The Night Counter

In a contemporary twist on “1,001 Nights,” a Lebanese grandmother spends her nights telling tales about her Arab-American family.

The Night Counter By Alia Yunis Shaye Areheart Books 384 pp., $24

Scheherazade was the lovely Persian queen who kept herself alive for 1,001 nights by telling stories so enthralling that her murderous monarch couldn’t bear to behead her. So he married her instead. Fatima Abdullah, however, has neither Scheherazade’s narrative flair nor her seductive looks.

Fatima is an elderly Lebanese woman living in Los Angeles with her favorite grandson, Amir. She moved to Detroit from Lebanon seven decades ago and has since had two husbands, 10 children, and 14 grandchildren. At this point, she’s ready to say goodbye to all of it.

Or almost ready, that is. First, she must find a wife for wannabe actor Amir (blithely overlooking his constant insistence that he’s gay) and then arrange for him to inherit her beloved mother’s house in Lebanon. In the meantime, as the successful conclusion of that task drags on, Fatima is content to stay alive for another 1,001 days, spending each night telling her stories to Scheherazade. (Scheherazade apparently, has become immortal, and now travels the globe – beautiful as ever – hearing stories from others.)

Such is the premise of The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s debut novel, the sweet, funny, meandering story of Fatima, her family, and the uneven process of their assimilation into life in America.
Not all of Fatima’s children, who now live scattered across the US, are entirely likable. In fact, most have disappointed her in one way or another. Her only living son, Bassam, (two other boys died young) has spent much of his adult life on an alcoholic bender in Las Vegas, although the events of 9/11 have now shocked him into a promising sobriety.

Several of her daughters have succeeded in pursuing what many would consider to be the American dream – but it’s not necessarily the course their mother would have chosen for them.

Randa is so fully integrated a Texan that she now calls herself Randy. She’s a Houston matron who cheerfully dotes on her three cheerleader daughters and successful attorney husband Bud (name changed from “Bashar”).  Nadia has become an academic, an expert in classical Arabic, but she hurt her parents by learning the language from “experts” instead of from them, paying for what they would gladly have given her free of charge. And Halal is a gynecologist (or “gymnologist,” as Fatima puts it) who committed her own offense by marrying a Chinese colleague rather than a fellow Arab-American.

The other daughters, as well, have their own degrees of success and/or disappointment, but all keep their mother at somewhat of a polite distance, calling regularly, but mostly to talk about the weather in their various locales.

And yet despite it all, Fatima is a survivor. She has left gentle, longtime husband Ibrahim in Detroit, to spend her final days with Amir pursuing her idée fixe: that Amir must return to Lebanon.
But as she nightly spills her stories of her children and their children to Scheherazade (who sometimes takes it upon herself to zip away on her flying carpet and visit various of them), it becomes clear that there is much to Fatima’s own story that she herself cannot see. “It takes time to love a place, just as it takes time to love a man,” Scheherazade counsels her. And so, by the novel’s end, it becomes clear that Fatima’s true treasure has always been much closer at hand than she imagines.

Fatima makes a grand protagonist – a somewhat befuddled yet strong, independent character who may have rejected much about the US, but sure loves American sports, particularly the Detroit Tigers. (“How could [the Tigers] get swept by the Twins,” she frets, “a team playing under a plastic bag on spongy cement?”) There is also a hilarious scene in which a special FBI agent trained in Arabic (assigned to watch over this “suspicious” Arab-American family with ties to both Lebanon and Detroit) tries to interview Fatima, who mistakes her for Scheherazade, offering her cooking tips and motherly laments which the FBI agent frantically parses for information on terrorist plots.

The Abdullahs are anything but a Norman Rockwell painting, but in their own way, they are a very typical American family. They may have their differences but they also have their stories. And, as Scheherazade points out, in the end, that’s what holds a family (much like a nation) together.

“Stories keep us entertained and enlightened,” she tells Fatima. “And if we don’t know the ending, all the better.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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