SWAY's guest contributor Eddie Taylor recently met with with the novelist Diana Abu Jaber while she reflected on her multifaceted personality Arab on the inside, American on the out.
The cultural dichotomy of being Arab-American has perhaps never been so acute. Even though America's broad sweep of no-questions-asked opportunity has proved irresistible to hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Arab world, the central identifying force always seems to remain amid the colors, climate and cuisine of home. A place where, unlike your host, however gracious they may be, there is never a shortage of comfort and understanding. Diana Abu Jaber, a Jordanian writer and academic based at Portland State University, Oregon, is one of the foremost narrators of this divide. In an unresolved battle between the material and the spiritual, Diana's life has been spent in perpetual transit between her adopted country and the magical allure of her homeland. Her first novel, the award-winning Arabian Jazz (Harcourt, 1993), summarizes the Arab-American experience. Squabbling siblings, fussing aunts, proposing cousins and dueling dialects fill up the days in a small corner of upstate New York in a work that was, by Diana's own admission, extremely auto-biographical. This year, she hopes to publish two further books on the head-on clash between America and Arabia: "Crescent" focuses on an Iraqi family in Los Angeles, while "The Language of Baklava" is a food memoir revolving around her father's attempts to open a Middle-Eastern restaurant.
ET: What are your memories of growing up in both America and Amman, with the constant exchanges of cultures and environments?
DAJ: Being a kid in Jordan was fabulous. There were so many people in our family to indulge you that if Dad said "no" then there is always a aunt, uncle or cousin to say "yes"! It was much harder to be in the United States, with all the material trappings around you, things that we never really had. I remember wanting desperately to be American because they all seemed so cool and rich. I think I was very confused!
ET: Have you ever resolved that split?
DAJ: I don't think so. My Dad always called America his "big mistake!" He was always going on about taking the family back. But without ever consciously choosing America as my permanent home, the decisions I have taken along that way university in Syracuse, NY, marrying an American have ensured my subconscious is working in America's favor! However, I have now come to realize that Jordan has such an amazing hold over me. Yet in Jordan I don't really feel Jordanian, and in America I don't feel American. It's tough, that's for sure.
ET: You say that Arabian Jazz was quasi-autobiographical. Does that mean, like the book, you have a glass-eyed cousin who your parents wanted you to marry?
DAJ: Well, the glass-eyed cousin part is true! No, my father thankfully never tried to get me to marry him. And, yes, everyone in my family calls it "The Old Country." Arabian Jazz is very similar to my own life, but it also has a very strong life of its own. Although that doesn't stop people thinking in that my characters are based on them, even though they couldn't be more wrong!
ET: But a lot of Arabian Jazz was about the perpetual attempts to marry the main character off! How true to life was that?
DAJ: Oh God, yes! My father, a very proud Jordanian, was obsessed with getting us married off as soon as possible. I'm not sure he knew what else to do with us! But he raised us like boys, to be strong and independent, so we got very mixed signals. He was always telling us not to depend on men and go out and get a job. But then he would bring all these guys home for us to meet. We'd be like "Quick, run! Dad's brought home another one!"
ET: You have another novel set for release this year, and a non-fiction work. The themes seem to tread familiar ground.
DAJ: "The Language of Baklava" is a food memoir. Cooking is a form of remembering, and it's full of good Jordanian recipes. I wrote an article for a newspaper here about the best home-cooks in Amman, and the idea sprang from there. The novel, Crescent, has just been finished. That is about an Iraqi family in Los Angeles, the head of which is a chef. So, again, food and culture are interwoven with the sense of loss and isolation
ET: Arabian Jazz was published to a warm reception back in 1993, even when the Gulf War was still reverberating around the nation. Do you feel that in the current climate in America provides a market for tales of the Arab experience?
DAJ: Maybe, maybe not. I have absolutely no idea how the political situation affects book sales it may even make it better, who knows? But I don't think the Arab story in America, which is large and diverse, is well known and I hope I can contribute to the dialogue.
ET: How much on an un-told story is it? Arabian Jazz was full of anecdotes about racism both casual and deliberate that each generation encountered. What has been your experience?
DAJ: My Dad was always a target. He would get a lot of anti-Arab sentiments. And that was prior to any conflict in the world that would directly affect Americans, so it was definitely just about racism in its purest, most idiotic form. I don't necessarily look Arabic to an American, so my experience has been strange, diverse and hard to generalize about. Then again, I have nothing to compare it to, so I can't characterize it as better or worse than other second-generation communities in America.
ET: Publishers can't have been that uneasy, though. They have published one novel and are planning to publish the next two?
DAJ: Yes, but there was one about a Palestinian family, Memoirs of Birth, that no one wanted to put out. And no one ever gave a satisfactory explanation as to why. But you're right about Arabian Jazz; it went into several printings. So it could be they just didn't like my second book .
ET: Obviously Oregon, as pretty as it is, is nothing like Jordan. When you travel back, what are the first things you want to see?
DAJ: I have always loved the area around Mount Nebo and Madaba. And I want a teaching residency at Darat Al-Funun! After college, I lived there again in 1995 and 1996, so I have managed to develop of lot of good, long-standing friends in Amman again. So I always plenty of reasons to keep going home.
By Eddie Taylor