Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, and Muhammad Ali is brimming with nostalgia. Not the inert kind, that encloses and preserves memory in amber-colored warmth, but the disruptive kind, that threads everything with an aspiration for the distant and interrogates memory persistently. The thirteen short stories in this collection are threaded with a potent, cutting nostalgia: nostalgia for the wholes that now lie fragmented, for other spaces and times, for faltering imaginings, for possible worlds that never existed. This nostalgia is promiscuous, recruiting history only to watch it dissolve in an array of contingencies and tensions.
This collection of stories palpitates and trembles around these tensions. Pleasure and grief weave together to create an intricate sensory synthesis. Faith and doubt play together dialectically, peeking out, whispering to one another, and being tucked away when they cause too much mischief. This balancing of tensions does not result in a permanent anxiety. Rather, Jarrar masterfully draws upon them and inflects her writing with humor, surprise, and elegant subversions.
These tensions persist, exploding the life-worlds Jarrar brings forth and yet binding them together. And it is in this and through this that Jarrar’s meditation on Arab identity arises. She shatters Arab and Arab-identity identity and lets the fragments speak and refract kaleidoscopic life-worlds that Jarrar makes palpable. Her characters are too abundant to be collapsed into single subjectivities, and so they overflow, replete with tentative imaginings of belonging, dreams of flight, grand visions to capture the moon, small hopes to survive another day, and triumphant subversions of inherited trajectories.
Though Jarrar’s use of magical realism is striking, her imagination lives most visibly and profoundly in the writing of the ordinary lives of Arabs and Arab Americans, which through her beautiful, poignant, and witty writing are wrought as a very different kind of magic. There is magic in unexpected and partial love affairs, in strategic mistranslations and omissions, the switching (and inventing) of fortunes, and the persistence of the pursuit of pleasure. And pleasure is the most magical aspect of these stories. Across nation, class, gender, and age, one can trace a commitment to—indeed, an ardent belief in—pleasure, which often sits alongside and converses with many “familiar oppressions” in order to give birth to this set of marvellous stories.