Randa Jarrar's New Collection of Stories are Funny, Wacky and Compassionate
Randa Jarrar’s debut novel, A Map of Home (2008), shook up old categories to become an instant classic, an Arab-American coming-of-age. Eight years later, there are more books in the “Arab-American” sections of US libraries. But a relative absence still shadows Jarrar’s second book, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (2016), a collection of stories that span Cairo, Alexandria, Gaza, Detroit, New York City, Istanbul, and beyond.
It’s strange that there should be any shortage of Arab-American narratives. A group of influential Syrian and Lebanese writers, among them Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani, were active in New York literary life in the early twentieth century. But after this brief flowering, Arab-American literature went largely dormant. This lack is expressed in the collection’s early stories, where the protagonists are literary hopefuls: “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” and “How Can I Be of Use to You?”
The narrator of “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” is young, volatile, and very pregnant. She has a powerful urge to write. Yet: “I walk three miles to work, look up ‘Arab’ and ‘American’ and ‘Women’ and ‘Fiction’ on the library computer, find nothing, then go into the girls’ room and weep into cheap toilet paper, wondering what I’m supposed to be doing now.”
The landscape is different in “How Can I Be of Use to You?,” where the young university-graduate narrator knows what she wants, even if she doesn’t know how to get it. She is temporarily working for a US-based Egyptian feminist author who’s named Mansoura, but can only be a satire of, and salute to, the Egyptian author Nawal El Saadawi.
The titles of El Saadawi’s books are slightly altered, but the physical description is unmistakable: “She had a shock of white hair and bad teeth, wore plaid shirts every day, and dressed from the waist down like a serf out of a Turgenev short story.” Later “her hair was braided into two pleats at the sides of her broad face. This made her resemble an elderly baby.” In case we missed all these markers, there is a brief scene in 2011 where al-Jazeera calls her “the grandmother of the revolution.”
In “How Can I Be of Use to You?” there is a nascent movement of Arab-American women writers, and a slightly ridiculous Emerging Arab Women Writers group gathers around the cult-like Mansoura/Nawal. The portrayal would be searing if it didn’t also make the reader giggle, and it deftly walks the line between tender and mocking.
Although these two early stories are firmly realist, the collection is not bound by any such rules. Jarrar goes where she likes as she maps the emotional and political landscapes important to her. There are many complex relationships with family, as in the beautiful story “Grace,” where the protagonist was kidnapped from a toy store in 1979. This is not your made-for-TV kidnapping story. Instead, it’s a demi-utopian fantasy where the traditional kidnap frame is inverted: The narrator is stolen away from family that doesn’t much love her and raised by people who do.
In this story, Jarrar shows her ability to tear up narrative rules to tell resonant truths. The story that follows, “Testimony of Malik, Prisoner #287690,” is a transcript of a conversation between military interrogators and a kestrel. The final story, “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie,” is an absurd short work narrated by a character who’s half human (further: half-Lebanese, half-Belorussian) and half ibex.
Jarrar’s stories are full of surprises—it’s hard to name another tale that’s narrated by a bisexual half Transjordanian ibex living in a tiny town in Texas. But what holds the collection together is its earnest tenderness. Jarrar doesn’t pull punches, as readers of her political commentary well know. But she lavishes affectionate attention on her characters, particularly the misfits that populate stories like “Accidental Transients.” In this story, a Palestinian family lives on a farm outside Detroit, and twenty-one-year-old Ibrahim (who calls himself Abe) brings home a young Catholic wife. The eldest daughter and narrator, who is a beautician, has to hold the family together, because the patriarch is unequipped and the mother ran off with a Japanese businessman.
These sorts of mixed spaces are where Jarrar shines. Indeed, the stories with the most homogenous casts, like “The Story of My Building,” set in Gaza, are the least memorable. The most striking moment in “The Story of My Building” is not where the boy’s family seems to have been killed, but where the Russian-translator father drags an Isaac Babel story into an argument with his card-night buddies.
By contrast, the title story, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali” zigzags across the world. It’s narrated by a woman who’s just lost her father, and it moves between White Plains, US; Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt; and Kinshasa, Zaire. One of the most prominent support characters is an Argentinian-American fact-checker named Astor.
These pluralities rarely feel strained, and they’re never the sort of Friedman-esque stock characters that exist to make a point about “globalization.” They go to the heart of Jarrar’s landscapes, which are divided by class, gender, sexuality, and privilege, but are never wholly separate. The collection links together the rich and middle-class and poor, urban and rural, Global North and Global South, black and Arab and white.
Plus, who doesn’t sometimes feel like a bisexual half Transjordanian ibex in a tiny Texas town: a huge and shaggy misfit in a very strange land?