April is Arab American Heritage Month and to celebrate we asked writer and educator Sahar Mustafah to pick some books by Arab American writers that have been especially impactful on her life and writing. We originally planned to host Sahar at the AWM for the launch of her debut novel The Beauty of Your Face, but now instead we will host the program online! We’ll chat with Sahar at 6:30 p.m. Central Time this coming Wednesday, April 8. Register for the free webinar here.
Finding Myself in Arab American Books
By Sahar Mustafah
Here’s my first memory of reading: I am tucked away in a corner of my house with an illustrated, kid-friendly version of Treasure Island that I’ve pulled from Ms. Small’s classroom shelf. I am enthralled by its suspense and colorful characters, temporarily escaping five clamoring siblings while my mother cooks and cleans our house in Chicago.
A life-long journey of reading stirred within me. I immersed myself in stories, internalizing the identities and lives of white characters as the default existence and measure of good literature. As delightful as the books were, I never saw myself and subconsciously believed there was no value in ever seeing (or telling about) myself.
So what does it mean to be Arab American? For me, it’s an identity defined by what it seems to preclude: a sense of belonging to a country in which we’ve lived for multiple generations; participation in meaningful patriotism, not unchecked nationalism; a celebration of our origins that doesn’t negate or threaten our American-ness. These two parts of a single identity seem mutually exclusive when we consider the destructive past and present narratives spun by our politicians and media. Its nomenclature is also plagued by conflation and inaccuracies—for example, not all Arab Americans are Muslim, nor inversely.
How do we exist and hold both parts in a challenged identity? We do it through our literature and art, revealing something extraordinarily denied: our humanity. It transcends our geographical, racial, gender, ethnic, and religious boundaries though others continue to keep us fastened to them. Our truths rise above the sound bytes and echo chambers. You only need to see, to hear, to read, to share them.
When I finally saw myself in books, I was an adult. I was deeply grateful for literature reflecting my own immediate experiences, yet still revealing a poignant diversity, shattering the monolithic typecasting of Arab Americans. Twenty years ago as an emerging writer, I felt a deep sense of responsibility to authentically represent my community—and I still carry it.
The short list I’m presenting has been essential to understanding, embracing, and preserving my identity as an Arab American woman. These books are, for all intents and purposes, Arab American and comprise merely a few among dozens of terrific texts I’ve read over the decades. I feel an enormous debt for works not represented here, including those in translation, that have paved the way for writers like me as well as newer, stunning voices that amplify our heterogeneity. Each title I present here has been an affirmation of my own identity and journey as a member of this complex community. Each title also serves as a critical reminder of my role as a writer, carrying on the extraordinary task of telling our stories.
The following book list is also available here on Bookshop.org, where proceeds benefit independent bookstores. We strongly urge you to buy books from your local bookstores during this critical time. They need us more than ever. If you’d like to order Sahar’s novel ahead of our April 8 webinar, we suggest doing so from our friends at Seminary Co-op Bookstores: The Beauty of Your Face.
Memoir & Nonfiction
Never in a Hurry by Naomi Shihab Nye
“Basically our father spoke English perfectly, though he still got his bs and ps mixed up. He had a gentle, deliberate way of choosing words. I could feel him reaching up into the air to find them.”
This was the first collection of essays I discovered by an Arab American woman, and one who specifically identified as Palestinian. It suddenly enlarged the space I’d been reading and writing in. I felt seen.
Out of Place by Edward Said
“There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world…”
This memoir helps articulate the existential crisis I inherited as a Palestinian American. The critical genius of Said is rivaled only by his compelling narrative of displacement and a desire to document one’s life.
The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf
“‘Liar,’ she says to the highway sign that claims ‘The People of Indiana Welcome You.’ The olive-skinned, dark-haired young woman drives west on the old National Road. A small zippered Quran and a camera are on the hatchback’s passenger seat in easy reach, covered by an open map—States of the Heartland. Khadra Shamy spent most of her growing-up years in Indiana. She knows better than the sign.”
Kahf’s incisively told novel felt close to home as a native Midwesterner. One Syrian American woman’s pursuit of self-determination frames the lives of Muslim characters as they navigate a bigoted landscape in the 1970’s.
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami
“He spent hours thinking about what he would do once he was on the other side, imagining the job, the car, the house. Other days he could think only about the coast guards, the ice-cold water, the money he’d have to borrow, and he wondered how fourteen kilometers could separate not just two countries but two universes.”
This poignantly linked collection revealed to me there’s a larger, global audience for our stories. Lalami approaches the experiences of migration and survival with nuance and ambition in her first book.
Lalami is also featured in the American Writers Museum’s special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. Read more about Laila here.
Arab in America by Toufic El Rassi
“We drove through a parking lot in my neighborhood and to my utter mortification, a classmate of mine crossed right in front of us as the speakers blared the whining voice of Um Kulthum.”
As an educator, I find a comic or graphic text to be one of the most powerful ways to engage an audience on fraught and sensitive subjects. El Rassi’s moving portrait reveals what it’s like to come of age in America and the history of media’s distortion of Arabs and Muslims leading up to and including 9/11.
Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry edited by Gregory Orfalea
“Every day at three, we watch the trail/ of piled trucks ascend the hill. When the road shivers,/ I stand against the door. Their loads have sheared/ the branches of our oaks and chunks of coal/ are left behind.” —“The Gentry” by Elmaz Abinader
I’d discovered this title through Radius of Arab American Writers, an invaluable community and resource for my writing and reading life. The anthology is my first sampling of voices largely excluded from a traditional American canon I’d been required to read and critique as a student.
Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye
“My grandmother lives on the other side of the earth. She eats cucumbers for breakfast, with yogurt and bread. She bakes the big, flat bread in a round, old oven next to her house. A fire burns in the middle.”
In great company with my favorites Good Night, Moon and Corduroy, this book containing characters who resembled my family finally fell into my daughters’ hands. Nye’s story celebrates Palestinian heritage and acknowledges a yearning for basic human rights.
Be sure to join us virtually this coming Wednesday, April 8 at 6:30 PM Central. We’ll chat with Sahar about her new book The Beauty of Your Face and see each other’s faces even though we can’t meet in person. We hope you’ll be there with us!
Register for the free webinar here.
Purchase The Beauty of Your Face here.