The novel focuses on the happenings of the Ramouds. The widowed father of the family, Matussem Ramoud, lives with his two daughters and was accompanied to America with his sister and brother-in-law. Matussem and his daughters reside in a middle class house in a run-down, low class neighborhood. Their environment mimics that of a hazardous dumping ground, with their house surrounded by broken down cars and trailers that have neither running water nor a proper sewage waste system. Diapers and garbage liters their backyard, providing the ideal tone for the family’s mixed emotions and values.
Matussem’s American-born daughters are older, but both seem to still struggle with their identities, contemplating their roles in American culture versus Middle Eastern culture. Aunt Fatima, Matussem’s devoted Islamic sister, desires for the two daughters, Melvina and Jemorah, to follow the conventions and traditions of their motherland—Jordan. Fatima concerns her new, American life with the local gossip and obsesses over Melvina and Jemorah’s dating life. Fatima is disgraced that both of her nieces are not yet married; she makes it her life mission to find suitable, affluent suitors for them. While Melvina, the younger daughter, has found herself successful and happy in her career as a nurse, Jemorah has yet to find a satisfying career path and struggles throughout the novel with her cultural and career oriented identity. Her father is clearly Middle Eastern and still has a stronghold in the traditions of the east, but her deceased mother merged well within western culture and trends. Her aunt clearly desires for her to conform to the traditions and customs of Jordan, but Jemorah finds that those conventions neither fill her cultural void nor feel natural and comfortable. Thus, Jemorah feels stuck in the middle, not quite Middle Eastern and not quite American.
Matussem is struggling just as much as his daughters, attempting to discover his new place in America devoid of his loving wife. Unlike Melvina, he does not find comfort in a career, but rather feels most at peace making jazz music on his drum set. It is only when he is playing this music in the local bar that he forgets about the death of his wife and the personal crisis that was created through his immigration. Both his daughters and his sister find this hobby bizarre and somewhat embarrassing.
Only after Matussem journeys back to Jordan are his daughters able to find themselves and their place within culture. This journey too has a similar effect on Matussem, allowing clarity to his thought process and his actions.
Marriage – The theme of marriage is most prevalent throughout the novel Arabian Jazz. It is the center of many disputes and much conversation centers on it. In Fatmia and Matussem’s culture, marriage is a vital tradition. Marriage is necessary for class status and is also vital in order to retain a family’s name and lineage. In Jordan, the marriages are nearly always arranged. The parents of the bride search for a groom through an application-like process. Dowry too is included in this search for the parents of both the bride and the groom.
Matussem’s daughters, Jemorah and Melvina, do not desire this arranged matrimony. Neither of them is content with the idea of being married nor are they content with the tradition of other family members choosing their spouse. This is the debating fuel for Fatima because she wants her nieces to be respected in the Arabian community and wants them to uphold the family name.
Feminism – The theme of feminism stems greatly from the theme of marriage. They are interwoven concepts that cannot be separated within the realm of Abu-Jaber’s novel. The strongest female characters, Jemorah, Melvina, and Fatima, arise often throughout the work and are often disputing with one another. Fatima, the argumentative Jordanian aunt, wants her nieces to live out life in the traditions of the Arabian culture. Her view of feminism is not being rebellious but rather conforming to the culture. She, alternatively, does not conform to this role either. She is constantly disrespectful to her husband and often disobeys her older, wiser brother. It is only in times of weakness that she becomes submissive and caters to the traditions of the Middle East. Jemorah and Melvina too do not want to be placed in a submissive form but rather want to go to college and live the life and career they wish for themselves. They do not want life changing decisions to be made for them.
Class – Social class standings arise often throughout Arabian Jazz but are often not overtly discussed. The town that the Ramoud’s live in is clearly rampant with poverty. Many of the residents do not live in homes but rather dwell in old broken down cars and buses. The fields and streams are littered with garbage and dirty diapers. Death is often seen in the lower class where proper care can neither be administered nor afforded. Many of the students Jemorah and Melvina went to school with cannot read and thus cannot prosper in the academic world therefore locking them in the sphere of poverty much like their parents.
Matussem's favorite song to play on the drums is Namia, which is ironic because this song hardly had any drumming in it. Namia is also a very common Arabic name.
Critique of Arabian Jazz (as found within the cover of the novel)
“Suffused with energy, sympathy and sneaky wit…It’s clear that Ms. Abu-Jaber is a writer of talent.” -New York Times Book Review
“Reading Arabian Jazz is like a trip to a strange land where the inhabitants just won’t sit still. You will hear and remember them long after you’ve finished this wonderful book.” -Boston Globe
“Arab American fiction is a rarity, but this strong first novel bodes well for its future…Strongly recommended for its fine depiction of Arab Americans as not so different from you and me.” -Library Journal
- Sardar, Ziauddin and Merryl Wyn Davies. The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam. London: Verso, 2004.