UN FORUM: Jessica’s Diamonds

In her debut novel, DIAMONDS TAKE FOREVER, United Nations staffer Jessica Jiji draws on her Arabic heritage to offer tender descriptions that provide a refreshing alternative to the prevailing images in the US media of Arabs involved in war or terrorism.

She notes, for example, that the Arabic language “has nuances and poetry and a mellifluousness that are impossible to interpret into the limited dialects of the West.” The music of Umm Kalthoum and Omar Hakim are invoked with the respect and admiration they deserve. Jessica even manages to make the Egyptian soap opera Ayna Qalbi sound entrancing. In the imaginary world of the novel, there is a market on Ninth Avenue named after the famed General Jabel Tariq, because the heroine’s father, who owns it, so admires the bravery of the conqueror.

Beyond these cultural trimmings, the author uses her modern voice to convey the expansive spirit of the Arab people. Speaking of their generosity, she notes that, “Traditionally, a Bedouin will kill the family’s last camel for someone he’s just met. Nowadays, they just comp the tab.”

The tangled political situation in the Middle East is not the subject here, but reading between the lines one can discern the irony of its dominance in the US media to the near total exclusion of any appreciation of the Arab world’s vast and rich cultural wealth. Jessica describes an old woman from Syria by saying she “looked like she was straight out of old Damascus – no, out of a much smaller village, the kind not recorded on maps until there’s a military strike, at which point it makes headlines.”

DIAMONDS TAKE FOREVER, out this month, serves as an antidote to the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality prevailing in the mainstream media, and we’re happy that Harper Collins is betting Americans won’t need a violent angle to be enthralled by a story featuring Arabic culture. Ma’sha Allah.

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