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Arab Diaspora in the USA in the Novels of Diana Abu-Jaber “Arabian Jazz” and “Crescent” Dissertation


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.

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 Arab group. Most of the Arabic people who have migrated to America have tended to stick to their culture thus further alienating themselves from the community that is so diverse.

This trend has 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 reveals (“The Rise of Arab American Literature” 248).

According to the study, authors such as Abu-Jaber have come up with novels written in a form that integrate the peculiarities of Arab literature with the mainstream American forms of writing. It is also noteworthy that Hassan emphasises that there is no “systematic account of the birth and development of a tradition” of Arab American literature (“The Rise of Arab American Literature” 245).

The works by Abu-Jaber are pieces of fictional writing that focus on hardships of Arabic women and men who cannot fully integrate into the American society. The novels display the way Arabic immigrants tried to translate “the tongue of their hearth, of irrational, un-American passions” into the language which could be understood by those around them (Abu-Jaber 304). The study provides a detailed review of the Arab literature using Abu-Jaber’s works, Arabian Jazz and Crescent, as the basis of argument.

Chapter 1

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.

Newcomers have to build their new lives in “a heavily assimilationist US context”, which makes it difficult to maintain their national and cultural identity (Majaj 63). Abu-Jaber tells the story of a variety of hardships Arabic women are exposed to. For instance, Sirine often “stops and wonders if what she’s saying makes any sense” (Crescent 61). The woman is not sure that she is able to fit into the American society as she thinks differently, as she pertains to a different culture.

Clearly, people around her do not take pains to understand her way of thinking as it has long been expected that everyone should share American values. It is necessary to note that there are certain reasons for this lack of tolerance since several conflicts and existing tension between Arab countries and the US (and, of course, the aftermaths of the 9/11 attack) contributed to the development of “ethnopolitical consciousness” and marginalisation of Arabic immigrants in the US society (qtd. in Fadda-Conrey 189).

Therefore, there are two worlds which are often in conflict, and people (Arabic immigrants) in-between, who try to start a new life and fit in maintaining their identity.

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 cultures have 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 often attract sales from their own, which in the end can be too little to count. Therefore, the population number in the society of given communities counts when it comes to success in writing unless the writers’ work is not a reflection of the society from where they are coming. Nevertheless, there are loads of exceptions to this trend as minority groups’ writings often attract attention of the entire American society.

This is the case with Abu-Jaber’s writings. Thus, Field claims that Abu-Jaber’s Arabian Jazz was “warmly received by the American public” (208). Though, it is also necessary to note that some works face certain rejection or lack of understanding as publishers are reluctant to bring out books and require “sweeping changes” as they are afraid of low popularity of the book (Field 208). However, minority groups’ books are often received positively as Americans are becoming more tolerant.

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 defined. In her interview with Abu-Jaber, Shalal claims 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 as society where most cultures have been intermingled. Abu-Jaber is one of many writers who feel the need to tell about their experiences and to help others to cope with similar problems.

More so, Abu-Jaber states that she also wrote her books to help young people of Arabic descend to learn more about their culture, to help them build “their own micro cultures” (qtd. in Shalal para 12). The writer creates a microcosm of fictional works which can guide young people searching for their identity.

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. Though, as has been mentioned above, the contemporary American society is steadily changing and Americans become more tolerant and they are ready, at least, to learn more about (if not to accept) different mind-sets and different cultures.

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 would 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. Reading Arab American literature requires one to first understand the Arabic cultural practices that provide the tone for the writings and want to know more about this culture. Without this, 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, even though they were often written in English. 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 immigrants seem more of an attempt to perpetuate traditional Arab literature as Ludescher (96) finds. The use of Arab tradition as a defining tool for Arab 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).

However, younger generations had another view on the matter as they were “bred on the American ideals of liberty and progress” (Ludescher 95). Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani and Mikhail Naimy were some of those Arab American writers who questioned Arabic conventions and claimed they were not applicable in the American society. Clearly, this does not mean those writers forgot about their roots or tried to alienate themselves from Arabic culture.

Nonetheless, they showed that Arab Americans were a part of the multi-ethnic American society. Abu-Jaber follows the path created at the beginning of the twentieth century and believes this approach is suitable for the twenty-first century. In fact, she and other Arab American writers have 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 Shalal, her work has been limited largely concerning what is acceptable for publishing as the climate is often “simply not conducive to publishing a book about the expulsion of the Palestinians after the creation of the state of Israel” (Shalal Para. 3). 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 , 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 any other descendants from minority groups, 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 of American culture or some of its conventions, 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 shared by 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. Importantly, writers and young Arab Americans also want to write and read about it. They do not only seek to be accepted and integrated into the mainstream American culture. Noteworthy, Arab Americans have developed a new perception of their life in the USA.

They have incorporated major values of both cultures in their understanding of the world and the way it should be. Abu-Jaber as well as other contemporary Arab American writers has managed to express (from the Arab American perspective) “a valuable message of understanding in a society founded upon a wealth of cultural combination” (Cherif 226).

It is necessary to note that the American society is ready to accept this viewpoint and Americans are now eager to examine new ways of development of a truly multi-ethnic democratic society.

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 their views.

Some American publishers have not tolerated the criticism of Israel in their works since they are afraid of being 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). Some publishers are reluctant to release books which can be disturbing or can cause negative reactions from any groups of people.

Moreover, political tension between the US and Arab countries contributes to development of this trend. It is true that American society is now rather politicised and political discourse affects the way the entire society develops. For instance, the events after the 9/11 attack revealed abundance of prejudice which existed in the American Society. Americans became hostile to representatives of the Arabic world and Arab Americans were also perceived as aliens.

However, at present, people are eager to face the diversity of the American society. Americans are ready to hear different voices and face the changes which are taking place. Arab American writers are raising questions which are already in the air. Arab Americans, other minority groups as well as the majority of Americans are trying to understand how to live in the world which is transforming. These people are trying to let alone political or economic terrains and focus on day-to-day life of Americans and Arab Americans.

Admittedly, this leads to understanding and appreciation. Americans learn more about life of Arab Americans and understand they are very similar as their major values are the same. Arab Americans as wells as Americans strive for peaceful life in a society where people are not alienated or discriminated.

Moreover, Arab Americans and Americans are now ready to be more open and try to cooperate with each other, not only co-exist within certain area. 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 search of their identity (113).

Admittedly, these young are not Arabic as they have already been brought up on somewhat different values, or rather on a broader set of values. These people have adopted many ways accepted in the American society. This does not signify their rejection of their identity or their eagerness to forget about their roots. They have been surrounded by different systems of values, Arabic (coming from their parents and relatives) and American (coming from their friends, teachers, neighbours, partners, etc.).

They feel they cannot blindly adopt Arabic values which make sense in the Arabic world but are somewhat limited in the western world. These young writers are not already in-between the two world, they are becoming parts of the global multi-ethnic community. They are more open as Americans and all western people, but they are also devoted to their culture, language and identity as any Arabic individual.

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).

And Arab American community is still rather patriarchal as even though they have adopted a lot of American values, some families still cherish their ancestors’ values when it comes to gender roles. For instance, Abu-Jaber reveals hardships of Arabic women living in the Arabic world through the character of Fatima who is strongly attached to patriarchal values of her homeland. She stresses that it is really hard to be a woman who should be devoted to the man in the family.

Thus Fatima sees the only way out, i.e. to “have husband to survive on the planet of earth” (Abu-Jaber Arabian Jazz 117). Hence, the writer shows that even among Arab Americans there are families where females are somewhat marginalised within a family, though younger generations still find their ways to build their families in accordance with their new Arab American values.

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.

However, now lots of influential male intellectuals are supporting Arab American feminists as they have also adopted many values of the western society (Cherif 214). This can be a great stride forward as Arab American literature will not be divided into male and female writing. Both groups will shed light on complexities of Arab American integration into the American society providing insights into different aspects of the issue.

Works Cited

Abu-Jaber, Diana. Arabian Jazz. New York: Norton and Company, 1993. Print.

Abu-Jaber, Diana. The Crescent. New York: Norton and Company, 2003. Print.

Albakry, Mohamed, and Jonanthan Siler. “Into Arab American Borderland: Bilingual Creativity in Rand JAR RAR’S Map of Home.” Arab Studies Quarterly 34.2(2012): 109-121. Print.

Allen, Roger. “The Happy Traitor: Tales of Translation.” Comparative Literature Studies 47.4(2010): 472-486. Print.

Bardenstein, Carol. “Beyond Univocal Baklava: Deconstructing Food as Ethnicity and the Ideology of Homeland in Diana Abu-Jaber the Language of Baklava.” Journal of Arabic Literature 41.1-2(2010): 160-179. Print.

Cherif, Essayah. “Arab American Literature: Gendered Memory in Abinader and Abu Jaber.” MELUS 28.4(2003): 207-228. Print.

El-Hajj, Hind, and Sirene Harb. “Strandling the Personal and the Political: Gendered Memory in Diana Abu Jaber’s Arabian Jazz.” MELUS 36.3(2011): 137-158. Print.

Fadda-Conrey, Carol. “Arab American Literature in the Ethnic Borderland: Cultural intersections in Diana Abu Jaber’s Crescent.” MELUS 31.4(2006): 187-205. Print.

Hartman, Mitchelle. “This Sweet/Sweet Music: Jazz, Sam Cooke and Reading Arab American Literary Identities.” MELUS 31.4(2006): 155-165. Print.

Hassan, Wail. “Arab American Autobiography and Reinvention of Identity: Two Egyptian Negotiations.” Journal of Comparative Poetics 22.1(2002): 7-35. Print.

Hassan, Wail. “The Rise of Arab American Literature: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in the Work of Ameen Rihani.” American Literary History 20.12(2008): 245-275. Print.

Limpar, Ildiko. “Narratives of Misplacement in Diana Abu Jaber’s Arabian Jazz, Crescent and Origin.” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 15.2(2009): 483-488. Print.

Ludescher, Tanyss. “From Nostalgia to Critique: An Overview of Arab American Literature.” MELUS 31.4(2006): 93-114. Print.

Majaj, Lisa. “Arab American Literature: Origins and Developments.” American Studies Journal 52.2(2008): 63-88. Print.

Metres, Philip. “Arab American Literature after 9/11.” American Book Review 34.1(2012): 3-4. Print.

Naaman, Mara. “Post Gibran: Antology of New Arab American Writing.” MELUS 31.4(2006): 266-271. Print.

Orfaela, Gregory. “The Arab American Novel.” MELUS 31.4(2006): 115-133. Print.

Rana, Swati. “The Production of Nativity in Early Syrian Immigrant Literature.” American Literature 833.3(2011): 547-570. Print.

Shakir, Evelyn. “Mothers Milk: Women in Arab American Autobiography.” MELUS 15.4(1988): 39-50. Print.

Shalal, Andera-Esa. Diana Abu-Jaber: The Only Resonse to Silence is to Keep Speaking, 2012. Web. www.aljadid.com/content/diana-abu-jaber-only-respnse

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