Getting to the Moon or Just the Fuck Out of the House
In Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, Randa Jarrar tells stories of those who leave and those who stay
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Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali opens on nine-year-old Qamar as she sits on the rooftop of her apartment building, trying to capture the moon. She has a crush on her 24-year-old neighbor, and he has told her, underestimating the sincerity and determination of a young girl in love, that if she can bring him the moon, he’ll be hers forever. The other neighbors worry about Qamar, watching her theatrically — all gathered at the foot of the building, heaving “a collective sigh” — but they don’t discourage her either. “The moon’s expensive,” they tell her. “It costs ten nights, ten whole wakeful nights… and you can’t nod off, not even for a second.”
Although Qamar falls asleep on the tenth night (only “for an instant”) the neighbors acknowledge her accomplishment. “The moon was descending,” writes Jarrar, “everyone agreed that it was.” Qamar’s act even makes newspaper headlines: “Girl Makes Moon Disappear.” In this first scene, Jarrar establishes a world (this time Egypt, but later the United States, Gaza, and once in open air among flocks of birds) where everyday life mixes with magic and superstition, just as pain mixes with both whimsy and darker kinds of humor.
In that first story (“The Lunatics’ Eclipse”), Qamar doesn’t reach the moon on her first try. Then, six years later, her parents are both killed in a car crash, indirectly related to a lunar eclipse, on their way to watch her perform ballet in St. Petersburg. When she finds out that they’ve left behind orders for her to marry a family friend, a man who makes her feel “like a Mouled doll [made of sugar], as if there were millions of ants chewing her body from the inside out,” she becomes an acrobat, making progressively risky gambles with death: walking the high wire en pointe, without a safety net, doing flips, and adding animals to her act. But even in the midst of desperation, she is lively, funny, and reads just as her admirer sees her: “to him, she resembled the sun of an entire cosmos.”
Jarrar’s collection is full of characters like this, whose pain exists side-by-side with their vibrant, witty, no-bullshit personalities. In “The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie,” the titular character is a divorce lawyer, human from the waist up and Transjordanian ibex from the waist down. Ashamed of the family’s ungulate heritage, her father tries to convince her to have surgery. While Zelwa resents getting messages on dating sites from men seeking BHLs, or Beautiful Half Ladies, she accepts her body and struggles to understand her father’s point of view. “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” introduces us to Aida, who at 18 is carrying the baby of an alcoholic 10 years her senior, and who describes what happened on a “lovely stroll” to work like this:
Getting mugged at knifepoint two blocks from our apartment and having to give the kid my backpack, which contains three interlibrary loan books from Sahar Khalifeh, all in Arabic. He must have felt like one lucky motherfucker.
Aida’s father has kicked her out of the house, so she meets up with her sympathetic mother behind his back, as if they were “secret lovers.”
If Aida has lost her place at her family’s home, others in Him, Me, Muhammad Ali have also been displaced, through phenomena as diverse as war, seasonal tourism, kidnapping, and simply growing up. Birds, moths, and airplanes appear over and over throughout the collection, but “Testimony of Malik, Prisoner #287690” literally tells the story of a bird, a kestrel found in Turkey with an Israeli research tag and taken in for questioning. The kestrel, Malik, can’t pinpoint his home to one specific location, but instead tells sweeping stories about his, his father’s, and his grandfather’s travels, from “Aqraba, over Jerusalem, past the Dead Sea and the ruins of Petra, along the Red Sea, and over Umluj and Jeddah.” Later on, Malik gets a human mirror in the unnamed narrator of “A Frame for the Sky,” a Palestinian man locked out of his home country by war at least twice, the last time while on a business trip to Manhattan with his young son. “If we make America our home, does that mean we’re going to lose our home here too?” his son asks. “Will there be a war here, too?”
War looms throughout Him, Me, Muhammad Ali at various distances. In “The Lunatics’ Eclipse,” Qamar considers the role it played in her parents’ death, as indirect but undeniable as the eclipse that distracted their fellow passengers on the van, thereby distracting the driver:
If, many years ago, Dulles hadn’t thought Nasser was bluffing, Egypt would never have found an ally in Russia, and her performance may have been held in Washington, where van drivers rarely hold romantic sentiments about the moon or any other heavenly object.
It comes closest in “The Story of My Building,” a tribute to Isaac Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecote” that follows Muhannad, a young boy who lives in Gaza. His daily life (of studying, playing with cousins, and visiting the pigeons that live on his roof) is punctuated by gunshots and eventually invaded by tanks.
Jarrar’s nod to Babel makes perfect sense. Just as he wrote about Jewish people amid rising antisemitism in his native Russia and beyond, she writes about the Arab diaspora in all its human complexity during a time of increasing Islamophobia, her book coming out less than two weeks after Trump’s campaign compared Syrian refugees to randomly poisoned Skittles. Jarrar’s style — sensitive, peculiar, and closely observed — also has roots in Russian literature, but its rhythm sounds modern and entirely her own. Her best descriptions are about relationships and the details we observe in the people we kind of hate but mostly love, like this one, which the narrator of “Accidental Transients,” Dina, gives about her family:
We are the kind of Muslims who pray for tax breaks (Baba), Nintendo DS games (Jaseem), anatomy coloring books (Waseem), pussy (Abe), and a guilt-free conscience to move the fuck out of the house (Yours Truly). The one thing keeping us from being outright atheists is that none of us had ever eaten pork. We were bound to God through the absence of pig grease.
In “Building Girls,” Jarrar captures the complicated dynamic between Aisha and Perihan, childhood friends now separated by geography, race, and class (and their daughters separated by all that, plus language). Wealthy Perihan only visits Egypt during the summer, whereas Aisha lives there full-time and even then rarely ventures beyond the paths of her daily routine. On a trip to the beach, she compares Perihan to a soaring kite and herself to a novelty pet crab on a leash, an image that manages to be all at once weird, hilarious, melodramatic, gorgeous, and sincerely resonant. Like the rest of the book it comes from, I can’t get it out of my head.