Headlines, Middle East & North Africa, North America

/ARTS WEEKLY/BOOKS: A Diamond in the New York Rough

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, Dec 20 2005 (IPS) - Since the September 2001 suicide attacks on New York, the city’s bookstores have been flooded with volumes of nonfiction works attempting to explain the phenomenon of terrorism and its links with the world of Islam and the Middle East.

While some scholars have duly warned of the dangers of perpetuating the myth of a “clash of civilisations”, coupled with the notion of “us and them”, others have seemed to relish inflaming anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment.

Yet neither side has elucidated the fact that the city that came under attack from terrorists continues to be a living symbol of mutual respect and tolerance for cultural and religious differences, a point affirmed and reaffirmed by hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, including Arabs and the Muslims.

It appears that to some extent this intellectual void is now being filled by fiction writers and poets.

“So many novels are set in New York as if it’s only a place where blondes can get their hair coloured on Fifth Avenue, but really it is a multicultural city,” says Jessica Jiji, author of “Diamonds Take Forever”, a new novel published by Harper-Collins last month.

Centred around a love story, Jiji’s novel explores the themes of ethnicity, self-pride and individuality in a simple and sincere, but artistic and colourful way that shows how in the complex urban setting of New York, everyday people continue to get along with each other, despite stark differences in their belief systems and traditions.

Michelle, the main character in the novel, is a young woman who is approaching her thirties. She was born and raised in New York by an atheist mother and a Jewish father who comes from Morocco. He owns a deli in midtown Manhattan, where he fulfills New Yorkers’ insatiable appetite for delicious dishes from the Arab world.

The other major characters populating the city’s multicultural setting include Michelle’s Latino boyfriend, who is an ex-Marine, her best friend who comes from Africa, and a gay friend whom she trusts the most.

Michelle is portrayed as a character who is overwhelmed by life’s struggles, and worries about how to find a suitable husband before she gets “too old”, a decent place to live in the city she loves, and how to hold on to her job as a radio journalist working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

“I think it’s more representative of the real city that we live in – that it’s not just women who do lunch,” says Jiji about her novel, in which she devotes many pages to the generosity and the richness of Arab culture through dialogues between Michelle and her Jewish Arab father, whose best friend happens to be a Muslim.

In the novel, both men agree to refer to Jerusalem as “The Holy Land”, a conscious attempt on part of the writer to make a point that there is a fundamental level where people are able to get along with each other as human beings rather than ideological adversaries.

Jiji, herself a native New Yorker who has a Hungarian mother and Iraqi father, laments the fact that the portrayal of Arab culture and its people by the mainstream U.S. media continues to be not just “simplistic and limiting” but “unfair”, as well.

In the novel, her dissection of this kind of stereotyping is subtle, but revealing.

“The best wedding I have ever been to,” says Michelle’s future husband in the novel, “was in a log cabin at the end of an unknown dirt road in rural Alabama.”

To which, as the story’s narrator, she says nothing but thinks: “I tried to imagine my Uncle Saleh finding his way over there without being mistaken for a terrorist and detained.”

Jiji says that since she was raised by her father, who knows how to appreciate the treasures of the Arab world, she always respected the values and the richness of Arab culture.

“When my father would say ‘typical’ Arabs, he would not say so in a derogatory way. He said ‘typical’ Arab that meant typically generous, typically warmhearted, typically kind and typically humanistic,” she explains. “That’s always been my understanding of the Arab world.”

Beyond multiculturalism, Jiji’s novel also offers a critical examination of gender politics in contemporary U.S. society, laying bare the fact that despite laws on gender equality, to some degree male dominance remains an acceptable form of behaviour.

This is reflected in the character of Michelle’s somewhat callous and macho boyfriend Joe, an ex-soldier who loves weapons and aspires to be a drug enforcement officer. Michelle hopes to receive a diamond ring from him, but gets heartbreak instead.

Jiji reflects that Joe’s character represents U.S. military dominance over the weak in the world. “I think the reality is that we live in a country that is very militarised, and that there is a military backdrop to everything we do,” she says, “and any honest works of art will reflect that.”

She says she chose the title “Diamonds Take Forever” as a metaphor to explain the hardships and struggle one must goes through to obtain strength of character and maturity – as experienced by the novel’s heroine.

“She wants to get engaged and wants a diamond ring, but comes to realise that a diamond starts out as coal and that there is no way for a human being to start out as a diamond,” explains the writer. “Becoming strong like a diamond demands struggle.”

Jiji, a mother of two who works for the United Nations, says that while contemplating the theme of ethnicity and multiculturalism in New York, she also gave a serious thought to the tragic side of the diamond trade that has caused so much bloodshed in the resource-rich parts of Africa.

“I think you can’t tell the story of diamonds without acknowledging the price that is paid,” she admits. “That is fueling war in Africa.”

Jiji plans to write another book on this subject.

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