Book Club: Tackling stereotypes, Susan Muaddi Darraj’s novel is a soulful work that tackles the multiplicities of Palestinian culture in Baltimore.
Behind You Is the Sea faces stereotypes about Palestinian culture head-on [HarperVia]
Susan Muaddi Darraj’s engaging debut Behind You Is the Sea weaves together intimate stories of Palestinian Americans, mainly women, living in Baltimore.
Written in simple yet rich language, Behind You Is The Sea tells the stories of generations of Palestinian Americans living in Baltimore across time at critical stages of the characters’ development: keeping a baby, dealing with a troubled marriage, facing mental illness, and more. However, each deals with the interplay of Palestinian and American identities, trying to find a way to co-exist between two different cultures.
The first story, A Child of Air, follows a teenager deciding whether to keep her baby or not while grappling with a dying father and a cold mother. In doing so, Susan Muaddi Darraj succeeds in making the reader learn about Palestinian Americans as they would about characters from more familiar backgrounds: people dealing with the hustle of day-to-day existence; with hopes, dreams, wins, and sins.
This humanisation of Palestinians is particularly important given Israel’s current assault. As bombs rain down on Gaza, Gazans have tweeted about their lives and aspirations, as well as their tragedy and grief. Palestinians don’t want to be remembered as just a number, they deserve their humanity too.
The codeswitching of Palestinian Americans
Given that Palestinians both in Palestine and in the diaspora are continually forced to prove their humanity, books like Behind You Is The Sea are so important in showing the mosaic of Palestinian experience.
Another important aspect of Behind You Is the Sea is its portrayal of Palestinian women, staying well clear of the lazy stereotype of the meek and submissive Arab woman. Susan Muaddi Darraj has already written about this topic in her acclaimed 2002 essay, Understanding the Other Sister: The Case of Arab Feminism, where she traced the history of feminism in the Arab world and discussed its state in the aftermath of 9/11.
In it, she writes “I understood – and not for the first time – the astounding disconnection between the lives of Arab women, and the lives of Arab women as represented by the American media and entertainment industries, thus as perceived by Americans themselves.”
Unveiling the Palestinian woman
The women in Behind You Is the Sea are strong, determined, smart, and honest enough to own up to their own flaws. In the story The Hashtag, the character Rania Mahfouz doesn’t hesitate to take her child away from the family home when she suspects her husband of being involved in the murder of his cousin in Palestine. Meanwhile, men are not always shown as an obstruction but rather support women in their lives and decision-making.
Behind You Is the Sea not only hones in on the personal lives of Palestinian Americans but provides a commentary on juggling two different cultural identities, both old and young.
Language and food are used as sticking points for cultural friction, some characters learn Arabic or keep it alive with family names, and some embrace American culture. As a result, double cultural identities come into conflict with one another. In the story Mr. Ammar Gets Drunk at the Wedding, Walid Ammar gets particularly frustrated at his son’s Americanised wedding, imploring him to embrace his roots. “But we have a culture too…Why not you? I want to dance at your wedding,” Ammar laments.
Whilst this is Susan Muaddi Darraj’s first novel but not her first foray into fiction. Among her other works are The Inheritance of Exile and the short stories compilation A Curious Land. Both reflect similar themes to that of Behind You Is the Sea where the exile and identities of Palestinians are everpresent.
All in all, the novel Behind You Is the Sea is sure to capture the readers’ attention on the different multiplicities of Palestinian-American life and grapple with occupied identity in a land that professes freedom.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian journalist, writer, teacher, and literary agent.
Follow her on Twitter: @sallyhad3