MAHJAR by Eva Sallis


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Fifteen elegant tales about the Arab émigré experience in Australia, courtesy of the Down Under continent’s Sallis (The City of Sealions, p. 145).

While the collection tracks an Australian’s immersion in Arab Yemeni culture, the pieces mostly concern the Lebanese community’s often-uneasy fit within Australian society. In three parts, corresponding to groupings of families, Sallis explores the ancient ties to family and culture that unite and haunt these émigrés. In the first story, an allegory for the startling collision between Australian and Arab cultures, a gigantic kangaroo attacks the car of a family on excursion in the Riverland country. Enraged as her husband Amin is battered by the beast, the wife, Zein, gets out and pommels the animal to death with her patent-leather stilettos while shouting, “God is great!” Eventually, and often unfortunately for the preservation of the family as a tightly knit unit, the émigrés begin to adapt to Australian society, as in “Ibtisam Had Four Sons,” about a matriarch, Ibtisam, who can’t quite keep track of all the goings-on of her wildly assimilated children—all they do is deposit news of divorces and ill-begotten pregnancies. In “Music,” the groom’s mother, Zein, rues the marriage of her son to a plain Australian girl whose family eyes the Arabs suspiciously, and yet she finds a redemptive moment watching the “secret, strengthening gift” of love pass between the newlyweds. Several pieces treat a rich local folklore, like “The Jackal,” a chilling dramatization of the saying that a jackal can drag and bury the body of a man. By the third part, Sallis begins introducing political overtones in stories dealing with Iraqis fleeing from American bombings, and Arab stone-throwers being hunted down savagely in Palestine. These latter tales are heavily weighted, though harrowing, and lack the intricate delineation of the earlier ones.

Altogether, an unusual and never uninteresting literary niche.

Pub Date: April 28th, 2005
ISBN: 1-74114-071-4
Page count: 180pp
Publisher: Allen & Unwin/Trafalgar
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2005


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