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Volume 45, Number 2March/April 1994

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Balancing on the Hyphen

Written by Char Simons
Photographed by George Baramki Azar

Her Grandmother Anissa ran Jordan's first public library from the family home. Her Bedouin grandfather Salih was offered a movie role by Cecil B. De Mille; he laughed and gave De Mille a goat.

The richness of such family tales in one source of the energy Arab-American author Diana Abu-Jaber exhibits in her eclectic writings. Her first novel, Arabian Jazz, was published last summer by Harcourt Brace, and will be issued in paperback this spring. Along with authors like Oscar Hijuelos and Bharati Mukherjee, Abu-Jaber belongs to what the Christian Science Monitor calls the hottest literary trend around-world literature. It is the phenomenon of "hyphenated people," be they Arab-American or Pakistani-British, exploring what it means to be society's "others."

Arabian Jazz is the culmination of Abu-Jaber's coming to terms with her Palestinian and Jordanian roots. "Like many first-generation writers," she says, "I m trying to find cultural balance between ancestry and America." The book's main characters, sisters Melvina and Jermorah Ramoud, are incarnations of herself. Their father, Matussem, began as a portrait of Abu-Jaber's father, but evolved into an idealized father, dreamer and jazz drummer, loving and forbearing, articulate in pell-mell monologues of Arabized English.

Though she has been writing since middle school, Abu-Jaber's early short stories lacked the mixture of intensity, passion and light-heartedness of Arabian Jazz . It wasn't until a college professor encouraged her to write from her own experience as an Arab-American that Abu-Jaber found a voice of her own. Without losing its Arab flavor, her 374-page novel, set in upstate New York, transcends ethnic boundaries, delving into family and cross-cultural conflicts familiar to any immigrants and their somewhat Americanized children. Arabian Jazz has been called the first genuinely American novel set in an Arab-American context.

"I was trying to construct myself," explains Abu-Jaber, 34, curled up on a couch in the high-rise apartment in Eugene, Oregon, that she shares with her husband, Michael, Clark. "My relationship with the Middle East is one of return. When I was younger, I had very fragmented sense of self. I couldn't find a role model for a first-generation anything.

"For years and years I thought of my heritage as a nuisance," Abu-Jaber says, speaking of her childhood in Euclid, New York. "It meant we were different and the objects of ridicule."

Although Abu-Jaber lived in Jordan only briefly in the late 1960's, when her father tried to return to the Middle East, that visit left an indelible mark on her. "I didn't feel nearly as much like an outsider in Jordan as I did in this country," she says. After a year, Abu-Jaber, her two younger sisters and her parents left her father's ancestral town of Yehdouda and returned to upstate New York.

Since then, Abu-Jaber has explored the role of the outsider in teaching as well as writing. The creative writing course she taught this fall at the University of Oregon. "First Generation American Writers," included works by several hyphenated people like herself.

"You can't be a speaker for your people," she says. "But Arabian Jazz is in part my attempt to celebrate and honor Arab-Americans."

Char Simons is a free-lance writer based in Olympia, Washington. She has lived and traveled in Turkey and Egypt.

This article appeared on pages 30-31 of the March/April 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1994 images.