Several years ago, I decided I wanted to write something “true.” I wanted to write a memoir about growing up in my Arab-American family. But somehow, almost before I’d set pen to paper, I felt silenced: the words were missing. I’d been writing fiction for a long time by that point. But as I struggled to describe the past, to run my hands over the texture of childhood, of family dinners, conversations, and travel, it all seemed to evade me; it was like trying to catch clouds with a butterfly net.
I was born and raised in America, but because of my heritage, I’m often asked to comment on the Middle East—as if I were some sort of sociologist or political scientist. In reality, I’m a novelist—I prefer conjuring up the curious, unclassifiable stories of individuals to describing the wide arcs of history or culture.
But Americans love “culture”—we crave a sense of connection to something larger and older than ourselves. Most people here came from other places; they intermarried and lost track of the ancient blood lines. In my own case, I’m the product of a father who can trace his Bedouin ancestry back hundreds of years and a mother who knows little more than that her grandparents were Irish and Bavarian, or maybe Dutch or Swiss—but isn’t quite certain. Dad used to remind us constantly, as my sisters and I grew up in the United States, not to get confused about things—that we were actually Arab girls. Good, obedient, Jordanian girls.
What I knew about my father’s culture was filtered through the Arab-American community of Syracuse, New York. Our favorite baklava came from our cheerful, plump Palestinian neighbor; our Arabic language lessons were given by a dour-faced Iraqi Chaldean in a dank Greek Orthodox church basement; and we took dance lessons from an Egyptian woman with a gleaming smile. My father would occasionally unfurl his lovely old silk prayer rug, but every Sunday we attended mass at my maternal grandmother’s enormous Catholic church. This “culture” was light years away from Dad’s traditional upbringing in the wadis of Jordan.
My fair skin didn’t help clarify matters either. When I was very young, I’d notice our Jordanian relatives peeping in at my sisters, cousins, and me at play; they’d murmur to each other, “There she is—that one’s the American!” Even back then, I sensed this was a term of distinction and exclusion—sort of prestigious yet not really part of the gang. They referred to my olive-skinned sister as “the Arab.” Americans, too, felt compelled to regularly let me know that I didn’t look “Arab,” as if that diminished my right to think of myself as “Arab-American.” I hated that, resenting the way that people thought they knew who I was or how I felt based on what I looked like.
One day, in high school, a well-intentioned teacher, who was trying to teach something she called “racial identity,” tried an experiment. Willowy blonde Mrs. Harrow leaned against her desk and asked those students who considered themselves “people of color” to go to the right side of the room and those who considered themselves “white” to go to the left. To my amazement, the class appeared to divide itself easily and naturally…until I was left sitting by myself in the center of the room. I honestly didn’t know which side I belonged on. While most of the class seemed to find this hilarious, my teacher was irritated, as if I were being deliberately obtuse. Apparently Mrs. Harrow had never known the dissonance of thinking of herself in one way and being identified by others in another. I could only envy her that sort of easy congruity—how wonderful, it seemed, to feel in accord with what others thought of you.
Luckily, the United States is so vast, there are all sorts of ways for people here to find themselves. Many immigrants find their sanctuary in gatherings, tribal convergences: Korea Towns and Italian neighborhoods and Little Haitis. When I was growing up, there weren’t enough Jordanians around to form their own exclusive enclave, so we lived among an assortment of family and friends—usually other newcomers spanning different Arab countries—occasionally even including travelers from places like Italy, Turkey, and Greece. It was as if it didn’t matter as much that you shared precisely the same food or religion, than that you shared the same sensibility—a slower rhythm, a passion for conversation, a strict moral code, an adoration of children.
My childhood world was loosely divided into Inside (the “Arabs” and friends) and Outside (the “Americans”). But, of course, one could not examine this division too closely or it would start to crumble. For one, my father and his brothers had married Americans. Still, every weekend, we had rambling, daylong parties at home, filled with traditional food and music and roaring conversations, mostly in Arabic, mostly about politics. To a child, the disjuncture between weekends (loud, funny, exciting, scary) and weekdays (calm, efficient, mildly dull) was like an ongoing exercise in culture shock. I learned at my parents’ gatherings that revealing the “truth”—meaning the private truth of one’s desires, fears, and beliefs—was one of the most frightening and risky things anyone could do in this American wilderness.
My father seemed to transform each Monday, from a boisterous, opinionated cook to a more cautious, buttoned-up office manager. I doubt that he ever openly shared his views with his colleagues, though he often came home bristling and indignant over their ignorance of the Middle East. It seems unlikely that any of his American acquaintances knew about his longing to own his own restaurant or his wish to return with us to Jordan. They knew only a carefully constructed persona. The consensus among the immigrants we knew seemed to be that America was a wonderful place for an education and career, but that Americans were also slightly dangerous, crazy, and untrustworthy. Every word that you spoke to them had to be measured with care.
It seemed that there was just no telling what an American—especially an American boy—might do. This feeling was especially heightened for my poor father after having three daughters—his “harem,” as people referred to us. According to Dad, the local boys were all potential violent sex maniacs and alcoholic drug addicts. Apparently, American girls were safer, but I was forever shocked by my friends’ brashness and their insubordination to their parents. And I was amazed by how easily my friends revealed their thoughts about all sorts of private things—talking so openly about their boyfriends, their families, and their ambitions. I admired this confidence that their views would be accepted at least, if not embraced. I had learned no such faith in the world—Arab or American. This was underscored by watching the Evening News. Walter Cronkite would say one thing—about Vietnam or Richard Nixon or the Middle East—and my father would respond rather explosively with different information and opinions. I learned from the news that, once again, the world was divided into sides. The people on the inside (Americans) were always right, and the people on the outside (everyone else) didn’t really count. But, of course, the problem for a child of immigrants—in a nation of immigrants—was figuring out exactly who the people on the inside were supposed to be.
I’ve found that attempting to capture a unique cultural experience is a bit like trying to look directly at something floating on the surface of the eye. Outside the raw facts of language and geography, I’ve struggled to figure out if there is something that makes someone’s story uniquely “Arab-American.” The fight for identity and self-representation, the tension between preserving heritage and embracing the new are all real issues for the Arab-American community. But they’re also common to all sorts of immigrants from all over the place.
As an adult, I started to sense that the Arab-American experience was less about something innate to the Arab world and more about the way Americans perceive and respond to “Arabness.” So this war between private and public identities became one of the main themes of my memoir. I wrote draft after discarded draft, fighting with myself, my fragmented memory, my confused emotional responses. I worked through layers, fragments of images, conversations, and artifacts like recipes, toward a narrative matrix.
I refused to show the manuscript to anyone, because I could barely overcome my own carefully acquired, highly respectful fear of revealing the truth. I worried that if any of my family disapproved, it might become impossible for me to write anything at all. And then, after three years of rewriting and soul-searching, after I’d finally presented what I’d hoped might be an acceptable draft to my agent, she sent it back to me saying, “Do it again. This time tell us what you’re not saying.”
I almost gave up entirely on the project. I began to think I’d been too sheltered by my folks, that I was too torn by my divided loyalties between my Old Country family and my American art, to really say the things I was not saying. In despair, I confided in my mother, telling her about the way I was agonizing over the memoir, my fear of getting it wrong, of hurting people. After a thoughtful pause, my gentle, soft-spoken, grade-school teacher mother finally said, “Well honey, I understand that you want to be respectful and don’t want to upset anyone. I know you love your family and want to do right by everyone. But, at the end of the day, you know what I say? I say, if anyone doesn’t like it, then the hell with them!”
Well. I was shocked into silence. And then shock turned into relief. My American mother had given me that extra bit of confidence, a belief, finally, in the right to my own story, to claim it openly. I began, once again, to write. And a year later, The Language of Baklava was published.
People often ask why I don’t write as much about my mother. The truth is that Dad is simply an easier subject. I don’t know if it’s his cultural difference, or just his personality, but he’s zanier, louder and stranger than most people I meet. At the same time, I also believe absolutely that I could never have become a writer without my mother’s example. Even though she didn’t have an unusual pedigree, even though she listened to the same music as all the other Americans, and she wasn’t obsessed with cooking or politics—it didn’t matter what country she was from: she was thoughtful, respectful, and intelligent. She brought me books; she asked me about myself; she taught me how to listen and observe, how to think and read.
After The Language of Baklava came out, I found that I wanted to go deeper into my American past, and so I wrote Origin, a murder mystery, in which the main character is an orphan raised in Syracuse, with no information about her biological parents. It was unlike any book I’d written before, and for that newness alone, it was deeply satisfying to me.
That’s not to say I’m abandoning or uninterested in exploring my Jordanian roots, but simply that, like all writers, I need to keep pushing myself toward new ways of finding and telling my truth. The greatest hope and privilege of any writer might just be the push for total artistic freedom, the right to imaginative re-creation. In many ways, as constricting as my upbringing was at times, now I’m grateful that I had both cultures, not only to enlarge my sense of the world, but to hone myself against. Because sometimes, I think, it’s better not to say everything. Sometimes, it’s good to let things have a little time to develop in silence and thought.
I recently gave a reading in a little bookshop in New York. During the question-and-answer session that followed, a woman in the audience nodded approvingly and told me, “You write like an Arab.”
While I’m still not entirely sure what she might have meant by that—the story was about American characters and it was certainly written in English—but I still felt oddly pleased by the sense of affirmation, and acceptance. After so many years of not-fitting, it felt like, finally, a form of recognition.
I smiled and told her, most sincerely, “Thank you.”
Originally published in: “Multicultural Literature in the United States Today,” US Department of State, February 2009, Volume 14/2
© 2011 – 2013, Diana Abu-Jaber. All rights reserved.