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Crescent and Arabian Jazz Novels by Abu-Jaber Essay

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Updated: Oct 26th, 2021

Though we live in the 21st century and our society is considered to be democratic, there are many prejudices associated with race. When it is spoken about democracy, the notion of multiculturalism cannot be avoided. These days, this theme is significant because, in many spheres of our life, people are still defined by color. Race is important for admitting students, hiring employees, and selecting a jury. This problem is highlighted not only in the sphere of politics but in literature too.

Diana Abu-Jaber is known for her novels on Arab-American themes. In her captivating books, she invites the reader to the world of unanswered questions and alienation.

Diana Abu-Jaber was born in upstate New York. Her father was Jordanian; he convinced his daughter that she was “absolutely” Arab. But she understood that the things were not so unequivocal, because she had green eyes and pale skin. As for her novels, most of her characters are people from Jordan and Iraq.

When people hear her name and find out that she writes about Iraq and Jordan, they think that her works must be politicized. But the truth is that she still struggles with prejudices about her identity. She feels relieved when she finds that her novels are referred to as literary, not purely political (Muaddi Darraj, 59).

In her novels Arabian Jazz and Crescent, the problem of remaking of identity of Arab Americans is depicted. Ethnicity and race are crucial for Abu-Jaber’s characters. It is important to mention that the problem of multiculturalism became a topical one in the end of 19th century when the stream of immigrants moved to the USA from Europe and Latin America. Later with the beginning of conflict in the Middle East, lots of immigrants came from there. Most of present-day Arab Americans were born in the USA.

The major characters of Crescent have Iraqi roots. One of the main characters is Sirine, who is also, like Abu-Jaber, unsure of her identity. Like in Abu-Jaber’s family, Sirine’s mother is American, her father is Iraqi. Her parents died in Africa working for the Red Cross; Sirine was just nine years then. The person who cared for her ever since was her Iraqi uncle. Though Sirine has never left the US and doesn’t speak Arabic, she feels somehow connected to Iraq and is interested in her ethnic and cultural identity. She cannot get rid of painful memories about her parents.

But life still goes on. Now Sirine is an excellent chef at Nadia’s café and she is satisfied with her lifestyle, because she is independent. The frequenters of the café are expatriates from Iraq and Jordan. They love the café because the spicy food tastes of home. But many non-Middle Easterners regularly eat at the café too, because the food is really very delicious.

Though Sirine is an intelligent and good-looking woman, she is not married. But she has lots of friends: Um-Nadia, café owner, her daughter, Nathan, Aziz Abdo, a photographer, and many homesick café frequenters. The owner of the café understands the loneliness of the immigrants:

The loneliness of the Arab is a terrible thing; it is all-consuming….it threatens to swallow him whole when he leaves his own country, even though he marries and travels and talks to friends twenty-four hours a day.(Abu-Jaber, 2004, 48).

One of the café frequenters is an Iraqi Arabic literature professor in Los Angeles, Hanif Al Eyad. He is not religious but still believes that he is a devout Muslim. He was exiled from his native country when Saddam Hussein seized power. At that time he was too young to understand the scope of his decision. Then he couldn’t even imagine all the difficulties he would face if he wanted to return to his motherland. He hasn’t seen his family for twenty years. He has nostalgia for his birthplace, for its smell and taste. But with Sirine he doesn’t feel an exile: “You are the place I want to be – you’re the opposite of exile.” (Abu-Jaber, 2004, 253).

The topical themes of the story are the pain and loss of exile. Sirine’s uncle doesn’t like to talk about their past back in Iraq, about their home and their family:

It means talking about the differences between then and now, and that’s often a sad thing. And immigrants are always a bit sad right from the start anyway….. but the big thing is that you can’t go back. For example, the Iraq your father and I came from doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a new scary place. When your old house doesn’t exist anymore, that makes things sadder in general. (Abu-Jaber, 2004, 117).

But still, there are some things that help immigrants to build their new lives in the new country. The message is that it is important to keep one’s native traditions and culture, which still exist in language, food etc.

Arabian Jazz, the first of Abu-Jaber’s novels, is considered to be the main Arab-American novel of the end of the 20th century. It was the first one to address Arab-American theme.

This is a story of an Arab-American family and their relationships with Americans. The author describes the spiritual homelessness of her characters and all the possible difficulties of their adjustment to the new surroundings. The book is written in a witty, humorous key. Not only Ramoud’s extended family is depicted, but also their Arab-American community as a whole.

The main character of the novel “Arabian Jazz” is a Jordanian American widower Matussem Ramond. He loves American jazz, plays drums in a nightclub, sometimes drinks and has a funny relationship with his daughters, Jemorah and Malvina, and his sister Fatima. From the first sight, the characters seem quite comical. At the beginning of the story when we are introduced to Matusseum, he looks funny: “He was adorned in silver rings, chains, and bronco belt buckle. All that plus his hair, which appeared to have been dipped in car oil, made him look like a cross between Elvis and Dracula” (Abu-Jaber, 1993, 56). But further on we understand that his character is much deeper, we can judge it from his awkward relations with American society.

As for Jemorah, his daughter, she cannot help thinking about her identity. She is not sure if she’s Arab or American, so she doesn’t know who to marry. She is presented as inconsistent and flighty, she cannot control her life. When the reader first sees Jemorah, her appearance makes himher think of a wild animal:” “There were a variety of ink blotches on her hands, one heart-shaped dot near her nose; her wild hair was gnarled into a bun and speared by a pencil, and her lower lip was caught in her teeth” (Abu-Jaber, 1993, 5)”.

Melvina is committed to her work as a nurse. She is sure that illnesses and death are marks of weakness. When Jemorah and Malvina think of “home”, they are torn between two contradicting messages. From one hand, they remember their mother’s words:” Your home is here. Oh, you will travel, I want you to. But you always know where your home is” (Abu-Jaber, 1993, 78). On the other hand, they consider their aunt’s words: “You come back to home soon, come back to Old Country, marry the handsome Arab boys and make for us grandsons” (Abu-Jaber, 1993, 77).

Abu-Jaber investigates the theme of loneliness in her characters’ lives. The generation of immigrants recall mass eviction, the miseries of in the border encampments, the infinite tries to make home in the USA.

Matisse was only two when he left Nazareth. Still, he knew there had been a Palestine for his parents; its sky formed a ceiling in his sleep. He dreamed of the country that had been, that he was always returning to in his mind. (Abu-Jaber, 1993, 260).

To Palestinian Americans, home becomes a phenomenon which is almost impossible to reach. The dual nature of self is increased the polarization of their identities and the possible discriminatory attitudes. Mojahid Daoud stress on the political context determining the conditions that make Arab Americans a specific ethnic group:

Unlike other ethnic groups… Arab Americans have had to suffer directly as well as indirectly the effects of an ideology, namely Zionism, intended to defame the character of all Arabs. This powerful political ideology has permeated many aspects of American popular culture stigmatizing Arab Americans and leaving them with the sense that they are outcasts in America’s celebrated immigrant history. (Abu-Jaber, 1993, 173).

The girls’ childhood memories are full of pain. Jem recalls her daily journies to school, when she was unable to escape other pupils’ comments on her skin and her name. She could not protect herself from being pulled and scratched. Once she found her “shameful name” painted with big and bright letters on her mailbox. There were mocking voices haunting her at night. She has always felt that she was different from the other children, and that nobody wanted her. In addition, Portia, a friend of Lam’s mother’s, offers her help. It concerns not only lighter hair color and bright lipstick, but she also recommends the girl to change her name in order to make it sound more Italian or Greek. Portia cannot get rid of her racist stereotypes, she claims that Jam’s mother’s blood was clean; as for the girls’ father, she refers to him as “the dirty sand nigger” (Abu-Jaber, 1993, 99).

Like in “Crescent”, the author gives her characters an opportunity to escape. Ramaud resorts to jazz, his daughters are completely devoted to work.

So it is difficult to overestimate Abu-Jaber’s input in literature. In her works, the author expresses a message of understanding which is absolutely necessary in a society built on various cultural combinations. She also manages to break the Orientalist stereotype of woman. Her books are easy to read; they are filled with exotic smells, sounds and tastes. But at the same time, they show the reader the sufferings of exiles without blaming anybody.

Works Cited

Abu-Jaber, Diana. Arabian Jazz. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Abu-Jaber, Diana. Crescent. UK: Norton & Company, 2004.

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

Muaddi Darraj, Susan, ed. Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab-American Women on Writing. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

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