Listen: Assistant Professor Benjamin Smith Discusses Hikayat al-Mahjar (Stories of Emigration)
In early February, Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic Benjamin Smith discussed a collection of short stories written in 1921 called Hikayat al-Mahjar (Stories of Emigration) by author Abd al-Masih Haddad. This lecture was part of the series Stories of Emigration: The Early Arab American Community in Arabic Literature and Recent Reincarnations.
This collection is the earliest example of Arabic fiction and features a cast of Syrian émigrés living in America and transitioning to life in the diaspora. In his talk, Smith investigates the context surrounding the production of this groundbreaking collection, in addition to its analysis of the depictions of the early Syrian émigré community in America.
Sue: And I'm very happy to welcome you to this talk by Benjamin Smith. Who, as you know, is visiting assistant professor of Arabic at Swarthmore College, and he will do a talk this afternoon called Stories of Immigration, The early Arab American Community in Arabic literature in recent reincarnations.
Benjamin: Alright. Thank you all for coming out today in this bitter cold. I especially thank the organizers, professors Sibelan Forrester, Khaled Al-Masri and Farha Ghannam, and also Sue McCarthy for helping to organize this day. Welcome. And, I'm going to start right in. In this talk, I will primarily focus on a collection of short stories in Arabic called Hikayat Al Mahjar or Stories of Emigration that were published in 1921 in New York City by a Syrian author named Abd ElMassih Haddad. You can see his picture here in the Arabic, for those of you who read Arabic.
Before analyzing particular details of a few stories in the collection, I'll set the stage by briefly discussing the context, both historical and literary, surrounding the production of this collection. The fact is, situating this collection within the historical development of America's Syrian diaspora community of the early 20th century, and situating it against the prominent literary trends among the Syrian literati class in New York City will provide rich context in understanding the unique status of this collection.
After developing my arguments regarding this collection's distinctive contribution to Arabic literature of the diaspora, I'll make a few comments at the close of the talk regarding the resonances in reincarnations of particular tropes that Haddad established within more recent examples of Arabic literature. I need to make a couple of important notes regarding terminology up front. When I use the term, “Syrian,” throughout this talk, I'll be referring to individuals who emigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th century from what is now modern day Lebanon, Syria and to a lesser extent, modern day Palestine, Israel, and Jordan. I'll be using the term, “Syrian,” because individuals who emigrated from this region were from Greater Syria, also known as the Levant for an Arabic AlSham.
While the use of the term Syrian to identify individuals would of course splinter into the names of mandate nations, emerging in the years after World War One, at the time when Hikayat AlMahjar was published in 1921, individuals emigrating from this region, and living in the United States still identified as Syrian, and I mean that literally, on immigration documents for example. In addition, Haddad himself uses this nomenclature throughout his collection. It should be noted that the majority of individuals in fictional characters, who I'll in fact refer to as Syrian, were more likely from the Mount Lebanon region, whose population emigrated in massive numbers to Egypt, and the Americas both North and South between 1890 to 1924.
One other term I'll be using is the word Mahjar, which in Arabic literally means the place of emigration but, has come to refer to the Arab diaspora in general. Most often directly referring to the diasporas in North, and South America. Now, returning to the collection, Hikayat AlMahjar or, Stories of Emigration represents the first fictional work in Arabic to my knowledge that exclusively features, and gives voice to Syrian emigrants living in America, and adjusting to life therein.
This fact alone makes the collection unique. Haddad's collection contains short stories with a particular aim, in that these stories hold up a mirror to this early Syrian community in America, in an effort to offer valuable lessons. In stating this I'm simply summarizing what Haddad himself wrote in his introduction to the collection where he stated, I quote, “Ever since entering America, and joining its Syrian world I've witnessed scenes and situations drawn from our social circumstances as well as diverse depictions of our Syrian American life. I'd often ask myself, when would one of our writers put these scenes to paper, so our people could learn from their secrets. We are in need of a mirror by which we can see ourselves, and our behavior with our own eyes so as to correct foolish transgressions." End quote. In this quote, Haddad emphasizes the fact that he is embarking on a new literary endeavor, and shifting his focus onto the lives of Syrians in America. In addition, this quote explains the reformative goal he had in mind, in hoping readers would learn from his stories, and even correct their behavior.
I will argue today that while Haddad stated goals may have to been to provide lessons to his audience, this collection is better understood for how it depicts a Syrian community in transition in America by identifying its anxieties, and imagining its possibilities. I will argue that Haddad's collection elucidates these transformations within the Syrian community through three techniques. One, the formal stylistics of his writing, two, infusing his narration with subtle yet powerful asides, and three, crafting stories that lack resolution in depicting Syrian characters in crisis. These crises directly result in transformations they're experiencing in America.
The time period in which these stories were written from approximately 1919 to 1921 was a part of a transitional time for the Syrian community spread throughout America. From the 19 teens, and then into the 1920s, Syrians were becoming more rooted in America. Shifting from a sense of transience to permanence. One important factor in this shift was economic. By approximately 1915, Syrian emigrants were no longer engaging in pack peddling as the primary occupation of this community. It is well documented that the primary occupation of the wave of Syrians who began emigrating to the United States around 1890 was peddling. Where they traveled around selling goods like small housewares, knitting supplies, even charms from the Holy Land. As you can see in the photo, this was an arduous and often independent work where peddlers walked for innumerable hours with large packs strapped to their backs. Pack peddling was synonymous with movement and transience, and led to the spread of the Syrian population across the United States, as communities coalesced around supply chain centers.
New York City was the biggest hub but Syrian communities spread far and wide, into the Midwest like, Springfield, Illinois, into New England like Worcester, Massachusetts. In the 19 teens though, advancements in mail ordering, and the proliferation of the department store lead to a swift decline in peddling as an occupation. And therefore, the sedentarization of the Syrian population across the United States became more common.
A second shift encouraging the settling of this emigrant community was the advent of World War One in 1914. The war years effectively cut off travel between America, and the homeland. A historical reality that encouraged, again, settling in America. Of all the Syrian communities spread across the United States, New York City, where Haddad lived, housed the largest, and most developed community in America. This community known as Little Syria was centered on Washington Street on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Here are a couple photos. The area was marked, the Washington Street area, Little Syria in particular was marked by the proliferation of Syrian businesses, social organizations, cafés, as we see here, churches, Mosques, and a flourishing Arabic press. Here's another lively picture.
Haddad himself served this community in his primary occupation, as he is best known as the founder and editor of an Arabic bi-weekly newspaper, AlSa'eh it was called or The Tourist. He founded the paper in 1912, and continued to edit this paper up until 1960. So, it's a very long running paper with a few years in which he was not editing the paper and it came to a standstill but he revived it in subsequent years. Haddad's newspaper, AlSa'eh offered a special niche among the numerous Arabic serials published circle 1920, as it welcomed the publication of poetry and probes in addition to the news. All told, the combination of economic pressures, minimizing the importance of peddling, the World War One years, and the developments in the Syrian community's social infrastructure encouraged emigrants to settle in America. Alixa Naff, an historian of this early Syrian community, has theorized based on these shifts that by 1924 Syrian emigrants began to see themselves as Syrian Americans as opposed to Syrians living in America. Haddad's collection of short stories published three years before Naff's suggested paradigm shift can be viewed as grappling with this very period transition.
While it's easy to look back at this historical period in the development of the Syrian diaspora community from a presentist perspective, and judge it as transitional, it's often more challenging to identify these transitions through the literature itself. But, Haddad's collection of stories is such a conscientious departure from the work of his better known peers in the American Mahjar. As previously mentioned, the most crucial shift can be seen in the subject matter and that this collection is the first in Arabic prose that has exclusively focused on depicting the lives of Syrian characters in America. Haddad's better known counterparts in the literary scene in New York City such as Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Nuaymah, and Elia Abu Madi, were mainly producing romantic poetry and prose laden with nostalgia and set in the homeland, often depicting bucolic village scenes.
Haddad for his part bucked these trends completely, not only in his focus on the everyday lives of Syrian characters living in America but also stylistically. Instead of imitating the romantic flourish of his more famous friends, Haddad composed his stories in a direct and objective writing style. Haddad's departure from the Mahjar norms was immediately recognized as unique, even at his time. His friend Khalil Gibran, famous for his collection The Prophet, wrote to Haddad after reading his first story stating, quote, “I want to read a story like this by you in each copy of AlSa'eh. You have no excuse to not carry this out since the field you've entered in boundless and you need to dive right into the depths and bring us what you find.” Inspired by Gibran, and motivated by a desire to faithfully represent his community, Haddad was very intentional in charting his literary trajectory.
If we think back to Haddad's statement in which he claimed, quote, “Syrian Americans are in need of a mirror by which we can see ourselves, and our behavior with our own eyes,” it's clear that he was inspired by trends of reform minded literature. These trends were in vogue Egypt in the late 19th century with writers like Abdallah Nadim, but we also cannot discount similar trends in America around the same time. Jacob Riis's famous photo journalism collection, How the Other Half Lives, inspired reform minded projects. Such as the collection of short stories in English entitled The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, edited by Hamilton Holt in 1906. This collection even features a chapter composed by a Syrian living in New York.
Another important transition away from his peers was that Haddad claimed at the stories in Hikayat AlMahjar were true stories that he had witnessed or heard about. The purported veracity of the stories is supported by narratilogical technique employed, this being frequent authorial intrusion into the narratives. In more than two thirds of the stories, either a narrator relates the events in the first person, or a character enters the narration to confirm having witnessed the events. Hence, these stories straddle the line between fiction and reality.
Most importantly in terms of narrative techniques, is that while Haddad's narration is highly objective, it lacks judgmental commentary. The frequent authorial intrusion into his narrative serves to confirm the veracity of the events, but these intrusions do not offer judgements, for brow be a lesson. In some, Haddad's fiction aims at an objective representation of the Syrian community in America, and leaves his reader free to judge the action, or extract their lesson. While most of the critical work on the Mahjar literature, simply leaves Haddad out of its purview likely do to his outlier status amongst his peers. Those who did analyze Haddad's work were quick to note its nonconformity, and I choose to read nonconformity as indicative of transitional work.
Hadia Ramadan, for example writes of Hikayat AlMahjar, quote, “These stories are dominated by a documentarian linguist register, relying on narration, and conversation. The style is cold, and objective, devoid of rhetorical flourish. There is no description of nature, no diving into emotions and no philosophical musings. These are stories that relay events in a realistic mode, and do not deal with larger humanistic issues.” End quote.
While my forthcoming analysis will challenge this assessment, it should be obvious that Ramadan's critical lens on Haddad's fiction is influenced by her constant references to the norms of romantic Mahjar writing. She mentions what his collection lacks, and in each case, whether it's emotion, philosophical musings, humanistic issues, the things he lacks are things we find in abundance in his peers' writings.
Before shifting towards Haddad's stories I'd like to emphasis again, the innovative status of his prose in comparison to his peers in the transitional period of marks. He not only spurned the romantic wave but, also directed his attention squarely onto a new subject matter, the Syrian community in America. The compulsion he seemed to feel in taking these risks was born from the need he recognized to represent characters in situations extracted from his communities lived reality.
Now, I turn to a few stories from the collection, finally. The story of Hakim Bi Amrihi, or the dictator, help demonstrate that while Haddad's writing style is unapologetically straightforward, even documentarian, his stories include narrative subtleties that add complexity at identifying the transitions of the Syrian diaspora community. In this story the narrator runs into his friend Najeeb on Washington Street, in the bustling heart of Little Syria in New York City. Najeeb desperately wants the narrator to join him in visiting his uncle's residence on the same street and hopes that bringing a friend will give Najeeb an excuse to cut his visit short. The narrator agrees, and they ascend to a fourth floor apartment where they meet Najeeb's uncle, a port lead narguila smoking man named, Daabis. The narrator against Najeeb's wishes is unable to resist Daabis' hospitable, and treaties, and the two young men are compelled to stay for dinner.
This allows the story's narrator, whose acting as our witness to observe this Syrian family. It's clear that Najeeb's uncle Daabis is the unquestioned authoritarian figure in the family. One by one his wife, his daughter and his son return home and we learn that they all work as peddlers. Meanwhile, Daabis stays home and buys his time smoking his narguila. As soon as his wife and daughter return, they receive stern orders to begin preparing dinner whereas the son is greeted warmly. Daabis openly admits to following a tradition of pampering his son and being harsh on his daughter even though as he states, quote, “Here in America a girl is worth 20 boys.” End quote. His daughter he explains makes much more money in peddling than his son.
After dinner, Najeeb and the narrator leave Daabis' apartment and discuss what they had witnessed, since the narrator was confused by the familiar dynamics in which an idle father puts his wife and kids to work. The narrator quickly sensed that his questions were embarrassing his friend Najeeb so he ends his increase by telling Najeeb quote, "Your uncle's family must be satisfied since the mother and daughter don't muddy the words with ideas of freedom, independence or individual rights.” End quote. What is fascinating about this story is that this line by the narrator regarding notions of freedom, independence and individual rights for women suddenly inserts a powerful backdrop that challenges the rigid patriarchal structures that the father upholds hinting an ideological clash.
During the visit the narrator doesn't openly question Daabis' methods. He politely and calmly observes, but his comments to Najeeb about women's rights after the visit conjure up world of possibility and empowerment that questions the moorings of Daabis' patriarchal enterprise. This one sentence also effuses new meaning into an early moment in the story. This is when the daughter initially returned home. Upon entering the men's gathering she was embarrassed, which reflected her recognition of the gender boundaries implicit in Syrian social dynamics. But then she was told by her mother to greet the guests in an American way. So she switches modalities completely and confidently introduced herself to the narrator and her relative Najeeb by shaking their hands.
This scene points to the daughter's knowledge of American customs and therefore connects to the narrator's later observation, signaling that she was also likely aware of the freedoms and rights American women enjoy. The hand shake scene and the narrator's comments about women's rights are impactful narrative subtleties as they recognize that cultural divide that Daabis' daughter can skillfully negotiate. She's a character well versed in two methods of cultural comportment, traditional Syrian moors and adopted American behaviors.
The narrator's final comment to Najeeb points to an unrealized potential that is part and parcel of her in between state. The story ends shortly after the narrator recognizes that Najeeb's embarrassment over his uncle Daabis' unorthodox lifestyle in America. Here we have a snapshot of a family, with minimal narrative development but we are previewed to a looming crisis for a family that is enacting a precarious balancing act between the father as in position of traditions and the American social and cultural reality in which they are living in.
The story Abd ElFitra, which translates as Slave To Nature, offers a different narrative setup. The matter evolves around a single individual named Hanna Marcus and focuses on an identity crisis that he endures. Hanna is one of the few characters in Hikayat El Mahjar that achieves tremendous financial success in America having established himself in commerce after starting his American journey as a peddler. While Hanna is deeply invested in America financially and even mentions his involvement in American Party Politics, his success comes at a personal price. He pines for the homeland and his yearnings are very specific. They're centered on his inability to express his baladi which translates to as unsophisticated, it's a very charged word in Arabic, his baladi desires in his role as a successful business man in America.
For example, he speaks of his baladi desires to eat with his hands, grow his beard and cast off his neck tie in favor of wearing the traditional Syrian robe. Hanna's surging desire to return home is linked to his longing to indulge in these baladi habits. After World War One ends, Hanna returns to his village in Mount Lebanon. But the satisfaction he anticipated on returning to his village is fleeting, since he is confronted by a lack of indoor plumbing, hot water and investment opportunities, aspects of life which he had enjoyed in America.
Due to these disappointments, Hanna resolves to emigrate again to America and settle there for good. Hanna's crisis pits his unsophisticated nature against the refinements and the material comforts he came to enjoy in America. He's a culture amalgam and a contradictory one at that. Hanna mentions sitting in American restaurants and leaving his roasted chicken untouched. Meanwhile, imagining himself tearing it to pieces with his hands. This image illustrates the depths of his conflicts through such a basic act. Hanna is performing his conflicted identity at this very moment, sitting in his fancy suit in an American restaurant but gripped by an action by suppressing his uncouth nature.
The name of the story, Slave To Nature, begs an important question, what is Hanna's nature? And is it in fact changing in America? It is clear that Hanna has demonstrated an inability to perform to the standards in what Sarah Gualtieri in her book Between Arab and White, refers to as the dominant American ethos which is constructed through quote, “The exercise of power and acquiring material advantages such as property.” End quote. But adapting to this ethos does not provide Hanna with the sense of fulfillment, so he seeks fulfillment in returning home which can be read as a return to his natural self. But home has changed mainly because Hanna has changed during his years in America. And while it may seem that Hanna's second emigration to America confirms a victor in this contestation between his deep seeded desires and his Bourgeois American identifications, the story abruptly ends leaving readers contemplating how the competing elements of Hanna's identity will harmonize. In effect, the focus on Hanna's conflict depicts a transitional character who is both Syrian and American at the same time, reluctant to disavow elements of both cultural constructs.
At the story's close, Hanna has not assimilated and the story seems to deny the very notion that full assimilation is possible or even desired. Rather, he's undergoing a process which Gualtieri again has termed ethnicization. That being quote, “The construction of people hood vis-à-vis outsiders Syrians thus become involved in a process of selection, adaptation and acculturation and in each case new self understandings developed and at the interplay of homeland and migratory identities.” End quote. Hanna's story is a prime example of this process, as Haddad aptly characterizing the inherent difficulties in becoming American while maintaining fidelity to one's core.The lack of resolution at the story's close only serves to emphasize the fact that placing a magnifying lens over Hanna's ongoing process of selection, adaptation and acculturation is in my opinion the very point of the story.
The final story I'll discuss today from Haddad's collection is called Timthal Al Hurriya, which is the Statue of Liberty. In this story, a young Syrian couple immigrates to America and settles in a small town in Ohio. The husband named Nakhla can not make ends meet working in a factory and assumes considerable debt. One day, Nakhla's relative visits and learning about Nakhla's financial situation suggests that Nakhla encourages his wife Edma to work as a peddler to supplement the family's income.
Despite Nakhla's initial aversion towards this idea, which he thinks is dishonorable for a respectable Syrian family, he eventually acquiesces. His wife Edma is immediately successful in peddling. So much so that a few years later the family moves to Little Syria in New York City so she can pursue more lucrative opportunities. By the time of their move, Edma has become the sole bread winner of the family and Nakhla remains at home raising their three children. These jarring shifts and financial status and familial expectations overwhelmed Nakhla. And one evening in a state of depression and emasculation, he walks out on the family. Edma returns home to a house of screaming children and after settling them down, she searches for her husband finding him in Battery Park.
This is a modern picture. Sorry I couldn't get a good old photo, and I wanted the areal view, okay. At this moment in argument ensues between Nakhla and Edma as the Statue of Liberty frames them in the distance. This is the perspective of the Statue of Liberty and this bit of green there is literally Battery Park, okay. So the argument ensues with the statue of liberty framing them in the distance. Edma inspired by this powerful backdrop, tells her husband quote, “Yes you are my husband, the father of our children and the man of the house in your country but here in America I am everything. The Statue of Liberty continues to raise its hand and it is a woman. I have the right to raise my hand in my home and do what I want whether it pleases you or not. Choose what you like.” End quote.
The symbolic power of this scene is a mess. As Edma gains strength from this iconic feminine form that seemingly reigns over this area of lower Manhattan which is of course home to Little Syria as well. The statue becomes a metaphor for Edma's newly acquired power and assertiveness. Nakhla is also overwhelmed by this connection between Edma and the Statue. As he remains adamant that when they return home where there is no such statue, he will reclaim his manhood. The story ends and resolution is not achieved. We don't know where this couple is heading, towards Edma's future in America or Nakhla's reclaimed manhood in the homeland.
This story presents a crisis born of shifting financial and gender expectations in the Mahjar. Edma's blistering financial success leads to an inversion of familial roles as she is drawn out of the domestic realm and becomes the financial backbone of the family. In the first story I discussed that Hakim Bi Amrihi, issues of women's empowerment were hinted at but here in Timthal Al Hurriya these shifts are actualized. Edma relishes her new role even threatening to replace her husband with domestic workers if he doesn't toe her line. While these changes are a result of economic realities present in America, the psychological costs for both husband and wife are massive.
The unresolved tension in this story leaves the reader facing and contemplating the future of this family. A future in which the husband pines for home but really he pines for his lost manhood. Meanwhile, the wife is satisfied by her harden status and likely unwilling to give it up. The story's final scene in Battery Park is riddled with tension and possibility. The powerful imagery of the Statue of Liberty seemingly pulsing through Edma is contending with Nakhla's memories of his own power in the homeland.
Edward Said in his essay, Reflections On Exile stated I quote “For an exile, habits of life, expression or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment. Thus, both the new and the old environments are vivid actual occurring together contrapuntally.” End quote. Said borrows the term contrapuntal from music which refers to two melodies being played simultaneously. Here the present and the past are engaged.
This moment of Battery park encapsulates Said's statement through the conflation of place and how places tied to understandings of gender realities. As Edma's feminized New York of the present moment is contending with Nakhla's idealized memories of a past in which he was treated like a prince. This charged moment lacking resolution, witnesses a family contending with the challenges born of emigration and the transitions it entails. We never learn where this family will settle. Haddad leaves his reader in Battery Park with the couple contemplating their fate.
The three stories I discussed here articulate anxieties and imagine the possibilities of a Syrian community in transition between America and Syria. In breaking away from the literally sensibility of his peers, Haddad's objective style favor a fast pace narration focused on Syrian characters. But the ever present backdrop in these characters' lives is America. As a set of values, ideologies, material realities and symbols. No simple more poignant than the Statue of Liberty presiding over Edma and Nakhla's argument.
Haddad presents these stories in such a way that we, as readers, seem to be eves dropping into charged moments and unresolved conflicts in the lives of Syrians in America in the early 20th century. This narrative strategy speaks to the transitional moment that Haddad captures. The transition highlighted by contestations over Syrian identity, family and gender roles. Stories that end abruptly inevitably leave us wanting more. We want answers, we want resolutions but instead Haddad produces unresolved narratives that compel his reader to contemplate and reflect on a community in transition, a community caught between two worlds, a community negotiating many possibilities and futures, a community of Syrians that is becoming Syrian American.
In closing, I wanna touch on two scenes, so we're changing gears here. I wanna touch on two scenes for much more recent literally works in Arabic. Since the trend of writing America and Arab subjectivities in Arabic started with Haddad but continues up until our present day and it's a subject that I'm continuing to research. Like Haddad's earlier stories, much of this work has remained realistic even confessional, often based on author's experiences living in America which they subsequently turn into novels, travel logs and memoires. Similarities are bound to cross time but sharp differences also arise.
I'm gonna be discussing this book and this is by the Egyptian author Radwa Ashour who wrote a literally travel log called Al Rihla, The Journey about her years at UMass Amherst completing her PhD in the 1970s. I had to show the alternative cover here because the Statue of Liberty imagery which is likely on a cover to attract an audience in a street purchase perhaps.
In a particularly pointed chapter her husband visits her and they decide to take a trip to New York City for a few days. On the first morning of their visit they head to the Empire State Building to get a panoramic view of the city. After ascending, they look towards the South in the direction of the Statue of Liberty but the statue is completely concealed by dense clouds with fog. They linger a bit but never end up seeing the statue and this becomes a running joke for the rest of their visit. That same day they head up to Harlem and tour sites of the Harlem Renaissance. Radwa even recites a Langston Hughes poem. The next day, they visit the Museum of Modern Arts specifically for the purpose of seeing Picasso's painting Guernica, which was housed at the MoMA until 1981.
And on their last day in New York City they spurn a visit to the Statue of Liberty itself to take part in a Puerto Rican street festival. The couple even jokes about purchasing a mini of the Statue of Liberty as a memento on the final day. Oh how things have changed since Edma seemed to harness the power of the statue as she stood in Battery Park. The sense of empowerment that runs through Radwa's visit to New York city, is an empowerment that comes from her identifications with the history of the African American community in Harlem, the helpless Spaniards represented in Picasso's Guernica and the Puerto Ricans reveling in their heritage and campaigning for independence.
The mockery of the statue is indicative of an ideological and political turn. Since Radwa's identifications in America are with historically marginalized populations and the Statue of Liberty for her is a colossal symbol of America's imperial power not of liberation. The sense of emancipation and strength that Edma extracted from the statue has vanished for Radwa.
I've got one more scene to close from a different novel. In Alaa AlAswany, an Egyptian author, Alaa AlAswany's novel Chicago, it spells out Chicago, literally translates the term Chicago into Arabic, from 2008, we meet a wide cast of characters that includes Egyptian students studying at the University of Chicago and many Egyptian American characters working at the university. One character Doctor Salah is the so called omda or mayor of the Egyptian American community in Chicago. When Dr. Salah enters the narration, we discover that his life has recently been turned upside down. His personal crisis has been initiated by a diagnosis of sexual impotence.
This diagnosis sends him into an emotional talisman as he disconnects from his American wife and spends every waking hour when he's not working in his basement putting on clothes from the heady days of his youth in the 1970's Egypt, listening to Arabic music and older acquittances on the phone and an attempt to track down his first love who called him a coward when he abandoned Egypt and left for America. The performative aspects of Dr. Salah's crisis through clothing and music recalls Hanna Marcus in Abd El Fitra. Also, like Hanna, Dr. Salah is successful and a pillar of his community in America. But where Hanna's fate was unknown Dr. Salah's narrative arc merges his personal crisis with political activity. In a state of weakness, he is recruited by more politically active Egyptians to deliver a rebuke to the Egyptian president when he visits Chicago. Dr. Salah's identity crisis, born of impotence and feelings of cowardice is co-opted by political action. Where Radwa is writing in the 1970s, she's writing America through her liberationist political lens, Dr. Salah having been in America for 30 years, is reviving old passions both personal and political.
In sum, whether it is Haddad's stories from 1921, Radwa Ashour's text from 1980 or Alaa AlAswany's novel Chicago in 2008, writing America in Arabic tends towards realistic description of experience lived or witnessed. Realistic description, however real it may seem, is always mediated by the author, through scenes, places and topics they choose to present. Haddad's focus on the early Syrian community, chose to feature characters deeply engaged in transitions and therefore implicitly and explicitly contemplating their place in America as this community settled into the American multi ethnic tapestry. Radwa Ashour and Alaa AlAswany's writings, years later, leaned into the ideological and the political and the psychological in their confrontation with America.
All of the texts bring characters personal histories and identifications with their homeland into dialogue with their present moment in America. And through these stories, we learn about the complicated process of becoming American.