Sawires-Masseli, Marie-Christin. Arab American Novels Post-9/11: Classical Storytelling Motifs against Outsidership. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018. (Volume 293 of American Studies) ISBN 978-3825369217. €45 (Hardback). 301pp.
In his 1915 speech on “Americanism,” President Theodore Roosevelt insisted that “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism,” because “[o]ur allegiance must be purely to the United States” (648-649). He argued that immigrants and their descendants should not identify as German-American, Italian-American, or any other ‘hyphenated’ American identity, but should instead fully assimilate into the American mainstream. Questions about hyphenated American identities and immigrant identities remain in the 21st century. In Arab American Novels Post-9/11: Classical Storytelling Motifs against Outsidership, Marie-Christin Sawires-Masseli explains that the hyphenated identity “Arab American” is particularly fraught not only because of the complexity of hyphenated identities in general, but also because both terms—Arab and American—are unclear. Arab identity cannot be reduced to a single concept because of the size and diversity of the Arab world. Because of the close link between the Arabic language and the Islamic faith, “‘Arab’ has come to connote ‘Muslim’ in common usage,” even though many Arabs are non-Muslim and many Muslims are not Arabs (2). Despite the complexities of Arab identity, Sawires-Masseli argues that there is significant common ground across Arab cultures, and that Arab Americans from multiple countries of origin share similar experiences in the United States (4). These similarities explain her decision to discuss Arab American Literature as a distinct category. The categorization of these novels is determined not solely by the authors’ origins, but also by their use of Arab American themes to distinguish their novels from other ethnic American literatures.
Rather than attempt to encapsulate all of Arab American literature, Sawires-Masseli focuses on Arab American literature since 9/11. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, she argues, “constituted a turning point” for Arab American literature (7). Arab American novels published since 9/11 “clearly position themselves as Arab and as American” because the attacks compelled more Arab Americans to enter public discourses with their identities at the forefront (7). In light of this observation, Sawires-Masseli provides a brief overview of the existing scholarship on four contemporary Arab American novels: The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine, Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber, Once in a Promised Land by Laila Halaby, and The Night Counter by Alia Yunis. Sawires-Masseli explores each of these novels in detail in her monograph to determine what characterizes Arab American novels and to what extent 9/11 influenced Arab American writers. She also explores the novels’ depictions of Arab American communities and identities, as well as Arab Americans’ perspectives on their position in American society compared to the mainstream (12). Finally, Sawires-Masseli asks, “how do these novels employ motifs of classical Arabic storytelling, and to what aim?” (13). The monograph explores these questions through relational sociology—as conceived by sociologist Norbert Elias—and through narratology. Relational sociology posits that individuals “are inseparable from the transactional contexts within which they are embedded” (Emirbayer 287). In other words, people are always shaped by their interactions with others. The author explains that relational sociology is relevant to Once in a Promised Land and The Night Counter because their “storytelling motifs are used to convey criticism of discrimination [and] of Arab American outsidership,” but acknowledges that relational sociology does not apply to The Hakawati and Crescent because these texts do not depict relations between members of different groups (15). In these novels, narratology accounts for the influence of Middle Eastern oral traditions better than classical Western literary theories because a close reading informed by narratology can “understand this tradition and its scriptural transmission in the novels, their intertextual dimension” (18). Each chapter of Arab American Novels Post-9/11 is meticulously organized and richly detailed, as Sawires-Masseli provides a comprehensive overview of the novels and their shared characteristics. As she describes in her introductory chapter, these texts are thus far understudied, and her comparative investigation of these novels offers insight into how Arab storytelling traditions blend with Arab American social contexts in contemporary fiction.
Chapter 2 explores storytelling in The Hakawati, a novel about a Lebanese American man and his family in Lebanon. The novel also includes modern interpretations of Arab fables and folktales. Each chapter begins with a brief summary of the novel at hand. The Hakawati contains multiple stories in a nod to “opulent Middle Eastern storytelling,” but these stories are cleverly organized around common themes (25). Specifically, Sawires-Masseli argues that the stories follow the musical principle “maqâm,” which is “to start with a standard or well-known tune, but to elaborate on it…[and] create ever more variations” (26). This type of building is typical across many different types of Arabic art. Alameddine also uses what Sawires-Masseli calls “the principle of arabesque” to structure these various stories; “there are often themes repeated so as to elaborate on a certain subject by developing it in different circumstances from diverging angles” (27). She argues that Alameddine uses stories both to comment on the aesthetics of storytelling itself and to convey culturally taboo subjects. Indeed, storytelling in the novel, much like traditional Arab storytelling, is a way “of conveying things unspeakable” (90). Despite storytelling’s power to broach difficult topics, however, Alameddine does not reference 9/11 in the novel. Sawires-Masseli argues that this absence is intentional and therefore “offers an alternative reading of Arab culture(s) in the aftermath of 9/11” (94). In this way, the novel responds to 9/11 and its effects of Arab Americans by omitting an explicit response and instead focusing on other facets of the Arab American experience. Sawires-Masseli makes a similar move by including The Hakawati in her monograph, demonstrating that Arab American novels after 9/11 cannot and ought not be defined by the attacks.
Chapter 3 centers on Abu-Jaber’s Crescent, a 2003 novel about an Arab American woman named Sirine and her uncle, whose Arab fable is intertwined with the central narrative. As Sawires-Masseli explains, the novel’s main narrative includes multiple other characters and “serves as a plate on which a panorama of the immigrant experience is dished” (96). The uncle’s fable demonstrates that appearances often deceive and that identities are ever in flux, all while using humor to engage with difficult topics, including Orientalism or Arab identity (109). It is thus through both storytelling and humor that the novel is political and informative without preaching to the reader. Both the fable and the frame narrative challenge stereotypes about Arabs and about Arab women in particular. Sawires-Masseli argues that the novel shows a diversity of perspective and opinion, but criticizes Abu-Jaber’s omission of devout Muslims from dialogues about Islam (140). This chapter also notes the relationship between the novel and Elias’ relational sociology. One character in Crescent, an Egyptian cook, demonstrates Elias’ claim that “outsiders usually act unwittingly as accomplices in their exclusion” by internalizing stigmatization, while other characters subvert this expectation (143). Sawires-Masseli also notes the importance of this character to the novel’s broader political implications. The novel is set in 1990, and Abu-Jaber makes explicit references to the Gulf War and Saddam Hussein. She attributes “suspicion, discrimination, and harassment of the Arab American community to American involvement with Saddam Hussein,” and demonstrates that 9/11 did not engender discrimination, though the attacks almost certainly exacerbated it (144). Interestingly, Sawires-Masseli includes the novel despite the fact that it was written before 9/11, noting that it was published after the attacks. One example Sawires-Masseli cites indicating the novel’s relevance to post-9/11 discourse is that of an unnamed speaker in Crescent who pronounces that “something terrible” will happen to Americans if their careless foreign policy in the Middle East continues (159). Therefore, through the inclusion of Crescent in a text on post-9/11 Arab American fiction, Sawires-Masseli implies that post-9/11 discourse must include attention to the circumstances that led to the attacks and to the discrimination that preceded them.
Sawires-Masseli maintains the same clear organization in chapter 4, which explores storytelling in Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land. The novel is about a Jordanian couple, Salwa and Jassim Haddad, living in the United States after 9/11. Sawires-Masseli notes that this novel deals more explicitly with 9/11 than either The Hakawati or Crescent. The novel includes both a main narrative and a frame narrative, as well as another Arabic fable that Salwa remembers from her childhood. The framing fable demonstrates that the novel itself is an Arabic fairy tale and “establishes a link between the couple and 9/11 before the plot begins” (170). The frame narrative also mimics oral storytelling, critiques the conventions of Western fairy tales, and establishes the novel’s hybridity as both Arab and American (178). In addition, the novel represents America as inherently corrupt and contaminating to the immigrant characters, who are negatively influenced by American consumerism in particular. The characters come to recognize the flaws in American society, and they subsequently recognize the end of the American dream. Sawires-Masseli also responds to other critics in this chapter, arguing that they overlook the significant political implications of the novel. She notes that these political implications are made explicit through the frame narrative in particular; the political nature of the fable further demonstrates the importance of storytelling for the novel. Sawires-Masseli concludes the chapter by comparing Once in a Promised Land with The Hakawati and Crescent. Specifically, she argues that instead of highlighting Arab culture through folk tales, as do Alameddine and Abu-Jaber, Halaby uses folk tales comment on American culture. At the end of the chapter, Sawires-Masseli notes the novel’s refusal to challenge the binary opposition between Arabs and Americans and its homogenous portrayal of Arab Americans—features that other critics have called flaws—but she refrains from making an explicit judgment about how these aspects might detract from the novel.
The fourth novel Sawires-Masseli discusses, The Night Counter, includes the theme of Arabic storytelling through the character Scheherazade and through a character telling the last 9 of 1001 stories, in an obvious reference to 1001 Nights. In Yunis’ version of the 1001 Nights, Scheherazade is a listener rather than a storyteller, and only 85-year-old Fatima Abdullah, the novel’s storyteller, can see or hear her. Scheherazade’s presence connects the novel to the Arabic tradition and structures the narrative. Indeed, “Scheherazade is the unifying principle in a disconnected family, the means by which all descendants are gathered into one narrative,” even though they do not have close relationships one another (207). The character also functions as a means to question stereotypes about both Arabs and Americans. Sawires-Masseli notes that the novel uses irony to reveal the Abdullah family’s disfunction and to lighten the mood during more serious portions of the novel. Significantly, Sawires-Masseli also argues that Yunis uses humor to discuss complex issues, such as fate and religion, from multiple angles without offering definitive answers. This novel is also the most appropriate for analysis in light of Elias’ relational sociology, as it represents relations between different social groups more explicitly than do the other novels Sawires-Masseli discusses. As she demonstrates, the members of the Abdullah family are outsiders who struggle to fit in with the establishment and subsequently suffer conflicts of identity. Their inability to conform to the establishment is exacerbated by increased ethnic tensions and discrimination after 9/11. Multiple characters embody different strategies in an attempt to overcome their outsidership. Moreover, through the portrayal of myriad, realistic characters, The Night Counter indirectly challenges reductive stereotypes about Arabs. Instead of representing Arabs or Arab Americans as a monolith, “Yunis reflects on a wide scope of Arab American culture, exposing the heterogeneity in terms of identity as well as in politics and social position” (239). Yunis’ text also represents 9/11 through multiple characters’ thoughts and acknowledges that discrimination against Arabs occurred well before the attacks. 9/11 is extremely significant in the novel, as “Scheherazade began her visits to Fatima on September 11, 2001” and therefore the final story takes place 1001 nights after 9/11 (240). Yunis represents 9/11 as having direct consequences for the Abdullah family, including increased fear and anxiety, lifestyle changes, and Fatima’s divorce. Instead of representing anti-Arab discrimination post-9/11 as unique, The Night Counter demonstrates that this type of discrimination is not unlike numerous other instances of discrimination both in the United States and elsewhere. Yunis’ representation of the multiplicity of discrimination parallels the various manifestations of Arab American identity throughout the novel. Overall, The Night Counter best fits with the description of contemporary Arab American fiction established in Sawires-Masseli’s introductory chapter through the novel’s explicit use of Arab storytelling motifs, representation of established social groups’ relationships to outsiders, and attention to 9/11.
In her conclusion, Sawires-Masseli argues that these authors were at least partially motivated by 9/11 to write and publish their novels. Each novelist responds differently to the attacks or to the discrimination that preceded the attacks. Similarly, each novel offers a unique representation of Arab American identities and communities. These novels differ from mainstream American literature, Sawires-Masseli explains, through “their use of Arab storytelling tradition as well as their subject, yet these novels are American at the same time in their approach, as they Americanize these traditional elements by reinterpreting them to fit an American context and American readers” (283). In addition to her discussion of these key features, Sawires-Masseli provides an overview of the novels’ critical reception. She discusses how the novels ought to be read, noting that they should not be reduced to their political or educational content. Interestingly, she acknowledges that “relational sociology proved a limited approach whenever no interaction/relations were portrayed; consequently, this work mostly relied on a close reading with narratology to analyze the authors’ adapation [sic] of classic Arabic storytelling” (287). It may have been preferable to clarify that close reading and narratology would be the primary modes of analysis in the introduction, but Sawires-Masseli seems justified in her use of relational sociology when it proved relevant. The conclusion also repeatedly refers to the text as a “dissertation,” indicating that some additional revision of the text may have been warranted (287). Despite these minor oversights, the conclusion is successful in offering suggestions for further research and detailing the broader implications of Sawires-Masseli’s arguments. The Hakawati, Crescent, Once in a Promised Land, and The Night Counter demonstrate how 9/11 has affected Arab American communities and offer an alternative representation of Arabs and Arab Americans in contrast to Hollywood caricatures and enduring stereotypes. Moreover, Sawires-Masseli argues that Arab American literature and other ethnic literatures ought to be included in the literary canon as a way to counter reductive and harmful stereotypes. In other words, the American literary canon must embrace hyphenated literary identities to better represent the scope of the American experience.
1. Sawires-Masseli makes the choice not to hyphenate “Arab American” in her text—as it is no longer conventional to use the hyphen in most contemporary styles—but Roosevelt would nonetheless have considered the designation a refusal to assimilate fully into the American mainstream, comparable to compound identities that literally contain hyphens.
2. As she notes in the Introduction, after 9/11 the literary market also became more interested in publishing work by Arab American writers and in marketing these texts explicitly as “Arab American Literature.”