Teaching Arabs, writing Self Memoirs of an Arab-American woman By Evelyn Shakir (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2014. 170 pages.)

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Amina Inloes

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Abstract

Teaching Arabs, Writing Self traces Evelyn Shakir’s evolution from a budding
student of canon English literature who was desperately trying to “become
white” to her epiphany that stories from her own working-class immigrant
neighborhood might be of equal worth. There, she found her unique niche by
becoming an author and scholar of Arab-American literature who helped gain
recognition for this literature as a genre, and who helped readers see Arab
Americans as people rather than stereotypes.
Shakir divides her memoirs into three sections. In the first, she reflects
on her childhood during an era that frowned upon diversity. Like many immigrant
children, she turns up her nose at the “wrong” foods: “Bread with
pockets. Hummus and tabouli. ‘Don’t put that stuff in my lunch box,’ I said”
(p. 8). She even goes so far as to join a Methodist church whose quiet, orderly
simplicity seems more “American” than her family’s ritualistic but expressive
Orthodox church. Acculturated to the “Protestant disdain for Eastern churches
and, by extension, for the East itself,” only later does she develop “[a]n inkling
that there might be treasures I had turned my back on. That I might not always
have to be ashamed” (p. 13).
In this section, we see the historical value of Shakir’s work not only as a
personal memoir, but also as an account of twentieth-century Americana. Born
in 1938, she offers a rare narrative voice of that era – that of a Lebanese-
American and a woman; a handful of personal photos literally offer a rare
glimpse into the society of Arab-American women. Many of her childhood
memories center on Boston’s nearby Revere Beach, which boasted “slot machines
spitting out weight, fortune, photos of Rita Hayworth,” “Dodgems (‘no
head-on collisions’ but we did),” and “clams in a Fryolator … corn popping
frantic in a display case … frozen custard (banana my favorite) spiralling
thick-tongued into waffle cones, then dipped headfirst in jimmies” (p. 32).
Her true claim to Americanhood is that her uncle ran the beach’s “glitzy” Cyclone
roller coaster, which “gave me bragging rights among my friends and
helped situate me closer to the American norm that was always just beyond
my reach” (p. 29). The Cyclone was so important to the beach’s identity that
its closure in 1969 signaled the demise of the beach itself. “It’s those cars that
tell the story,” she recollects. “As soon as masses of people could afford them,
Revere lost its reason for being” (p. 43) ...

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