Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz: Hybridizing Arab-American Feminism and Literature

Article excerpt

Arabian Jazz deals with the family of the Jordanian immigrant Matussem Ramoud, a fan of jazz who lives with his two American-born daughters, Jemorah and Melvina, in a poor, white community in upper New York state. He struggles with his Arab background and the loss of his wife and finds momentary relief only in playing music. Fatima, Matussem's sister, works hard to make Jemorah and Melvina follow the conventions of their Arab background, her main goal being to get these girls married to fellow Arabs. The plot details the interactions of the Ramouds' extended family and also looks closely at how a small American town treats the Arab-American community. The novel focuses on Matussem's daughters' struggle with their mixed American and Arab identity, particularly Jemorah's ambivalence about her identity and role.

The purpose of this essay is to attempt a feminist examination of Arabian Jazz as a major work of Arab-American women's literature, while recognizing in the meantime the mixture of Arab and American cultures in Abu-Jaber's work. Arabian Jazz, this essay will hopefully reveal, offers a hybridized feminist vision that criticizes patriarchal Arab and American cultural attitudes. The essay attempts to show how Abu-Jaber employs major feminist strategies as she deals with the stereotypes of women in masculine culture and, simultaneously, underlines how her feminist concerns respond to or deviate from mainstream feminist theory. The result is a dual feminist perception that constitutes a hybridizing Arab-American feminist stance approached in the light of major theories of cultural hybridity.

Working in the shadow of postcolonial theory, Edward Said presented his conception of hybridity as a notion of "protective enclosure" and a reaction against the stigmatizing "imperial process" (xiv). Likewise, Roger Bromley argues that "hybridised discourses are writing very much against the idea of a melting pot or mosaic [...] and, if anything, are sites of cultural resistance and refusal," a matter Bromley relates to Gloria Anzaldua's concepts of borderland and the new mestiza, which represent the development of a context for "a tolerance for contradictions" or pluralities. These pluralities result in what are called "hyphenated identities, living hybrid realities which pose problems for classification" and raise "questions about notions of essential difference" (4-5). As regards Arab-American identity, Carol Fadda-Conrey argues that the hyphen in the term Arab-American "replicates this complexity of 'cultural realities,' instead of mirroring a 'well formulated synthesis'" (204). That is, the hyphen suggests that the word Arab is not a modifier for the word American but is instead an equal part, with the hyphen representing a bridge between the two words. While "the hyphen implies a well-formulated and/or single synthesis of the Arab and American," Mervat Hatem claims, it does not sort out the "complex realities of the community" ("Invisible" 386). Homi Bhabha, on the other hand, underlines the rise of "internationalism" and the establishment of a "middle passage" within which a new "imagined community" arises, a community in which cultures may interact and influence each other in a state of co-existence rather than opposition--that is, a "third space," defined as "the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in between space" that is rooted in "the politics of polarity" and leads people to "emerge as others of ourselves" (38-39). Writers with hyphenated identities, Bromley asserts, experience "contradictions and ambivalences, split between home and school languages, physically and racially marked as others" (104-05), an experience that is "marginal" or "between cultures" (115). Bromley's emphasis on location recalls The Location of Culture, in which Bhabha contends that "the social articulation of difference," or hybridity, takes place "in moments of historical transformation" (2), by which a "discourse of boundary" turns into "a matter of 'becoming' (negotiation, perhaps) as well as 'being' (maintenance, perhaps)" (9). …