Coming of Age Story Witnesses Tribulations of Growing up Arab American in Brooklyn
Arab Boy Delivered
By Paul Aziz Zarou
Cune Press, 2022
Coming of age stories can be tricky. In no other genre do authors willingly stick out their necks, relying on a single, flawed adolescent to heroically carry the day. No clever plot twist can save our young protagonists if they’re not up to the task; no quirky sidekicks or kinky lovers can plaster over the holes. The vulnerability of a Holden Caulfield, the dimwitted charm of a Forrest Gump, or even the precocious morality of a Kevin Arnold was always destined to shine. And then we have Michael Haddad, the teenager at the center of “Arab Boy Delivered” by author Michael Aziz Zarou.
It’s the early 1960s. A Palestinian family takes over a neighborhood grocery store in an Italian part of Brooklyn, where working-class residents pop in and out for bread, milk, beer, and cigarettes. They’re mild to outright discriminatory against Arabs. “Camel jockey assholes, go back to the desert!” comes up more than once; vandalism and other mischief loom. The police have little help. Michael, the young son of old country proprietors Aziz and Jamila Haddad, searches his parent’s worried expressions and philosophizes. He listens to 60s music and goes through his coming-of-age routine, seeming more grown-up than he should be. He looks at himself in the mirror and thinks.
The Haddads hang in there. Michael’s a little older. Neighborhood bullies steal beer and try to intimidate him as he helps in the store and makes his deliveries. Women and girls come around. Michael’s father eventually has an affair with a nice-looking nurse named Shelly. There’s Angela, who Michael makes out with a couple of times until her racist father finds out. There’s Maria/Nancy, a nerdy girl from the neighborhood with whom Michael eventually gets involved.
As the Vietnam War heats up, it drafted some of the neighborhood boys. One is killed in action, and another becomes a junky. An Arab assassinates RFK, which doesn’t help the Haddads much. Body parts are exposed, which sometimes helps, but the high is only temporary. But the bigger problem is the meandering storyline. Michael thinks harder, obsesses over his doomed relationship with an anti-war college girl Nancy and listens to more 60s music.
The story peaks when Jamila is killed in a stick-up at the store, but Michael and his father handle the situation with an indifference that barely registers. Michael finally wraps things up by having an affair with his married cousin, Yvonne, whose husband, Fareed (aka Freddy), is also Michael’s cousin. Of course, Michael isn’t overly concerned about this either, but reluctantly ends it so “others don’t get hurt.” Surprise! Yvonne breaks out of her traditional shell and insists they carry on, anyway. So, they do. Michael graduates high school and gets ready for college, and the past disappears in the rear-view mirror.
Overall, “Arab Boy Delivered” is a decent effort. For all of Michael Haddad’s observations and introspection, he simply was not a sympathetic character. He was too much of a Stoic to get picked on, too fortunate for females. He didn’t seem very upset about his mother’s murder and casually skirted Vietnam on a college deferral. There were no cracks in the veneer, no flaws that could collapse the whole mess without warning, and, hence, there was no fundamental transformation to be made - which is the entire point of a coming-of-age story in the first place.
In “Arab Boy Delivered,” perhaps the author could be given credit for showing us another slice of the Arab American experience. But the story was supposed to be about Michael, and vulnerability, charm, and morally precociousness were somewhat lacking.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid