Category Archives: Arab American

Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber

OriginHapa Jordanian American Diana Abu-Jaber established herself with her first three titles – novels Arabian Jazz and Crescent, and memoir The Language of Baklava – as a lauded, award-winning Arab American literary voice. She leaves her own origins off the page in this chilling psychological thriller – her first, but most likely not her last. With little resemblance to formulaic pulp mysteries, Origin – so aptly titled – is a multi-layered kōan about the challenges, and sometimes the impossibility, of knowing one’s own self.

Lena Dawson works as a fingerprint specialist in an upstate New York forensics lab. For someone who chose the job because the employer provided training, Lena turns out to be rather gifted in her work. When an understandably distraught mother who has just lost her infant – allegedly to SIDS – storms into the office, Lena is pulled into a horrifying tangle of dead babies, empty cribs, and virtually no clues. The grieving mother remembers Lena’s last unintentionally high-profile case during which Lena unmasked the murderer by seeing into all the places where no one else was looking.

Separated from a cheating husband, surrounded by less-than-trustworthy colleagues, finding companionship either with her psychologically challenged neighbor or in the wee hours with the employees at the local bakery, Lena is anything but ‘normal.’ Fostered, but never legally adopted by the only parents she knows, Lena’s fragile psyche harbors vague memories of her original mother who she believes was not human – she was apparently raised by apes. Her mysterious origins are somehow linked to the growing number of small lifeless bodies; the alarming body count rules out SIDS, and suddenly the serial killer’s next victim just might be Lena.

Although the non-human babyhood never proves convincing, to Abu-Jaber’s credit, that Lena believes in her shocking origins is wholly conceivable. That detail aside, Origin intertwines multiple, disparate strands – desperate relationships, challenges of adoption, identity formation, the science of forensics, the layered legal system – and pulls together quite the nerve-wracking, unexpectedly twisted, smartly resolved (albeit not too neatly) thriller. For those of you who choose to go audible, narrator Elisabeth S. Rogers reads with just enough nervous breathlessness to keep you guessing (often wrongly) with each new discovery. Get ready to shiver …!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Arab American

A Kid’s Guide to Arab American History: More Than 50 Activities by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Maha Addasi

Kid's Guide to Arab American HistoryHere’s a common occurrence at our house: I can’t go to bed without a book, which usually means I’m a constant barrage of ‘Did you know that …? Were you aware that …?’ to the ever-patient hubby who’s trying to read something of his own. This is one of those titles, filled with surprising facts, little-known tidbits, and plenty of information all of us need to know.

In the opening “Note to Readers,” co-author Yvonne Wakim Dennis – who is hapa of Native American and Syrian descent – explains how she’s used her writing to “set the record straight about Native peoples”; her previous titles include A Kid’s Guide to Native American History and Children of Native America Today. Now the other half of her heritage beckons: “Over the years, I had become more angry and dismayed at the untruths and stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Arab American people.” The pen, as they say, is mightier than the sword! Together with her co-author Maha Addasi (White Nights of RamadanTime to Pray), Dennis definitely has a more accurate story to tell: “My very Syrian grandparents would be proud that I wrote a book that tells a bit about their history in America, and my very Cherokee/Sand Hill grandparents would be proud that I walk in balance and honor all of my ancestors.”

“Pick up any newspaper from a newsstand on any given day, and you are guaranteed to see news about the Arab world, most of which is negative,” the introduction soberly reminds us. “In spite of what the media portrays, Arab Americans are patriotic and loyal to the United States.” Here’s an even more sobering thought: without Arab inventions and discoveries, the world wouldn’t have “trigonometry, parachutes, coffee, cameras, universities, cotton …” and so much more. Here on U.S. soil, without Arab Americans, you wouldn’t have iNuthin’ because Steve Jobs (as well as his sister, the mesmerizing writer Mona Simpson) was Syrian American. Looking for other influential Arab Americans? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, actor Danny Thomas, designer Norma Kamali, activist Ralph Nadar, and animal-specialist Jack Hanna too, all have Arab roots.

Arab Americans hail from 22 countries, from Algeria to Yemen, with Egypt, Mauritania, Qatar, and Tunisia in between. Almost 4 million Arab Americans live in all 50 states, with the largest Arab American populations in Detroit, LA, NYC, Chicago, and right here in D.C. Through a combination of history, storytelling, and 50-plus activities for your hands, feet, and brains, co-authors Addasi and Dennis celebrate and illuminate America’s own centuries-old Arab heritage – a vast mosaic of diversity and distinction. From dancing the Dabkeh, making your own oil soap, sewing a kaftan, designing your own Girgian candy bag, adults and children will find plenty to do together, all while gaining a better understanding of our Arab American neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

The delightful and informative ‘aha’-moments throughout are many … but (oh, there’s always that ‘but’!) one small change I might suggest for future editions is a layout modification. Each chapter has a narrative overview that is embellished with various stand-alone sections and boxes that provide additional information, including historic moments, an ancient tale, biographies, etc. All that is definitely helpful and not to be overlooked, but also rather disruptive when trying to read through any given chapter. Such interruptions should be relatively easy to fix … a bit of page-reshuffling and graphic adjustments to restore the narrative flow. That said, the inaugural edition has more than enough to learn from, appreciate, and plain old enjoy.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Nonfiction, Arab American

Time to Pray by Maha Addasi, Arabic translation by Nuha Albitar, illustrated by Ned Gannon

After reading (and being bothered, aggravated, and ultimately haunted by the unlikely-to-ever-be-forgotten Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali), I seem to be in search of sweeter literary anecdotes about the Muslim experience.

As she did in her debut, The White Nights of Ramadan, Kuwaiti-born author Maha Addasi lovingly celebrates her Muslim heritage in her upcoming (publication date scheduled for September) picture book, Time to Pray. Laid out with a simultaneous bilingual translation (in English and Arab), Addasi’s latest story captures a young girl’s visit to her grandmother, somewhere in an unnamed Middle Eastern city.

Although Yasmin is sometimes too tired – and still too young – to heed the first of five calls to prayer expected of practicing Muslims, she lovingly watches her grandmother make her prayerful preparations even as she drifts back to sleep. “‘With practice,’” her grandmother patiently assures Yasmin, “‘you’ll be able to rise early.”

As the two go through their day together, Yasmin helps her grandmother pick out materials for “special prayer clothes.” Yasmin quietly observes her grandmother, learning to practice their faith. With her new handmade prayer clothes and prayer mat, she happily joins her grandmother at the mosque. Each day brings more practice: “I especially like the fourth prayer at sunset,” Yasmin says. “The sky always had swirls of red, even when there were no clouds.”

When Yasmin returns home to her waiting family, she is surprised to discover a miniature mosque her grandmother has secretly packed for her. It proves to be a special prayer clock, reminding Yasmin of both her faith and her loving grandmother. “I don’t always pray all five prayers. I’m still practicing,” she confesses. “Sometimes when the prayer clock rings before dawn, I turn over and go back to sleep. But don’t tell Teta [Grandmother]!”

Yasmin is a modern all-American girl, wears jeans and t-shirts in addition to the more traditional salwar kameez, is reminded of her grandmother passing the cinnamon bun store at the mall, travels the world, and is able to laugh at herself when she misses a prayer or two or more … and clearly, as the book depicts, she is also a devout Muslim, being raised by Muslim parents, taking part in her grandmother’s faraway Muslim life. Yasmin’s story certainly is a welcome anecdote to the injustice, horrors, pain, and destruction faced by the Muslim women of Hirsi Ali’s world … hopefully Yasmin’s well-balanced American/Middle Eastern, modern/traditional, happy beginnings will be neverending.

Readers: Children

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Arab American, Middle Eastern

Arab in America by Toufic El Rassi

If the observations, memories, and pop culture references here weren’t so obviously recognizable in our post-9/11 western world, you might have read this graphic memoir as a hack comedy. The black-and-white panels initially seem almost unfinished, as if still in rough-draft mode. The contents might easily be construed as just plain ridiculous: an email reminder sent by a frightened sister to shave on 9/11, a 13-year-old being investigated by the FBI because of a nervous neighbor, learning that “camel jockey” does not mean a horse jockey on a camel even while being called every wrong racist name, wearing a shirt with a Mexican flag to “play it safe at the airport.” Is this what really happens in the good ‘ol US of A?

Welcome to the world of Toufic El Rassi, born in Beirut to an Egyptian mother and a Lebanese father, raised in the U.S. from age one. Even after decades of living an American life, calling El Rassi himself ‘American’ (in spite of his U.S. passport!) seems unfairly far-fetched.

He discovers his brown skin in 8th grade, the same year his beard grows in: “Imagine my shock upon discovering that, in sharp contrast to the angelic white faces arrayed in the chorus, the dark splotch on the grainy tape was me!”

From The Bangles’ dismissable “Walk Like an Egyptian” to The Cure’s more threatening “Killing an Arab,” El Rassi’s childhood soundtrack is filled with guilt. “I felt like I should hide or apologize for something … like I did something wrong and should be ashamed.” Classmates and neighbors harass him in his youth, and as he gets older, his attackers age right along with him.

The ignorance El Rassi encounters is appalling at the very least, but no less life-threatening as “the average American couldn’t distinguish Arabs & Muslims from other nationalities & faiths.” From Rudolph Valentino to Hollywood’s current portrayals, anti-Arab images pervade the big and little screens with racist depictions, continuing to fuel misconceptions of the Arab American identity.

El Rassi attempts to educate the public: “Since there is so much confusion and ignorance it may be useful to explain what an Arab actually is.” From history to semantics to pronunciation lessons, El Rassi places current world events into a less biased context. His battle is still ongoing … because being Arab in a “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”-America remains a contemporary challenge.

In spite of his English-as-a-primary-language existence, El Rassi never stops having to answer, “Do you speak English?” Nope, not with that bearded face! English-speakers of all backgrounds would do well to read this graphic memoir … and someday (soon), perhaps El Rassi’s experiences truly will fall into the realm of the ridiculous rather than the reality he (and too many others like him) face every day.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Arab American

The White Nights of Ramadan by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon

white-nights-of-ramadanA Muslim family prepares for the fasting holiday of the month of Ramadan. Noor and her two brothers especially look forward to Girgian, a three-day festival that marks the half-way point of  the holy month. Because the festival includes the night of a full moon, it’s also called the three ‘white nights,’ a time when children don traditional clothing and visit from neighbor to neighbor in search of special treats. Most importantly, they celebrate the bonds of family and remember to share with those less fortunate.

Review: “TBR’s Editors’ Favorites of 2008,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2008

Readers: Children

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Arab American

West of the Jordan: A Novel by Laila Halaby

West of the JordanA poetic first novel with some amazing images (“ … try to remember the wisdoms you unpacked that life scattered around your living room,” the author’s prologue begins) by an Arab American about four cousins living different lives in the West Bank, in Jordan, and in the United States, trying to navigate cultures, expectations, and their own dreams.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, August 1, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Arab American, Jordanian, Middle Eastern, Palestinian

Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber

CrescentA toothsome tale set in L.A.’s richly diverse Arab American community, interspersing a love story about a hapa-Iraqi American chef who falls in love with
an exiled Iraqi professor. What a major relief to read something about Baghdad, Iraq, and the Iraqi community without Dubya, Cheney, or Rumsfeld mentioned anywhere. Okay, so Saddam can’t be avoided and there are references to post-Persian Gulf American missiles, but overall, it’s a bit of Like Water for Chocolate and My Big Fat Greek Wedding mixed together with a much-needed lesson in basic humanity.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, April 25, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Arab American, Iraqi American

Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land edited by Wesley Brown and Amy Ling

Imagining AmericaA multicultural anthology of 37 short stories about immigration to and migration within the U.S., the so-called “Promised Land.” Contributing writers are of varied ethnic backgrounds, including Asian, African, Latino, Native American, Jewish, Middle Eastern, and European; together, they are a representative microcosm of the vast diversity and richness that is America.

Review: “Asian American Titles,” What Do I Read Next? Multicultural Literature, Gale Research, 1997

Readers: Adult

Published: 1991

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, African American, Arab American, Latino/a, Middle Eastern, Native American, Pan-Asian Pacific American