Love Is an Ex-Country: A Memoir
A friend asked this week if there is a word for the experience of being both shocked and not surprised at the same time: a feeling many of us have had at witnessing the insurrection, domestic terrorism, and open display of white supremacy in the nation’s capitol on Wednesday, January 6. Many of us were not surprised—particularly BIPOC people or really, anyone who’s been paying attention. In Jarrar’s new book (a memoir), Trump’s rise to power is an undercurrent as, in over more than 200 pages, across decades, time zones, and borders, Jarrar explores what it is to live as an American who is also Palestinian, a woman, and a woman of a certain size who also self-defines as queer. We can all learn a lot from Jarrar: about racism, privilege, oppression, fat-phobia, sexual violence, and the way this country (and others) treats women. Trump has shown himself to be the monster many of us already knew he was, but he is not the only monster. Jarrar is unsparing in her critique of her ex-husbands, her father, and the systems of power that create and enable violent men.
The book starts out as a road story: in the summer of 2016, intrigued by the story of Egyptian dancer and actress Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip in 1946, Jarrar decides to travel alone across the US by car. But Jarrar rapidly detours to explorations of her past, shifts to other countries, other decades. I was frustrated at first, wanting the distraction of an armchair trip across the US as seen through different eyes. (I self-critique here, suggesting I’m being a lazy reader looking for insight and entertainment while a woman of color does the work for me.) In the first chapter, Jarrar states that she wants “to commune with the land I lived on” and “to look at the place that might elect a person like Trump.” This is not that book: it is not an American road memoir, but it is something much more personal.
If you Google “Jarrar,” the first hits won’t be about her work or her accomplishments, but instead a story of media frenzy and outraged reaction to Jarrar’s tweeting about the death of Barbara Bush in 2018. Reacting negatively (as many of us did) to the hyperbolic lauding of the conservative matriarch of the war-hawk Bush clan, Jarrar’s few choice Tweets led to thousands of far-Right trolls leveling their deadly bile at Jarrar, her family, her friends, and colleagues. As she writes, “To be Palestinian is often to be silenced, erased, demonized, vilifed, and monstrosized.” For Jarrar, the lack of support from the dean of her college was surprising, but the attacks were not, “That women writers and thinkers and leaders receive death threats and are critiqued for their appearance rather than their arguments is nothing new.” Jarrar states that out of the many messages she received, some 880 to her work email “included a racial epithet and/or a suggestion for me to die.” The strength of reaction against Jarrar is just one of the symptoms of the sickness in America that led to the violence on January 6. It’s a violence that many of us have experienced or witnessed repeatedly, and it didn’t start with Trump or even Bush. As Jarrar says so succinctly: “America hates its women. And America wants to own its women.” But America is also made up of its women and all of our many, many BIPOC citizens.
Jarrar does not focus just on the broader political narrative; she also presents a deeply personal series of narratives on her own history and her relationship with her body. It is a courageously political act for any woman—especially a woman of color—to openly write about her body, the violence done to it, and how she heals. A central thread that holds this memoir together is the idea of memory, perhaps an obvious statement, but Jarrar stresses that America is an amnesiac country. We choose to forget violence we don’t want to remember (witness the lauding of any Bush), we choose to forget the treatment of our BIPOC citizens, we choose to forget our own history over and over. In a sense, we deserve what we get if we refuse to learn from history. But Jarrar suffers from this too: she moves from a physically and verbally abusive father to a violently dangerous husband when she is barely 18. There is a willful forgetting that many of us who have suffered violence choose: whether in an effort to survive or as a sort of rewriting of history (something this country is great at). The physical body Jarrar inhabits is, she tells us, large. Men in her life (father, lovers, husbands) tell her she is fat, that she cannot be beautiful, that she needs to lose “a hundred pounds.” Jarrar learns to embrace her own beauty and finds release in the world of BDSM, moving away from submissive encounters to experience pleasure as a “domme” with an Egyptian Muslim man for a time. And while the details of Jarrar’s sexual exploits were less interesting to me than many other moments in this memoir, she makes important points including that the world is a place where “women are never safe” and in the world of consensual BDSM: “No one can touch you … unless you ask them to,” a new experience for many women.
There are moments that I found less compelling than others and moments when I found myself arguing with Jarrar: her assertion that the landscape around Flagstaff, Arizona was no different from that near Fresno and what she describes as “the awfulness of Arizona” reads as a total misreading of the sacred spaces of Northern Arizona and an erasure of the vast Indigenous spaces of the Nations that live in those places beyond the slow traffic jams leading to downtown Sedona. I laughed at her claim of “surprise” that “Texas had its own border-patrol agents,” having witnessed the intensity of control across the Southwestern states. There are missed moments here, but this isn’t the book she claims she’s writing in the first chapter. This isn’t a road trip memoir: Jarrar doesn’t explore the map of this country but instead the map of her own body, her relationship with it, and how she/it moves through the world. It is a book of personal exploration and, ultimately, redemption and healing.