used in this book by the author to create a common ground between the Arab American community, the African American community and the larger white American community. More so, it fuses the Arab American community and the African American society.
Food as a Cultural Tool
Food has been used as a cultural symbol in the Arabian The Crescent as noted by Fadda-Conrey (194). Food for Sirine and Hanif is their private language since their words flow into eating (Abu-Jaber ‘The Crescent’ 266). Food in this case is a bridge that brings together the different communities not only the Arab communities.
It can be defined as a unifying factor for foreigners seeking to create an identity of their own in a country where their race is prejudiced. Food is the common ground for others who wish to mix with other cultures. It is seen when the two police officers who love the Arab stew become identifiable with foreigners at the restaurant. It simply depicts them as different persons in their community who are also bended on affiliating with groups that are not their own.
The Arab restaurant is a melting pot of culture. Arabs from different parts of the world are seen to come together and shed their ethnic and tribal identities to adopt a single identity that they will further on be identified with while in a foreign country (Fadda-Conrey 189).
Abu-Jaber employs the use of Arabic terms in her work thus giving it a tone that leaves the reader in a form of suspense. The suspense leads the reader to connect the meaning of the foreign words used in the text from the whole text thus drawing him or her to read further.
Food has been used by Abu-Jaber to mean the glue that binds people. The closest the characters in The Crescent have come to have a common ground has been through food. The author has avoided the use of politics and religion as the common ground for her characters due to the reaction that these two subjects evoke when it comes to Arabs and America (Shakir 42).
Therefore, the author has cleverly brought in the subject of food as a means of creating a ground where characters in the work meet. Food can be viewed here as a metaphor more than what it is, food. It can also be used to describe a form of ethnic belonging for a given group of people.
The author has used it to bring together the different Arab groups from the East, West, South, and North. Around food, these people find a common ground since it depicts an emotional bonding session for a group of persons far away from their motherland (Bardenstein 165). The attachment that the characters have towards the traditional food means that they have failed to detach from their motherland.
Longing for their motherland food can be construed to mean longing for their motherland. Though the characters in the stories are in America and are expected to be automatically Americanised, this case does not happen as so. Sirine can be viewed differently from other immigrants coming to the café where she works.
Whereas these other characters in The Crescent can be described as first generation immigrants, Sirine is not one because she was born and brought up in America. However, her attraction towards identifying with her motherland drives her to find work in an Arab restaurant. The confusion that she goes through makes her fail to get married until late when she meets her Arab crescent in the form of Hanif.
Conflict in Need for Identity
Abu Jaber’s work explores a situation in a society where two cultures are meeting despite their being incompatible. The American culture is full of freedom and liberal tones while the Arabic culture is full of conservatism and old order, which is affecting a generation of Arab American children who are torn between being Americans and fitting well in society or sticking to their Arab culture to live in the old order one.
Matussem is divided on what to follow when he marries an American woman and/or when it comes to the need to follow his Arab roots. This division of thought drives him to leave for America after he falls for the American dream, which means freedom but which is opposite to what his mother would expect of him as an Arab.
Therefore, he leaves his country to a place where as, Abu-Jaber puts it, “he could recreate himself” (‘Arabian Jazz’ 260). The characters in the book are divided on what identity to conform to since the forces around them seem too strong to betray.
Fatima dissuades Jemorah from going back to Jordan- a country where she was brought up in and where the real Arab culture thrives because of her memories of suffering that she encountered. When she flashes back her life then and her life now in America, she finds America a better place to stay. The conflict is therefore brought in the mind of the characters on what to choose from between the two societies.
They are torn between their two new cultures with one that takes away their freedom and the other one that restores the liberty. The Arab culture is discriminatory in this case because it gives men all the freedom.
As Matussem’s aunt puts it, “a man could let himself fly into the world like an arrow” (Abu-Jaber ‘Arabian Jazz’ 99) meaning that men would be allowed to do anything as compared to women who would not be allowed to break any rules. In the Arabic culture therefore, women were the preservatives of culture as they were supposed to observe it strictly.
In The Crescent, the main character (Sirine) is an Arab American who fails to psychologically accept the American culture thus choosing to uphold her Arabic culture. The dream of the character can be found in the Iraq exile Hanif with whom the character falls in love. Hanif can be described as Sirine’s crescent and an answer to Sirine’s cultural dilemma because Sirine refuses to be identified with the American culture fully.
Her leaning towards her Arabic culture seems to be controlling her choices thus leading her to finally fall in love with a real Arab. While observing culture in the two books, the distinction that comes out is that the Arabian jazz tends to portray characters willing to be identified with the American culture while the crescent leans towards characters who are conservative wishing to preserve their culture as much.
Food has been used in The Crescent as a symbol of unity and identity because it is believed to bring Arabs of different origins together to the café.
The Role of an Arab Man
The writer uses imagery in describing the Arab man as being like an arrow that shoots into the air to depict the amount of freedom that Arab men enjoy at the expense of their women. In the Arab setting, women are supposed to be obedient and submissive to their men. They are also not supposed to break any rules pertaining to their culture as depicted by Fatima when she describes men as having been born lucky.
They can do whatever they want. They are not supposed to be reprimanded or criticised especially by women. Matussem has all the freedom to make decisions on where he wants to settle down. Thus, he goes away from his homeland to settle in America. Though he has chosen America as his new home, he is divided on whether to bring up his daughters the American way or bring them up strictly in the Arabic culture.
This confusion shows the freedom men have in making their decisions and at the same time depicting the limitations they are supposed to put in a woman’s life (Albakry and Siler 112). Matussem according to his native Arabic culture is supposed to bring up his daughters in a purely Arabic manner though he is not tied by the same culture.
By choosing to play jazz music, which is black American, the writer depicts the freedom of choice that Arabic men have in deciding their destiny. Matussem chooses jazz as a way of integrating himself into the American society though Jazz is a Black American music and not Arabic music. He could have chosen to play Arabic music if he wanted. However, due to the freedoms he has, like an arrow, he shot where his heart sent him.
The Subject of Tragedy
The author’s portrayal of Fatima is that of a custodian of the old order. Fatima is meant to represent the Arabic culture in its real form as traced to her views on the American culture. She was simply meant to come to America to keep an eye on Matussem so that he does not stray from his culture.
The experiences that Fatima has gone through portray the patriarchal society that the Arab community is when she narrates her experiences as a young Arab girl, which include her witness to her sisters being buried so that Matussem being male is able to enjoy a better upbringing (Abu Abu-Jaber ‘The Crescent’ 119).
The use of narration in this case with folklore opens up the closed Arab culture that a reader might not understand and make the reading of the work more interesting. The narration of Fatima’s experiences can be traced in the short lines that the author employs to create breaks in her narration giving it poetic sounds.
Tragedy has been employed to narrate Fatima’s story and to further reinforce the picture that the author wishes to paint on the differences of the two communities. Fatima in this case is trying to run away from the memories of her childhood as well as those of her motherland, which haunt her.
Therefore, to protect her fellow Arab woman who has not experienced the same from going through what she went through, she opens up her painful childhood secrets that have never given her peace. She narrates to Jemorah these scary childhood experiences as a way of dissuading Jemorah from going to Jordan.
The author Diana Abu-Jaber has been able to transcend the two cultures that she belongs to in the effort to come up with very strong literary work. The author has used her writing skills to paint the picture that Arab Americans especially the younger generation born in the United States of America go thorough in their pursuit of identity.
Abakry and Jonathan find that, through her fictitious characters, the author has been able to construct the lifestyle of typical Arab Americans, their culture, as well as their challenges (118). The advantage that the author has is that she is able to narrate her stories from an insider’s point of view thus giving an almost true story or real life story.
The Arabian Jazz can be directly related to herself because it is a reflection of what she has gone through in her life living as an Arab American in both Jordan and the United States of America. The mixing of literary styles has brought about uniqueness in her work. Abu-Jaber has employed both English and Arabic literary styles to give her stories.
The story about Arabs in the United States of America can only be best told in a mixture of both Arabic and American context to capture the attention of the intended audience without losing the plot (Majaj 71). Most of the present Arab American population is made up of generation of Arab Americans who have loose connections to their heritage.
In her interview with the Al Jadid paper, Abu-Jaber talks about a generation of Arab Americans who can neither speak nor understand Farsi nor Arabic. Therefore, it would only be prudent for any writer targeting this group to factor in these issues. The contrast between Abu-Jaber and previous Arab American writers is that she chooses to write in English ostensibly to attract a bigger audience to her work.
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