You're an Arab-American writing about your community in your first novel. Should you go for a comic/satirical treatment? Do something more serious, emphasizing cultural displacement? Or broaden your canvas to include the white, nonethnic neighbors? Abu- Jaber has tried all three tacks and been overwhelmed in the process. The Ramoud family, father and two grown daughters, live in a small town in upstate New York and work at the same hospital in Syracuse. The father, Matussem, emigrated from Jordan as a young man and fell in love with and married Nora, an Irish-American who interpreted his new country for him. Since her death from typhus on a trip to Jordan, the gentle, passive Matussem has found a refuge in jazz (he's a drummer with his own group) and caring for his daughters. The younger, Melvina, is no problem; only 22, she's already Head Nurse. But Jemorah, the protagonist by default in this plotless novel, is another story. Stuck in a clerical job she hates, Jem's pushing 30 and still single, which is driving her Aunt Fatima nuts. (Fatima, whose life's ambition is to join the worthy Arab matrons on the Ladies' Pontifical Committee, is the main satirical target here.) None of Jem's three possible mates is very plausible. There's Gilbert Sesame, a fast-talking pool hustler who's here one minute, gone the next; Ricky Ellis, a local grease monkey with whom Jem makes love in the bushes; and cousin Nassir, fresh from Jordan, who warns Jem about her extended family, ``a cult organization.'' Eventually, after two crudely engineered encounters with bigots, she decides that postgraduate research into race prejudice is the answer. The other elements in this mishmash (visiting Jordanians on a credit-card rampage, poor whites tormenting themselves with coathangers and booze) only add to the confusion.
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