The Situe Stories: A Century of Arab Americans

Judith Gabriel


By Frances Khirallah Noble

Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2000, 182 pp.

Spanning a century of immigration, capturing the inner landscape of the generations of women who have made the crossing, both actually and culturally, to varying degrees, this collection of short pieces by Frances Khirallah Noble is an engaging, entrancing work of truly Arab-American writing.

It is Arab, in that the string of tales begins in the homeland, with our first introduction to one of the many grandmothers — the cornerstone situe, the Arabic term for grandmother — who appears in one incarnation or another in each of the 11 short tales, each of which is complete in itself, yet in their entirety, forming a total picture. And in between, it is truly Arab American, stories that emanate from a distinct ethnic identity as it is juxtaposed, mingled and evolved amid the immigrant and post-immigrant experience.

Chronologically arranged, the book begins with Hasna Elias' immigration to America from what is now Syria and Lebanon , and ends in the present, where the situe, now an aged and failing shadow of the spunky young woman who emigrated, along with her horse and an heirloom white china pipe — must move into a Southern California home for the elderly. As the episodes progress in time from the Old World to the new, the style shifts subtly from folk tale to contemporary fiction.

In between we meet many situes, many immigrants and their offspring, and their stories reflect the essence of the Arab American experience, often revolving around their varying degrees of integration into the culture of their new homeland. With the sparse, hypnotic skill of a master story-teller, Noble illuminates what happens when the first of the women in one extended family breaks with the tradition and learns to read — English, at that! We are inside the previously silent woman's mind as the magical, power-imbuing new skill begins to develop, and as words from newspapers and street signs surge in her previously unlettered consciousness.

Inter-generational conflicts are deftly highlighted in the tale of an Arab American daughter — whose exquisite feet flaunt the designer sandals she constructs at her shoe factory job — and who secretly marries the boss's son, an Italian American, hiding it from her mother until an escalating comedy of errors forces the issue.

We are introduced to characters who reflect many of the roles Arab Americans were to play throughout the development of their immigration and assimilation patterns. We meet Auntie Zumirood, famous within the confines of her cinnamon-scented world for the handkerchiefs she made “for the fastidious Arabs who owned the factories or the dry goods stores, or who pushed their way out of Syriatown and into Harvard, where they were regarded as dark-skinned oddities whose fathers were not ambassadors from South America .” Before that, Zumirood had worked as a street peddler — as had so many “Syrian” immigrants: “When I started, I walked up and down the streets with a tray hung around my neck. Like a cigarette girl. . . All day I called out, ‘Threads? Pins?' Needles of all sizes?'”

But these recognizable relatives, with their recognizable struggles, foibles and accomplishments, are presented with a unique twist, a fresh insight, a cutting revelation, and a universal depth. Spiced with elements of magic, deepened with layers of cultural collision and stoicism, the stories contain richly textured characters, full of verve and initiative. The stories are quick to read, with language that ranges from lyrical prose to a poetic terseness. Reflecting the storyteller's skill, the endings are often sudden, with unexpected revelations that cast a powerful mood, changing the way we “remember” what we have just read, making one want to go back and read it again, more slowly this time, savoring the well-crafted elements of the piece that never call attention to themselves. And lingering long the conclusion of every situe's appearance is a veritable spell of surprising intensity.

This is the first short story collection by Noble, a lawyer who has previously written a novel, “The Old Neighborhood,” and is presently at work on second one. She teaches creative writing at Windward School in Los Angeles.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 32 (Summer 2000)

Copyright © by Al Jadid (2000)

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