On Being Just Plain American

It seems like most of my life, I’ve been asked what it’s like to be Arab or Palestinian or Lebanese or Muslim. I’ve even been asked questions about being Latino and Jewish,  based on my appearance I assume.   However, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me what it is like to be an American, although I’ve spent all my life being one.  I think there is an assumption that just by being born American I am privileged, privileged by the international power my country has.  While I’ve recognized the relative truth of that, I’m well aware that the US is not paradise on Earth for so many of its people.  Watch any Michael Moore documentary or just go hang out an urban hospital emergency room eavesdropping on conversations—what doesn’t kill you, will make you question the meaning of life and death.  And never mind that so much US Middle East policy pains me.

But on a more personal level, “what’s it like to be an American” is not even a question I would ask myself about myself, although I would ask it of others:  I think I’ve always felt quasi American because of my childhood.  In the Midwest, where I spent my early years, I didn’t have a Little House on the Prairie homesteading heritage—and not just one but both my parents had accents, didn’t know a twice baked potato from a Tater Tot, weren’t rugged and outdoorsy like the Marlboro Man or Robert Redford and thought camping was something people had to do if they couldn’t afford roadside motels. That childhood reasoning as to why we were not ‘real’ Americans, no matter how much my parents would tell us differently, has somehow always stayed with me, compounded by grown up examples that involve words like terrorism, Muslims, 9/11.

However, this fall at the Frankfurt Central Library, when US Consulate Public Affairs Officer Jeanine Collins introduced me as an American author—just plain American, not a hyphenated American—for the first time I felt that I was indeed an American.  I was not just an American because a representative of the US government was introducing me (although that was the first time I’d ever been introduced by an American as an American), but because in that instant I realized that the US was the country that can claim and that I can claim, the country that has educated me, given me my voice to speak for all my other identities, let me question what it is to be American, and let me praise its ingenuity, innocence and hope and criticize its darker sides without punishment.  There in Frankfurt, I felt that I had come home, that I had been validated as a real American, not just by the US Consulate but finally by myself.

Here’s a clip of that talk:  www.youtube.com/watch?v=7o7s6QssY10

Doner Kabob and Schweinefleisch

At the baggage carousel at the Stuttgart airport, the first stop of the book tour for Feigen in Detroit (Aufbau  2010), I waited for my suitcase while four Gulf women dressed like they had arrived at a spa at the North Pole waited for their 10 gargantuan suitcases.  From eavesdropping, I gathered the baggage was for a five-day stay.
They had no idea how to get the luggage off the carousel themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any baggage handler around, clearly a first for them.  Meanwhile, on the other side of me, two middle-aged German women who had just spent 10 days in Jordan each briskly grabbed her lone backpack off the conveyer belt and headed home. The Gulf women were still watching their suitcases turn, waiting for someone—anyone–to lift them off for them.  I was somewhere in the middle of all these women, neither able to briskly whip my suitcase over my shoulder nor waiting for someone to carry it for me.  I have lived most of my life between “can demand help” women and “can do” women.
I spent eight days in Germany in six different cities.  It was cold, it was rainy, and went by so fast that I only added one word to my German: Schweinefleisch. In English pork sounds just like pork, but in German it seems like I might be missing out on something.  I loved  Germany.  Not that I don’t like living Abu Dhabi.  It’s just a little different.

1.  In Germany, a train scheduled to leave at 8:52 a.m. leaves at 8:52 a.m. If for some reason it can’t do so, you will be informed in plenty of time of the delay.  In the Middle East, there is no such time as 8:52 a.m.  “Around let’s say 9 in the morning” would be more accurate, and you don’t really have to question if someone is late until around 10 in the morning, perhaps even 10 the evening.

2.  I found “Feigen in Detroit” at the Stuggart train station bookstore just to the left of the erotica section, which was next to the children’s Christmas book section.  In Abu Dhabi, you might find “The Night Counter” if you can find a bookstore.  It won’t be carrying erotica, or porn as we call it in America.

3.  I was in Germany for several days before I noticed what I wasn’t noticing—German flags.  In the UAE, the flag seems to decorate everything—from doorways to camels.  In Germany, the flag appears primarily on federal buildings. Nor can the German flag pass as a Christmas decoration, which is what a recent arrival told me she thought all the red and green lights festooning Abu Dhabi were for. They were for a different season– neon versions of the flag for National Day (which is like Christmas—one day that lasts several days)

4.  In Germany, they recycle everything everywhere. People throw their trash in bins marked paper, plastic, and waste.  In the Middle East, you just hope people put their trash in a bin, any bin.

5.  In Germany, all the pharmacies boost about “bio” (organic) products.  In Abu Dhabi, the pharmacies heavily promote facial whitening creams even when you’re not asking to be whiter.

6.  There are a lot of kabob shops in both Germany and Abu Dhabi.   Thanks to a large Turkish population, Germany has way better kabob, doner kabob that is, which we call shawarma here.

7.  Anywhere you see “schweinefleisch” in Germany substitute “lamb” in Abu Dhabi.  The cow has it easy in both places.

8.  Germans love dates—as a treat.  Arabs love dates—as a staple. In the Middle East, you can buy a kilo for about 4 Euros.  In Munich, one date costs one Euro.

9.  In Germany, the VAT tax hurts.   Abu Dhabi is tax free.

10.  In Germany, people read everywhere they go—buses, trains, airplanes.  On my flight from Munich to Berlin, everyone was sitting and reading.  This made me happy.  On the plane coming back to Abu Dhabi via Jordan, the Arabs on the plane were just sitting.  No books, no computers, not even any iPads.  Sometimes it’s good to just sit, but en masse like that, it made me sad.

Feigen in Detroit: The Night Counter in Germany

Many people ask me why “The Night Counter” is called “Feigen in Detroit” in German, which means “Figs in Detroit.”  Therein lies the beauty of translation.  It’s all about what your translators (Max Stadler and Nadine Puschel) and publisher (AufBau) see in German that you didn’t see in English.  I have loved working with

Feigen in Detroit

AufBau from the day they aquired to today and I’m looking forward to meeting the people who read it in German.  So if you’re in Germany or Vienna this coming two weeks….

More information also on Facebook at “The Night Counter by Alia Yunis”

Wednesday November 17, 2010 at 7pm
James-F.-Byrnes-Institut
Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum
Charlottenplatz 17
Stuttgart, Germany

Thursday November 18, 2010 at 11 am
ISF International School
Strasse zur Internationalen Schule 33
65931 Frankfurt am Main
Frankfurt, Germany

Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 7:30 p.m.
Stadtbücherei – Central Public Library
MedienZentrale Hasengasse 4
Frankfurt, Germany

Friday November 19, 2010 at 7:30pm
Hauptverband des Österreichischen Buchhandels
Palais Fürstenberg
Grünangergasse 4
Vienna, Austria
Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 11 a.m.

Sunday, November 21,  2010 at 11 a.m. Munich Literature Festival
WORD-RAGA
Club Ampere im Muffatwerk
Zellstr 4 81667 München
Germany

Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 4 p.m.
Munich Literature Festival
A Traveling Story, Munich City Walk
Germany

Monday, November 22, 2010 at 7 p.m.
Zeitungs-Café Hermann Kesten
Stadtbibliothek
Gewerbemuseumsplatz 4
Nürnberg, Germany

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.
Hugendubel in den Fünf Höfen
Theatinerstraße 15
80333 München
Germany

Wednesday November 24, 2010 at 6 p.m.
Forum Factory
Besselstr. 13-14
10969 Berlin
Germany

Muslims Wearing Things

I miss living in the US every day for many reasons, but among the things I don’t miss are the shallow debates on TV that pretty much follow the line of “Muslims:  Terrifying or just really scary?”–usually a heated debate book ended with some heart pounding intro and outro musak– like these are one of two  extreme positions that need to be taken about Islam’s billion followers.  It’s easy for me to tune it out when I’m not Stateside, so I’m glad I missed the whole Juan Williams debacle, and I’m not sure why he got fired when so many others have said way worse things and had it pass as “news.”   But I get a kick out of this blog’s response–and feel pretty privileged to be in the company of these fine dressed people.

http://muslimswearingthings.tumblr.com

Kimchi Falafel and Other Great American Meals

Falafel is not falafel–heck it’s not even good food– when it contains eggs, is yellow inside and out, weighs more than a tennis ball, is bigger than a tennis ball, or worst of all, refried.  But such have been my sad falafel encounters in New York, where everyone seems to be peddling falafel, including the pizza joint down the

 

Really Good Just Falafel

Excellent Just Falafel

 

street.  There are some pretty passable falafel spots, most particularly Maoz, where the falafel is actually hot and where, in respect to America’a all-you-can eat approach to life, you can add all the fixings you want, which is a good thing except for the inexplicable fried broccoli.  The only item that should be deep fried on your pita is the falafel.

When I was a kid in Minnesota, no one knew what falafel was unless his or her parents were born in the Middle East, but now it’s so ubiquitous that it’s in Microsoft Word’s spell check, like tacos, sushi, and pasta, which used to simply be called noodles before the US fully embarrassed its multicultural obsession with food.

Not that the idea of the falafel hadn’t already been brought over by someone, as when, as a kid, my brother bit into his first veggie burger and declared it “a falafel pancake with ketchup on it.”  Not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, just because you’ve called something falafel, doesn’t mean it is falafel, just like my Japanese students in Los Angeles explained to me that the rolls at Ralphs supermarket are not sushi as they know it, my Mexican students have never eaten jarred cheese product nachos at the movies, and my Taiwanese students in addition to not knowing the fortune cookie, don’t recognize the cuisine at the one-dollar Chinese restaurant.

Different and bad don’t necessarily go together when we look at the Americanization of ethnic cuisine.  Food gets changed here because of economies of time and money, lack of ingredients, and the different taste of the ingredients, including  the local water.  In the spirit of its birth and growth, the US gives you plenty of ways to eat around your cultural and religious restrictions, with creations such as turkey bacon, soy cheeseburgers, and meatless meatballs.  And it accommodates our health issues–although to look around at us not all of us  are paying attention to that part–with fat-free and sugar-free versions of everything, and it can enrich anything, even Turkish delight, with vitamins and minerals and lately even make your gelato—also in the spell check today—organic.
Some American embellishments, like thinking every desert can be dipped in chocolate, even baklava (wow, also in the spell check now) or constantly embellishing savories with roasted garlic are unnecessary, even annoying.  But the country has created a diverse cuisine all its own.
When people disdainfully say the U.S. doesn’t have any real cuisine other than the hamburger, I would ask them what are breakfast egg rolls, pineapple pizza, and wasabi hummos?  American marketers, as if also holding their own food in contempt, have labeled them as Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or Chinese perhaps to give them an exotic edge.  But they are American in reality, ketchupfied and cross-culturized—that’s why it’s called the melting pot, a big culinary helping of food from all over the world.

Even I’ve Americanized falafel, as I think it’s pretty tasty with a dollop of  kimchi—oops, looks like kimchi hasn’t made it into the spell check yet.  Microsoft Word doesn’t know what it is missing on its falafel sandwich.

*Note:  Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, American food is getting cross pollinated, like the pizza burger at Burger King, sliced up like a pizza pie.

ABC.COM’s Michelle Goodman on the Freelance Life & Art

Recently, Michelle Goodman, the author of “My So-Called Freelance Life,”  a must read cautionary and inspirational tale for those contemplating  chucking it all to pursue their own dreams, interviewed me and two other writers for her column on ABC.com.  You can read for yourself how we all learned about the glamorous life of writing.

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/artist-heart-michelle-goldmans-reasons-day-job/story?id=11287370

THE PAPERBACK RELEASE OF THE NIGHT COUNTER THIS WEEK

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                    Contact: Emily Lavelle
(212) 572-8756
elavelle@randomhouse.com

PRAISE FOR THE NIGHT COUNTER:
“[Yunis] weaves a colorful tapestry…rich in character and spirit.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Wonderfully imaginative…poignant, hilarious…The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction.…Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family.”
—Boston Globe

“Little pigs and lost siblings make for decent bedtime story fodder. But the life and times of Fatima Abdullah, the madcap matriarch of Alia Yunis’s charming debut, The Night Counter, is even better.” —Daily Candy

“The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s first novel, mixes equal parts of magical realism, social commentary, family drama and lighthearted humor to create a delicious and intriguing indulgence worth savoring.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Night Counter
A Novel
By Alia Yunis

When THE NIGHT COUNTER: A Novel (Three Rivers Press; July 13, 2010) by PEN Emerging Voices Fellow Alia Yunis was published in hardcover in 2009, it was chosen as recommended summer reading by the Chicago Tribune and Boston Phoenix, received rave reviews across the board, and was praised as “wonderfully imaginative,” (Boston Globe), “emotionally rewarding reading,” (Kirkus, starred review), and a “captivating debut” (Publishers Weekly).

Now available in paperback and perfect for summer reading, THE NIGHT COUNTER crafts a striking tapestry of modern Arab American life. With great comic timing and a touch of magical realism, this quirky and poignant novel centers on the last ten days of Fatima Abdullah’s life and the richly layered, multigenerational stories of her family.

The beautiful and immortal Scheherazade, the legendary character from The Arabian Nights, has been roaming the earth for eleven centuries, and she yearns for a story to distract her. When she follows an American soldier home from Iraq out of curiosity, she runs into Fatima Abdullah in Los Angeles, a cantankerous and fiercely loyal matriarch of a sprawling Arab American clan with two husbands, ten children, fourteen grandchildren, and one great-grandchild with a great-great-grandchild on the way.

Eager to learn more of her family secrets and why Fatima left her husband—the great love of her life—at the age of eighty-two, Scheherazade visits Fatima each night, coaxing her to divulge more about her past and speculate on her family’s future. THE NIGHT COUNTER begins with Scheherazade’s 992nd visit.  She has already warned Fatima that “when our stories end, so do our lives,” but now, with just nine days left, Fatima has run out of childhood stories of Lebanon and must tell a love story, a story she has run from all her life.

With a zealous FBI agent watching her home, a gay grandson refusing to take her marriage advice, and ten children who make lousy heirs to her house in Lebanon, Fatima is finding her remaining days in Los Angeles quite frustrating. Through Fatima’s stories and through first-person chapter narratives of Fatima’s progeny in Lebanon and across the United States, Yunis unravels four generations of a quirky clan whose members are as desperate as Fatima to find where they belong. Imbued with great humanity and imagination, THE NIGHT COUNTER is a heartwarming tale that proves that storytelling is an act of love.
# # #

The Night Counter
By Alia Yunis
Three Rivers Press
On sale: July 13, 2010
978-0-307-45363-1; $14.00 paperback
http://www.threeriverspress.com
http://www.aliayunis.com

For more information or to request an interview with Alia Yunis, please contact
Emily Lavelle at 212-572-8756 or at elavelle@randomhouse.com.

The Henna Hands of The Night Counter

The paperback cover is ready, and no, neither one of the hands on it is mine, as some people have asked me.   Responding to “Don’t you love it as much as we do? We hope so!” was about as much input as I was allowed to have in the cover’s design.  And after getting over the initial stupefaction of seeing a visual interpretation of 300 plus pages of words and after having lived with the hard cover for so long now, I do indeed love it.

The Henna Hands of The Night Counter

So what character’s hands are on the cover?  Definitely Scheherazade’s.  The other people in the book wouldn’t do henna, unless it was part of an orientalist-themed party, the sorts of parties that aren’t organized by the people the people in The Night Counter know.

There is in fact a lot more henna in my real world than in the real world of The Night Counter.  Scheherazade’s people are the ones who brought henna to the UAE area, where it is very much a part of daily life.  On the practical side, it is still used for making hair stronger and covering gray.  But where it really shows its true colors is as hand and foot art.  The Gulf women, as well as many people who have lived here a long time, go have their hands and feet painted for most special occasions, especially weddings.   The artwork is usually done by Sudanese women, who move with such agility that it’s like watching one of those speeded up painting videos from PBS.  The possibilities for intertwining flowers and vines are pretty endless, and it will stay nearly pristine for about week.   Red henna, that’s the real stuff.  Black henna, which is used on the desert safari tourist circuit, is synthetic, and I’ve seen more than one allergic reaction to it.

I kind of get freaked out by the images my mind creates out of the fading henna, when the flowers and vines can morph into disturbing shapes.  Henna isn’t for everyone, and probably most of the women in The Night Counter, aside from Scheherazade, don’t have the time and patience to sit down for henna design as a part of regular US-paced life.  Well, maybe Randy, if she gave up her weekly manicures and pedicures could squeeze henna in, but then I’m sure Scheherazade would wonder who wants to see henna on unmanicured hands?

Love Notes From Fatima and Scheherazade

Debutante’s Ball is a website of a bunch of fun authors with upcoming books.  Alicia Bessette, whose novel is coming out in

Love Notes

August and who’s one of the webmasters asked me to write a bit on love, and here you go, and I think Fatima and Scheherazade would approve:

Some Love Notes for Debutantes  http://www.thedebutanteball.com/?m=20100213

Silence As Golden As Sand

“Silence” is a relative word, referring to how quiet a place is compared to other times.  Silence in a home still involves the hum of the fridge, the heater, the creaking in the wood, the wind on the windows, and so many other things.  Outside, it means the birds still chirping, bugs buzzing, the breeze, a car going by on a distant highway.

Golden Silence

But nature showed my brother and I definite silence when I took him to Liwa on his short visit to Abu Dhabi.  Liwa is the center of the Empty Quarter, Liwa being the oasis in an the unforgiving terrain of spectacular tawny sand swirls going up and down dunes in what I’ve been told is the world’s largest sand desert.  It was just after a holiday, and so no one was traveling–the usual dune hiking was absent as we drove to the most famous and tallest of the dunes.  Merheb Dune is sadly surrounded by concession stands and race tracks that minimize its beauty.  So we went back and stopped at a spot with no duning tracks.  Like I have done for everyone that has come to visit, I wanted my brother to experience the sensation of running up and down a dune, your feet sinking into pockets of hot and cool softness as the sun creates patterns on it.  At the top of one dune, we stopped so he could take a picture.  And that’s when the silence got to us.  We hadn’t grown up with even the pretension of silence inside or outside out home, and as adult both our worlds were noisy, his with rockets and children and mine with a long list of big cities.  I don’t think we’d ever heard total silence:  not an insect or bird, not a trace of wind, no human noise except the noise that is always in our heads, and even that seemed to quiet down.  “What is that?” I asked. “Silence,” he shrugged.  “Kind of freaky, huh,” I answered.  “Cool, too,” he said.  Silence as golden as the sand literally was. We kept waiting for something in nature to make a sound, but nothing did.

I don’t know if there is anywhere else to experience absolute silence.  That’s why I was a little saddened the other day to hear about new plans Abu Dhabi has to build several resorts in the area and expand the population over the next few years by 350,000.  Perhaps it will help the Bedouins of the area have a better life, but maybe there is an easier way to give them that chance, a quieter way, a way that will not defy the reasons it has been called the Empty Quarter for so long.