DIANA ABU-JABER'S vivacious, funny, and moving first novel, "Arabian Jazz," presents the Ramouds, an Arab-American family who have somehow ended up living in a run-down, largely poor white town somewhere north of Syracuse, N.Y. Matussem Ramoud and his two American-born daughters, Jemorah and Melvina, have spent much of their lives in the drab, often snow-bound town of Euclid - a long way from Matussem's boyhood home in Jordan. In some ways, they fit in; in other ways, they don't. As Matussem likes to tel l his television-loving relatives back in the old country, "I don't care how many Bonanza you watch, nothing get your brain ready for real America!"
Matussem has a day job as a maintenance man, but his real passion is jazz. He and his combo play at a local dive, where they are billed as "The Big Band sound of Mat Ramoud and the Ramoudettes," much to the consternation of his level-headed daughters.
The grown-up sisters are still living at home and yet not feeling quite at home, torn between their Arabic heritage and their American environment. Their mother, Matussem's much loved and sorely missed American wife, died 20 years ago, when Jemorah was 9 and Melvina an infant of 2. Melvie, although younger, is less conflicted. She is affectionately and amusingly portrayed as one of those people who seem to know their own minds even as toddlers. Melvie has become what she set out to be - a nurse - and she
is one of the best: an eagle-eyed, sharp-tongued, tough-minded professional who is out to save every life she possibly can.
Jem, seven years older, is much less certain of who she is and what she wants. Dreamier, less cut-and-dried than her formidable younger sister, Jem is a college graduate who has settled for an unrewarding office job. She has some desire to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. She is also secretly attracted to a very "unsuitable" local boy, a poor white high school dropout with wild sweet eyes, who works at a garage.
To the various members of the Ramouds' huge, extended family on both sides of the world - starting with Matussem's sister Fatima, who lives too close by for comfort - the mere existence of two unwed females is a crisis necessitating ever more drastic attempts at matchmaking. In a typical scene, Aunt Fatima drags a "suitable" candidate to meet her eligible nieces:
" `These here nice Mr. Farah Farah come to meet you. Fifty-eight years of age and no wife ever. Pure and clean like a baby.'
`Now wait just one second.' Melvie was rising out of her seat, pointing at the man. `Our father already brought this one home ten years ago!' "
Confrontations between the irresistible Fatima and the immovable Melvie are among the many uproarious scenes that demonstrate this writer's flair for comedy.
But as the novel gathers its momentum, Abu-Jaber deftly reveals the more serious undertones of the Ramouds' family story: The painful problems of prejudice and alienation beneath the comedy of culture clash, the flesh-and-blood people beneath the entertaining caricatures, and the tears that are sometimes concealed in laughter.
By the end of this provocative, diverting, and touching novel, the reader, as well as the Ramoud sisters, appreciates the wisdom of the advice from their Oxford-educated Jordanian cousin Nassir, a man who has thought long and hard about the experience of immigration and the different cultures he has been exposed to: "You're torn in two. You get two looks at a world. You may never have a perfect fit, but you see far more than most ever do. Why not accept it?"