Randa Jarrar maps home

Randa Jarrar maps home
Culture: 'A Map of Home' is a novel by Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar, who is taking the literary world by storm.
9 min read
26 April, 2015
Jarrar's work remembers the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and its societal impact [alAraby]
Randa Jarrar's debut novel, A Map of Home, tells the story of a young Arab-American girl, Nidali, her uproarious journey through childhood, and the many homes she inhabits during those years.

Although A Map of Home treads familiar territory, such as the hardships of the immigrant experience, Jarrar infuses Nidali with enough wit and humour to make the narrative fresh and exciting.

My favourite scenes are those depicting family life; the constant bickering between her parents frequently elicits a genuine laugh-out-loud response. However, it is the seductive prose and the elegance with which Nidali's sexuality unfolds that makes this novel a success and a must-read for Arabs and Americans alike.

Jarrar's father stopped talking to her after reading the novel. He claims that by writing about sex, Randa dishonoured the Jarrar clan of Jenin - the very clan that he says defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 at Acre.

As far as novels go, it brings to mind Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Bukowski's Ham on Rye, David Mitchell's Black Swan Green - and definitely A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce.

Jarrar is one of a new generation of Arab-American writers, including such talents as Hisham Matar, Rabih Alameddine, Diana Abu Jaber and Rawi Hage to name but a few.

They inherit the literary legacy of those Arab writers who paved the way for working directly in English - the Egyptians Waguih Ghali, who published Beer in the Snooker Club in 1964 (before tragically taking his own life in London five years later), and the internationally acclaimed Ahdaf Soueif.
     It is the seductive prose and the elegance with which Nidali's sexuality unfolds that makes this novel a must-read.

Making a splash

Last year, Randa wrote what proved to be a highly controversial essay in Salon, titled Why I Cannot Stand White Belly DancersThe essay went viral online and sparked a wide-ranging discourse that gained Jarrar a mixture of fame and notoriety.

Jarrar argued that white belly dancers were engaging in cultural appropriation of the act of Raqs Sharqi, the classical Egyptian style. 

Such performances, she said, objectify and denigrate the sanctity of the Raqs Sharqi art among Arab women. Arab women are free and independent, and don't need to be saved by Western women, she argued.

Jarrar's prose is much like her - funny and lively. She throws back at life whatever life throws at her, in the most humble and spontaneous of ways, writing with a uniquely candid voice.

In May of 2014, Jarrar won a Provost's Award Recipient for Promising New Faculty at CSU Fresno.

If there is one gift that I would give her, it would be The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I think her pink suitcase should have a huge Wonder Woman sticker.

Wit and wisdom at work
Jarrar's been receiving marketing weight-loss email adverts which appear to have been sent via the human resources department of CSU Fresno, where she teaches creative writing. Fed up with the assault on her inbox, she wrote the following response:

"Dear Human Resources Department,

What exactly will I win when I 'thin it'? I've won several awards and fellowships as a fat woman. Will thinning it help me win more? Will thinning it help me win wage equality?  

I've been married twice. If I thin it, will even more men want to marry me? I just sold a book to a great publisher. Will thinning it help win more publishing contracts? I won a Provost's Award last year. Will thinning it help me win more teaching awards? 

What is 'it'? Is 'it' the body that I have, that has borne a child, experienced joy, carried me to several countries and cities, and is healthy exactly the way 'it' is?

Please, kindly stop sending this crap to my work inbox.

Randa Jarrar,
Assistant Professor"



Jarrar has published a collection of great essays. One that drew my attention is Imagining Myself in Palestine, in which Jarrar tells the story of her March 2012 spring break.

She was detained, questioned and harassed repeatedly in "the Arab Room" of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport. 

After eight hours of questioning, Jarrar was sent back to the United States she had arrived upon.  

The essay was published by Guernica Magazine on the 64th anniversary of the Nakba.

Based in California, Jarrar dedicates the bulk of her time to teaching creative writing at California State University, Fresno, to a cohort of minorities, children of migrant workers and first-generation college students. She is also an active member of Radius of Arab American Writers Inc.

I cannot wait to review Jarrar's next book - a collection of short stories. HIM, ME, MUHAMMAD ALI will be coming out in autumn 2016.

Al-Araby: There are so many Arab symbols in your novel: the Allenby Bridge, The Kuwait Towers, the Montazah Palace in Alexandria, the small Nasr Fiat that exists in every 1980s Egyptian movie... Were they random elements of nostalgia or intentional Arab symbols?

Randa Jarrar: A little bit of both. These symbols signify a lost time for me, so they're essentially my version of the madeleine cookie. I moved to the US from Egypt in 1991 and felt - for a while, and in the service of assimilation (I was, afterall, a teenager) - that I couldn't look back.

So when I was crafting the novel, I knew there were specific places, landmarks and objects that I would include, like talismans, almost fetishistic in their importance to recalling a childhood set in this time period.

Your character's last name is Ammar, her first name is Nidali, her brother's name is Gamal, and her father's is Waheed.

[Is there] any connection to Abu Ammar, aka Yasser Arafat?

Nidal is a very common Palestinian name, Gamal for Gamal Abdulnasser, Waheed for the only son of six daughters from Jenin? I am reading way too much or is there significance? If true, does your novel have elements of Arab Nationalism?

Randa Jarrar: I suppose it does. Waheed, Nidali's father, is indeed an exiled and lonely soul. He is very much a product of Arab nationalism, so yes, he names Nidali and Gamal after people and ideals. But Ammar was just a fluke. I thought it would sound cool for Nidali Ammar to be named that- literally, my struggle which builds up to something.

It's difficult, in many ways, to be an Arab-American author, but I think naming characters is one of them. Someone's always going to read into the names. I don't suppose Jonathan Franzen's characters get the same treatment.

My favourite sentences in your book are ones in which you describe the Iraqi sky on your narrator’s exodus from Kuwait to Jordan:

"The Stars appeared slowly, one by one, as though a long forgotten Zoroastrian God had risen from His heavenly couch to turn some lights on, room by room, in His astral house. Through the window I saw only darkness. There were no fields, no people, and no buildings."

A Zoroastrian God in the sky of Mesopotamia. Nidali also mentions seeing the hills of Iran from Kuwait on a clear day; both are Persian references. Does that mean that your novel surpasses the borders of Arabia? How do feel about this sentence and what does it mean to you?

RJ: I would hope that all good literature surpasses borders, in general, and yes, that my novel goes past Arabia, and America, and all the constructs of culture, race, gender, etc.

I love those sentences, too. I remember the day I came up with them. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was very proud of the image. In a way, I don't think I would come up with this image now. I think the maleness of it, and yes, the borrowing from Zoroastria, were all part of my research and reading at the time of writing the book.

     Humanisation is a given, not something literature has to do. - Randa Jarrar

How of much of the real Randa Jarrar is in Nidali Ammar?

RJ: 27 percent. Ha. Really, the novel is a novel. It's fiction. Nidali is much more composed, consistently witty and confident than I ever was. 

She also has much better taste in music. I was listening to god-awful stuff when I was her age. You can ask my brother. He was the one with the cool taste- he liked grunge and good hip-hop.

How can Arab-American literature 'humanise' Arabs to the American people or to the West? Are there any Arab-American writers that you admire?

RJ: I don't think Arab-American literature should serve any purpose other than being art.

Humanisation is a given, not something literature has to do. If a by-product of writing honestly, openly, and well is that people who are not familiar with the culture will become more familar with it, that's fine.

But a writer should never cater anything to "the West" or "the East" - which are false constructs to begin with.

I admire quite a few Arab-American writers, Rabih Alameddine and Alicia Erian being two of them. My favourite writers are all over the map though; Angela Carter and James Joyce and Borges and Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf and JM Coetzee being some of them.

What novels do your students read in your Arab American Literature class at Cal State Fresno?

RJ: It's an Arab-American women's fiction class, so they read fiction by Laila Halaby, Diana Abu-Jaber, Alicia Erian, Patricia Sarrafian Ward, Alia Yunis, Mohja Kahf, and others, as well as essays by Nadine Naber, Alia Malek, and Hayan Charara, and poems by Naomi Shihab Nye and Suheir Hammad.

My favourite thing to do on the first day of class is show them a slideshow of the kinds of covers that publishing houses give to Arab-American women's books. The proliferation of geometric designs, veils, henna, cresecent moons, etc is ludicrous - and ripe for criticism and discussion. From there, we delve into the books proper.

Any advice to budding Arab American writers?

RJ: Read a lot. Write with brutal honesty and as if no one will judge you - especially your family. That part is crucial.

You need to want to be a good writer more than being a "good girl" or a "good boy". Revise what you've written. Read your work out loud to different types of audiences. Don't italicise Arabic words on your pages - treat them like any other words.

Don't explain or translate your culture to anyone: remember that you're writing for your people, too. Apply to MFA programmes - we are grossly under-represented there. Apply for writers' residencies and make the time to go to them to write. You might need to make financial sacrifices.

Dream big. Get an agent. And join RAWI; you need the community and the support.

Now that you've gotten your 'Portrait of the Artist'-type novel out of the way, what should we expect next from Randa Jarrar?

RJ: I'm finishing a new novel and a collection of stories - not telling anything more than that. You'll have to wait and see.

Hopefully, you won't have to wait long. My new book is titled HIM, ME, MUHAMMAD ALI, and it's coming out in Fall 2016.