Scheherazade in America
In her novel The Night Counter, Alia Yunis tells the story of a Lebanese-American family in the USA that has cut its ties with its Arab origins. In Yunis's book, Scheherazade, the great literary teller of tales, does not relate stories, but listens to them instead. A review by Volker Kaminski
Did you know that Shakespeare was an Arab? Fatima, mother of ten children and undisputed head of the Abdullah family, is certain of the fact. His real name was "Sheik Sabeer", and the love stories of his famous plays, along with his name, were stolen by an Englishman.
Fatima's humorous en passant solution to one of the great mysteries of world literature reveals a quality she is also able to apply to her efforts to maintain a firm grasp on the diffuse strands of her Lebanese family. Though they are scattered all over the United States, she is untiring in her efforts to influence the fortunes of her children and grandchildren from afar during the final months of her life.
And she finds an ally in one of the great figures of Arab literature: Scheherazade. Night after night Scheherazade comes to visit Fatima. But this time, instead of being the teller of tales of the Arabian Nights, she listens to Fatima's inexhaustible supply of stories. While Fatima is asleep, the Arabian princess takes to her flying carpet to flit around America – even taking time for a trip to Lebanon – and see for herself what is going on.
Fatima believes her days to be numbered – very precisely numbered in fact; Scheherazade is to visit her for 1,001 nights after which, Fatima believes, she is to die. In the time that is left to her she wants to see all the pressing family questions settled. The family home in Lebanon, where she was born, must be given to one of the children, all the single children and grandchildren married off, suitable gifts put aside for everyone and her own funeral prepared.
Fatima applied the same unflagging energy that now drives her in old age to bringing up her entire family. The roots of her own immigrant story are in Lebanon. With her first husband, Marwan, she came as a young woman to Detroit, where Marwan found work in the Ford Factory after the Second World War. But married life was cut cruelly short when, shortly after the birth of their daughter, Marwan died as a result of injuries sustained during his involvement in trade union activities.
Fatima then married Ibrahim, a friend of Marwan's, with whom she had nine more children. When the novel opens, Fatima and Ibrahim are already divorced. Ibrahim has remained in Detroit while Fatima has moved to Los Angeles to live with her favourite grandson, Amir.
Labyrinth of names and places
The family's story is given shape and form through Fatima's recollections. Memories of the Lebanese village, the early years in America, the children growing up all serve merely as a prelude. The main focus of the novel is on the present, or, to be more precise, on the years following 9/11.
Not even a brief summary of the stories of Fatima's children and grandchildren is possible at this point, however. The individual life stories are too disparate, the changes of location, and with them the narrative perspective, too abrupt. The publisher's decision to include an Abdullah family tree at the beginning of the book is no mere whim; it is an essential aid if the reader is not to get lost in the labyrinth of names and places.
However, it does become apparent that the family has had its ups and downs. It is a recognition that dawns on Fatima herself during the course of her storytelling. As a mother, she has seen her share of tragedy: two of her sons were killed in a tornado. Much also has gone wrong in her children's lives; marriages have fallen apart, dreams remained unfulfilled, careers ended in dismal failure – all very normal, very human aspects of life than Yunis understands and writes about in a wonderfully ironic, often very touching way.
It becomes apparent that all of the family members have long since forgotten their Arab roots and adapted themselves to the modern realities of life in the USA. It is Fatima and Ibrahim's generation that still tends to look back on, and more strongly identify with, their origins. Fatima has never learned to read, but she knows the Koran by heart. Ibrahim has kept important letters from relatives in Lebanon that he wants to give to her. With no one in the family able to speak Arabic any longer, however, Fatima requires the services of a translator.
Reflecting on cultural roots
Alia Yunis is convinced that the situation for Muslims in the US has deteriorated since 9/11. The sheer horror of the attacks caused a breakdown in trust which America's Muslim immigrants have borne the brunt of. Though millions of Muslims from different countries had integrated themselves into the American reality in the decades prior to the attacks, mistrust has now increased, especially against Muslims of Arab descent, and they themselves are again thinking more about their cultural and religious roots.
Yunis has worked as a screenwriter and journalist. The Night Counter is her first novel. The daughter of a UN diplomat she spent her childhood in a variety of different countries. In an interview she explained that travel was something she was so used to that setting her novel in several states and countries, and adopting a traveller's perspective, seemed to her the natural things to do.
This may also be the reason why Scheherazade is the main figure in the novel. According to Yunis, Fatima's stories represent "a very modern version" of The Arabian Nights. As a writer she is attracted to the "idea of interwoven, interlacing, never-ending storytelling."
This intelligent, sometimes very funny novel, which has been brilliantly translated into German, makes it clear that family stories the world over are similar, even if for some, the problems of immigrant life persist, subtly continuing to exert their influence on the younger generation.
© Qantara.de 2011
Translated from the German by Ron Walker
The Night Counter (2010) was published in the UK by Crown Publishing Group
Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de