PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

On Marguerite Dabaie's Graphic Memoir of Growing Up Palestinian in the US

In The Hookah Girl, Dabaie' portrays herself and her family in an evolving array of styles that creates an underlying instability to her micro-narratives.

The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories
Marguirite Dabaie

Rosarium Publishing

May 2018

Other


No, The Hookah Girl is not a graphic novel about smoking hash in hookah bars and hooking up with "exotic" belly dancers. It's an intentionally scattered memoir in comic strip form of a childhood and young adulthood navigating the cultural hazards of growing up Palestinian in the US.

Marguerite Dabaie's The Hookah Girl is a physically small book, a 6" x 6" square, and most of its 17 sections fluctuate between three and five pages, with a few one-, two-, and six-page outliers. The first, an introduction rendered appropriately in comics form, explains Dabaie's ten-year struggle to publish her memoir due to its apparently "provocative" and "overly political" content. One publisher turned it down for fear of being "firebombed" because of the first strip, a sequence of paper doll cut-outs to dress the cartoon figure of "Margo" as a hijab-wearing Muslim, a gun-toting Revolutionary, a harem seductress, a bomb-vested Martyr, and, finally, a Hungry Artist—the closest representation of her actual self: "I'm sorry to break it to you, but some Palestinians enjoy drawing and eating as well."

The title strip, "The Hookah Girl", is only seven panels across a two-page spread, describing a childhood memory of an annual Palestinian Day celebration where a woman carted around a rented hookah and smoked it all day. Both the woman (possibly Dabaie's distant and unnamed cousin) and the event (which included carnival games and bouncing in an inflatable castle) seem unremarkable—which is likely the point. The so-called Hookah Girl isn't exotic because she's Palestinian. She stands out despite that. Although the rent-by-the-hour hookah caught Dabaie's childhood attention, it's the woman's "hand cart"—what Dabaie carefully draws as a metallic dolly—that commands her memory now.

Though I appreciate the indirection of titling the book after the so-called Hookah Girl, "The True Arab Experience" and its subtitle "This handy guide will help you with the Arab-American lifestyle!" are a clearer indication of the collection's goal and tone. Dabaie lovingly documents aspects of her family that feel peculiar to her while growing up in a larger US culture: speaking in an unnecessarily loud voice, mispronouncing letters, overstocking nuts and seeds, pointing with your head and eyebrows, eating grape leaves—a favorite food to be hidden from your non-Palestinian school friends.

The next strip begins as a how-to guide for rolling those grape leaves, before revealing wider details—the aluminum on the TV antennae, the inexplicable garbage bags filled with the leaves—and then the even wider details of how the family drives at night to distant Napa valley grape orchards to snip off the leaves before chased by police. A traditional memoir would linger on the incident longer, answering many of the implied questions: How often did this happen? Was it unique to her family? Did it seem peculiar to her at the time or only afterwards? Dabaie instead jolts us to the next fragment.

Source: Amazon.com's buyer's page

Her accounts also aren't always loving—as when she thanks her father for doubting her artistic skills ("This is all a waste. She's only a girl.") and so spurring her further away from the traditional feminine roles her family expected of her. She also longed to learn music, even trying to play her father's oud and darbuka when he wasn't home because he refused to teach her. He didn't let her practice school instruments at home either because "girls just didn't do those things."

Dabiaie critiques mainstream US culture too—noting without naming her that Gal Godot, an Israeli actress who served in the military and supported the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip that left 2,000 Palestinians dead, plays a feminist goddess fighting to end war. Yes, Dabaie is dissing Wonder Woman—as well as a half dozen other beloved US films that portray Arabs as nonsensical cartoon villains. Yet she's also enamored by Leila Khaled, an airplane-hijacking terrorist and/or freedom fighter—though Dabaie's interest swirls around the woman's contradictions as both a gender-breaking and gender-conforming celebrity.

Whether you agree with Dabaie or not, her point of view is uncommon and so well-worth hearing. She names Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali as an influence, an exile who "antagonized everyone". Though Dabaie's comics are far gentler, she seems like an exile too, never quite at peace anywhere. Outside of her family home, she's subjected to racist jokes, while inside it she is unable to master basic cultural skills—like extracting the meat from a sunflower seed with her tongue. She renders neither incident as especially harrowing—the joke-teller slumps off in embarrassment when told by someone else that Dabaie is "half-Palestinian"—but it introduces Dabaie as a "nus-nus", or what she terms a "stealth Arab", someone who passes as white but grew up Arabic. Much of her collection involves her trying to explain her culture to non-Palestinians readers, taking pride in textile art or mapping her Italian grandmother's migration route into multicultural Palestine.

Source: Amazon.com buyer's page

Much of her childhood involved similar attempts—though after her one-legged uncle began screaming inexplicably at her friends, she no longer hosted birthday parties at home. She ends the collection in her childhood too, with the statement: "I didn't know what to believe," a revealing refrain that encapsulates her split-culture and leaves her permanently mired in her past.

Dabaie is also a talented artist, who portrays herself and her family in an evolving array of styles that creates an underlying instability to her micro-narratives. While most of her renderings are simplified in a cartoon-sense, they vary between exaggerated caricatures and stripped-down naturalism, an appropriate stylistic span for a fragmented memoir about her own shifting identity. Even her page's frames and gutters are unstable, sometimes decorative, sometimes solid black, sometimes open—further reflecting the memoir's lack of a baseline reality.

Dabaie's is a world in constant flux, unwilling to maintain a single style or even narrative thread for more than a half dozen pages. Her life must be gleaned in fragments instead and pieced together accumulatively. While gently provocative, The Hookah Girl is primarily entertaining, a brief but engaging glimpse inside one artist's dizzying life experiences.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.