On Randa Jarrar’s ‘Him, Me, Muhammad Ali’
Jarrar’s story collection is delightfully voice-driven and conversational, punctuated by sharp wisecracks and blunt puns.
Fiction | Short Stories
The sudden presence of a loved one can be as jarring as their sudden absence. Across the stories in Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar, themes of appearance/disappearance abound. In “Grace,” a young girl is kidnapped at a supermarket and brought to live on a commune; that her experience there is actually one of love is only a small comfort when she encounters an uncannily accurate account of her kidnapping written by the blood sister she left so many years before. “Accidental Transients” gives voice to a young woman who takes care of the men in her family after her mother runs off, leaving behind only a note that says,
“You won’t understand,” as if it were an order.
The majority of the characters are women, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and queer, which seems to mean that their own simple fact of presence, of existence, puts them at odds with their surroundings. Yet we’re not reading struggle- or adversity-porn. This disjuncture rather lavishes the collection in absurdity and voice-driven humor, creating pockets of community within the isolation of otherness.
The narrator of “Building Girls” lives with her parents and helps them manage an apartment for vacation rentals. Aisha never really entertains the idea of leaving Egypt, though finds small ways to disobey and maintain her independence. When her childhood friend Perihan visits from America, they reconnect, yet even as they confide in each other and briefly become lovers, it’s not the longing for other romantic shores that consumes her but rather the question of what shape Perihan’s absence will take when she leaves again. As they pack to leave, Aisha watches their daughters, neither of whom speak the other’s language, play together in the street:
“Peri, how will they talk when they get older?” I watched them bang on the drums harder, the suitcases big and bulky on the side of the road. I wondered if Peri would ever come back.
“They’ll find a way,” she said. “Believe me, they’ll still have the language they have now.”
I nodded to be polite, but I didn’t believe it.
This lack of confidence in, or mistrust of, the mystical power of translation suffuses the collection. The lonely, pregnant college girl in “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” is disowned by her family when she refuses to get an abortion. She yells at her dipshit boyfriend when they have sex, insulting him in Arabic. At the same time, she says her mother has become her “secret lover,” calling her at odd hours and squeezing in secret visits. Like the other women in these stories, she is not so concerned with building bridges as she is refreshingly self-possessed, even as her life feels bereft or unstable.
Whether in the form of sisters, lovers, or mothers and daughters, mirrored doubles are everywhere. In “Asmahan,” two adult sisters and their daughters run over a young girl in a crowded Cairo street, mangling her legs. They whisk the girl and her sister to a hospital, and both women struggle with guilt and responsibility over the young village girl whose future they may have ruined. The story is a lovely and crowded meditation on caretaking and the adult sisters’ respective forays into motherhood. The narrator spends much of the story considering her stylish sister, who wears a headscarf after praying to God for the continued health of her prematurely-born daughter. The narrator, likewise, recounts her own struggles with postpartum depression:
Unlike Soraya, who had prayed for her daughter’s health, I once hoped my daughter would die. When I bathed her, I felt like I was bathing something with no life, something that didn’t really exist. When she cried I couldn’t hear her, and my husband had to shake me awake. When I nursed her, I felt as though her mouth was taking up a thread, whose source was my soul, and was un-spooling it. The thread kept exiting through my breast, and the spool was a circle getting thinner and thinner.
(“Asmahan,” p. 131).
In the title story, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” a young woman is charged with distributing her father’s ashes at the Egyptian pyramids, but while abroad her task is eclipsed by the memory of her dead mother. She visits her family, and the ache of matrilineage echoes throughout the apartment:
This house had lost three women: first my aunt in an accident in Saudi Arabia, where she had traveled to make ‘Umra. She was walking between as-Safa and Marwa, and was on her fourth circle around, when she collapsed and died of a stroke. Her mother, my grandmother, had survived her by two years, after which she too died silently one afternoon, in her bed, of a heart attack. My mother followed them four years later.
Now here we were, my cousins and I, the three replacements.
(“Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” p. 153).
Structurally, these stories are boxy, working almost episodically to contain a character’s entire life within a few well-chosen snapshots. Mostly told in first person and thus delightfully voice-driven and conversational, the prose is punctuated by sharp wisecracks and blunt puns. The pieces consistently end in off-kilter places, often just a hair before or a hair after the expected mic-drop of a dramatic close.
The final story, “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie,” is the most magical in subject matter, but in some ways feels the most steeped in the veracity of its voice. The story, about a half-woman, half-Transjordanian Ibex in a world where such “halfies” exist in the minority, initially seems too obvious a metaphor, but the story impressively complicates this expectation. Zelwa’s halfie-nature is not a simple stand-in for otherness, but rather exists alongside her multitudinous identities and that of the other characters in this collection. The theme of presence in Jarrar’s work, then, becomes that of multiple selves within one person, how our identities collide and spar and nestle. These character-driven stories draw you into this tension and discomfort, but at least you won’t be sitting alone.