culture sastra

Review: Arabian Jazz by Diana Abu-Jaber

1st Edition. 1993
1st Edition. 1993

Narrating the life of an Arab immigrant family in a small town of upstate New York, Arabian Jazz is a powerful reinterpretation of the American dream and the idea that the United States is the land of immigrants. If we are so familiar with the myth of the American dream, this novel is one we need to read. It deconstructs that idea without tossing away altogether the said myth. On one hand, it has narratives about individuals whose presence in the United States is practically rejected. These individuals, Arab immigrants, native people, and African American, get derided by the dominating majority. On other hand, it also presents characters whose presence and upbringing in the United States liberate them from the trap of immobilizing traditions and who feel good about their American existence.

Its fuse of music and psychology is one the like of which I’ve never found in any American novel hitherto. Music is present neither in the form of quotations from evergreen songs or ones that have been the classics of our age nor in the biography of legendary artists with their life philosophies. Music, in this case Jazz, is present in the haphazardness of the characters’ English, the well-metered but often unpredictable leaps between narratives, and the correlation between the music and its characters’ backgrounds. I would argue that the only music that can perfectly represent this novel and the main Arab immigrant character is indeed jazz.

Later editions
Later editions

With regards to the whimsical nature of the novel, I came to decide that the cover of the first edition (the colorful cover with a cowboy hat and a camel) is indeed more faithful to the spirit of the novel compared to the beautiful, well-crafted, soft cover of the later editions.

To end this brief review properly, I’m inviting you all to read an excerpt from the novel:

… [Nassir] turned to Jem. “You still haven’t answered my opener–my curiosity about whatever opened this floodgate of family feeling. What was it that turned Jem the unattainable, the American cousin, back to the Old Country? What dislodged the first stone? What trumpeted outside your Jericho?”

Melvie Said, “Nothing,” as Jem said, “Everything.”

The two women looked at each other and Jem repeated, “Everything.”

“Ha!” said Fatima Merrily. “So I says.”

“It’s true,” Jem said, speaking to Melvie. Things are changing for me. I’ve started to see better, like the way I don’t fit in. I haven’t put together a life. I’m still living at home, I’ve been working at a job I hate. I’m so tired of being a child, being good, wanting people to like me. They don’t like me. They don’t like Arabs.”

“Americans don’t like anybody! Americans don’t like Americans!” Melvie said. “And what are we talking about, you are an American. Where do you think Americans came from, when they’re not captured on reservations? They come from other places. That’s what an American is!”

“No, I don’t think so. I think it just doesn’t work like that. It’s not enough to be born here, or to live here, or speak the language. You’ve got to seem right,” Jem said, lifting her palms. “Well, I don’t know how to accomplish that, and I’m starting to think I won’t ever learn it if I haven’t by now. In fact, I don’t even want to learn it anymore.”

“Amen,” Fatima said. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph, praise holy name of Allah the munificent–Jemorah has seen light.” (Abu-Jaber, Diana. Arabian Jazz. pp. 327-8)

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