Narratives of Immigration

By Lynne Rogers

Immigrant Narratives, Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature
By Wail Hassan
Oxford University Press, 2011

Wail S. Hassan’s “Immigrant Narratives, Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature” covers approximately 100 years of Arab-Anglophone writing. To identify the political and aesthetic motifs of Arab immigrant fiction, Hassan draws on Edward Said’s Orientalism, the work of Evelyn Shakir, as well as the model of minority fiction proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Clearly geared towards academics, Hassan’s study begins with the literary efforts of “cultural translations” by the fathers of Arab-American fiction, Ameen Rihani and Kahlil Gibran. Hassan not only provides a thorough synopsis of existing criticism of these two neglected literary pioneers but also adds some interesting contextualizations to these works.  He points out that Gibran’s “The Prophet,” probably the most well-known Arab-American text, is his least known work in Arabic because the introduction of a prophet who does not appear in the Quran would be culturally offensive to Muslims.

The innovativeness of Hassan’s criticism is revealed as he moves to the tradition of autobiographies, which he says are “distinct negotiations of Arab-American identity.” He points out that most Americans expect the Arab immigrant tale to be one of either masculine achievement of the American dream or the Muslim woman’s escape from male tyranny. However, his selected autobiographers struggle between confirming and refuting Orientalist ideas. While the successful ‘pack peddler’s autobiography’ of George Haddad (1866-n.d.) points out the similarities between Americans and Syrians, Abraham Mitrie Rihbany’s (1869-1944) piece is that of the “native informant” ingratiating himself with his American readers. Hassan significantly adds to the critical study of Arab immigrant narratives with his chapter on Salom Rizk’s “Syrian Yankee” (1943) and George Hamid’s “Circus” (1950), both of which discuss the writers’ turn away from the role of cultural translator.

Despite his dry style, Hassan cannot help but touch on some of the wonderful ironies of Arab-American history.  The image of the Lebanese entertainer Hamid performing alongside Native Americans in Buffalo Bill’s circus is a spectacle of cultural transmission that begs to be explored. Additionally, Rizk’s pro-Zionist and anti-Muslim stance shows the character of some of the racism within the Lebanese community. Finally a serious academic has taken up the three autobiographies of Palestinian Fawaz Turki, discussing Turki’s bristling anger, his refusal to be reduced to a professional token Palestinian, and his final disenchantment with the politics of home. Hassan observes, “To date, no literary embodiment of the ravages of Palestinian history is more bitterly ironic than Turki’s trilogy of memoirs.”

Leila Ahmed’s “A Border Passage From Cairo to America, A Women’s Journey” (1999) denotes a new direction in immigrant writing.  Not only does she document the life of a Muslim female academic, she also presents a picture of a “maternal” and nurturing Muslim environment. An additional benefit to the reader is the good historical account of Nasser’s Egypt that is interwoven with Leila’s story. The chapter on Ahdaf Soueif may send readers back to her novel “The Map of Love,” which Hassan elevates beyond exotic romance, discussing Ahmed’s manipulation of the genre to create “an exemplary translation text” that “subverts the genres of the Oriental romance and travelogue.” “The Translator,” by Scottish Sudanese writer Leila Abouela, exemplifies a commitment to Islam as well as contemporary fiction inspired by Tayib Salih’s “Season of Migration to the North.” 

The final chapter, “Queering Orientalism,” is one of the best and gives an in-depth reading of Rabih Alameddine’s work, particularly his most recent, “The Hakawati.” Abouela skillfully identifies Alameddine’s battle against homophobia as inextricable from the battle against anti-Arab racism, deploring the “inadequacy of all fictions of identity that depend on discriminatory or exclusionary practices.” While a conventional academic read, Hassan’s “Immigrant Narratives” identifies major literary trends, gives a succinct summary of the early writers, and, even more importantly, provides a scholarly reading of often neglected writers like Turki and Alameddine.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66

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