- Arab-American Women’s Writing and Performance: Orientalism, Race, and the Idea of The Arabian Nights by Somaya Sami Sabry
Somaya Sami Sabry makes a considerable contribution to studies of diaspora, Arab American identity, transnational feminism, and post-9/11 ethnicity in this book, although folklorists may be disappointed by how little time is actually spent discussing The Arabian Nights, despite its prominence in the title. Indeed, Sabry makes much of “Sheherazadian narrative” and “Sheherazadian orality” in her texts, terms that she uses to refer to “a narrative which resists stereotypical and exotic representations through reformation of the frame tale of The Thousand and One Nights or the invocation of its orality” (3). However, the matter of what precisely makes a narrative Sheherazadian is not explained to my satisfaction; is it a particular quality of Arab or Muslim women’s speech acts, or does it require concrete intertextual references to The 1001 Nights? So many cultures have complex relationships with orality and frame tales that Sabry is on firmer ground when she discusses the fascinating context of contemporary Arab American cultural translations.
In the first two chapters Sabry explores Sheherazade in the West in connection with Orientalism, the “racing” of Arabs, and views of Arab women [End Page 144] that alternately position them as exoticized or subaltern. All this is to set up the exploration in the following three chapters of contemporary women’s uses of Sheherazade: “The resurgence of One Thousand and One Nights in the literary imaginations of Arab-American women writers represents an attempt at translating Arabic culture to an American public enveloped by limited, ‘raced’ representations of Arabs” (8). Cultural translation receives much attention here, because Sabry is concerned with the politics of representing one’s identity to an outsider audience, which becomes especially crucial in the anti-Arab aftermath of 9/11.
In the third chapter Sabry examines Arab American women’s narratives in the novel Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber. The discussions of food in the text (and as a cultural marker in general) are fascinating, but the description of how the novel interacts with The Nights would have benefited from clarification. A simple plot analysis would have helped readers not familiar with Crescent understand how the novel departs from the tropes of The Nights. For instance, when Sabry states that “Abu-Jaber links her writing with the narrative tradition of Sheherazade, which as an oral narrative had the distinguishing characteristic of being infinitely fertile and fluctuating” (73), we are left unsure how exactly Abu-Jaber links her writing with Sheherazade (through explicit or implicit references? by borrowing the framing device? by using the same motifs or tale types?). Some characters are adapted from The Nights, but the rest of the interaction between the two texts is unclear. Moreover, Sabry’s romanticization of orality as “fertile and fluctuating” seems to be the same essentialization that she laments is projected onto Arab American women.
In Chapter 4 Sabry analyzes the poetry in Mohja Kahf’s collection E-mails from Scheherazad, with a focus on the veil or hijab in Muslim American women’s experiences. The connection between this work and The Nights is much more obvious, as seen in the title of the poetry collection; however, Sabry acknowledges that “Sheherazade’s name is mentioned overtly only twice in this collection of poetry” (91). Sabry’s main point in this chapter is that “Kahf foregrounds the diversity of Muslim-American women and their experiences of wearing the headscarf through recasting Sheherazadian narrative; in this she resists reductive perceptions of Muslim women and their identities” (88). This chapter contains a wealth of information about veiling practices and the scholarship thereon, challenging simplistic Western feminist conceptions of the veil that impose ethnocentric and dualistic judgments on a multifaceted phenomenon.
Sabry addresses the performance art (including stand-up comedy) of Laila Farah and Maysoon Zayid in Chapter 5. Again, the connection to The Nights seems a bit tenuous at times. Farah has a piece titled “Sheherazade Don’t Need...