The superstars of Randa Jarrar’s collection of short stories all feel the desire to be contained, whether they know it or not. On every page there is a longing to feel content living within the physical body, or within a physical home. To feel sated.
One of the ways Jarrar expresses this need for self-containment and pleasurable rootedness is through her constanting descriptions of masturbation. Her characters are constantly doing it, thinking about doing it, wanting to do it, or teaching each other to do it. At first I thought, not gasping in shock but with a raised eyebrow, that perhaps the award-winning novelist was going for a cheap thrill—sex sells, even if it a solo event rather than a Fifty Shades of Grey-style kink-fest. But it’s not that. By allowing her characters to pleasure themselves, she’s allowing them to take control. And as the reader discovers—as Jarrar’s words take us from Cairo to Yonkers, from the West Bank to Wyoming—self-containment and self-knowledge allow her characters to accept the past generations that have shaped the present, and to find peace within the physical body.
Sex is complicated, Jarrar appears to say, because it involves other people. In “A Sailor”, an unhappy wife has a one-night stand with a Turkish sailor to make her disinterested husband jealous and motivate him to work on their marriage. It backfires. He doesn’t care, and after baring herself to two men, she feels worthless. In “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers”, a young pregnant school drop-out repeats “My love, you son of a whore, I hope you die” to herself as she fakes an orgasm with her charmless baby daddy.
There aren’t any sex scenes with Muhammed Ali, even though the title makes it sound like a threesome could be on the cards. Ali packs a punch, in the short story the collection is named after, but doesn’t play as big a role as his fans, perhaps, would like. The Greatest is simply the catalyst for two writers to meet and fall in love while covering his fight in Zaire against George Foreman. Ali provides the circumstances for an award-winning female journalist from Sydney to meet a reporter from the New York Post, who landed the opportunity because he was “the only Black person on staff.” They meet in Kinshasa, the city the narrator of this story is named after, and “fucked in a field, and made me.” Twenty-five years later, and after a nasty divorce when their child was still a baby, the Zaire lovers are both dead and their grieving daughter is desperately searching her recently-departed father’s attic for a photo he’d always talked about, an image she’d never seen: a photo of “him and Muhammad Ali, and me when I was a baby.” Her father’s best friend Astor finally shows it to her, he’d taken the shot.
I was in both my parents’ arms. There was no trace of Ali. I told Astor that, and he laughed. “No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “That is the name your father had for your mother. That is what he always called her with his friends. When your mother was pregnant, she was convinced your father was fucking everyone in Manhattan. She followed him one night to a bar and found him talking to some blonde. And that was enough evidence for her. She slugged him. Punched him right in the nose, and broke it.” Astor could have been lying… but I didn’t care. I’d never seen a picture of all three of us together. I walked across the mildewed carpet and touched their faces. I put my arms up and laid my palms flat against their images.
Kinshasa’s mother was the fighter in this story, tormented and driven to violence by the idea of infidelity, while her father was literally broken—his nose and his marriage—by it. Sex really does complicate things, Jarrar is reminding us. Sex had led to her parents’ divorce, which had led to her constant battle to understand where she came from and who she belonged to. Seeing the mythical photo of her young self with Muhammad Ali allowed her, finally, to feel rooted in her parents’ relationship, to understand her creation story. At this one point in time, captured on film, they held each other, they loved each other, they were together. Now, despite her mother’s body buried deep in her home soil and her father’s ashes scattered over his, she feels—at las—solid in her physical body. She can move on from grief.
There are other fighters in this book, too—handfuls of them. There’s Aisha, who has fled an abusive husband, resettling herself and her young daughter into her childhood home in a poor Egyptian suburb, where her father refuses to speak to her due to the shame she has brought on their house. There’s the young hairdresser who has recently lost her mother, stuck 70 miles from any other Arabs in the middle of Bible-belt America, treated like a slave by her father and four brothers. Then there’s Zelda, the mystical halfie and narrator of Jarrar’s final story, trying to lead a normal life as family attorney despite being half woman and half Transjordanian ibex, a sort of mountain goat. “All I’ve ever wanted is to feel whole,” the story begins, as Zelda despairs at her physical otherness. By now the audience understands that Jarrar intends for all her characters to win important battles, to feel happier in their own skin, by the time we stop reading. We leave them all triumphant, fist pumping, not always victorious but looking forward with confidence, which is how we leave Zelda, in the final lines from the collection, doing yoga with a lover who embraces her strangeness. “There is oneness in duality. Nothing is one and nothing is double. You are both. Then, we do our salutations, our bodies like mirrors facing the whole, brilliant sun.”
Him, Me, Muhammed Ali gets a chokehold on you from the start and doesn’t let you go until you’ve questioned your own life, how you use your body and what you think is your happy place. (If you haven’t found it yet, Jarrar seems to say, try masturbating.)