After Marriage, Single Arab American Woman Looks for Love

5 September, 2022
Two by Pales­tin­ian artist Laila Shawa: “Hands as Amulets” and “Tableau Eye of Des­tiny,” 1992  (cour­tesy Laila Shawa).


Why an Author Writes to a Guy Hold­ing a Fish, Laila Halaby
2Leaf Press, 2022
ISBN 9781737446538


Eman Quotah


At my col­lege, one cre­ative writ­ing pro­fes­sor chal­lenged stu­dents to write hap­py love poems, an assign­ment every­one griped about. Appar­ent­ly, writ­ing about good love, love that goes well and ends well, doesn’t come easy for most poets.

Artist Laila Shawa’s paint­ing is fea­tured on the cover.

Unlucky-at-love-and-dat­ing tales, on the oth­er hand, are part of the fab­ric of mod­ern U.S. cul­ture — the basis for many a book, short sto­ry, movie, TV show, song, blog post, mem­oir, essay, standup rou­tine, poem, and tweet thread. The growth of online dat­ing over the past few decades has only height­ened both the com­ic and trag­ic poten­tial of dat­ing sto­ries — or so I hear. I’m a ser­i­al monogamist who’s been mar­ried for more than 15 years. How would I have any idea?

That’s the state of knowl­edge poet Laila Hal­a­by found her­self in more than a decade ago when her mar­riage of near­ly 20 years end­ed. In her new poet­ry col­lec­tion, Why an Author Writes to a Guy Hold­ing a Fish, Hal­a­by relates her expe­ri­ences dat­ing Amer­i­can men after being mar­ried to a fel­low Arab. The result is a sort of rom-com in verse — though with­out a tra­di­tion­al hap­py end­ing — and the type of sto­ry an Amer­i­can woman of Arab her­itage, such as Hal­a­by, nev­er (or rarely) gets to star in on page or screen.

At the start of the col­lec­tion, when her hus­band leaves, Hal­a­by is uproot­ed, like the twist­ed aca­cia tree in her front yard.

the night
before my hus­band moved out for good
he took some things
to his new apartment
while a fierce storm hur­tled itself
through our neighborhood

vio­lent winds
threw trash cans for blocks
ripped bush­es out of the ground
knocked trees into houses

my old­er son looked out the window
sobbed at the sight of our crazy tree
lying stretched across the front path
as though it had got­ten tired
of wait­ing for his father

Freed of the cul­tur­al expec­ta­tions placed on her younger self — she nev­er spells them out, but self-policed sex­u­al­i­ty, lim­it­ed dat­ing, and mar­ry­ing on the young side seem like­ly to me, a woman with an eth­nic back­ground sim­i­lar to Halaby’s — and hav­ing escaped a love­less mar­riage, Hal­a­by finds her­self in a for­eign land. In the title poem, she writes:

online dat­ing
in America
in your forties
after a lifetime
of Mid­dle East­ern sensibility
and almost 20 years of marriage
requires resolve
and some cross-cul­tur­al understanding

Already some­one who falls in love eas­i­ly with peo­ple she meets, but nev­er act­ed on it because she was a faith­ful wife, now she’s putting her pic­ture online, meet­ing men in cof­fee shops and restau­rants, and falling head over heels. Hal­a­by encoun­ters nice guys, racists, rich guys, and cheaters, and she begins to under­stand her­self a lit­tle more. As a mar­ried woman, she’d “be smitten/fall into pos­si­bil­i­ty … love was everywhere/except in my home.” But now that she’s divorced, Hal­a­by starts to sec­ond guess her def­i­n­i­tion of love:

what if
all those years of wanting
unful­fil­l­able longing
try­ing to do the right thing

into love
but into a tsuna­mi of some­thing else?

This, per­haps, is the cen­tral ques­tion of the book. What does it mean to want love, to want to be loved? Of one lover, she writes:

on my right side
span­ning from hip to breast
is the clear indentation
of your hand
that held me
caressed me
brought me out of an anguished stupor

I place my hand over yours
close my eyes
and squeeze
until the long­ing recedes
just a bit

Laila Hal­a­by speaks four lan­guages, won a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship to study folk­lore in Jor­dan, and holds a master’s degree in Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture. Her first nov­el, West of the Jor­dan, won the pres­ti­gious PEN Beyond Mar­gins Award. She lives in Tuc­son, Arizona.

Born in Lebanon to a Jor­dan­ian father and Amer­i­can moth­er, Hal­a­by explained her iden­ti­ty this way in an inter­view with the Amer­i­can Writ­ers Muse­um: “My father always lived in Jor­dan, my moth­er always lived in the States, so I’ve nev­er felt like I’m Arab-Amer­i­can. I feel like I’m Arab and I feel like I’m Amer­i­can, but the hyphen is lost on me. Even though I feel like the hyphen is also where I live.”

In this col­lec­tion, Hal­a­by puts her Arab­ness on the page, but with­out the expect­ed trap­pings of metaphor­i­cal lan­guage, food imagery, or very much translit­er­at­ed Ara­bic. Arab is sim­ply who she is. In “Oth­er,” for exam­ple, Hal­a­by explic­it­ly links her expe­ri­ence of being racial­ly oth­ered in Amer­i­ca to being lied to in love and unwit­ting­ly becom­ing the “oth­er woman.”

check­ing that damn box
oth­er race
oth­er ethnicity
prod­uct of
the other

to be whole
no marginal

only to become one

a life­time
of resistance
leads to this?

oth­er woman 
will not do

A com­ment on the ludi­crous­ness of online dat­ing and the weird ways poten­tial lovers present them­selves, the title Why an Author Writes to a Guy Hold­ing a Fish also brings to mind the famous quote coined by Iri­na Dunn and pop­u­lar­ized by Glo­ria Steinem: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicy­cle.” The guy hold­ing the fish will, pre­sum­ably, soon hold Hal­a­by, and let her go. He’s the bicy­cle she wants to ride into the sun­set, but instead, she’s left stand­ing on her own two feet.

Why an Author Writes to a Guy Hold­ing a Fish ends with an epi­logue writ­ten in spring 2021, one more tale of dat­ing gone wrong. First, there’s a poten­tial set­up by her phys­i­cal ther­a­pist, with a great guy who hap­pens to be a Trump sup­port­er. Hal­a­by declines, instead meet­ing up with a man she con­nects with on a dat­ing app, some­one she clicks with and who encour­ages her when she men­tions, while they are “hud­dled togeth­er” on her com­put­er, the poems about her breakup.

He ends up ghost­ing her. Of course. His silence becomes the impe­tus for her to move on and push forward.

I delete my profile
sub­mit why an author writes to a guy hold­ing a fish
change jobs
vis­it Houri
and write

anoth­er poem

and anoth­er

and anoth­er

It’s a meta sat­is­fy­ing end­ing to a writer’s sto­ry, one that sug­gests a new begin­ning, anoth­er work under way.


Arab AmericanJordanianPalestinianpoetry

Eman Quotah is the author of the novel Bride of the Sea. She grew up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Toast, The Establishment, Book Riot, Literary Hub, Electric Literature and other publications. She lives with her family near Washington, D.C.


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I. Rida Mahmood
I. Rida Mahmood
24 days ago

I bet it was­n’t easy to undress your pain, your unful­filled dreams and desires — not to men­tion the dai­ly strug­gles to make peace with a very com­pli­cat­ed iden­ti­ty — before the eyes of the unknown. Writ­ing these poems must’ve tak­en so much courage and a lev­el of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that most of us are uncom­fort­able with, just like love itself. Thanks to the poet for writ­ing and to the review­er for reviewing.