Ketching Up With Freedom

Freedom is the gotcha word of the Middle East decade—it’s the reason everyone is claiming to be helping—i.e. bombing, maiming, spying on and killing–everyone else.  The definition of freedom (and its purpose) is a little vague under the circumstances.  But I was set straight this past summer.


Ketchup in Jordan

I was on an airplane and sitting next to me was a 10-year old boy, born and raised in Houston, but his parents were born in Jordan.  It was a 10-hour flight and he had already seen all the inflight movies as he explained to me at length with a synopsis of each.  Thus, any time he could find a way to get me to play a video game with him or talk, he jumped at the chance.  My freedom was gone.

Generally speaking, I allow myself to lose very quickly at video games, mostly so I can stop playing them.  But at one point I was doing well despite myself.  So to break the game I started asking him questions.  This kid had answers for everything and so I was out of the game and into discussion.

After he told me he visits Jordan every other summer to see cousins, aunts and uncles, I asked him if he liked Jordan or Texas better.

“Texas for sure,” he said without hesitation.

I asked him why and he replied,  “It’s fun seeing family because we don’t have many relatives in Houston.  But there is a lot more freedom in the US.”

Apparently we moved from Temple Run to a discussion about how relatives in Jordan butt into your business all day or a socio political discussion.  “How is there more freedom in the US?” I ventured.

He shrugged like it was obvious.  “In Jordan at the McDonald’s you have to pay for the extra ketchup,” he said.  “In Houston you can have as much ketchup as you want and it is free.”

“At McDonald’s you mean?” I said.

“It’s free everywhere in America,” he said.  “Don’t you know that?”

I actually didn’t.  But now I do.  Or maybe I just never thought about ketchup beyond my French fries.  Forget heavily loaded uses of freedom, like Freedom Fries, which free ketchup services.  This boy made freedom simple—unless you want to ask yourself what gives McDonald’s the right to charge people in one country for ketchup and not in another.

War and Body Image: Guernica and Arab American Literature

When my friend and author Randa Jarrar asked me for a short story for a collection she was editing for Guernica, I wrote “Girls on Ice.”  Those were the people talking in my head at the time.  Some form of them is always talking in my head because they are in part who I once was and who I see so many teenagers as today.   You can’t be Arab or Arab American and female and not have had severe body image anxiety shoved down your throat (as a teen in Beirut, my thoughts weren’t of the war but rather of wanting to be a respectable young woman, i.e. not fat–whereas as the friends I’d left back in Minnesota took fat as an annoyance, not a tragedy).  War was just an inevitable, uncontrollable part of life, and sadly still is, but beauty can be controlled, just ask any woman in the Middle East.  Perhaps we wage war on our bodies to shut out the wars we find ourselves powerless to control.  But when you come to America, you have to be concerned with achieving beyond the bathroom mirror.  Just ask the characters in these stories.

Breaking News and Beauty Queens

I got two e-mails marked “Breaking News” from two Arab American organizations today.  I’ve never gotten breaking news from Arab American organizations, not about terrorism and counter terrorism, not about racial profiling, not about civil rights, not about a great new film, book, or art exhibition.  But today I got breaking news:  An Arab American had become the first Miss USA.

Hey, I’m not knocking a good pageant.  Many a times as a child I got swept along in the Miss USA melodrama and I cried right along with the winner as she got crowned, much to my mother’s distress, as I think she feared I might be setting myself up for false hope.  But if I had ever had any ambitions to be Miss USA, which I’m sure I didn’t as I didn’t like cameras or glitter, they would have been decimated when we moved to Beirut, where I learned that no one can be truly worthy unless she really commits to improving or combating any cruelty God may have let her be born with, such as curly hair.  That doesn’t mean I wasn’t told to be a good person, study hard, and work hard.  But relatives didn’t ask me how I was doing in school, still don’t.  They asked me, and still do, if I’d gained weight, which could only be a portent of Armageddon, or lost weight, which made me get high praise, kisses and the promises that if I did something with my hair, too, there was no end to what the world could bring me. The one thing Arab females here and there have always understood perfectly well was that they would be valued for their looks no matter what.  Just gaze at all the cosmetic surgery on the Arabic TV channels, in case you think things have changed much.

So really, breaking news?  Certainly it’s refreshing to be recognized as bombshells rather than bomb makers.  But that an Arab woman was valued for her good looks isn’t really breaking news, so much as old news.

The Night Counter: A Starred Review in Kirkus

The Night Counter received a starred reveiw in Kirkus Reviews this week.  It leaves a tired writer so joyful she is wordless.  A link to the original can be found at:  (It also inspired Chris Costello, the person who designed this website, and I to update the Events page on the website.)

But if you just want to read the review here:

STARRED Yunis, Alia

Yunis’ book club–ready debut uses The Arabian Nights as a departure point for an immigrant-assimilation story.

The central character, around whom a cast of dozens revolves like a time piece, is Fatima Abdullah: purple-haired mother, grandmother and Lebanese migrant who settled in Detroit in the 1930s. The book opens, however, with an older Fatima in contemporary West Hollywood; the conservative but flexible matron moved there 992 nights ago to live with her gay grandson Amir. On that first night, she had a visit from none other than Scheherazade herself. The Arab beauty with 1,001 tales demanded stories from Fatima’s past, and when asked “What if I don’t tell you a story?” she replied, “When our tales are over, so are our lives.” Now Fatima is counting down to night No. 1,001, believing it will bring her death at the age of 85. Yunis’ gifted handling of character and environment forestalls the question of whether Fatima is insane or gifted with magical thinking as she debates and ruminates with Scheherazade about life, family and America. The only relative willing to tolerate her unintentionally hilarious outbursts is Amir, an aspiring actor struggling against typecasting as a terrorist (his dream role is the lead in an Omar Sharif biopic). He’s bitter over his breakup with a sexy soap-opera star—whose driveway, we learn, has been conscripted for spying purposes by the FBI, which has mistaken the Abdullahs’ family dramas for national-security concerns. Yunis cleverly weaves a vast social web containing Fatima’s ten offspring, beginning each vignette with the matriarch’s musings about her kids, which lead Scheherazade to fly around America eavesdropping on the wildly diverse clan. Readers may occasionally get lost in the rain of names and details, but the characters’ grounded humanity and emotional clarity always provide orientation.

The Night Counter: A Starred Review in Kirkus

The Night Counter: A Starred Review in Kirkus

Emotionally rewarding reading that builds to a poignant and thoroughly satisfying climax.