It’s pretty cool to get reviewed by one of the book critics you respect the most.
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 14, 2009
Shaye Areheart. 365 pp. $24
Some people write about death, dying and tragedy as if they were death, dying and tragedy. Others — God bless them — just don’t carry the genes for drama or melodrama; they look at the world with all its flaws and suffering, and something about the situation strikes them funny.
First-time novelist Alia Yunis writes about the years after 9/11 and how that sorrowful event affected members of the ordinary, law-abiding Arab American community. She writes about wiretapping and FBI surveillance, as well as an old woman dying alone in West Hollywood, with no one to care for her but a grown grandchild, a hapless, unemployed actor. Yunis takes all this material and stirs it into an immigrant-ethnic cocktail laced with political oppression, but before shaking, she adds Scheherazade, the fabled storyteller who kept herself alive by distracting her tyrannical husband for a thousand and one nights.
Fatima Abdullah is 85 years old and close to death. She’s more than half blind, quite deaf and has trouble with arthritis, but her worst ailment is the systematic neglect of her many adult children. They call her every week or so but give her nothing except weather reports from where they live; they don’t want to tell her anything about themselves, and that’s probably wise. Fatima is not a very charming old lady. She’s repetitive; she gets things wrong, refuses to listen and obsesses on things her kids don’t care about: her mother’s old letters (even though she, Fatima, never learned to read), her wedding dress (although nobody seems to want it) and especially the old family home in Lebanon, which she hasn’t seen in 70 years. Which one of her children should she leave it to? (Her children, and the reader, know it would be a miracle if this house has survived the wars and bombing raids that have transpired through the years.)
Fatima is sure she is dying because for the last 991 days she has had an unlikely visitor to keep her company: Scheherazade. Strangely enough, she has been extracting stories out of Fatima instead of the other way around, but whatever way you slice it, there are only nine days left before death is scheduled to appear.
Scheherazade listens to Fatima fairly impatiently: Surely, she must have listened to thousands of tales of young women who came to America from their beloved old country only to find poverty, struggle, homesickness and disappointment. Fatima, while still a bewildered teenager, landed in Detroit, where her first husband worked in the car industry but died before their first child was born. His best friend, Ibrahim, dutifully asked her to become his wife. The rest of their children followed, each, of course, carrying tales to be told.
Some nights Scheherazade flies out on her carpet to see how things are going with the kids. There’s Laila, in her 50s now and still in Detroit, so fed up with the Muslim faith and the injustice of having to suffer breast cancer that she cooks up a mess of pork chops for the elders of the Mosque and passes it off as veal. Or Dina, a spoiled grandchild, who spends a summer at a refugee camp in Lebanon and realizes there’s more to life than cheerleading and makeup. Or Soraya, a successful psychic, who, 20-something years ago, visited a sperm bank so that she might have Amir, the gay grandson who’s taking care of Fatima right now in his West Hollywood bungalow. Or Randa, who lives in Houston, in dreadful fear that she and her husband will be recognized as being of Arab descent. Or Hala, the good girl who grew up to be a doctor but was imprudent enough to marry a Chinese man, thus incurring the wrath of both families. (And that match produced Brenda, a flaky high-school dropout whose hook-up with a black guy produced Decimal, who carries every kind of blood and every kind of allergy in her put-upon veins.)
Needless to say, with all their trials and distractions, none of these family members had anything remotely to do with the events of 9/11. But Amir, the gay guy and would-be actor who takes care of his grandmother, has been turned in to the FBI by a vengeful ex-lover, and the bungalow in West Hollywood is duly wiretapped and watched by a clutch of semi-delusional agents who are trapped in stories of their own devising. (One of them is a zealous woman named Sherri Hazad.) The agents investigate the daylights out of every member of the Abdullah family, but manage to misunderstand almost everything they see. (It doesn’t help that Amir keeps trying out for parts such as Jesus so that his costumes and long fake beard make him appear sinister, indeed.)
This is a plot-heavy book — I’ve left out several characters and events — and I can only say that when death comes, it does so in an unexpected way. But “The Night Counter” is also lighthearted, full of silly plays on words and comedic errors. In this easy-seeming way, the author aims, without being in any way preachy about it, to give us a short history of the Middle East and the Muslim faith in America — to say: Don’t be so quick to misunderstand us; we are, in so many of the ways detailed here, the same as you. She succeeds, very gracefully.