- Straddling the Personal and the Political: Gendered Memory in Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz
Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz (1993) recounts the story of Jemorah and Melvina, two young Arab American women of Palestinian descent, who live in the United States with their father, Matussem. When Jemorah and Melvina were still children, their American mother, Nora, died of typhus during a visit to Jordan. After Nora's death, Matussem moved his family from Syracuse to Euclid, where he took to drumming jazz daily and started a band. His sister, Fatima, contributes to the education of Jemorah and Melvina by teaching them the ways of the old world and its traditions. The experiences of the two sisters reinforce their feelings of being caught between the worlds of Arabness and Americanness; the discrimination they face in Euclid adds to their confusion and further marks them as outsiders to Americanness. Melvina deals with this by establishing her identity as "all nurse" (13). For Jemorah, however, dealing with her displacement is more problematic; she feels unable to maintain a career or commit to a relationship. Aggravating Jemorah's conflicts is her confrontation with her boss, Portia, who tries to convert her to the values of white American identity. To protect herself from alienation and exile, Jemorah decides to marry her cousin Nassir and move with him to Jordan, where she hopes to find family and belonging. However, she soon realizes that the individual and collective past of her family is even more complicated than her American present. Such complexity is embodied in Fatima, who is haunted by the repressed/unspoken memory of her participation in the murder of her infant sisters and her imprisonment by the Israelis. Such memories resurface during a conversation with Nassir and Jemorah in which Nassir tries to dissuade Jemorah from moving to Jordan by revealing the hostilities and injustices of the Arab world. Fatima reacts to his generalizations about the Arab world and past by expressing her long-repressed memories and pain. Unlike Fatima, Jemorah still feels trapped in her present, and she considers going to graduate school to crack the mystery of the othering and hatred of Arabs in the United States. The novel does not end with a clear resolution, but the characters have gained a better understanding of themselves and their relationship with their community. [End Page 137]
Focusing on the complex dimensions of these characters' personal and communal location, this article explores the role of ethnic and gendered memory in shaping Arab American women's identity in Arabian Jazz. It also probes how memory intervenes in discourses of selfhood to allow Arab American women to fight silencing and oppression and establish a politicized connection to their land, history, and people. While ethnic memory allows women to explore their location vis-à-vis mainstream and marginalized American societies, gendered memory brings forth feminist concerns specific to sociohistorical experiences connected to their Arab roots. Such experiences are marked by, and result in, differences in the perception of the roles of memory and belonging, separating male and female patterns of experience of the past. More specifically, male characters such as Matussem and Nassir deal with memory through the lens of discontinuity as they consolidate dichotomies between past and present. Matussem, for instance, fights the intrusion of memory into the present in order to consolidate his belonging in America. Nassir's discourse also reveals an insistence on separating memory from configurations of family and homeland. Matussem's and Nassir's visions are marked by an insistence on configuring the Arab world as a place that is distant in space and time from their American present. 1
By contrast, some female characters in Arabian Jazz integrate memory into their processes of self-definition; Jemorah uses memory to negotiate her identity against American racialization and patronage, a process that helps her define her situation as an ethnic subject in America. This articulation of Jemorah's memory, based on the amalgamation of her Arab background and American existence, allows for a more complex and subtle definition of her identity. Such complexity stands in opposition to the pressures of conformism she faces in...