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Grease-Monkeys and Bedouin Girls: The Rhetorical Fate of Arabs and Muslims in Nadine Gordimer’s ‘The Pickup’

Novels tell Stories, allowing readers to fantasize about reality but with no obligation to represent that reality as anything other than fantasy.  Good novels, at least the kind that garner a Nobel prize for their author, capture the imagination through creative engagement and style.  The South African author Nadine Gordimer has been writing about the shame of apartheid in her native land for more than half a century.  Her focus on the moral and psychological tensions of racial inequality provides a welcome political stamp to her fiction.  Yet, sometimes in telling one kind of story, especially teasing out the relationships of lovers across cultural boundaries, another story can be read between the lines.  The Pickup, Gordimer’s acclaimed novel which pairs a privileged South African white girl named Julie with an Arab Muslim and illegal alien named Abdu, traces an unlikely love story but leaves the identity of Abdu literarily in the dust, the dust of a stereotyped Orientalist denigration of his homeland and his religion.  One need not follow Edward Said’s controversial contrapuntal reading to find in this novel a generic image of Arab and Muslim that serves the plot only in its unrelenting negative portrayal.  The Pickup, whatever its merits as a close study of personal dislocation, succeeds by picking on distorted images of Arab and Muslim.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer
The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer

The Plot

“Another adventure.” (The Pickup, 153)

The Pickup is aptly named, starting with the stalled car that brings Julie into contact with a “grease-monkey” who she seduces, turning the tables on the male gaze, the “sexual stimulant for yahoos” (p. 6).  There is no doubt about their evolving relationship in Abdu’s mind:  Julie is “the girl who picked him up” (p. 150).  Gordimer reverses the usual seduction scenario.  Julie gives out her phone number,  after frolicking in the rain it is the man who takes a hot bath, she is the erotic agent who moves “her palms up his arms” (p. 27), and she is well prepared for sex since she “took her contraceptive pill daily with her vitamins” (p. 27).  No drawn out flirtation was needed, no foreplay, and time after time “they made love beautifully.”  It was, after all, what “her friends around The Table call a fuck” and for Abdu there would be no “residue feelings of tenderness.”(p. 28).  Throughout the whole of the novel sex is the glue that holds the unlikely pair together.  Gordimer’s words make that clear:  “They make love, that unspoken language they can share; that country to which they can resort” (p. 130).   For those who missed the metaphor the first time, even in his own homeland Abdu returns again to the love-making:  “In her body he was himself, he belonged to nobody, she was the country to which he had emigrated” (p. 192).  Ironically, at the end of the novel Abdu is still an illegal alien, no longer at home within her body as he leaves for work in America and she stays, presumably abstaining, with his family.

Is their relationship just about sex, a meal ticket for an alien, an exotic break for a bourgeois white girl?  Perhaps the cynical Arab university graduate, keen on escaping his family warren in a North African enclave, was right:  “A Muslim doesn’t fall in love with a woman, but only with Allah” (p. 177).  And if not Allah, then the money to be earned abroad.  Julie chose to follow Abdu to a land she knew nothing about and she adapted well, too well for Abdu’s liking.  But did they really know each other as more than lovers in a lean-to and sharing a bank account?  Listen to Abdu as the saliva fills his mouth and the spit flies from his lips, Abdu livid at Julie’s refusal to go to America with him.  What did he assume?  “So you’re going back.  There.  Where you come from.  I thought it all the time.”  (p. 252).  He expected her to tire of her exotic adventure, but was shocked that she would prefer to stay in the dusty village he could not wait to escape.  Julie’s self renewal here on the edge of the desert is proof that “‘love’ is a luxury not for him” (p. 261).  As far as he is concerned, she was lying to him all the time she was lying with him: “Here in this bed with me kissing and lying.  Fucking and lying” (p. 261).  Gordimer will allow no romantic, story-book ending to their relationship.  Julie may think she can live out her fantasy in newly found sisterhood; Abdu must go clean toilets in Detroit.

Desert Desires

“Where the street ended, there was the desert.”  (The Pickup, 131)

The back cover of the Penguin edition of The Pickup provide epigramic praise from Edward Said, a friend of Gordimer and stauch supporter of her anti-apartheid sympathies, who suggests that the novel “opens up the Arab world to unusually nuanced perception.”   I have not seen the full set of comments by Said, but there is no little irony in Said’s choice here of a generic “Arab world,” as though such an overarching category could ever have a nuanced perception.  I doubt Said would find any fictional nuance in the notion of an “Orient”?  While Gordimer is clearly at home in her narrative portrayal of South Africa, her spinning of Abdu’s homeland is anything but nuanced.  It is mediocre, not showing a sophisticated knowledge of any Arab society.  The very fact that Abdu comes from an unnamed “Arab” country makes the male character a stand-in for the generic Arab male by default.  While Julie is clearly South African, with her class affiliation elaborated in full, Abdu could in theory be from any Arab homeland and not comfortably nor accurately in any specific one.  If the novelist did indicate a specific country, then at least the reader could think the description was linked to a specific nation and not a metaphor for the whole.

Gordimer teases the reader who knows the region with hints.  The main clue links Abdu to North Africa, perhaps even Morocco, since reference is made to a forgotten shrine of one “Sidi Yousef,” a rather generic reference rather than a specific locale.  The women in Abdu’s family cook couscous (p. 120). However, the dietary nuance becomes null when we learn that these same women wear a “chador” (p. 178).  A burqa, niqab or hijab perhaps, but no Arab woman wears a chador, the Persian term used in Iran and Afghanistan and borrowed into Urdu for Pakistan.  It is not as though Gordimer fails to entice the reader with a smattering of Arabic phrase, managing to insert “Aoodhu billah,” “Astaghfar allah” and “in sha alla” into one five-line paragraph (p. 158) but not translating the meaning for the average reader.  Such a trope validates the authority of the narrator as one who knows the situation from the inside, even if the reader has no clear idea what these common Arabic expressions mean.  Later, in a sarcastic tone, Gordimer allows Julie to fantasize about her lover’s “blessed future,” adding “Al-Hamdu illah.  Praise be to God” (p. 185) to conclude a chapter.  Abdu’s indifference to a “president in a keffiyeh or got up in a military kit with braid and medals” (p. 179) would implicate Qaddafi’s Libya.  In Abdu’s view, his homeland is “a run-down depraved strip of a country Europeans didn’t even want to hold on to any longer, were glad to get rid of, even the oil is over the border” (p. 95).  So much for Libya.  It is hard to imagine any contemporary Arab state this could possibly fit.   Either the clues are purposefully meant to confuse the reader or Gordimer’s concern with reality falls under the spell of The Arabian Nights.  The exact location is not important for Gordimer, the crucial point being that Abdu’s homeland is a dirty backwater meant to cause disgust in the reader.  Otherwise why would Abdu do everything in his power to leave and Julie unpredictably find her own revelation of a paradise in a desert hell hole?

Over half of the novel takes place in “another country,” (p. 108) which is both Arab and Muslim.  The illegal alien Abdu in South Africa finally reverts to his real name, Ibrahim ibn Musa.  Unfortunately the “grease-monkey under a car” (p. 129) is never allowed to get out from under that image as he remains an alien even in his homeland.  The description of the homeland is unrelentingly negative (pp. 109ff).  What does it mean to be home?  There is gagging heat as they cross the tarmac and enter “an echoing babble in which movement and sound are united confusion,” an airport “in a country like this” that is “a surging, shifting human mass.”  What is to be seen in this nameless crowd:  “[t]he old women squatting, wide-kneed, skirts occupied by the to-and-fro of children, the black-veiled women gazing, jostling, the mouths masticating food, the big bellies of men pregnant with age under white tunics, the tangling patterns of human speech,” all “in a common existence-that-does-not-exist”?  Does not exist for whom?  Surely it does for the people who live there and are the objects of an Orientalist voyeurism.  The drive from the airpot was over a “pot-holed tarred road,” (p. 110) and only allowed Julie to see donkeys,  “the decaying few industrial buildings, and men drinking coffee under Coca-Cola signs.”  Julie, of couse, could not go to the lavatory in the bus station, because it’s ”a dirty place,” so Abdu who has become Ibrahim drags her to an unnamed man described as “the white shape of a tunic,” who allows her to use his “personal outhouse,” described as “a shed with a door hanging from one hinge” (p. 112).  A starker contrast to the privileged bourgeois upbringing of Julie, who carries her credit cards along with her birth-control pills, would be hard to imagine.  Clearly this is Gordimer’s point.

From the start of their bus trip to his village, Julie could not stop looking at the “desert landscape” (p. 114).  Ibrahim’s village was “just on the doorstep” (p. 168) from the desert, a “village in the desert that knows no time” (p. 236); after all, “[w]here the street ended, there was the desert’ (p. 131).  Here was her ”entry into the state lived by the family, the street that ends in desert” (p. 142).  Gordimer uses the desert metaphor as the symbolic object of Julie’s quest.  “The desert is always; it doesn’t die it doesn’t change, it exists” (p. 229).  For Julie the desert is “eternity” (p. 172) an “endless turn of night and day” out of time.  From the very start, bored by sitting in Ibrahim’s family’s house, Julie “wants some little expedition into the desert” (p. 132).  Peace comes to the stranger by going into the desert alone (p. 198) without fear of getting lost.  What did she find there:  “the remains of something that had been built and fallen down,” a “broken remnant of wall” (p. 167) from which an “object,” looking like “black marks, spots” appeared, eventually being made out as “a woman enveloped in black herding a small straggle of goats” (p. 167).  As Ibrahim’s sister Maryam explains in satisfying the “casual curiosity from a foreigner,” “she must be Bedouin, they have their tents and their goats somewhere out there” (p. 171).  Who was this girl, that Julie only encounters “without word or gesture” (p. 199), never actually taking the time to engage her as a real person.  “The goats with the Bedouin woman appeared before her in the desert as if conjured up” (p. 199).  Conjured up by Gordiner is the ultimate Orientalist trope, reducing real people to the most common stereotype and placing such contrived objects in a setting void of anything civilized, precisely parodying the “English charades in the desert, imperialism in fancy dress” heralded in the book Julie had been reading about Lawrence of Arabia.

Julie’s fascination with the desert, her locus of healing precisely because it lies outside the village where Ibrahim’s family lives, is not a passion shared by Ibrahim.  What she finds most valuable is “the denial of everything he yearns for” (p. 262).  There is nothing in the material make-up of the village, the name of which we will never know, that pleases Julie.  This village is where the world dumps “hideous things”:  “Third-hand clothes were piled for a fourth-hand wearing, sunglasses and cellphones were offered by touts, there were stacked plastic plates, cups, bowls, and enamelled jugs, cooking pots, kettles decorated with flower patterns of organic ostentation that seemed tactless in a desert village” (p. 126).  Tactless?  Should the village remain in the traditional past, woven baskets and fired pottery preserved for the foreign tourist to admire?  So why did men wearing “the traditional long white tunics” give them, for Julie, an “undefined stature” (p. 118)?  Is it up to her to define them?  And the house she would move into?  It had  a “flat concrete roof with some clutter of living visible up there” (p. 119).  Clutter to Julie’s eyes and probably to the reader’s eyes, but nowhere are we given a view of how the villagers themselves view their home. apart from the negative comments of Ibrahim and his friends.  Julie was in for a rude surprise, one that resonates loudly with the average Western reader:  “There was no bathroom.… This place is buried in desert” (p. 122).  So this is where Arabs come from: a backward hell hole in the desert where you cannot even pee inside the ramshackle “lean-to” excuse for a house.  No wonder, many a reader might think, Ibrahim wants to escape.  How more remarkable, for the plot twist, that Julie would find peace among such physical clutter and mindless verbal chatter.

Islam and Modernity

“Muslims – we didn’t know any …” (The Pickup, 160)

Abdu or Ibrahim, either one, happens to be a Muslim.  Islam figures prominently in the plot line, even if the story could have been told about an entirely different religion.   Julie toys with her husband’s faith but never actually converts (p. 174), nor does she desire an Islamic wedding celebration.  The reader is introduced to the Islamic context of the village with the image of a local alarm clock, a “rising wail” that might as well be “some animal out in the desert” sounding a cry, a jackel perhaps (p. 124).  “It’s the call to prayer” (p. 124), not from a real muezzin but stemming from a loud speaker.  Ibrahim pulls the pillow over his ears to drown out the call, even though he obligingly attends the Friday prayer.  The Islam he grew up is meaningless to him, but a curiosity to the imported wife who has the option of likewise not taking the religion seriously.  Walking through the village they encounter a “man with the appearance the blind have of talking aloud to themselves,” who “was intoning what must be religious texts” (p. 126).  The intoning, hardly a recognition that these texts might actually have meaning to those reciting them, would have been in Arabic, which Julie reduces to “the hoarse flow and guttural hum” of a language she could not understand verbally (p. 118).  Religion was visible everywhere; “illuminated Arabic texts” were on car dashboards along with “washroom scented spray” (p. 127).  Julie’s curiosity is thoroughly Orientalist in the old sense, as she asks her mother in California to send her by courier an English translation of the Quran.  This is the same mother, living in distant California, whose help eventually provides letters of reference for Ibrahim’s work permit to the United States.  Julie wanted to know what was in several verses her mother-in-law knew by heart.  But in the end, after quoting several verses she read “at random”, all this is just “Boarding-school scripture stuff” (p. 145).  After all, “[e]veryone knows, in texts like these, what is meant” (p. 146).  Texts like these?  Can the same be said about a novel like The Pickup?

As the process of obtaining a work visa, slowed down by the constant demand of government officials for bribes, took longer than expected, “Ramadan was approaching” (p. 152).  The reader learns little about this ritual, being alerted from the start that Julie did not need to observe the fasting rules, although Ibrahim would for the sake of his mother.  “Why should she be the exception?” thought Julie, when Ibrahim insisted that she would get ill; her reason for nominally observing was so she could lose “some padding” (p. 153).  A joke, for sure, but her interest in Ramadan never evolves beyond the superficial.  So what was the real meaning of Ramadan to Julie:  “Another adventure” (p. 153), at which point Julie returns to her “love-making only half-unclothed.”  The reader can be forgiven for not understanding how Muslims deal with fasting, which only takes place during the main daylight hours and which for most Muslims does not cause sickness.  Indeed Julie’s outsider notion of  “the vacuum sucking at the stomach” shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature of fasting.  Since Julie “could not goad herself sufficiently awake to ingest” the pre-dawn meal, it is her failure to adapt to the routine that causes her hunger.

Julie’s adventurous experiment with fasting is not Gordimer’s main interest; it sets up one of the most important scenes in the text, breaking a major taboo.  Here is how Gordimer as narrator alerts the reader to the impending breach:  “Between them was the knowledge of the taboo, to be observed absolutely, that a husband and wife must not retire together in their bedroom during the daylight hours of Ramadan, when any intimacy between men and women is forbidden” (p. 154).  One day Ibrahim returned early and talked with his mother, who assumed Julie was with the other women and urged her son to get some rest.  To his surprise, Julie was already there in their “lean-to.”  Rotely, Ibrahim takes off his prayer cap and lays down next to Julie, “their bodies not touching.”  Here Gordimer sets up the reader for the coming breach.   Having noted a few paragraphs earlier in her narrator voice that the taboo on sex was shared between them, she now has Ibrahim wonder “Perhaps she knew of the taboo.”  The reader is allowed to know more than the character, alerting us to Julie’s complicity, not unlike Mother Eve in the garden, in the act.  At this point Gordimer provides the only sustained description of their sex act.  Julie’s desire can not be controlled, even to the extent of “thickening those other lips of hers” (p. 155).  Full of shame, we are told, Julie reaches out her hand in an act of “companionship” but “it encountered bewilderingly his penis raised under his clothes.”  Drawing back initially, they soon turned to each other at the same time, “divesting” each other of their clothes and making love on the floor so no one would hear the creak of the old iron bed.  Like criminals washing away the blood on their hands, they both “washed each other off themselves,” perhaps, Gordimer suggests, for “her infidel’s guilty illusion of cleansing absolution.”  Not only is the Islamic ritual consciously abused, but the sentiment of Julie is one of Christian guilt, even though she is portrayed as secular and as uninterested in her own mother religion as Ibrahim is in his.

Had this breaking of a taboo only happened between the two lovers, it would have little force in the novel.  But now we learn that the mother realizes Julie was in the room alone with her son.  “Fear and anger hastened breathing to gasps” (p. 156).  Was the mother having a heart attack?  No, she implied she simply needed to wait and drink after sunset, not only water, “but of the shame and sin” of what the son had done.  She could not tell anyone, for then her son would leave and she would lose him forever.  Julie felt shame, but Ibrahim acted as if nothing at all had happened; neither seemed to recognize the extraordinary pain their act had caused the mother.  For the rest of the household Julie “had gained acceptance” by not eating or drinking during the thirty days of Ramadan, even if she did not pray.  Of course, they did not know what had really happened.  Ibrahim’s mother remained silent, protecting her son because “this foreign women” gave her son something he needed.  So now we know what it is an Arab man really needs:  a “country” to stick his penis in.  And hopefully he would eventually give her something she needed, a future child, but only if Julie “will first marry here, our way” (p. 166).

The Islam described by Gordimer in Ibrahim’s village is one that most readers would find little value in and most Muslims would not recognize as common.  There is no probing here of the daily engagement of Muslims in various cultures adapting the range of religious beliefs and rules, often contested, to their personal lives.  The women here are forced to wear black covers, even in the heat, and are restricted in their movements.  Their only role is clearly in the house, making dinner and cleaning and waiting for their husbands to come home, even those husbands probably out “fucking” abroad in the oil fields (p. 163).  Here is a bizarre place where “it was not allowed for a male to see his female cousins” (p. 128), a most draconian scenario that would be hard to reproduce in any Arab village today.  Pity the poor women, like Maryam who “has a brain” (p. 136) but is scheduled to marry a policeman and be a blanketed wife.  Those women with wealth flaunt it, like Ibrahim’s aunt, “bound about with gold jewellery on wrists and ox-blood-fingernailed hands” (p. 128).  “Women here – his home–” Julie realizes “do what their men tell them to” (p. 227).  Whether this is because they are Muslim or culturally some broad category of “Arab” does not matter.  After all, in Ibrahim’s homeland the two cannot be separated.  Neither, I suggest, are they likely to be in the mind of the reader.

Is there anything redeemable in Islam, as portrayed in the novel?  Ibrahim meets with his educated friends, not unlike Julie’s group of Bohemian comrades at The Table back in South Africa.  One who was branded a political trouble-maker can not get a passport and has no hope of advancing in the civil service; three of his friends have been deported like him from illegal work abroad.  These are young men who “want change, not the rewards of Heaven” (p. 176).  In this way they fit the Western qualification of a “good Muslim,” more interested in what they find on the Internet than what they hear from a minaret.  “… [B]ring the modern world to Islam,” suggests one of the friends, none of whom are mentioned by name, but not by being overtaken by modernity.  Another speaks about “a moral religious revolution” which begins with taking over the corrupt government.  It will not do to accept what their grandfathers did, “the traditional interpreters of Islam … for them Islam hasn’t anything to do with the future, everything is complete, forever…” (p. 177).  A revolution, indeed, for “as young men do when they drink together, they also spoke of women” even if not in the open way the men in the garage back in South Africa did.  So it’s okay to enjoy watching American sex on TV, which suggests there must be cable with forbidden channels even here in a village with sporadic electricity.  And who can accept stoning a woman for adultery “in this age”?  “Muslims still believe prejudices of religious authority that are the complete opposite of the correct perspective – conventional religious authority can’t exist with economic market forced today!” says a university graduate (p. 178).   These are the loose thoughts of a group of young friends of Ibrahim, and they resonate well with the Western reader.  Nowhere in the conversation, indeed nowhere in Gordimer’s text, is there a hint of ways in which Muslims creatively combine their faith with modernity.  Certainly there are men who think this way, as there are Muslims who reject their ritual observance, but the text only provides one view of Islam, the stereotypical rendering of a faith of over a billion people as woefully out of touch with the present and captive to reactionary regimes and ignorance.  After all this is a country “where you can’t tell religion apart from politics” (p. 12).

Orientalism by Default

“There is a terrible strength that comes to a dread decision aghastly opposed by other people:  their words, supplication, silent condemnation, are hammer blows driving that decision deeper and deeper into its certainty” (The Pickup, 262)

Given Gordimer’s legacy of writing against apartheid, how is it possible that this novel could idealize Arab Muslims in as prejudiced a way as whites systematically denigrated blacks in South Africa?  Could there be a nuance, as Said suggests, that underlies the words provided and scenes created?  If, as Michiko Katutani writes in a review in The New York Times (quoted in the frontispiece), Gordimer has an “ability to delineate the psychological consequences of exile, class disaffection and racial prejudice” in this novel, why has there been relatively little critique of her portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as foils for her story of two transplanted misfits?  Sympathetic readers of Gordimer are reluctant to see The Pickup as an Orientalist novel, but its pervasively stereotypical rendering of Arab and Muslim as generic categories makes a strong case for such a conclusion.  I suggest that one of the main reasons that the novel is not seen as Orientalist parallels the reluctance of many scholars to criticize Edward Said for his homogenizing of “Orientalist discourse” even as he attempted to deconstruct the false notion of an “Orient.”  One simply does not expect Gordimer to be insensitive, just as most readers agreed with Said’s thrust in writing against Western bias in covering Islam and Arabs.  Instead of reading the novel as though it were written by an anonymous writer, evaluating the text on its own and not in relation to an entire corpus, Gordimer is given the benefit of the doubt.

Two factors disguise the impact of the novel’s depiction of Arab and Muslim in negative terms.  Near the start of the novel there are glimpses of an attack on the common stereotypes.  Lamenting the fact that Abdu had no photographs of his native land, Julie initially views him as “a cut-out from a background that she surely imagines only wrongly” (p. 25).  The wrong image:  “Palm trees, camels, alleys hung with carpets and brass vessels.  Dhows, those sea-bird ships manned by men to whom she can’t fit his face.”  This Arabian Nights image, which is indeed a wrong one, is not what Julie finds in the village on the edge of the desert.  Well, she does find camels and palms on a trip deeper into the desert (p. 208).  But this is not the fantasy world of Aladdin.  However, the generic description of a backward, dirty place with rickety buildings, electric blackouts and abject poverty is no less damaging a stereotype.  Ibrahim cannot escape being seen as an “oriental prince” in Julie’s vision, even if he wears “Gucci shoes, Armani pants and Ralph Lauren shirt” (p. 245).  The substitution of Orientalist images is complete in Julie’s experience:  “Outside the haphazard stretch of sheds and buildings either half-completed or half-fallen-down, difficult to say which,” she observes in Ibrahim’s village, “she sees for the first time in her life two old men actually sharing a water-pipe, the hookah of illustrations to childhood’s Scheherazade stories.  So much life!” (p. 128)  But the life is only in her romanticized image.  The clutter that is a village on the edge of the empty desert has no room for life in its own terms.

A second factor mitigating the negative portrayal is the narrative flux in Gordimer’s style.    At times it is not clear whose thoughts are being provided, as the voice of the narrator weaves in and out with few clear signals.  Julie herself, unlike Abdu whose resolve remains unchanged throughout the text, has no single voice.  She changes from a spoiled seductress with little regard for her family to an inquisitive foreigner who finds sisterhood and acceptance in a most unthinkable place.  So if Julie’s thoughts come across as Orientalist, as an outside coloring of the local reality, is it that this is only to be expected as part of her transition and not to be believed?  Such an interpretation, I argue, misses the point.  There is no voice in the entire narrative that presents a positive point of view, no attempt to provide an indigenous perspective that would counter the constant flow of stereotypes.  Even the women who Julie comes to admire and accept as friends are mired in their subordinate roles.  Neither they nor their male counterparts have any future visible in the novel without Julie’s outsider help.  Julie finds a part of herself she never knew, but the same cannot be said for Abdu.  In the end, as far as the plot goes, a privileged white girl finds peace as a foreigner who does not have to adapt fully to the local context but can live out her fantasy, while the Arab Muslim male seemingly has no choice but to leave his homeland, even when he has the chance to make a good living.  Once a grease-monkey always a grease-monkey, while Julie emerges from her psychologically damaged cocoon as a born-again, do-good butterfly.  She teaches English to the local children, since obviously there is no future in their own language.  She dreams of a project to bring water to make the desert bloom, with rice (no one grows rice in a desert) in a water deprived environment, the ultimate civilizing trope, as though no one in the country would have thought of such a plan.   On the broadest level there is no redeeming value in the local society apart from the personal relationships for the foreigner, who brings civilization to a world deprived, and in this case, depraved.

I am not arguing that Gordimer’s novel should be banned, but I do caution readers to think through the ways in which a novel widely acknowledged as brilliant and innovative may also serve to validate widespread stereotypes.  Were the illegal alien’s homeland set in Iceland, for example, the novel could be enjoyed without fear that many Icelanders would feel offended.  But in Western society, especially given the two ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the broadening war on Islamic terror, the concern over Hamas in Gaza, and the growing ethnocentric reaction to Islamic dress in Europe, the mere fact that a main character is Arab and Muslim cannot be treated as neutral, as if these broad cultural designations did not matter.   I do not blame the novelist, but I fear that most readers will internalize and thus be prone not to examine the prevalent negative images encountered daily in the media.  The Pickup, whatever its merits as a work of fiction, is Orientalist by default in the worst sense of the term.  I say this because it is so easily dismissed as artistic license, not considering the latent impact of blatant stereotyping on most readers.  The hammer blows in this novel are there to be felt, even if so few readers what to hear them.

About the Author

Daniel Martin Varisco is chair of anthropology and director of Middle Eastern and Central Asia studies at Hofstra University. He is fluent in Arabic and has lived in the Middle East (Yemen, Egypt, Qatar) for over 5 years since 1978.

He has done fieldwork in Yemen, Egypt, Qatar, U.A.E. and Guatemala. Dr. Varisco has conducted formal interviews with Newsday, TeleCare TV “Our Muslim Neighbors,” Sharjah TV (UAE), Qatar TV and radio, “News 12” Long Island, NPR and Yemen Radio.

Author of three books, one anthology, more than 30 professional articles, and over 100 book reviews, op-ed and commentaries; editor of Yemen Update (1990-2001), Webshaykh of Yemen Webdate (1998-present), and editor/webmaster of CyberOrient.

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