Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat – Diana Abu-Jaber is an American author and a professor at Portland State University. She was born in Syracuse, New York to a Jordanian father and an American mother. At the age of seven she moved with her family to Jordan for two years. She often writes about issues of identity and culture.
She has a BA in English and Creative Writing from State University of New York at Oswego, an MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor and a Ph. D in English and Creative Writing from Binghamton University.
Her books include ‘Arabian Jazz’ (1993), ‘Crescent’ (2003), ‘Origin’ (2007), ‘Birds Of Paradise’ (2011) and her memoir ‘The Language of Baklava’ (2005).
Her interview with Asharq Al-Awsat appears below:
Asharq Al-Awsat: When ‘Arabian Jazz’ was published, you said: “I am trying to find cultural balance between ancestry and America.” More than 20 years later, have you found this balance? Now, how big and important is your Arab side within you? Are you able to reconcile between the West and the East within you?
Diana Abu-Jaber: When you’re born among cultures, say, as the child of immigrants, I think the search for balance becomes a lifelong journey. I wrote ‘Arabian Jazz’ over twenty years ago – I was in my twenties and closer in time to childhood and my father’s influence. In many ways, my relationship to my heritage at that time was one of loving rebellion. I was trying to find out who I was—apart from being my father’s daughter. As an adult, I feel freer to embrace my cultural history, to view it dispassionately, with pride, love, and belonging.
Q. You also said “I didn’t feel nearly as much like an outsider in Jordan as I did in this country” then. Are you still an “outsider” in America? (The dictionary defines an “outsider” as a “person not belonging”).
One nice thing about getting older is you start to realize that everyone feels like a bit of an outsider or imposter—most Americans arrived here from other places or our grandparents did. I also think that the position of the outside observer is very much a writer’s perspective. There’s a need to step back – or outside of—the flow of life, in order to see things more clearly and fully. So often it seems that writers crave their own exile—Hemingway, James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce all seemed to require exile as a condition for their artwork. I too have had a highly nomadic life, moving among cities and teaching posts—my father used to call me Ibn Battuta. So if I do still feel like an outsider, I believe it’s largely a condition of my own choosing.
Q. In ‘Crescent’, you talked about Arabs in America. That was more than 10 years ago. How have their lives been affected by this continuous “war on terrorism” (FBI surveillance, airport security, profiling, etc.)?
There have been a lot of changes over the past ten years, praise be to God! After 9/11, the so-called war on terrorism often felt like a war on all Arabs, Arab-Americans, and even anyone of potentially Middle Eastern descent. It was a strange time to be a writer too because I was often invited to write articles or essays from an Arab-American perspective, but if my writing didn’t seem to reflect the publications’ preconceptions, it sometimes wouldn’t get published. So there was this weird cocktail of anxiety and curiosity, anger and reconciliation. Of course, that confusion ended up targeting everyone in America because it put a chill on some of our most basic tenets like freedom of speech and the separation of church and state.
Q. About this continuous ‘war on terrorism’, in 2005 you wrote in the Washington Post about the harassment you faced at airports because of your Arab background. Are you still being harassed? What do you think of this harassment? Is it only harassment, or is it, really, American disrespect (if not despise) of Arabs and Muslims?
Since Obama came into office, there’s been a sea-change in the attitudes of both the government and mass media. For someone like myself, things like foreign travel have become a more rational process again. Certainly, fifteen years ago, airports in particular were strange, forbidding places—there were constant public warnings about the ‘threat levels’ and a general air of mistrust and suspicion. Things have improved considerably since then.
Q. What role does religion play in your life? How did your parents’ different religions affect you? Do you believe that religions are more or less factors of tolerance and coexistence?
I was raised in a very multi-religious environment—it seemed like my family contained almost every faith you could shake a stick at. My maternal grandmother was Catholic, my mother was agnostic, my father had converted to Islam while in the military, but he’d been raised in a primarily Christian orthodox family. I do believe that most of the world’s major faiths contain the hope and aspiration for tolerance and coexistence, but that their followers seem to keep messing that part up. Our great holy books are remarkable documents of the best of human thought and experience, but we’re constrained by our own human limitations and failings. I felt very fortunate that my parents never tried to push any religious agendas on us. My father said he didn’t care which religion we were as long as we had faith in something larger than ourselves. I think there was great wisdom in that.
Q. In a recent piece for CNN, you said: “I couldn’t help wondering if the Jordanians aren’t right” (regarding the comment that “America is being terrorized by itself”). Aren’t they right? Isn’t there more individual fear in America and the West than in Jordan and the East?
An interesting proposal—I wish I knew. That is a question for someone smarter than me!
Q. Your expected novel and the last one seem to be about people and food. Is that an ‘escape’ from the more serious issues like the relations between Americans and Middle Easterners?
I don’t think there’s anything more serious or important in our existence than food, except perhaps air and water. Food is a nutrient and nourishment for the mind, body, and soul and is the great bearer of cultural memory and history. You don’t have to look a certain way or believe a certain thing in order to share a meal or appreciate foods from a particular tradition. I was raised by people who were obsessed by food, and as an adult I see how the way we eat affects every other experience in our lives—our intellectual and emotional well-being, our ties to a community, our creativity and personal self-expression. I think there’s a tendency to brush off cooking and eating as somehow less important than other pursuits, perhaps because it’s often relegated to the sphere of women’s work and the physical body, as if we could ever hope—or want—to separate our minds from our bodies. But, just like a great symphony or painting, great cooking elevates our lives and gives us hope, a sense of meaning and connection to each other in profound, inimitable ways.
Q. The late nationalist Arab American professor Edward Said repeatedly described himself as an “outsider” which is why he wanted to be buried in Lebanon. He was described by many as ‘angry’ because of his strong Arab nationalist feelings. What do you think of him? Are you influenced by his ideas?
I have tremendous respect for Said’s work and writings. I think he offered academics in particular one of the clearest, most brilliant articulations we have for understanding the artificial constructions of “East” and “West” and the created schism between these constructs that laid the groundwork for so much colonial plunder and human misery.
The question of anger is a more complicated one. I think many immigrants from Arab countries can feel disappointed or angered by American chauvinism and bigotry. But this is also, frequently, the immigrant experience in general. No matter where you go, leaving home means dividing yourself. Your original country is eternally the home-place, well, as the repository of childhood and personal history. The new land becomes another home on top of the first one– another more immediate layer of home. You are bound to be, to varying degrees, somehow disappointed by your new country—it’s a stepparent. In addition, you may quickly find that the original home is permanently altered by your experiences in the new one. I saw much of my own father’s experiences in that of Edward Said’s—men who were caught in the divide between nations, loyalties, home and family.