'Him, Me, Muhammad Ali': Irreverent tales of Arab American women

pjimage (4)4

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali
By Randa Jarrar
Sarabande Books. 216 pp. $15.95

Reviewed by Lorraine Ali

One is a tightrope walker in a French circus who tries to lasso the moon. Another is a child kidnapped from a Pathmark store in New Jersey by people kinder than her own mother. Another searches for the remnants of family in the bombed-out buildings of the Gaza Strip. There is no easy way to connect the dots in Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, Randa Jarrar's debut collection of short stories, except that all these women are of Middle Eastern descent and all deviate from the usual perceptions that many Americans have about Arab women.

"Lost in Freakin' Yonkers" finds a young, trash-talking Egyptian American pregnant with her irresponsible boyfriend's baby, much to the horror of her parents. In "A Sailor," a woman who has grown apart from her husband tries to make him jealous - or at least care - by sleeping with a Turkish soldier. "A Frame in the Sky" reads like an account of Jarrar's own family experience of being forced to leave Kuwait after Iraq invaded in 1990.

This collection just won the Story Prize Spotlight Award. Jarrar, in her late 30s, is the American-born daughter of Palestinian and Egyptian parents and grew up in the Persian Gulf, Cairo, and the East Coast. Her own experience of moving between continents and cultures is reflected all over the collection, in characters that always seem to be searching for that one place where they fit in. Often, they don't, so it's the nebulous in-between space where their lives unravel.

In "Accidental Transients," 29-year-old virgin Dina describes life on a farm with her Arab family. Dina has disappointed her overbearing father, and even feels the burn when she's grappling with her own personal crisis, like learning that her brother is getting married before her.

"I just pulled into the farm and was lugging my mannequin head into the house when I found out about this," writes Jarrar. "I use the head when I teach at Moda College. My parents once hoped I'd become a scientist, marry an Arab (even though there are none around), pop out three or four kids, and win the Nobel Prize for science. Instead, I'm a hairstylist, and I teach on the side. Today's class was on blowouts."

This collection is not flowery or sentimental, as many personal stories about the immigrant experience or Middle Eastern family life can be. It's instead sharp and irreverent, sometimes even unapologetically crude. Nothing is conclusive, or clear, or clean - especially when the world around you never seems to be your own.

This review originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.