Arab American Literature: Gendered Memory in Abinader and Abu-Jaber

By Cherif, Salwa Essayah | MELUS, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Arab American Literature: Gendered Memory in Abinader and Abu-Jaber


Cherif, Salwa Essayah, MELUS


With Children of the Roojme: A Family's Journey from Lebanon, published in 1991, and Arabian Jazz, published in 1993, Elmaz Abinader and Diana Abu-Jaber have respectively contributed to the genre of the journey to the past, recurrently adopted in contemporary minority group writings and meant to restore that past for the assertion of a distinctive ethnic self. Through memoir and fiction, the two women writers explore the transformative power of narration and interfere to break the confining construction of Arabness which rests on a combination of socio-historical factors and contemporary political events. (1) In fact, in the case of Arab Americans, the Arab-Israeli struggle and its impact upon the Jewish American population in particular and the US population at large has contributed to shaping general public opinion in a way that maintains and reinforces the already existing negative stereotypes of the Arab as the mysterious and inferior 'other,' constructed over a long practice of the Orientalist mode of representation. Together, the two sets of factors shape negatively the present experience of Arab Americans in the United States, making the restoration of the past an appealing alternative.

But in addition to asserting their ethnicity in a hostile, image-ruled environment, Arab American women must also voice their femaleness. Their experience of self is strongly gendered on account of the serious limitations for women that the journey to the past leads them to (dis)/(un)cover. The articulation of the self through the traditionally empowering return to the past, in their case undertaken to negotiate the Arab and the American parts of the self, requires the use of a gendered memory guiding through the silences about the female past. Abinader and Abu-Jaber investigate the interconnectedness of the past and the present in the making of the Arab American female self and create a space of self-invention for Arab American women where they negotiate a new sense of self in the layers of a buried ethnic and female past. They use memory and the journey to the past of their female family members and fictional characters respectively, in order to examine the implications of their own ambivalent perceptions of self and to devise a constructive way of dealing with the present. The reclamation of the Arab past by Abinader and Abu-Jaber and its reconstruction from a female perspective is instrumental for the writers' own agency and the empowerment of their Arab American women characters. It is this "struggle to define a mode of agency capable of responding to the historical and political exigencies of the identity 'Arab American'" which, according to the Arab American critic Lisa Suhair Majaj, "resonates through contemporary Arab American literature" ("Arab" 280).

Far from using memory for a nostalgic recollection likely to fix the past in an idealized depiction and identity in an essentialized conception, the two Arab American women writers engage in a constructive invocation of the past. Identity is no longer viewed as exclusively dependent on ethnic history but as dependent on the way that history relates to the American present and gives meaning to a blend of Arab, American, and female components of a continuously negotiable conception of oneself.

Yet, the position of Arab American women is complicated by the little support they receive from mainstream American feminists who tend to foreground the gender experience. In their exclusive preoccupation with subverting the dominant patriarchal discourse, mainstream American feminists fail to regard differences of female experiences dictated by race and ethnicity and endorse an alternative hegemonic discourse. For instance, Evelyn Shakir denounces the "racist assumptions" of American feminists who "had generally followed (and sometimes led) the crowd who believe that all Arab women are victims of genital mutilation and forced marriage, and that all Arab men are oil sheiks, terrorists, or religious fanatics" (104). …

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