Dinarzad's Children: An Anthology Of Contemporary Arab American Fiction

Reviewed by George

Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Mattawa eds, Dinarzad's Children: An Anthology Of Contemporary Arab American Fiction  (University of Arkansas Press, 2009).

The first edition of Dinarzad‘s Children, released in 2004, was already a remarkable achievement, accurately described as ‘a literary road map to contemporary Arab-American fiction.’ It brought to the forefront the human face of an ethnic subset of American society which had previously been obscured by an often hysterical popular news culture. Now, in creating the second edition of their anthology, editors Pauline Kaldas and Kahled Mattawa have helped their readers by organizing the material into major thematic blocs: First Generation; Cross Cultural Encounters; Relationships; Politics; Looking Homeward; and Shaping Identities.

The collection consists of some 30 short stories by authors whose countries of origin include Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, but who all decidedly call America home. The range of individuals is daunting, as the publisher notes – Muslims and Christians, recent immigrants and fully assimilated Americans, teenagers and grandmothers, guerrillas and peace protesters, professors, housewives, grocers, bookies, those who long for their homeland, and those who refuse to speak Arabic.

These stories show Arab-Americans in all their diversity – with the common thread of having to face singular challenges in their encounters with American culture. Sometimes the encounters are between themselves and non Arab-Americans, whether co-workers or neighbors or strangers. More frequently, they are familial exchanges – intergenerational, intramarital, uncle to nephew, cousin to cousin.

In fact, the stories fundamentally provide a human context, and a human face, to America’s latest 'them.' This second edition includes stories which reflect on what Arab Americans have experienced in the 9/11 era. These new stories are among the strongest in the collection, particularly in the section titled Politics.

Through the stories, we are introduced to a range of characters attempting, more or less successfully, to deal with their individual situations. Some of them fail, others succeed. Each situation is unique, putting the lie to any monolithic notion of ethnic type or stock scenario. The settings are equally varied, ranging from slums, suburbs, and grocery stores to Indian reservations, University campuses, and the anonymous urban environment. At times there is humor in the characters and situations, other times bitterness or confusion, but frequently a sublime compassion.

In the very strong “News from Phoenix” by Joseph Geha, for example, an Arab and a Jewish couple learn to go beyond previously held stereotypes through shared experience. Also of note is “The Salad Lady,” by Rawi Hage, a colorful vignette which examines the lumping together of various ethnicities in American working-class culture. And “The Coal Bin,” by D.H. Melhem, is flat out great writing, a haunting allegory of considerable power and control. In the Relationships section, exploring the struggle to form intimate relationships in America, highlights include the quasi-comic “And What Else?” (also by Geha) and the uncomfortably tense and somewhat experimental story “Stage Directions,” by Yusef El Giundi.

It is in the Politics section that the book reaches its full potency. How politics colors the experiences that people have with each other, particularly in the post-9/11 world, is tackled head on. The reader learns by turn what it feels like to be thought suspect, how treacherous it is for an Arab-American to navigate the waters of basic political discourse, and what a challenge it can be to create a relationship free of the stereotypical politics of the time. In the very effective “Maryam and Marissa,” by David Williams, the glib, sophisticated and culturally assimilated protagonist learns that despite his adoption of American culture, he's subject to overt acts of victimization.

“We’d both done some heavy compartmentalizing with the Democrats,” writes El Guindi in the remorseless and unapologetic story “Ohio,” “telling ourselves, well, they may express some contempt for Arabs now and again… but at least we agreed on everything else. We’d just swallow that proviso to our support and put it down to the perils of politicking…and besides, the alternative was unthinkable. Contempt is one thing, Crusades another thing altogether.”

The volume takes its title from the lesser known sister of Scheherazade, Dinarzad, whose role in the world famous Thousand and One Nights was to “ask her sister for a story” each night as a means to stop the King to whom Scheherazade has been wed from his series of merciless killings of a nightly succession of wives. By participating in a voyage of tale-telling to thwart injustice, the anonymous and scarcely acknowledged Dinarzad, suggest the editors, is an apt symbol for contemporary Arab-American writers. After all, in their own efforts they call forth human stories of their community that – in their telling – might very well help to forestall unfair victimization of Arab-Americans in America.

It is often said that there's politics in everything, but this is not a book of polemics – it rarely tries to tell us what is right or wrong. Instead, it reveals what it means to be a particular 'brand' of human in America today, from an ethnicity sorely in need of having its story told. Dinarzad’s Children opens a door into the lives of a misunderstood group of Americans at a critical juncture in their history – and in that of the larger society. It doesn't shout, it confides. Like the fictional Dinarzad, it asks for stories. Like Scheherazade, it offers those stories up. In a very real sense, the anthology is a deft and nuanced effort to divert America from enacting its potential for injustice against some of its own.

George Wallace Poet and poetry editor Northport, New York poetrybay1@aol.com