Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Mattawa, eds. Dinarzad's Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction

Carol Fadda-Conrey
Pauline Kaldas and Khaled Mattawa, eds. Dinarzad's Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004. Pp. 336. $24.95

1 In 1990, in her introduction to Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists (1994), Joanna Kadi aptly called Arab-Americans "the most Invisible of the Invisibles," thus relegating them to the lowest rung on the minority totem pole. The events of September 11, however, altered that status overnight, hyper-exposing Arab-American invisibility. Dinarzad's Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction is the first compilation of creative work by Arab-American authors to appear after September 11, with its various featured stories serving in very subtle ways to replace the damning image of the terrorist Arab with more human and realistic portrayals of the everyday lives of Arab-Americans in the U.S. In fact, Dinarzad's Children is the first anthology of its kind to feature exclusively contemporary Arab-American fiction. Preceded by such anthologies as Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry (1988), Food for Our Grandmothers (1994), and Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing (1999), Dinarzad's Children testifies to the coming of age of Arab-American fiction and its elemental role in the burgeoning field of Arab-American literature studies. As the editors note in their introduction, "For better or for worse, Arab Americans have arrived" (ix).

2 The mix of new and seasoned writers featured in this anthology contribute to a variety of perspectives, offered in the stories by way of an array of Arab-American characters. Some are newcomers to the U.S. faced with alien surroundings and displacement-ridden days. Others are second-generation Arab-Americans who witness their parents' cultural bewilderment while coping with the duality of their own lives. Above all, together these stories articulate a strong statement against the deceptive myth of the melting-pot narrative, highlighting the jagged and laborious side of an acculturation process that might even be impossible to accomplish. Moreover, these stories intricately weave together the complexity of Arab-American identity, with the end result being a mosaic of nationalities, religions, social classes, as well as personal and historical backgrounds. From Randa Jarrar's "Lost in Freakin' Yonkers" to Susan Muaddi Darraj's "The New World," Khaled Mattawa's "First Snow," and Diana Abu-Jaber's "My Elizabeth," the familiar story of the immigrant/expatriate/exile/ minority is rewritten and revised to convey multiple Arab-American points of view.

3 Such multiplicity extends to the diversity of the term Arab. Collectively, the stories pinpoint specific national identities including Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian ones, among others. In Mohja Kahf's "The Spiced Chicken Queen of Mickaweaquah, Iowa," for example, instead of the general Arab-American label, we encounter more distinct characters like the Syrian-American nuclear physicist Dr. Rana Rashid and the Omani woman Mzayan. Their relationship accentuates the gulf that can separate Arab-Americans from each other (represented in this story mainly by education and social class) while stressing the connecting factors (such as sharing the same language and experiencing discrimination) that bridge differences and render such characters part of one collective identity. Moreover, by conveying the various experiences, traumas, and memories that a more detailed national identity might signify, the stories featured in this anthology give a much-needed depth to the generalized hyphenated Arab identity. In Patricia Sarrafian Ward's "How We Are Bound," the characters' stories are shaped by the haunting memories of the Lebanese civil war. The characters' sense of loss and displacement in an unfamiliar America is intricately bound to (but far exceeds) the difficulties of enduring fourteen years of war in Lebanon. In this way, this collection of stories succeeds in rendering the world of Arab-Americans more nuanced and in making it more accessible to the uninitiated reader while retaining enough individuality of tone, style, and content to defamiliarize the familiar for Arab-American readers themselves.

4 As the progeny of Dinarzad, the famous Scheherazade's sister, who instigates the tales of the 1001 Nights but then "disappears into silence" (ix), these writers defy the stigma of invisibility doled out to them as minority writers. Instead, they become the equally articulate counterparts of their better-known African-American, Latin-American, and Asian-American kin, signaling a shift in their collective representation as Arab-Americans and minority peoples of color. This anthology is a much-needed conciliatory ingredient in the overtly tense relationship between Arabs and Americans in the current political and cultural arena, defying "the stereotype of the Arab [that] remain[s] one of the few racist images that can still be portrayed with unchecked abandon" (xiii). As Kaldas and Mattawa put it, "The children of Dinarzad are facing their own crises. They are obligated by their art to tell their stories well, and their sense of integrity demands that they tell them in truth. We think they succeed in both" (xiv).