Arabs & Race in America through the Short Story Prism

15 October, 2020

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Alli­ga­tor & Oth­er Sto­ries by Dima Alzayat
Pan McMil­lan (2020)
ISBN 9781529029895

 

Malu Halasa

The store clerk who called the police on George Floyd worked for CUP Foods in south Minneapolis—a fam­i­ly-owned Pales­tin­ian inner-city con­ve­nience store. The own­er told the New York Times that the teenage clerk had only been in the US for a year and left CUP Foods in the explo­sion of the nation­wide and inter­na­tion­al protests against Floy­d’s bru­tal murder.

Four years ear­li­er, in 2016, a 90-sec­ond con­fronta­tion between Alton Ster­ling and two white police offi­cers left Ster­ling dead in the park­ing lot belong­ing to Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The gro­cery store—this time owned by Yemeni Arabs—was not direct­ly impli­cat­ed in Ster­ling’s death like CUP Foods, although Triple S’s park­ing lot is known as a local crime hot spot.

Across Amer­i­ca from Min­neapo­lis and Baton Rouge to Akron, Ohio, where my Jor­dan­ian rel­a­tives own shops, Mid­dle East­ern­ers run gro­cery and liquor stores in some of the poor­est, most deprived U.S. neigh­bor­hoods. By 2017, the tra­di­tion­al Span­ish bode­gas of New York City belonged to Yeme­nis. In Detroit, sons of Yemeni fam­i­lies had left their par­ents’ or grand­par­ents’ stores, and were work­ing their way through col­lege, as hotel door­men or valet park­ing atten­dants. For their fam­i­lies and the wider Arab Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty, the ghet­to super­mar­ket has been the road to the Amer­i­can dream—a road not open to the major­i­ty of their black cus­tomers because of race and access to bank loans. 

 


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The rise of the Arab in Amer­i­ca was­n’t with­out blood­shed. The eerie and at times dizzy­ing title sto­ry “Alli­ga­tor” in Dima Alza­y­at’s debut short sto­ry col­lec­tion begins with a 1929 lynch­ing. George Romey, a Syr­i­an gro­cery store­own­er in Lake City, Flori­da, had been arrest­ed by the police on trumped-up charges. Anti-immi­grant prej­u­dice had been build­ing in ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, as shown by the news­pa­per arti­cles repro­duced in “Alli­ga­tor,” as though they have been cut out and past­ed into a scrap­book. One from 1905 said that the Syr­i­an “can­not be nat­u­ral­ized because he is not a white man but a Mon­go­lian.” The lynch­ing of Romey took place a year after new codes to the Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Act in 1928 “judi­cial­ly deter­mined” that Syr­i­ans “fall with­in one of the class­es to whom is accord­ed the priv­i­lege of citizenship.” 

Two black men in a cell near Romey’s tried not to watch as a white mob came for the gro­cer. The one who did­n’t look away pro­vides one of many char­ac­ter mono­logues that reveal the con­tin­u­ing per­son­al and social trau­ma of the lynch­ing. Romey’s wife was shot dead dur­ing her hus­band’s arrest. Romey’s cousin Joseph and his wife raise the dead cou­ple’s four chil­dren. Joseph, also a shop­keep­er, admits to no one that he sees the silent ghosts of his rel­a­tives. The new­ly extend­ed fam­i­ly quick­ly left the state, and Joseph and his wife delib­er­ate­ly stop speak­ing Ara­bic in front of the kids. By 1940, Romey’s son Samuel lists his eth­nic­i­ty in a U.S. Cen­sus as not Syr­i­an, not Arab, but white.

That road to assim­i­la­tion cul­mi­nates in Romey’s great-great grand­son, Steven “Bub­ba” Morel­li. Although his past is murky when read­ers final­ly meet him in the flesh, he is stalk­ing a big buck in a cypress swamp. He is divorced from his wife, a lon­er and an out­sider ripe for right wing extrem­ism, as emails show.

The tra­jec­to­ry from tar­get­ed out­sider to assim­i­la­tion for the gen­er­a­tions that fol­low is just one of the jour­neys of iden­ti­ty, eth­nic­i­ty and race that this ambi­tious sto­ry tells. A lay­er­ing of fic­tion­al voic­es inter­spersed with non-fic­tion writing—some real and some fabricated—charts the final pas­sage of some Arab immi­grants to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with and recog­ni­tion by the dom­i­nant white majority.

In a recent interview for the London Magazine, Alzayat said that the story was “not only an attempt to recover the experience of US racial violence by early Arab American communities, but also how racialization made Arab Americans both victims and perpetrators of such violence.”

This is the cen­tral para­dox of Arab Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence in an increas­ing­ly divid­ed Unit­ed States.

 


 

At first, Alza­y­at’s use of dif­fer­ent kinds of writ­ing in the short story—including a script for a psy­chic real­i­ty TV pro­gram and a breezy trav­el article—takes “Alli­ga­tor” into the realm of the exper­i­men­tal. Romey was the tar­get of anti-Amer­i­can orga­nized hatred and dis­crim­i­na­tion and he was­n’t the first. Alza­y­at’s real and false doc­u­ments’ trail lays bare Flori­da’s long con­cert­ed his­to­ry of vio­lence against difference.

African-Amer­i­cans and the Semi­nole Indi­ans were rou­tine­ly threat­ened, hunt­ed down and killed. Alza­y­at metaphor­i­cal­ly con­nects George Romey to a his­toric nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Semi­nole trib­al leader, Hal­pat­ter-Mic­co, the “Alli­ga­tor Chief.” To evade forced depor­ta­tion to Okla­homa he and the Black Semi­noles, who had mar­ried into and lived with the tribe, hid in the Ever­glades. It was the one place the civ­il author­i­ties avoid­ed because of alligators.

Even­tu­al­ly when the swamps were drained, up went “the cities, towns and pros­per­ous farms” described by Andrew Jack­son in his 1930 speech to Con­gress, “On Indi­an Removal,” also repro­duced in the short sto­ry. The only trace of the Indi­ans in Flori­da is the per­sis­tence of their exot­ic place names. Yet, the con­stant­ly shift­ing ground of “Alli­ga­tor” feels ultra mod­ern, with its real and imag­ined voic­es and unre­li­able but some­how still true bytes of information.

 


 

Born in Dam­as­cus, author Alza­y­at grew up in San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia and lives in Man­ches­ter, in the UK. She stud­ied fic­tion writ­ing and has won numer­ous awards. Her strength at deci­pher­ing secret codes comes to the fore in the col­lec­tion’s sto­ries about women.

In “Ghusl,” the rit­u­al purifi­ca­tion of the dead before Islam­ic bur­ial, Zaynab wash­es and pre­pares the corpse of her younger broth­er Hamoud, which in Syr­ia is a defi­ant act of love that breaks with the patri­ar­chal norms of her reli­gion. The sin­is­ter, unspec­i­fied cir­cum­stances of Hamoud’s vio­lent death, her mem­o­ries of him and anoth­er vio­lent unex­plained death in the fam­i­ly, that of their father’s, make a tale of map­ping and touch­ing the human body chill­ing and deeply mov­ing. All the more so as it pro­vokes male out­rage at a woman com­mit­ting so bla­tant a “sin.”

Anoth­er sto­ry shows how hold­ing onto one’s name can be a pow­er­ful act of female empow­er­ment, self-prophe­cy and ful­fill­ment. The grand­moth­er in “Daugh­ters of Manāt” tells her grand­daugh­ter who attempt­ed sui­cide: “Lis­ten, there are hun­dreds of female names in our lan­guage, but ours means tri­umph and noth­ing else.”

And in the sto­ry “Once We Were Syr­i­ans” that sense of a pos­si­ble future is lost or discovered—depending on the gen­er­a­tion of the woman 

“There used to be a time when our names mat­tered, when being Syr­i­an meant some­thing. Turn that off. They count us like grains of rice. I can’t bear it. Come clos­er. Lis­ten.” A great-aunt in San Fran­cis­co is speak­ing to her niece Nadia who wrote a school essay on the Syr­i­an Refugee Cri­sis. Praise of the essay prompt a flood of mem­o­ries from the great-aunt, about her own child­hood of priv­i­lege and pres­tige in Dam­as­cus, as the daugh­ter of a secu­ri­ty chief. Their wary and def­er­en­tial neigh­bors show­ered gifts on the fam­i­ly. How­ev­er, issues of pow­er and dom­i­nance scarred the great-aun­t’s inno­cent games of child­hood before a fall in fam­i­ly for­tunes and escape to the new world.

Some child­hood lessons are hard to aban­don, even in exile. In her essay, Nadia had writ­ten how her great-aunt berat­ed an Iraqi refugee woman, in Ara­bic, when she came to their front door, hun­gry with her chil­dren. Many of the tales in Alli­ga­tor & Oth­er Sto­ries con­tain unbear­able fam­i­ly truths.

 


 

“Girl in Three Acts” is a rites of pas­sage sto­ry. Beneath its out­landish humor­ous aspects is an exam­i­na­tion of the flu­id­i­ty of reli­gious iden­ti­ty in the Mid­dle East and the com­plex­i­ties of Arab iden­ti­ty in America.

The “Girl” in ques­tion comes from a con­flict­ed Syr­i­an-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. Her grand­fa­ther des­tined for the priest­hood sud­den­ly changed his reli­gion. As Alza­y­at writes in the sto­ry, “In under a week Girl’s grand­fa­ther left the church and became a Mus­lim, and asked to mar­ry the woman who would become Girl’s grandmother.”

It was also a fam­i­ly where the men die “inside women” dur­ing inter­course. After Girl’s father expired in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, her step­moth­er placed her into care and girl lives in a youth home.

Strop­py, awk­ward, she wears a hijab out of rebel­lion and is reluc­tant­ly fos­tered with a white sub­ur­ban cou­ple. A long lost uncle flies her to Mil­wau­kee to spend a week­end with him and his fam­i­ly. Arab Chris­tians, they insist on tak­ing Girl to church. Chance, stolen kiss­es with a four­teen-year-old boy improve the sit­u­a­tion. Back at home, in school, she berates friends and foes alike then gets her peri­od and feels better.

The best writ­ing in Alli­ga­tor & Oth­er Sto­ries starts a dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tion about Arab belong­ing and assim­i­la­tion in Amer­i­ca, through the prism of Syr­i­an expe­ri­ence. An astute observ­er of worlds both old and new, Alza­y­at lis­tened hard to her elders, rec­og­nized incon­sis­ten­cies and digs deep into uncom­fort­able no-go areas. She is a for­mi­da­ble new voice in under­stand­ing the com­plex­i­ties of race and identity.

Watch a doc­u­men­tary about the Romey lynching.

 

Reviewshort storiesSyrian American

Malu Halasa is a London-based writer and editor. Her six co-edited anthologies include—Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, with Zaher Omareen; The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, with Rana Salam; and the short series: Transit Beirut, with Rosanne Khalaf, and Transit Tehran, with Maziar Bahari. She was managing editor of the Prince Claus Fund Library; a founding editor of Tank Magazine and Editor at Large for Portal 9. As a former freelance journalist in the London, she covered wide-ranging subjects, from water as occupation in Israel/Palestine to Syrian comics during the present-day conflict. Her books, exhibitions and lectures chart a changing Middle East. Malu Halasa’s debut novel, Mother of All Pigs was reviewed by the New York Times as “a microcosmic portrait of … a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline.”